A taste of a place – Tuscany
May 21, 2023
We recently spent just over a week in what is a veritable paradise for pizza and pasta lovers such as ourselves. We trekked from Lucca to Siena on the Via Francigena walking route, seeking good local and seasonal food in the trattorias of Tuscany along the way. And we were walking. So we were hungry….
It was Easter time; the season of artichokes. Greengrocers and markets were spilling over with fresh, local produce, such is their abundance here. Menus were rich with truffle and porcini mushroom dishes, wild boar, bean stews; the kind of hearty, country fare that this region is famous for.
When we’re tripping about, we tend to stay “room only”, preferring to breakfast at local bars. One exception to this was our first, B&B Stella in Lucca, which had the most fabulous, upmarket pasticceria adjoining it. Opening at 5am this bustling spot was where we took breakfast; excellent espresso and fist sized flat rolls stuffed with mozzarella and tomato. Looking around, it became clear that breakfast was not a big event here; many people preferring a sweet pastry, if anything at all (but then perhaps they weren’t about to walk 25+kms, like we were?).
Happily half of the B&Bs we stayed in had espresso machines, where you could help yourself to coffee. When there was no bar available at breakfast time, we would happily munch on a slab of fantastic (salted) focaccia or it’s thinner, chewier cousin schiacciata, from a local bakery.
Often there would be a small grocers shop, where an elderly lady would make us up some generously filled cheese panini for our journey. Invariably she would always double check that it was only cheese we wanted. On one occasion when I said “senza carne” (without meat) to emphasise the cheese only, one lady offered me some turkey as a “veggie” alternative to the ubiquitous mortadella!
It soon became clear that pici, a variety of thick, rolled, noodle type pasta is the region’s favoured pasta. Often accompanied by the deceptively simple emulsified Pecorino cheese and black pepper sauce (cacio e pepe). With a love for black pepper this dish has my name on it and I tried it early on and it became a recurring favourite on the trip. I have since tried recreating this dish since at home and getting that cheese and pasta water into the perfect emulsion is a type of alchemy! This is one of those dishes that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
We tried another regional speciality; crostini toscana. This was more of a challenge; warm, blended chicken livers, with an almost mousse like texture, on bread. To be fair, if I had known what it was, I probably wouldn’t have been so gung ho about ordering it (but I can be a little impulsive at times). It was one of those dishes where you find yourself saying “Well, I’m glad we tried it…” (of course it could just be that we didn’t have a particularly tasty version – it must be a speciality for some reason, right?)
In the late afternoons on arrival at our destination, we would freshen up and head out for aperitivo, a civilised pre dinner drink often accompanied by some fingers of focaccia with cured meat (such as mortadella), or cheese. We would clink a campari and soda, or sometimes a vermouth and toast our day’s successes and talk strategy for the next day’s walking.
Dinner would invariably be in a simple trattoria or a pizzeria, such as the large and friendly Felice pizzeria in Lucca. On the super rainy first night we came across this gem, handily located near our B&B. I tried a delicious pizza with prawns, cherry tomatoes and pistachios, because i thought it sounded interesting – it was! Brian had a spaghetti with fresh anchovies, which was the first time we had seen them served warm in a dish like this – tasty, was the verdict.
Luckily for us, great pizza was everywhere; from the super low key Pontormo Cafe in the small thermal spa town of Gambassi Terme. Here, a very chilled proprietor just took his time stretching the dough, in between waiting the tables. Somehow managing to knock out both great pizza and pasta.
Pizza by the slice (al taglio) has to be the ultimate fast food – you choose from the array of freshly made pizzas in front of you, it gets whacked in the pizza oven for 30 seconds and voila, your’e good to go.
We enjoyed a particularly memorable slice sitting on the iconic Piazza del Campo in Siena, accompanied by a cold beer, along with all the other students (of life!) (Thanks to Fil at our local @etnapizza for this recommendation).
After one particularly challenging day’s walking to the fortress town of Monteriggioni, we hobbled across from our room in the castle walls to the Restaurant da Remo. Here we sat by an open fire at and dined heartily; on pici cacio e pepe (of course) to start, then Brian went for a tasty wild boar stew and I tried my first ribolitta (translates to “overcooked” or “twice boiled”). This dish, from the historic tradition of “cucina povera” (the cuisine of the poor) is a hearty vegetable based stew that uses bread to thicken it. The kind of tasty comfort food that is just the job on a particularly chilly night up a mountain.
Dessert never features particularly highly for either of us and I’m a little embarrassed to admit we didn’t get around to trying a gelato – I feel we let ourselves down on this front, particularly when we had seen the self proclaimed “world’s best” gelateria in San Gimignano! However, we did try a delicious semifreddo on a vanilla custard with crushed amaretti and sugary almonds. Nice contrast in textures as well as flavours.
We tried the local “torta della nonna”; a delicate lemony baked custard tart topped with crunchy pine nuts, as well as the local favourite of twice baked cantucci biscuits (these tough little cookies are everywhere here!); delicious when dipped in a drop of sweet Vin Santo, the perfect end to a meal.
We had funny moments such as the one in Bar Cantini, in beautiful San Miniato, where Brian ordered pasta (a rather substantial pici cacio e pepe) for his starter, followed by an even more substantial papardelle pasta with wild boar (he will claim that double pasta was an accident, but I’m not sure…) The elderly owner came out of the kitchen and gave him a quizzical(?) look…but lets face it, we needed all the carbs we could get!
