Because of my work I have to eat out often. These are some of the places I have especially liked; they're mostly in Tuscany, though I expect to begin traveling farther afield in the near future. This page has reviews and restaurant suggestions for Florence & vicinity.
Via Albergheria, 3 Montalcino Tel. (0577) 848-017
Sciame means swarm, and thought the bees don't come, diners certainly do. It being a business lunch, I decided to forego the appetizers and began with Tagliatelle al Cinghiale, wide strips of pasta in a wild boar sauce. They were slightly salty but quite tasty, with the gaminess of the meat nicely balanced by the spicing of the sauce, which also had a peppery tang to it.
As a second course I decided to stick with wild boar (they're very common around Montalcino), and ordered Cinghiale in Scottiglia, wild boar stewed with herbs and spices. Though juniper is quite common in the marinades used for boar, I didn't detect it here. The meat was quite tasty, and extremely tender. As I side dish I had boiled beans, though with the benefit of hindsight I should have asked for a mixed salad -- those the other diners were eating looked good. I closed with a slice of good, moderately aged pecorino from Pienza.
The wine list is simple and local -- Rosso di Montalcino, Brunello, and one local Vino Novello for those who don't want something stronger. No house wine, which is too bad. In any case, I had a La Fortuna Rosso di Montalcino 1995, which was quite pleasing: Ruby red with purple highlights, and an intriguing bouquet with floral notes, Sangiovese, and lots of berry fruit, including black currents and hints of wild strawberry. No wood. On the palate the wine has lush fruit, with hints of stewed cherries. It's moderately tannic, with silky tannins, and has a clean persistent finish.
The cost? 59,000 lire, which is quite reasonable. Want to try a recipe? Pollo al Brunello , stewed chicken with Brunello.
Locanda Borgo Antico:
Lucolena, Greve in Chianti. Tel: 055/851024 Closed Tuesdays.
If you're driving in the countryside around Florence, sampling wines and admiring the scenery, the Locanda Borgo Antico is an excellent bet. It has to be, to survive as far out of the way as it is: Take the road from Greve towards Figline, follow it up over the divide and down past Castello di Querceto. Turn right at the intersection, and then follow the signs for Lucolene. You will wind through the town and up into forested hills; Borgo Antico is a hamlet off to the left a couple of turns beyond the cemetery. There's a pretty terrace under an arboretum, which is especially nice on one of those unsettled summer days when the clouds race across the sky. When it's colder you can also eat indoors.
I had Pappardelle al Cinghiale, wide strips of pasta with a wild boar sauce that had just a hint of juniper berries. Quite nice. The heaping bowl of freshly grated Parmigiano served on the side was a nice touch. The second course consisted of a pork chop grilled on a charcoal fire, with freshly boiled beans, served with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Might not sound like much, but it was very refreshing. Dessert? Cantuccini di Prato and vinsanto. The wine list is extensive, and the people at the table next to me, where a man was telling his pouty daughter he was sending her to boarding school "for her own good,"were drinking wine from a wide-bodied decanter. I had the house wine, a Rosso di Montalcino, which I found a bit thin, and somewhat overly acidic - especially at 5,000 lire per quarter liter.
In all, the cost was 45,000 Lire, which is a bit on the pricey side. However, the food is excellent, the service quick and friendly, and the view spectacular. If only they had a better house wine. Recommended. They also rent rooms, though I didn't see them.
Ristorante Borgo Antico:
Tavernelle Val Di Pesa, Via Roma 55 Tel 055/8076180 Closed Wednesday
Tavernelle is a nondescript town half-way between Florence and Siena, and the restaurant is in the middle of town, on a rather awkward corner. It's worth a visit though - this is one of those traditional places, where there are soccer trophies in a case by the door, the paneling gives it a cozy feel, the chef comes out to greet the customers, and the waitresses coo over babies.
Elisabetta and I began with tagliatelle al sugo, tagliatelle in meat sauce. We got a heaping platter, and they were quite good, though a touch tomatoey. We followed the pasta with a bistecca alla fiorentina, a porterhouse steak cooked rare over a charcoal fire. It was remarkably tender and very tasty. It's hard to beat a good fiorentina, and this one was. Betty had a tossed salad and I had grilled baby potatoes, again quite good. For dessert we split a cream cake topped with berries. Delicate and gone all too soon. The wine list is extensive, but we had the house wine - a perfectly good Chianti.
In all, we spent 90,000 lire, which is to be expected since we ordered steak. The service was friendly and quick. Recommended.
Ristorante Albergo La Bussola
Catena Quarrata, Via Fiorentina 328 Tel: 0573-743128
Heaven in an unlikely place: Catena Quarrata is a desolate town on the flatlands of the Valdarno, one of those places where trucks rumble through on the way from here to there. However, it's just a short drive down the hill from Carmignano, a pretty town with fantastic wines that's well worth a journey. You turn off Via Fiorentina in the middle of town, park in a small private lot, and enter an unexpected sea of tranquillity, with tables under an awning by a vibrantly green lawn, and an inviting dining hall.
I began with pappardelle all'anatra, wide strips of pasta in duck sauce. Duck can be rather heavy, especially on a hot day, but this sauce was delicately seasoned and delightful. The pasta was served with a chunk of Parmigiano, a pair of tongs, and a small grater - a very nice touch. After the pasta came roast rabbit and potatoes, with a green salad. Rabbit's one of those things that's easy to do but difficult to do right; this one was: well cooked and flavorful without being stringy or tough. But what really amazed me was the potatoes: peeled and baked in the roasting tray, they were creamy bursts of flavor that melted on my tongue. Artusi calls the potato plebeian, but these were fit for a king. Dessert? Crostata coi fichi, shortbread with a topping of custard and fresh figs. Delicate, and though the figs weren't as voluptuous as those one finds in Puglia, I'd recommend it.
The wine list is extensive. However, I tried the house wine - Capezzana's vino da tavola, an honest red wine that went perfectly with everything else. The only drawback is that they sell it by the bottle, not by the carafe.
In all I spent 48,000 lire - very reasonable, considering the quality of the food (I've since discovered that the chef also conducts cooking classes for food professionals). The service is quick and friendly. You should either get there early or reserve a table: At 1:00 the restaurant suddenly filled with sales reps and marketing people from Prato's textile mills. They know a good deal when they see it.