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.
Antica Trattoria La Torre:
In the main square, Castellina in Chianti. Closed Fridays.
Castellina was one of the Florentines' main bastions against the Aragonese during the wars of the 1430s, so important that Brunelleschi and the men working on Florence's Cathedral were ordered to drop everything and go shore up its walls during a lull in the fighting. They did a good job; most are still standing. So is the keep perched on the top of the hill. The trattoria is in the square below it, and the setting is wonderful on a nice day, especially in the summer, when you can eat outside.
I started out with Pappardelle al Cinghiale, strips of pasta in a sauce made with wild boar. Good, and the juniper traditionally used to season boar added a pleasing touch of authenticity. Most of the menu is traditional, but there are some more refined Sunday-type dishes; I had roast stuffed rabbit for secons. The stuffing consisted of pancetta, ground meat, and hard-boiled eggs; the combination worked remarkably well, with the pancetta basting the rabbit from within. A green salad went wonderfully with it. Dessert? Pavarotti, a layer cake made with shortbread, and sponge cake, interlayered with crema chantillí . The drops of Alkermes on the sponge cake counterbalanced the sweetness of the cream quite well.
The wine was a mini-bottle of Castello di Ama 1994, and very good it was. On the other hand, it cost 12,000 lire. My one complaint about La Torre is that they don't have an inexpensive house wine by the carafe. Seems a funny lack for a restaurant in the middle of the greatest wine region of the world. The price? 53,000 lire, which is a bit steep, but then again settings like this don't happen everywhere. Recommended.
Ristorante La Grotta:
Loc. San Biagio, Montepulciano. Tel: 0578 758354 Closed Wednesdays, and Jan-Feb.
Montepulciano is one of Tuscany's undiscovered gems, and San Biagio is without question the jewel of her crown, a spectacular High Renaissance chapel. The Ristorante la Grotta, which is next to it, is a gem of a very different kind. The restaurant is built in the ground floor of a 14 th century building, and the brick vaulting gives the rooms a cozy feeling that is heightened in the winter by fireplaces (in the summer there is also a patio outside). Of course décor isn't everything.
I began with Bisi all'Anatra, bisi (hand-rolled strands of pasta about the thickness of a bass string, a local specialty) in a duck sauce. It was extremely delicate and very good, though I found it just a touch tomatoey. As a second course I had half a pigeon, stuffed with minced duck breast laced with truffles and foie-gras. The presentation was very pretty, the bird on its side, with reduced juices spooned over it, and a flower whose petals were leaves of Belgian Endive and whose heart was stewed zucchini. I'm normally not a big pigeon fan, but this was superb: Roasted, and the pigeon meat had been delicately basted from within by the foie-gras. Very moist, and extremely tender. Flavorful too, the spicing was just right.
Since I had a business meeting after lunch, I decided to forego dessert in favor of a slice of pecorino (another specialty of the Montepulciano region). I was brought two, one young, served with a few drops of olive oil, and the other aged, served with a dab of crystallized honey, which reminded me of the grape-must jam that's served with cheeses in Piemonte. A nice touch.
Wines? La Grotta is one of the few Italian restaurants I've found that serves wine by the glass. I had two, both Nobile di Montepulciano 1993: Dei, an astonishingly lush wine with powerful fruit flavors and satiny tannins (imagine Marylin Monroe in a glass), and Polizzano, which was also very fruity, but had a hint of alcohol in the bouquet, and slightly more pronounced tannins. Both were quite good.
The price: 70,000 Lire. Not cheap, but considering the food, the wines, the service, and the setting, well worth it. Recommended. Want to try a recipe? Tortino di Ricotta con Verdure .
Osteria La Gramola :
Tavernelle Val di Pesa, Via delle Fonti 1. Closed Tuesdays.
The Osteria is set back from the main road, and the entrance is a tunnel that leads to the dining room, which is a large square room with farm implements and photos of farmers on the walls. Quite fitting, considering that the region is thoroughly agricultural.
The food is not, on the other hand. We were a rather large group, and thus were able to sample a number of things. Most people began with crostini, which are about as classic as one can get in Tuscany. Good too, as were the (non-Tuscan) puff pastries stuffed with porcini that one of us had. As a first course some opted for ravioli di melanzane (eggplant ravioli) that looked quite good. I instead had a minestra di verdura (vegetable soup) that was a little too refined for me: the cook went easy on the cabbage, and the beans weren't quite done yet. A question of taste, because everyone else who had it liked it. As a second, I had a stracotto di vitella (veal stew) that was quite good, with a green salad. The rabbit stuffed with ham that the person next to me had also looked good. Dessert? We were running out of steam, and closed with coffee.
The wine? We began with a Chianti Classico that proved surprisingly thin and acidic. Enough of a disappointment that we ordered a bottle of Isole e Olena, which proved much better.
Cost? To be frank, I don't know. I was a guest. However, I would recommend this restaurant, especially to people who are entertaining guests and decide to take them out into the country. Its one drawback, which would become important on Saturday night, is that the room echoes somewhat.
Siena, behind the Palazzo Comunale. Closed Mondays.
You probably wouldn't think to even enter the Trattoria Papei unless someone told you to go: it's tucked back in the corner of the square that hosts the fish market, and the doorway looks old and worn. However, you're in for a treat.
I began with Pappardelle sulla lepre, inch-wide ribbony strips of pasta with a hare sauce. It was slightly gamy, the way hare normally is, and quite good. For second I had roast veal, again a simple classic Tuscan dish, and again perfectly prepared. For a vegetable I opted for baked artichoke hearts, which were also quite good. And something of a mistake -- artichokes tend to clash with wines, and this one fought bitterly with the very good Chianti Classico Castello di Volpaia we were drinking.
For dessert, we had ricciarelli, the traditional Sienese marzipan pastries. They were light, soft, had just the right amount of orange, and melted in our mouths. Superb.
The Cost? About 40,000 lire per person, which is quite reasonable all considered. Recommended.