We had lively moments such as the incredible atmosphere of Trattoria da Giulio in Lucca, (another recommendation from Fil) where we struggled to get a table twice. 3rd time lucky, we bagged a 9.30pm booking. We were rewarded with the truly authentic experience of dining amongst the locals in one of the busiest/noisiest (in a good way) places ever. The food was good, but for us it was all about the buzz and watching this carefully oiled machine in action. Spellbinding!
My favourite dish of the trip had to be the super simple buttery spaghetti with porcini mushrooms at Bar Cantini, San Miniato, an unassuming place with an incredible panoramic view from the back. When my dish arrived I remember thinking that it could do with some herbs, or that it would need cheese. I was wrong, it was perfect in its simplicity and so deliciously memorable.
As a side note, at Bar Cantini, I noticed for the only time on this trip that the menu stated exactly how long each particular pasta type would be cooked for. I couldn’t work out if this might be to stop the uninitiated complaining it was too al dente. Or perhaps that aficionados could ask for more/less cooking, should they choose. Any theories welcome?
We came to find that simplicity, or perhaps purity of ingredients, was a common theme in the cooking here. For example, one of my other favourites was a ricotta and mushroom ravioli with a simple sage butter sauce, no further embellishments. Well cooked and well seasoned. The simple, yet quality ingredients are allowed to sing in these dishes.
Brian’s favourite dish of the trip was a wild boar papardelle at Il Feudo, San Gimignano. The wide ribbon pasta, cooked to perfection was gloriously silky with a super tasty ragu.
As a non meat eater myself, I didn’t struggle at all to find glorious veggie pizza and pasta dishes. Initially, I may have been surprised that there weren’t so many fish dishes available (given our proximity to the sea), but it may also have been the type of eatery we were visiting (plus local tastes and traditions).
However, I was far from disappointed and enjoyed some fabulous contorni (side dishes) of vegetables. Most notable were the silky marinated aubergines at Trattoria da Giulio, Lucca, the grilled new season artichokes at Trattoria del Papei, Siena and the most beautiful medley of lovingly prepared veg at Locanda Garibaldi, Siena.
There were also several notable salads; fab niçoise, again at Da Giulio mozzarella, tomato and tuna at Bar Cantini, San Miniato.
We had great meals wherever we went, but our favourite restaurant was the aforementioned Locanda Garibaldi in Siena. Located just behind the famous Piazza del Campo, near the old market square, this place is proper old school. Small, darkly mysterious (you can’t see anything through the window), populated by regulars, run by a charmingly bossy old guy from his dining table and his son (we presumed), who waited on the tables and cooked at the same time, plus a cheerful lady who would peek out of the kitchen every now and then.
The food was great; simple and hearty, yet prepared with great care. Brian had a great carbonara followed by a tasty cannelini bean and sausage stew. I thought the cacio e pepe was pretty good too (as were the super veggies mentioned above).
As with every meal, yes the food is important, but for us, its about the experience; trying to break through the tourist veneer and have a “real” experience, with local people. Happily, this place offered that in spades and if we could, we would return to it time and again, maybe with a few more words of Italian under our belt, next time…
I should probably mention the wine, as we were walking past vineyards and wineries each day through Chianti country. 9/10 times we opted for the house red wine, which came in 1/4 or 1/2 litre carafes. We were never disappointed. Mostly we were drinking the light and fruity montepulciano of the region. On several occasions we opted for a solid Chianti Classico. The wine was as it should be; consistently good and reasonably priced everywhere.
Not usually a fan of Prosecco (the type I have tried in the UK anyway), I ignored my own prejudices, adopted the “when in Rome” principle and ordered a glass in Siena. I was intrigued to see it was served in a regular wine glass, which was first chilled by swishing it with ice cubes. It was super dry, light and delicious and I think the glass/ice combo makes a big difference. The awesome surroundings of Piazza del Campo, Siena certainly made a 2nd, or 3rd glass most enjoyable! (We were also celebrating the end of journey with our VF walking buddies – my excuse, any way….)
We felt equally enthusiastic about the top notch espresso which pretty much fuelled our whole journey. It was universally fantastic and enjoyed just how we like it; fast (& sometimes a little furious), standing at the bar! It made us realise we really needed to up our coffee game when we got home….
Speaking of bars and the multitude of bars that we passed through, all too briefly; our clear favourite was Bar dell’Orso, just at the foot of the final climb up to Monteriggioni. We arrived at the tail end of lunch, exhausted and bedraggled after 30+kms, into this small, dark and friendly spot. We needed both beer and coffee and thats what we ordered. The man behind the bar gave us an understanding nod – he could sense our need!
We liked this country style bar so much, we headed back down to it the next morning for breakfast (it opens at 5am). Despite a super busy bar, the guy made us up some mountain size panini for the route from the deli section. We headed back up the mountain to start our days walking, vowing to revisit this place one day to give it’s epic looking food, love of all things related to bears (the Orso in the name was a give away) and the purported live music, our full, undivided attention….
Final and special mention goes to our fabulous B&B Dalma in San Miniato, where the lovely Elena provided breakfast around a large table with the other guests. This was another memorable meal; not so much about the food, which was plentiful, rather the cosy feeling of being at home in someone else’s house that appealed so much. Elena was just charming, providing little paper bags for us to make pack up for our day. We would certainly love to return here one day.
After 8 days of the kind of dining only walkers can do (pizza and pasta in one meal – yes please!), it was with stronger legs and heavy hearts we bid farewell to the friendly folk of Tuscany. We weren’t too sad though, as we were hotfooting it (actually, Flixbussing it) to Bologna; according to notable TV chefs, “the belly of Italy”, for some (food) culture…