Restaurants & Bars

Tuscany and Chianti report

yumyum | Oct 27, 200508:44 AM     7

Back yesterday from a two week holiday in Italy. Wanted to get these down while I'm still under the influence of jet-lag and the memories are fresh in my mind. Spent a week in an old farmhouse in Cortona and then another week toodling around Chianti.

In general, I couldn't find a bad meal if I wanted to, from simple panini and coffee to lingering sit-down lunches with plenty of wine. In restaurants one is expected to linger. Take your time, digest a little so you can manage dessert. This and the incredible hospitality of the people (example: kind shopkeeper opening up for a few minutes on Sunday because we had planned poorly and needed some staples) make Italy my all-time favorite place to vacation.

This part of Italy is particularly great at this time of year when the crowds begin to thin and it's the season for truffles. I ate truffles literally every day. Truffled pecorino, truffled sausages, heaps of truffles showered over tagliatelle. Also enjoyed the porcini that men were selling out of cars on the side of the road -- sauteed in olive oil and garlic back at home and there's not much better on this earth. It's also a meat-eater's paradise with cinghale (wild boar) porchetta (ubiquitous roast pork with crackling sold from wagons that are like the BEST food trucks on earth), chicken livers spread on crostini, massive cutting boards heavy with bistecca fiorentina and all of the salumi -- prosciutto, salami di toscana, brasciole, fennel spiked salami. I could go on and on.

Didn't go high end except for at Badia a Coltibuono (Gaiole in Chianti), much prefering the regular trattorias with good vino di casa. A few standouts:

Montepulciano -- Quattro Venti. Pretty simple but very good pici with cinghale ragu here and a bright tangy veal scallopini in white wine. Locals were enjoying lasagna, caprese salad and the chickpea soup.

Pienza -- Latte di Luna. Small, steamy, friendly place at the far end of town from the parking lots. Plate of salumi with the pecorino fresca that perfumes the whole town. Absolutely delicious filet of steak with mushrooms. The duck with olives is outstanding. Tagliatelle al tartufo is PACKED with truffles.

Chiusi -- La Solita Zuppe ("the usual soup") -- my favorite meal of the whole holiday. These people have been there for 23 years and turn out traditional Tuscan food with a kind of attention to detail and gracious service that made the 2.5 hour lunch spectacular. Robby, our host, walks diners through the extensive menu which changes daily, and always features ribolitta to start, homemade pasta or soup for primi (try the raviolini of spinach with a light fresh tomato sauce), and several interesting choices for secondi (cinghale here marinated for 2 days in wine and cooked with fresh herbs and especially good). Dreamy panna cotta served with the most delicious dessert wine from Sicily that is perfumed with apricots. They will sell you a bottle if you like. Highly recommended.

Cortona -- porchetta wagon at the Saturday market. Unbelievable treat for 2 euros. Signore will slice the roast pork and place on crusty roll, sprinkle with sea salt and top with a hearty dose of crackling. You can't miss him, he calls out "Panini!" in an operatic baritone nearby where the vegetables are sold.

Badia di Coltibuono -- still turning out lovely seasonal spendy lunches in the bright dining room overlooking the loggia. Absolutely perfect starter of stuffed squid grilled and served on white polenta, drizzled with their amazing oil. Tagliatelle with cavolo nero pesto and pumpkin was interesting. Sprinkled with crushed amaretti. A bit sweet, it's not really my thing, but very seasonal and beautiful to look at. Crispy skinned chicken with sauteed chard amazing. Veal shank braised in wine with fennel. Of course, drink their chianti at the table but skip the desserts. We noticed none of the Italians ordered dolci but we had to try and one taste of the dry chocolate torte told us why. The bistecca Fiorentina ordered at the next table looked divine.

Radda in Chianti -- Enoteca la Cantina -- good snacks especially the fettunta with mozerella and tomato with arugula. Enjoy with a glass of chianti classico DOCG and listen to the church bells. They have a few hot dishes in the evening, ours was ravioli of artichoke with truffles. Truffles!

San Gimignano -- great reasonably priced lunch in a small simple trattoria a few steps up from the street just inside the porto off the public park. Name escapes me now, dammit. Very nice waitress recommended their speciality, a homemade ravioli of pumpkin and a leek and chicken cream sauce. This was a great rec -- loosely formed sheets of shiny delicate pasta around a filling of roast pumpkin, not too uniformly pureed and not sweet, napped with cream sauce.

All in all a fabulous eating vacation. The diet starts tomorrow and the saving starts today for a return trip.


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