Lucca is a beautiful Tuscan town, steeped in history and culture, and with a strong food tradition. The old town in surrounded by huge thick walls from the Renaissance period and it’s also the birthplace of Puccini. (Please click on any of these photos to for the best view).
Inevitably then it’s a very popular tourist destination and the main streets are often heaving with people, even in early May which is when I arrived to spend two days.
Fortunately I had a local contact to help me make the most of it. My good friend Tim upped sticks and moved here a year before to indulge his passions in cycling, eating and all things Italian. Tim had been the chef and proprietor of Buca, a cult restaurant in Sheffield specialising in rustic European cuisine with a strong Italian influence and an emphasis on quality ingredients. Sheffield’s loss was my gain as I couldn’t have wanted for a better guide in the short time I was here.
Miro Club (Elementary A), 25 Via dei Fossi
Tim took me to this place in a quiet corner of the old town which sells quality peasant-style food at reasonable prices. Consequently it’s popular with the locals and unknown to tourists so you shouldn’t have a problem being seated early in the evening. They have a nice backyard where you can sit outside in the summer although it was closed when I was there. To get their licence they had to become a members ‘club’, but don’t worry, it’s very quiet and relaxed and anyone can eat there.
To start I wanted the Tortelli al Sugo, tortelli being the local filled pasta, similar to ravioli. In the Apuan area (which includes Lucca) it takes a semi-circular shape, and is pronounced by the Lucchese as ‘tordelli’. Unluckily they had sold out and I had to settle for a different flat pasta instead, but this didn’t diminish the taste of the sauce which was delicious (A).
To follow I had the Boconcini di Vitello, ‘small mouthfulls’ of stewed veal, also very good (B), accompanied by garlic roast potatoes, a combination that I was less keen on (C). Although the food was absolutely fine, I couldn’t finish it as a result of a large lunch earlier in the day, much to the chagrin of the chef who I had to explain myself to.
With a decent house red and a limoncello to finish the bill came to a very reasonable €20, mainly due to Tim’s friendship with the owner. All the same, it’s very reasonable and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.
Trattoria Gigi (Intermediate A), 7 Via del Carmine, Tel. 0583 467266 www.gigitrattoria.it
Tim and I came to this place on another night with our friends Rob, Alice and Alison. It’s a great little spot, away from the tourist streets in a pleasant square. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming, the staff are friendly and the food is excellent.
Sheffield foodies might be interested to know that the old sign at Gigi’s inspired the sign for Bragazzi’s on Abbeydale Road in which Tim was a business partner.
I started with a bowl of the local hearty soup Garmugia Lucchese, made of peas, artichokes, asparagus, and in this case, with meatballs (B+).
Pollo Aromatizzato alle Erbette Schiacciato con Mattone or grilled chicken flavoured with aromatic herbs. I think ‘mattone’, which means ‘brick’ in English is referring to the terracotta pot it was cooked inside. Anyway, it was very tasty! (B+).
Here’s a New York Times article from 2006 about Lucca’s food scene that was on the wall at Gigi’s.
The following two places are very much on the tourist trail and so a bit more expensive, but still very good.
Trattoria da Leo (Intermediate A), 1 via Tegrimi, Tel. 0583 492236
This is the most popular place in town due to recommendations in many guidebooks, so you really must reserve to get in. I arrived when it opened at 7.30 and it was full by 7.45. The clientele includes lots of tourists but also plenty of locals.
There’s one large dining room and a smaller side room and bar area with parsimonious but atmospheric decor. Prices are reasonable with first courses (soups, pastas) for only €7 and just breaking double figures for the second courses, which is very good value for a tourist town in the north.
Again though my appetite let me down and I couldn’t do justice to the menu. Tuscany is famous for its soups and also farro (wild wheat) so I went for the Minestra di Farro, a murky brown and highly unphotogenic dish with a full earthy flavour suggesting an unmentioned meat stock, but not so according to this recipe. I thoroughly enjoyed it (B+) but it was a meal in itself and I couldn’t even contemplate a main course, instead choosing a dessert I hadn’t heard of before.
Cantuccini con Vino Santo, turned out to be a chopped up biscuit (also know as Biscotti di Prado) not too dissimilar to amaretti which are also almond flavoured and quite hard as they are baked twice. They were ok (B) and the glass of sweet wine which came with it was passable (C+). Together with cover, water and a just about drinkable half litre of slightly vinegary house red, the price was only €18. A good place worthy of another trip, but make sure you have a decent appetite.
Buca di San Antonio (Advanced B+), 3 via della Cervia, www.bucadisanantonio, closed Sunday evening and Monday.
Considered by many (locals and guidebooks) as the best place for fine dining in Lucca, this is a formal but friendly place. ‘Buca’ translates as ‘hole’ but also means a tavern or osteria in old Tuscan, and inspired the name of Tim’s restaurant back home when he first visited the town a few years ago. The decor is olde worlde with lots of old brass instruments and copper pans hanging off the ancient wooden beams. It’s been a hostelry since at least 1782 and probably much earlier.
I went straight to the second course, Filletino de Cinta alla Crema di Tartufo con Sformato di Carciofi; tender pink slices of pork loin with truffle sauce (B), piped mashed potato (B) and a hash of artichokes topped with tiny strips of crunchy courgette and carrot which tasted very unusual in a good way (B+). I tried to elucidate the secret ingredient but the waiter insisted these three vegetables were the only constituents.
Both drinks were from Montecarlo, a small village near Lucca famous for its wine, although Tim later told me it was tourist tackle which the locals exported so they could keep the less famous but better stuff for themselves.
The final bill came to a tasty €43.50. I’d go again for a treat but make different choices next time. There are of course lots of other good places, but these were the only ones I got to in the short spell I was there.
The broad walls, wide enough for two cars to pass should they be allowed up here, stretch for 4.7km around the town. They make a great jogging and cycling circuit and have good views of the surrounding countryside and hills.
I stayed at the Albergo Celide www.albergocelide.it, a fairly posh mid-range hotel (€110 a night), with friendly staff and a good breakfast. It has a spa but no gym and you can borrow bicycles from them for the day.
However if you want a proper tour with a guide you should go to Chrono cycles at 93 Corso Garibaldi www.chronobikes.com where, if you are lucky, you might get Tim as your guide.
A postscript for friends and family, this picture of me enjoying a spritz in Piazza San Michele is the last known one of me beardless, just in case you wanted to remember! 😀 x