I really like Pisa. Sure there are a lot of tourists who come to see the Torre Pendente but most of them seem to get back on a coach and leave pretty much straight away.
It’s also a university town and the buzz in the squares (especially Piazza Dante) seems to come from the students hanging out rather than the visitors, though they are there as well.
The last time I was here was in 1983 when I was 17 and they still let people walk around the outside of the tower. There were no railings to stop people sliding off the side and I have a lasting memory of hugging a stone pillar as two large Americans came round the other way and squeezed past me. It was my first experience of serious vertigo and I remember it like it was yesterday!
The tower is the campanile (bell tower) for the church next door. You can still climb up the inside but they must have had second thoughts about the health and safety side of things as you can no longer go outside the stairwell. It is beautiful (click on the photos) but I did the same as most tourists do, took a few snaps and left after 20 minutes in search of lunch.
I stayed at the Hotel Verdi (5/6 Piazza Republica), not my work’s first choice (usually the more modern NH Cavaliere at 2 Piazza della Stazione) but better located for the old town and attractions on the north side of the River Arno. It’s seen better days but the staff were helpful and you can get a freshly made capuccho in the morning with your fairly basic breakfast.
I had just three nights in Pisa so this, as ever, really isn’t an exhaustive guide to eating out, but happily I did eat very well every evening and nearly all of it typical Tuscan food.
Ristorante Il Colonnino (Intermediate A), 37/41 Via San Andrea, Tel. 050 313 8430, www.ristorantecolonnino.it
On the first night I arrived quite late at around 9pm so just wanted somewhere near the hotel. For once I took the receptionist’s advice and let him take me to this small place, just two stone’s throws away from the hotel. I’m very glad I did as I had some great food and drink for just €40, even though I only meant to come for a bite.
I started with Ribollita, a classic Tuscan soup made with Cavalo Nero (black kale), cannellini beans and old bread (the best use for Italian bread if you ask me), served with glistening olive oil stirred in. It’s hearty comfort food (I make it at home whenever I can get the Tuscan kale) so it scored very highly with me (A).
To follow, Tagliata (B), strips of beef steak serve, another famous local dish, which I had with roast veg.
The own-label house red wasn’t great though, only just about drinkable (C+).
For dessert I resisted the chocolate temptations on the menu and went for the ubiquitous Cantucci con Vino Santo.
However, the friendly proprietor wouldn’t let me go as easily as that and gave me a complimentary Chocolate Fondant which when pierced with my spoon bled thick chocolate sauce all over the plate. With just a hint of chilli, and a dressing of butterscotch sauce, it was basically sex on a plate (A+).
The crowning glory however was the digestivo, something called Elixir di China which I’d never come across before. The taste is quite amazing (A+), something like the herbal flavours of an amaro but also cinchona bark which gives it the red colour, and the name ‘china’. There are a few varieties on the market but this is the original made by the family of the pharmacist, Dr. Clementi, who developed it.
I later sourced a bottle for €24 from the Enoteca La Cantinetta at 52 Via Cavalca. The owner was so happy about my choice I thought he was going to kiss me but fortunately the counter got in the way.
Osteria Cavalieri (Intermediate B+), 16 Via Frediano, Tel. 050 580 858, www.osteriacavalieri.pisa.it
I owe this one to Iain, one of the readers of my blog (thanks for the tip mate), although he tells me it’s a guide book favourite too. Due to its popularity you really have to book or if you don’t get in, go over the road to their slightly more expensive sister restaurant Sosta del Cavalieri.
They have fixed price three course menus with vegetarian, seafood or meat options (€28, €30, or €32). Having eaten wonderful Tuscan meat for the previous four days straight I thought it was about time for a change and went for the Menu del Mare.
First off, a plate of octopus carpaccio which was creamy and tender (B+).
Next I ruined my last clean white shirt (when will I ever learn) with a plate of Spaghetti Vongole e Cozze (clams and mussels) which were great but doused just a bit too much in some very nutty olive oil (A-).
After this a plate of grilled squid which was good but could have done with being grilled slightly more (B) as I like it a bit crispy.
Sadly though the bottle of house white I had with all this, Antiche Vie, didn’t have much going for it (C+).
Finally I exchanged the lemon sorbet for a semi-freddo which looked fantastic on the plate and tasted very good too (B+).
I had a glass of very fruity and slightly fizzy Moscato di Asti which went very well with the dessert (B+).
Wanting a change of digestive I had it with a glass of my beloved Pedro Ximinez (from Spain) which had been opened and left on the shelf a bit too long and was a bit of a disappointment (C-).
A good place then, but with a couple of near misses. I like the atmosphere, the chilled jazz soundtrack and the friendly young staff but I think I prefer this next place slightly more for the food.
Osteria Campano (Intermediate B+), 19 Via Cavalca, Tel. 050 580 585
This was a double recommendation from a friend of Iain’s and also from the school secretary and was a winner despite not looking like much. The staff are friendly here too and you can sit outside under an awning.
I went for the 3 course Menu Degustazione for €30 which started with some Antipasti del Trattoria involving spoons of Papa di Pomodoro (B+), Farro (B+), stuffed with the famous Lardo di Colonnata (B), and two crostini, one with a powerful liver pate (B+) and the other with marinated fresh tomatoes (A). I love big flavours and this was excellent.
The table next to me however went for the very impressive Tagliere del Re (minimum two people. €15 each); a large wooden board with what must have been about ten or more varieties of antipasti.
As well as water and bread (including some delicious (B+) brown bread) you get a quarter litre of local Sangiovese house red with this which was drinkable but unimpressive (B-).
For the first course the delicious (B+) Maltagliato al Ragu Bianco ai Profumi dei Monte Pisani con Scaglie di Pecorino or squares of pasta with a white sauce of pork and shavings of hard sheep’s cheese.
Tagliata di Maiale Grigliato Servito con Fagioli, aka slices of delicious grilled pork served with super bland boiled cannellini beans (A+C=B+).
Finally an add-on of strawberries with sugar and lemon (B+) and a glass of Oltrepo Pavese (from Pavia) which was supposed to be dolce frizzante, which while still being sweet, had lost all its fizz to the bottle being opened quite a while ago (C-) so rather than complaining I made the most of it and chucked it in with the strawberries (B).
So a good meal but with a couple of weak spots. A good place overall though.
The main shopping street is the winding Borgo Stretto which is lined with medieval porticoes. Make sure you check out Pasticceria Salza (since 1898) at #46. This is the place to get your chocolate Leaning Towers.
Other places recommended by the teachers at the school I was working at but didn’t have time to try are:
L’Artilafo at 33 Via San Martino www.lartilafo.it has a restaurant and a cheaper osteria specialising in typical home cooking.
Ristorante Galileo at 6/8 Via San Martino. www.ristorantegalileo.com
Da Bruno at 12 Via Luigi Bianchi. www.anticatrattoriadabruno.it
La Cereria at 33 Via Pietro Gori for pizza.
Should you need a change, I noticed an Indian restaurant imaginatively called India at 52 Via Roma. www.ristoranteindiapisa.com
I can’t vouch for any of them however.
I found more suggestions on this web page after I got home. There must be loads more.
I really enjoyed Pisa, to the extent I even toyed with the idea of trying to get a teaching job there.
Even though it’s a city, it has a relaxed small town atmosphere with not too much traffic and lots of people riding around on bikes. The tourists and students bring enough business to support quite a few good restaurants and bars.
Other than the cathedral and the tower, there are other old bits to see, including a lot of the old city walls which are being restored and a couple of nice churches. Definitely a good place to spend a few days.