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.
Enoteca i Terzi
Via Dei Termini 7, Siena, Tel 0577 44329
Siena is divided into three districts; this wine bar is located on the junction between them, in the ground floor of a medieval tower. Very pretty, and quite worth a visit for the food too: A wide selection of cold cut platters, as well as pastas and other first courses. The highpoint however is the selection of wines, which is extremely extensive, with all sorts of Chiantis and wines form other parts of Italy by the glass, and a considerably broader selection by the bottle, likely the best in Siena. It will make an excellent spot for a quick lunch or dinner.
The cost? Depending upon what you order, 15-30,000 lire per person, or more if you order an expensive bottle.
Ristorante L'Albergaccio di Castellina
Via Fiorentina 63, Castellina in Chianti Tel. 0577 741 042; Closed Sundays.
L'Albergaccio in Castellina in Chianti is one of the worst-kept secrets in the world -- ask anyone in the area for a restaurant suggestion and that's where you'll be directed. If you're in Castellina take the road for San Donato and Tavarnelle; it's on the left after about a half mile. You can order á la carte, but the Chef's suggestions are also nice and well worth it. One day this April they began with mixed antipasti, which included crostini , slices of toasted bread spread with pate, and a variety of home-cured cold cuts. The salami, which was fresher than one often encounters, was especially good, as was the sbriciolona, a type of salami cured with fennel. The antipasti were followed by a Zuppa di Cipolla alla Fiorentina, a Florentine-style onion soup with cheese, toast and beans that had pleasing lemony overtones, and pigi, thick home-made pasta in a clear sauce reminiscent of the drippings from a roast, which coarsely chopped tomatoes, rosemary, and crumbled pecorino. Quite pleasant.
The entrée was scottiglia , a meat stew made by the charcoal burners of the Maremma; popular wisdom holds that it should have as many varieties of meat as possible and this certainly did, including something nutty that may have been a heart. Quite nice, and deftly seasoned, not too much but not too little either. The accompaniment? Greens.
Dessert was preceded by a selection of cheeses, all local. Though one frequently reads ecstatic discussions of Pecorino di fossa, the pecorino that's put in a sack and aged in the ground for several months, it's difficult to find examples that are worth the excitement. This was. The cheeses were followed by a selection of tasty desserts, served with a dram of Antinori's Aleatico. The wine with the meal? San Giusto a Rentennano's Chianti Classico, which worked just fine. The service was impeccable, the settings elegant, and the view from the window pretty. Cost? 92,000 Lire, which isn't cheap, but you won't eat like this often. Highly recommended.
Ristorante da Nisio
Località Sovestro 32, San Gimignano (SI) Tel: (0577) 941 029; Closed Tuesdays.
If you're driving up to San Gimignano from Colle or Poggibonsi, as you come around a bend you'll see a sign for Da Nisio on your right. File it away in memory!
The restaurant is modern, with a nice picture window looking across the valley that sets the mood. The menu features traditional dishes cooked with distinction; I began with a Zuppa di Farro that was rich, thick, and creamy, with the grains of farro (it's akin to spelt according to some food writers) pleasingly chewy. The zuppa was followed by Coniglio alla Vernaccia, rabbit cooked in Vernaccia, which is one of the highpoints of San Gimignano's cuisine. It was extremely delicate, cooked to perfection, with just a hint of sweetness from the Vernaccia balanced by the acidity of the onions. Extremely refined. Dessert? We passed, because we were taking advantage of the restaurant's superb wine list to sample several whites (I was eating with an importer). The best? A Schiopeto Collio Sauvignon, and Montepeloso Bianco Val di Cornia. The former had nice fruit delicately balanced by oak, while the latter was slightly less refined, but had an enticing bouquet. The cost? About 40,000 lire per person.
Bar Ristorante Pietrafitta
Loc. Pietrafitta 41, Castellina in Chianti (Siena); Tel 0577 741 123; Closed Wednesdays.
I'd been meaning to visit this restaurant for quite some time, because Gambero Rosso said the menu was eclectic -- everything from gazpacho to chili with beans. That's not what I found: The management has changed, and now it's being run by the owner, whose tastes are much more local. This is not a bad thing, however.
The menu now has a mixture of Tuscan and other Italian dishes, so I asked for chitarrini con porri e pecorino, pasta with a leek and pecorino sauce. The strands of the pasta were quite thick and were slightly chewy, but the overall effect was nice; the leeks did a good job of balancing the cream base of the sauce while the cheese complemented rather than overpower.
As a second course I opted for grilled sausages, a local specialty, with grilled radicchio, which is more common further north. Neither is at all complicated but both were good. The radicchio was properly bitter without being harsh, while the sausages were peppery, and the two complemented each other well.
