Let’s face it, it’s not difficult to find great food in Italy, but a lot depends on your taste. And you’ll have your share of disappointments if not careful. Contrary to popular opinion, you can get a mediocre meal, particularly in the most popular tourist destinations.
If you’re a lover of the finest gastronomique cuisine, you already know where to look. Any number of guidebooks and magazines will fill you in on starred Michelin finds, how long in advance you’ll need to book, and what kind of a loan to take out to make sure your bill is covered. But though we’ve tried a number of them, this is simply not our usual style.
And if this is your first Italian vacation, you’ll most likely concentrate on the traditional cultural landmarks of Rome (Roma), Florence (Firenze) and Venice (Venezia). Some other time I’ll give you our favorite finds in these locales, but for the most part this is a “path less traveled” kind of a blog, not a cultural or historical guide, nor a culinary pathfinder to the most esoteric cuisine.
If you travel as we usually do—wandering the back roads and hoping to chance upon a great family-run trattoria or osteria—nothing is nicer than an out-of-the-way find that never turns up in a guidebook. It doesn’t hurts to speak un po’ d’italiano, but you can usually get by with a buon giorno or buona sera (after four p.m.), hand gestures, and a bit of English. And don’t be shy. The owner of that small market will gladly give advice on where in the village she would choose to eat (although she’s probably heading home to whip up a delicious penne arrabiata for the family).
So let’s start in the heart of Chianti, just south of Florence. There is a wealth of choices for outstanding meals, but one we’ve visited many times lies right on the square of Greve in Chianti. Sitting out on the covered, open-air, second-floor terrace of Ristorante G. da Verranzzano, looking down upon all the activity on the little square below, we’ve never been disappointed. Gracious service, of course.
If you’re driving northwest in the direction of Lucca, don’t miss San Miniato, which isn’t on most travelers’ itinerary, and that’s unfortunate. The town is ideally located near the crossroads of highways linking Firenze to Pisa and places south, and charming without the tourist luster of nearby Florence, which makes it for my taste all the better. So find a parking spot on the lower square and hike up to the Piazzetta del Castello for a great meal at Ristorante Miravalle. You’ll enjoy a panoramic view of the surrounding Tuscan countryside looking east toward Florence. But more importantly, the service is superb and the food outstanding. No wine offered by the glass…an entire bottle of enjoyable local white is only around nine euros.
If you’re spending a few days in the Chianti region, two nice places to stay are Villa Le Barone (on the more luxurious side, and with a fine restaurant of its own, a new menu nightly) outside Panzano, and the very affordable B&B La Lucciolaia with a splendid view of San Gimignano (Ask for the apricot-colored “L’Ablicocca” room, very affordable).
Within the fascinating (but tourist-overrun) multi-towered city of San Gimignano seek out I Quattro Gatti on Via Querocecchio, just off the main cobbled street. Avoid the disappointing fare offered in some of the standard tourist spots in town.
And a half-hour from either hotel you’ll find the medieval hilltop town of Monteriggioni, itself a walled delight, but made perfect by Ristorante Il Pozzo, right on the main square. A warm and welcoming experience. And once you’ve enjoyed your meal, head over past the old well to the popular bar at the far right-hand corner for some of the best gelato in Italy, home-made and with all-natural ingredients, of course.
Now let your travels take you south past Siena (more about Siena another time) and head for San Quirico d’Orcia and Il Forno Vecchio. We’ve singled out this great spot numerous times and never been disappointed. In colder weather it’s warm, rustic and cheerful inside, but in pleasant weather sit out under the foliage canopy and delight in spectacular food and the authentic atmosphere you come to Italy for. It lies just off the main street where you can enjoy the evening passeggiata, as citizens gather about seven p.m. to stroll the main street and enjoy life. The owners also have a very nice inn, Hotel-Relais Palazzo del Capitano, in case you eat and drink so much you decide you shouldn’t drive further.
If you’re heading east from Siena you can’t go wrong taking a room at the Castello delle Serre in Serre di Rapolano, about twenty minutes’ drive from the city. It’s a gorgeous restored castle at the top of the village, and the proprietors are as gracious as you’ll find anywhere. Be sure to rise early and wander down through the old village on foot. From here it’s a short drive (but get Shelley’s directions at the Castello) to Ristorante Davide Canella in nearby Rapolano Terme.
You’ll think you’re totally lost when you drive up the incredibly narrow street of this tiny village and try to find a square meter or two to park (better yet, park down below and walk up!), but then you’ll be surprised to find this beautiful little family-run restaurant, stunning in clear glass flooring and rustic stone and quite contemporary design, offering delicious (now we’re talking gourmet) but affordable dining. You’ll be happier for the experience and the warm welcome of the hosts and chef
Hungry yet? Buon appetito!
So, if you’ve found these suggestions of interest, for future occasional food-oriented blogs on European travel visit here for a local guide. I plan to lead you up and down Italy and throughout France, perhaps with an excursion or two into Germany, Austria and Switzerland. And let me know where you’d like to go in particular, and I’ll paste together some suggestions.
But you’d better rent a car, because trying to make these food (and site) tours by train and bus would be exhausting. Of course a bicycle might work. More on renting and driving in Europe another time.
Copyright Patrick W. O’Bryon 2013