Monthly Archives: August 2014

Tuscany – Go to the tree in the middle of the road and then…

After picking up our rental car at the Rome airport (a small yet spacious Audi A1) we set off on the 2.5 hour drive to Pienza. En route we stopped in Orvieto for lunch and to walk around a bit.

In Rome we mainly had sit-down meals for lunch, so on our way to Tuscany we just wanted a quick sandwich. We saw the locals all walking around with sandwiches from the local grocery store, so we decided to follow their lead. Instead of a restaurant we enjoyed our lunch on the steps of the duomo.

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We wrapped up lunch, walked around for a bit, and then got in the car to finish the drive.

Exiting the Autostrade we drove through some small towns…then some smaller towns…then the countryside…and finally the road changed from tarmac to gravel. After the final stretch of careful driving we finally arrived at our bed and breakfast, the fabulous Pietramonti Estate.

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Pietramonti is run by two Brits, Charles and Peter, who left the UK five years ago to open a B&B. They spent the first three years obtaining all of the necessary approvals (made even more complicated by their location in a UNESCO World Heritage site), and the B&B has now been open for two years. The accommodations could not have been better and if you’re planning a trip to Tuscany I can’t recommend Pietramonti highly enough.

Each day started with a gorgeous breakfast full of freshly baked breads and muffins, as well as local fruit, cheese and meat.

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We’d linger over breakfast and cappuccinos for about an hour to an hour and a half each day chatting away with the other guests as well as our hosts. After discussing what we’d like to do that day Charles and Peter would give us suggestions as well as any contacts at wine shops, vineyards, etc.

My favorite lunches were at a small café in Pienza that initially drew me in because they were displaying a bunch of Slow Food literature, even though it looked like a simple sandwich shop. Pienza was a 50 minute hike from Pietramonti so we definitely felt like we earned our lunch the first day we were there.

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The caprese salad was easily the best I’ve had. The tomatoes, while delicious, were really just a vehicle for the perfectly creamy and salty mozzarella and gorgeous olive oil. I could have eaten this every day.

Cocktails started at 6pm every night and included Prosecco and a platter of two types of pecorino (from the farm next door), local salami, honey from the property’s beehives, and chutney.

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Then the dinner ritual began. On the first night Charles asked all of the guests what time we prefer to eat. From there he would take care of making us all reservations each night. Over cocktails we would receive our dinner “assignments” and a map to the restaurant. Usually the maps were hand-drawn, like this:

map

All directions started from “go to the tree in the middle of the road and then…”

Night 1 was Taverna de Moranda in Monteciello (“go to the tree in the middle of the road, and then make a right”). Taverna is run by a husband and wife team where he cooks and she runs the front of house. The wife is actually French, which has led to the locals referring to Taverna as “the French restaurant” even though she’s lived in Tuscany for 26 years. Many of them refuse to even set foot in the door. Well, that’s their loss because the food was wonderful. We started with fresh stuffed zucchini flowers, then moved on to fresh pasta with vegetables, and finished with some stellar lamb.

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The lamb was perfectly cooked and was well seasoned. I couldn’t get anyone to tell me what the seasonings were but they were an excellent complement to the strong flavor of the lamb. When I asked if the lamb was from nearby, our hostess simply chuckled and walked away.

Night 2 was Ristorante Dopolavoro La Foce. The restaurant was in an old building where workers at the nearby La Foce estate used to gather after work. The interior had been brought up to date, and most of the cooking was done over a wood-fired grill. We started with testaroli al pesto and then each had sliced steak for our main course.

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The meat was obviously wonderful, but for me the salt was what made this dish. The salt, from Cervia, is unique because it is unrefined. As a result, it maintains its moisture and mineral content, giving each grain a texture and flavor that you don’t get in other salt. It was almost soft and slightly sweet (while still being salty). I’m very tempted to order some to use at home.

Note that should you wind up here the drive is a bit of a doozy. It’s a good 30-40 minutes from Pienza through some very dark and twisty roads, even when compared to the other dark and twisty roads of Tuscany.

For our third night we went to Latte di Luna, which was right in the town of Pienza. This was my second favorite dinner in Tuscany. Latte is a small restaurant right at one end of the town, with a nice little garden space out front with tables. We started with housemade tagliatelle with black truffles.

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And then I had their specialty, roast young pork.

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Crispy skin, soft melty fat, the meat flavored mostly with the pig’s own juices. I can’t say I’ve had anything quite like it. I finished the far too large portion all on my own, which resulted in an awful night’s sleep but it was totally worth it. Oh, and the tagliatelle with truffles was pretty good too.

Night 4 was probably our least favorite dinner: Ristorante 13 Gobbi in Montefollonico. We decided that night to tackle a Bistecca Fiorentina. The steak wound up being larger than my wife’s head.

