Spouse and I tacked onto a business trip to Bologna a bit of a turn through scenic Italy, mostly off the beaten track, but with a few well-trodden places too. I am sure I won’t be the first person to encourage everybody to get off the beaten track in Italy, maybe especially if you are looking for wonderful meals, because so many of popular tourist destinations seem to have less interesting, internationalized food than the more obscure places. These towns I mention below have minor or serious historic interest, plus pretty scenery and charm, and some of them can be reached by train for lunch as day trips from more famous places — win-win-win if you’ve got the time to spare.
Locanda La Cavillina in Brisighella, Emilia Romagna — It’s an hour from Bologna by train. Look up pictures and you’ll see how pretty the situation is, both the town and the rolling hills. So it makes a fine country lunch destination from Bologna or Faenza even without a car. Locanda La Cavillina is a 10 minute walk from the train station, with a panoramic view of vineyards, and an outdoor terrace for warm weather. The expansive interior has pleasant, inventive decor and full walls of windows. Because Brisighella is still within breeze-reach of the sea, it’s possible to have either meat or seafood of very high quality in the area — so we did both. For pasta we each had one gorgeous giant raviolo, filled with sweet prawns and spring peas (topped with prawns too), and to follow we had nodes of spring lamb, with wine and herbs, very simple and very nicely done. The house presented us (as a gift) with an assortment of typical breads and cured meats for antipasta, plus, for dessert, one of the loveliest homemade gelati we've ever tasted: kiwi (grown as a very early spring fruit in Italy). A wonderful treat I never would have thought to order for myself. Since my spouse didn’t feel like having wine, I took a half bottle of fruity red wine from the nearby hills of Modigliana, nothing special but fine for lunch. The restaurant is a popular lunch destination for business people and residents. Brisighella has a reputation for a unique artichoke variety, which we didn't sample, and local olive oil (which I sampled and didn’t care for all that much).
Il Camino in Marradi, Tuscany: About 30 minutes up the road from Brisighella is Marradi. It’s in a chestnut forest, so every autumn it hosts a significant chestnut festival. In spring, one has the flowering trees and the elegant tiny town, set by a rushing river.. Marradi has a long, long history as a refuge for wealthy Fiorentini and for being on the pilgrim’s route from Austria to Rome. Il Camino is about a 5 minute walk from the train station. For us, everything but the radio was instantly likable walking through the door, from the hyper, harried but smiling owner, the entire EMS squad chowing down at one table, and all the curios and original artwork crammed into every inch of space, like walking into a favorite eccentric relative’s home. The meal began with a spectacular platter of crostini, meat and vegetable (spring mushrooms, asparagus), plus what is now my very favorite “gnocco fritto” (fried bread), rich and chewy, substantial. Served with very salty, rather thickly sliced Tuscan prosciutto, a great combo, and local mountain hard cheese. For pasta the owner suggested to us a rosy wine-infused tortellini stuffed with marscapone and gorgonzola, and we perhaps foolishly chickened out, opting instead for more mushrooms (they were so good) with taglioni —- but braver souls should probably go for that stuffed pasta made with wine. The ultimate was the simplest — a really perfect grilled filet of beef. It is the sort of simple thing done so well done you can’t figure out why every filet of beef in the world isn’t like this, but it isn’t (even in Tuscan restaurants famous for their meat). All that I remember of the red wine I drank is that it was from Mirandola (another obscure but historically rich Italian town I hope to visit some day).
The real reason we were in Marradi was to visit (and stay in ) Palazzo Torriani, which I discovered too late would have cooked us a dinner of historic house recipes dating back centuries. They also have cooking classes and make a small number of products from their gardens, including delicious and unusual jams which I ate with a lovely homemade breakfast that included eggs and pizza and gift of meringues with sweet ricotta plus sparklers when it was unearthed it we were celebrating our anniversary. We also did a little food shopping in Marradi — a remarkable number of small traditional food stores for such a tiny town — wood-fire bakeries, salumerie, fresh fruit vendors and chestnut preserves. You can also get to Marradi by train from Firenze (90 minutes) if you are looking for something very different and a breath of fresh air.
Vinandro in Fiesole, Tuscany — Going by the decals stuck in the window, Vinandro in the dispiritingly touristy piazza Mino has won a Slow Food recommendation every single year since 2006, and surely the assortment of crostini they serve has got to be a major reason for that. Only once in a private home in Tuscany have I ever eaten liver crostini as good as this. Vinandro also serves one with a ground pink sausage that — like all memorable crostini — looks terrible and tastes fantastic. For pasta we ate tortelloni stuffed with ground mushrooms and dressed in an asparagus puree. It was flavorful but the pasta itself was a bit leaden. A very long cooked “stufato” of beef cheeks was fine, with the addition of pine nuts and tiny grapes. No wine for this lunch — a pity, because Vinandro began life as an enoteca 500 years ago and still has a formidable wine list, but we just weren’t in the mood.
Briefly, a surprise highlight was stopping at Albergaccio Machiavelli for its history and being given a taste of olive oil they produce on site. Despite being from 2013 (because last year’s oil production was next to nothing due to pest infestation), it was quite tasty and full of personality. Part of our tour included the particularly atmospheric wine cellar (no longer in use) and the entire position of the vineyard estate is one of the more charming, intimate and tranquil of crossroads in the Chianti. There is a small restaurant, but we were there off-hours so didn’t eat a thing.
Hosteria Giuisti and La Franceschetta 58 in Modena (Emilia Romagna) — So much (truthful) praise has been lavished about the wonderful food and hospitality of Hosteria Giusti that I have little to add except to say that, bucking the norm, I skipped the almost obligatory antipasta of gnocco fritto and cured meats, and instead ate a cool and crunchy capon salad with pine nuts and balsamic vinegar, which was a terrific treat and quite a nice break from all the cured pork one ends up eating while traveling in this part of Italy.
As for La Franceschetta 58, Massimo Bottura’s low cost, small plates enterprise, the ingredients quality is very high, market driven, and if you are in need of a lighter meal in Emilia Romagna, as we were, the menu works well for that. As for atmosphere, the studied informality of the place is just bizarre, however. Mismatched plates (but arranged just-so), cutlery and napkins in a tin cup on the table, the identikit college-freshmen staff seemed posed and cutesy. There is something about it that feels like American shopping mall (and I assume its deliberate). Quite limited wine list of trendy wines. But if you can get past all that and just want a bite to eat, most dishes hit the spot.
Da Fiorella, Nicola (Ortonovo) in Liguria: I’ll link to what I already wrote in a different thread.
Happy eating in Italy and thanks for the help and the archives!