For dessert? I really didn't need it, but I ordered a chocolate almond cake that was not too rich, but crumbly in a creamy sort of way. Good, the sort of dessert that doesn't weigh you down. In terms of a wine, the selection is primarily local. I opted for Castello di San Polo in Rosso Chianti Classico 1995, which was pleasing though somewhat closed, and still a bit angular -- this is a traditional Chianti Classico and requires more bottle age than some. Since I didn't finish the bottle, I was charged for two glasses and thus discovered they serve wines by the glass as well.
The price? 55,000 lire, which is reasonable, and will be even more when it is warm enough to eat out on the terrace.
Ristorante Poggio Antico
Località Poggi, 53024 Montalcino (SI); Tel: (0577) 849 200, closed Mondays except in summer, when it's always open. You'll want to make reservations.
It's a pretty drive from the main road joining Montalcino and Grosseto, along a cypress-lined dirt road to a bluff overlooking the valley. Elegant décor, beautiful view, and quite pleasant. The menu is interesting, with lots of dishes that draw innovatively from local tradition, but you may want to opt for the one of the two meals Roberto Minnetti has assembled, one meat and the other fish-based. The meat-based meal began with a quiche al radicchio served with a Taleggio cheese sauce; the slightly salty sweetness of the cheese nicely balances the bitterness of the radicchio, and the lightness of the pastry is delightful. Nice presentation too, with chopped tomatoes and herbs arranged into a rose. The quiche was followed by a liver patè served with a riduzione di Moscadello, a Moscadello gelatin that includes strawberries. Quite interesting; the rich pleasingly livery flavors of the patè are balanced very well by the sweetness of the sauce, which also contributes nicely to the color and texture of the whole. Extremly harmonious.
The antipasti were followed by ravioli filled with ricotta and greens. Lots of greens, and they're seasoned with a simple tomato sauce and crumbled Parmigiano. Ravioli are all too often humdrum in restaurants, so it's nice to be served some that remind one of why we get excited over them. They were followed by peposo, a peppery beef stew that's generally associated with the town of Impruneta, not far from Florence. The meat was extremely tender, and tasty, though I'd have preferred a little more pepper. It was served with mashed potatoes, which were perfect for combining with the sauce, garnished with huge parsley leaves.
Dessert? The tray looked scrumptious, but I opted for a plate of mixed cheeses, which seemed more suited to my wine, a very nice Poggio Antico Rosso di Montalcino 1998. Coffee and Col D'Orcia's Grappa di Moscadello wrapped things up beautifully.
The price? 120,000 lire, which is reasonable for a meal of this kind.
Ristorante Da Ugo
Via Pari 4, 57022 Castagneto Carducci (LI) Tel: 0565763746, closed Mondays.
It might strike some people as odd that a restaurant with a commanding view of the sea should have no fish on the menu, but the reasons are simple: Though the Maremma is a coastal section of Tuscany, until the great tourist boom transformed the beaches into resort areas the economy was primarily agricultural and the farmers had nothing to do with the sea. Didn't even go, to the point that it was possible, in the 70s, to meet elderly farmers who had never gotten their feet wet. Given this historic context, the absence of fish in the Ristorante da Ugo's menu makes a little more sense.
So what will you find? Game, and lots of it. My dinner began with a platter of mixed cold cuts, which included salami and prosciutto from both pork and wild boar, a couple of crostini, one liver paté on bread and the other fried polenta with meat sauce, together with grilled eggplant and olives. These were followed by a bowl of vegetable soup that wasn't quite minestra di pane -- there was bread in it, and cabbage as well, but there weren't any beans, nor was there kale. It was good, however, and set the stage for tagliatelle with a colombaccio (wild pigeon) sauce that was quite nice, and flavorful though not gamy; It begged a wine with lively acidity to balance its richness, and the combination was pleasant indeed. Colombacci of course come whole to the kitchen, and what came next was half a colombaccio, stewed in red wine, together with button onions that were stewed with them, and a warning that the birds might still have some buckshot in them. Mine didn't, and it was quite tasty, as were the onions, which provided a pleasant counterpoint to the richness of the dove. Since this was an important dinner it closed with an important dish: Testina di Cinghiale, which is boar's head that has been boned and stuffed with pork cuttings, and is then marinated in spices and wine and simmered for hours in a red wine sauce. It's rich and exotic, and though it is fatty enough that some would object, if you like this sort of dish you will like it very much.
The dessert was elegant, and in a way more refined than the traditional specialties, but tasty too. The wine list covers the Bolgheri/Val di Cornia area well. Bottom line: If you want to experience Tuscan traditions and are in the area you should definitely go.