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Charles and Peter advised us to order the steak medium even though we like it medium rare. We tried, and this was the result:

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Don’t get me wrong, this was a great steak. There was just far too much, and even though I like my steak on the rare side, this just got to be a bit much to handle.

Charles and Peter saved their best recommendation for our last night: La Grotta in Montepulciano. The restaurant was located just outside the town walls, across the street from a beautiful old church.

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While the food was Tuscan, it was more refined than the other restaurants we had been to. Our first two courses summed this up nicely.

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A poached egg with pecorino buried under a mound of black truffles. Cutting into the egg and releasing the yolk, mixing the whole thing together…pure bliss.

Next we moved on to pasta:

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Gnocchetti in a zucchini and cream sauce. The little gnocchetti were impossibly delicate, and of course perfectly cooked. The cream wasn’t overpowering in the sauce, with the flavor of zucchini really coming through.

For mains, I had the boneless quail and my wife had the lamb. We finished with a simple plum tarte. Everything was fantastic. La Grotta definitely ranks up there with some of my favorite all time dining experiences.

The next morning we had one last breakfast with Charles and Peter before packing up the car and setting off on our four hour drive to Venice. Our departure had a distinct “last day of camp” feel but we still excited to be on our way to another part of the country. Hopefully one day we’ll be able to return to Pienza and pass even more perfect days at Pietramonti.

 

Tuscany restaurants (please verify any GPS directions with locals if you try to go to any of these):

Taverna di Moranda
Via di Mezzo 17
Monticchiello, Pienza Siena, Italy

Ristorante Dopolavoro La Foce
Strada Provinciale 40, Siena, Italy

Latte di Luna
Via San Carlo, 2
Pienza Siena, Italy

Ristorante 13 Gobbi
Via Lando Di Duccio 5
Montefollonico, Siena, Italy

Ristorante la Grotta
Via di San Biagio, 15
Montepulciano Siena, Italy

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Welcome to Italy…This is Rome

The first stop on our two week trip to Italy was Rome, mostly because we could get a direct flight to there from O’Hare (we’d be returning from Venice, through Philly, which turned out to be a total debacle).

After landing and stopping off for an Italian SIM card for my phone, we checked into our hotel and went stumbling for lunch. Our hotel wasn’t far from the Trevi Fountain so we went off in that direction. While I was looking one way, fortunately my wife was looking the other and spotted this:

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Decision made. Our first meal in Rome was at La Prosciutteria. We were tired and hungry so we didn’t spend a ton of time studying the menu. We wound up just getting some simple prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella sandwiches. The bread wasn’t great, it had probably suffered from sitting around in the heat and humidity for a while, but the meat and cheese were great. The cheese especially. Nothing could have prepared me for how great the buffalo mozzarella would be the entire trip. A couple of sandwiches and glasses of Prosecco later we were feeling much better about life.

On our way out we saw other table ordering platters rather than sandwiches. If any of you wind up here, I would say the platters are actually the way to go. They looked beautifully constructed with various meats, crostini, fruit, etc. You can see them on the restaurant’s website/Facebook page. Probably my only food related regret of the trip was not making it back for one of those platters.

Dinner that night was at a little place that turned out to be right across the street from La Prosciutteria called Ristorante Sora Lucia. Highlights were the spaghetti carbonara (nice and eggy, as God intended) and a liter of their house wine for 7 Euros. The restaurant had no issues letting us linger at the table until we finished all of our wine, previewing the Italian hospitality we would enjoy the rest of the trip.

We spent the morning of day 2 touring the Vatican and the afternoon checking out the Tivoli Fountains. Lunch was at a totally unremarkable place in Tivoli, where we had some totally unremarkable pizza.

Our dinner at Roscioli that night totally made up for our mediocre lunch. Located in the back of a shop, Roscioli uses their higher-end ingredients to put out their take on a number of classic Italian dishes. Some are pretty basic and traditional, while others are a bit more modern.

We started with a gazpacho that also included pureed olives. I wasn’t nuts about it at first but the dish grew on me as we ate it. Then we had a gorgeous plate of mortadella with some shaved cheese. After that was one of the highlights of the entire trip: burrata and prawn tartare with bottarga

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Magic can happen when you have a combination of ingredients this good. The burrata was perfect. The raw prawns were pristine. And the bottarga added just enough funk to make it interesting.

After that we decided we should probably get something that had been cooked, so we got the Tuscan meatballs with chestnut polenta.

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The meatballs were good but there were, you know, meatballs. The polenta was the special part of this dish. Crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. The addition of chestnut gave the polenta a comforting quality that made it a perfect match with the meatballs (presence of Nonna unknown).

After dinner we ate gelato in front of the Pantheon, which was awesome on several levels.

The next day our guide took us on an all-day tour of the city, which wound up expanding outside of the city a bit which is where we had lunch. The family that owns the restaurant where we had lunch also owns a farm where they raise chickens. They serve this chicken in the restaurant as their specialty. It couldn’t be more simple. They take half the chicken and flatten it. Then they cook it in a cast iron pan with olive oil, salt, and white pepper with a 10 pound brick on top. The result was one of the better fried chicken dishes that I’ve had. Unfortunately I can’t find the name of the place but if anyone is curious I can try to track it down.

We didn’t have a dinner reservation for that night, but I spotted a little neighborhood place on the way home from Roscioli the night before that looked promising called Pesci Fritti.

For an appetizer we obviously started with some fried seafood. The plate included calamari, anchovies, and a bunch of different vegetables. Everything was well fried and nicely salted. Then I moved on to spaghetti vongole, one of my favorite Italian dishes and something I order at least once at almost every Italian restaurant that I go to.

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This version didn’t disappoint. The pasta was perfect, like it was just about everywhere we went, and the clams were tender and sweet.

We passed on dessert but they still brought us a plate of homemade biscotti and glasses of vin santo.

Pesci Friti turned out to be a great choice. It was truly a neighborhood restaurant with not a tourist (except us) in sight.

We spent our last full day in Rome touring Pompeii and then driving back along the Amalfi coast. Before setting off for Amalfi our guide drove us up the mountain to Tramonti hoping to find some pizza. Our guide took us to a restaurant that was supposed to have good pizza, but apparently they only make it for dinner. We stayed and had some pasta, but it was our appetizer that was the highlight of the meal.

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Local olives and fresh mozzarella from the farm across the street. To me, this plate was the embodiment of the food in Italy at its best. Just let simple, local, high quality ingredients speak for themselves. For dessert we had some lemon ice from a street vendor outside. The region is known for its lemons, and the ice made for a nice tart finish to our lunch.

Our last dinner in Rome was our only real high-end dinner there: Antico Arco. While everything was good, I probably enjoyed it the least out of our Rome meals. It was certainly the most “technique heavy”.

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Top row left to right: Ricotta and black truffles with asparagus and egg, Piedmonts’ Fassona beef steak tartare with green beans
Bottom: Cod fillet, basil ‘panzanella’ and tarragon

After dinner we strolled over to a nearby park and hung out with locals listening to some street musicians while taking in a view of the city. Just a fantastic ending to our time in a city that I immediately fell in love with.

The next morning we were off to the airport to pick up our rental car. It was time to drive to Tuscany…

 

Rome Restaurants:

La Prosciutteria
Via Della Panetteria 34
Fontana Di Trevi, 00187 Rome, Italy

Ristorante Sora Lucia
Via della Panetteria, 12
00187 Rome, Italy

Roscioli
via dei Giubbonari 21-22
00186 Rome, Italy

Pesci Fritti
Via di Grotta Pinta 8
00186 Rome, Italy

Al Valico di Chiunzi
Via Chiunzi 91
84010 Tramonti, Italy

Antico Arco
Piazzale Aurelio 7
00152 Roma, Italy

Some Quick Thoughts on Italy

The Grand Tour has come to an end. We just returned from an amazing two week trip to Italy: 4 nights in Rome, 5 nights in Tuscany (just outnights in Venice). I’m going to try to do a post for each stop, but I wanted to jot some quick thoughts down while the trip is still fresh in my mind…

  • All of the people we met along the way could not have been nicer or more welcoming. From our guides to various places in Rome, to the waiters in all of the restaurants, to the people who worked in our hotels. It made navigating a foreign country where neither of us spoke the language so much easier.
  • I was concerned before we left that I would get burnt out on Italian food given how long the trip was. Definitely not the case. The cuisines of Rome, Tuscany, and Venice were different enough to keep things interesting for all two weeks.
  • That being said, I was seriously craving seafood by the end of our time in Tuscany.
  • All of the pasta we ate was so much better than what I’ve had in the US and it wasn’t even close.
  • I think what makes it hard to transfer the food in Italy to the US is the quality of the ingredients. This is especially true of what we ate in Tuscany. The food there is extremely straightforward, but it’s also EXTREMELY local. Like, if it doesn’t come from within about 30-60 minutes away you’re not eating it.
  • Venice has roughly 1 billion tourist restaurants, but they are mostly easy to avoid given a bit of research. We also tried to stick to the guideline of not eating at any restaurants named for the attraction they were near (e.g., Ristorante San Marco, Trattoria Rialto, etc.). I think we did pretty well in Venice, especially after being warned by multiple people about the food there.
  • Breakfasts in Tuscany generally lasted between 60 and 90 minutes and always involved 2 cappuccinos. It’s very easy to get used to that lifestyle.
  • The best pizza we had was in Venice.
  • We ate surprisingly little gelato, but the best we had was in Pienza.
  • The hardest thing to do in Italy is leave a restaurant.
  • Stopping for cicchetti is such a wonderful thing. Stopping for cicchetti and a Aperol spritz is an even better thing.

Again, just some quick thoughts. I’ll try to get individual posts on each stop up over the coming days.