Archive for the Tuscany Category

A quick flirtation with Florence

Posted in Florence, Italy, Tuscany with tags on February 17, 2014 by gannet39

20130602_19295920130602_193314With nothing open on a Sunday in Calenzano (see previous post), I decided to jump on the bus to Florence.

I first came here as a student when I was 17 and I have strong memories of the city’s architectural beauty, especially the Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore,  and its huge and intricately decorated facade.

20130602_19312720130602_193145Sadly nearly 30 years later the beautiful white marble, which once glowed, seems very grubby and unimpressive, no doubt the results of age and pollution since then (on both of us!).

Even the atmospheric Ponte Vecchio  over the river didn’t have the allure it once had for me.

20130602_194134Maybe I’m being too harsh (there are other sights and fantastic museums I know) but I much preferred Genoa and its lovely cathedral, San Lorenzo, having recently been there (see post).

20130602_195001By comparison, Florence feels completely overrun with tourists, who seemed to be mainly loud Americans. The waiters I spoke to were very surprised when I tried to communicate with them in Italian.

20130602_194332Having not expected to be here, I had done zero research on where to eat or what to do. The restaurant below was recommended by the friendly receptionist (as opposed to the one that’s an asshole) at the Hotel First in Calenzano.

It was his second choice after his family’s favourite (Perseus, 10 Viale Don Giovanni Minzoni (off Piazza della Liberta), Tel. 055 588 226), was unfortunately closed on a Sunday.

20130602_212757Convivium (Advanced B), 4 Via di Santo Spirito, Tel. 055 265 8198, www.conviviumfirenze.it

A high-end restaurant located in an old palazzo away from the hubbub, which doubles as a deli. They are better known for their wine than their food, although you can also do olive oil tasting classes here.

The atmosphere feels a little cramped (60 covers in 4 smallish rooms) but the décor is attractive and the service is friendly, if a little overworked at times.

Apologies but I lost my notes so can’t remember how much I liked all these dishes and wines by the glass.

20130602_201148First off, a complimentary spoon of the Tuscan dry soup Pappa al Pomodoro (B).

20130602_201659This was followed by Ravioli di Burrata con Gamberi Freschi Sgusciati Profumati al Lime aka ravioli stuffed with mozzarella cream, with freshly shelled prawns and a lime flavoured sauce. Sadly this didn’t do it for me, the stiff unyielding pasta, mediocre prawns and the smear of squid ink seriously detracted from the dish (C+).

20130602_200358I had this with a glass of very unusual tasting, but delicious Dorigo Friuliano (2010).

20130602_203343Pursuing my beef and mushroom fixations for the third night in a row, I had Tagliolini ai Porcini for my main, which was ok but unremarkable (B).

20130602_203625A glass of Castello della Paneretta Chianti Classico (2010) no doubt hit the spot with the beef.

20130602_211057Next a glass of Pinodise from Contadi Castaldi, a vino licoroso or dessert wine fortified with brandy. I think I remember this being pretty special (A) but sadly hard to procure in the UK even via the internet.

20130602_211136I had this with a dessert of three kinds of blue cheese with honey and hazlenuts, a winning combination (A).

Finally, a glass of Grappa Nonino Riserva which was a barrique (aged in barrels), no doubt an A.

In short, a flavoursome but pricey gastronomical experience. Rich tourists must love it. I enjoyed the wines but I’ll be eating elsewhere next time I’m here.

20130602_195024As with all my posts, please don’t take this as a serious guide to a city. I was only in Florence for about 8 hours so of course there’s plenty I’ve missed!

A super Tuscan steak in Calenzano

Posted in Calenzano, Florence, Italy, Tuscany with tags , , on February 16, 2014 by gannet39

20130602_000810The village of Calenzano is nowadays a suburb of Florence. At first it might seem like a large retail park and industrial zone, and indeed much of it is, but there is an old area with a medieval castle up on the hill at Calenzano Alta, you just have to look hard to find it.

In terms of cuisine, the area is famous for its olive oil which I can recommend wholeheartedly, though finding someone to see it to you might not be so easy.

My employer puts us up at either the Delta Florence or the First Hotel,  which are right next to each other, on either side of a motorway slip road. To get to them from Calenzano station (about 30 mins walk as there are no taxis at the station although you could try calling one from a bar) turn right onto the main road from the station square and just keep going straight. You will go over a small bridge, past the Piscina Communale (community swimming pool, not open to the public until very late) and over several roundabouts (rotondi) until you get to one with a huge rusty wheel (illuminated blue at night, see pic) where you will see the hotels just after a large Carrefour hypermarket.

Due to some confusion over my reservation, I got to see both hotels and can tell you that the rooms are pretty much the same; small, beige and a bit depressing. The First Hotel, where I eventually stayed, does have a swimming pool, though it doesn’t open till mid June when it’s officially summer in Italy. Of course with my luck, I was there in May. The breakfast is ok and the staff mostly helpful but the walls are paper thin and there’s the odd mosquito.

20130601_232405To get to Calenzano Alta,  and the restaurant below, go back three roundabouts towards the station until you see a sign saying ‘Calenzano’ pointing to the right with another sign saying ‘Municipio’ below it. Go along this long straight road until you come to Via Molina, turn left and continue going straight along the road and through a small pedestrianised area. You can turn right up Vico Molina or take the next right, Via del Castello, which takes you right up to the nearest castle tower. You will see the castle towers at several points along the way but Via del Castello is the only logical approach. I had to ask several people the way the first time and they all made it very complicated but it’s easy once you know. Brush up on your Italian directions though!

La Terraza (Intermediate B), 25 Via del Castello, Tel. 055 887 3302

This is a lovely spot, right next to the tower, and has fantastic views of the plain below (pylons and factories by day but the city lights at night). However you won’t get these tables unless there are four or more of you.

The service was quite possibly the slowest I have ever encountered! I waited half an hour for my order to be taken and the same again for it to arrive, unlike an Italian couple who were served first despite arriving after me. Still, it wasn’t as bad as for the English couple on the next table who waited ninety minutes for their food even though they had arrived before me! They said they’d been the night before though and waited an hour, so they were used to it. Another couple without a reservation coming in after me were turned away as I don’t think the staff could cope.

The restaurant seems to basically be a three person operation with a single chef moving at a sedate pace in the kitchen and a grumpy middle-aged waiter rushing around frantically serving the whole restaurant by himself. The third person is granny who cuts and distributes the bread, does the dishes and various odd jobs and who will only smile if you force her to.

Fortunately the food more than made up for the service.

20130601_214228Ceps were in season (in stagione) so I leapt at the Tagliatelle ai Porcini Freschi which was pretty good though not amazing (B).

While I’d been waiting I’d seen the waiter carrying a huge t-bone to a nearby table where a guy the size of Mr. Creosote gobbled it down. Tuscany is famous for its steak so the second course was a no brainer.  It had to be Bitstecca alla Fiorentina nel Filetto.

20130601_220056I pointed at Mr. Creosote’s table and ordered the same. The waiter didn’t want to give it to me though because at 1kg he thought it was going to be too much, but I insisted. It had to be the biggest chunk of meat I’d ever eaten (the picture doesn’t do it justice, it was three fingers thick as is tradition) but I just about managed it. It was of course awesome (A+).

20130601_210711The waiter recommended a Calenzano red, I think a Pinot Noir and Gamay blend; Tenuta di Son Donato Marchesi Pancrazi (2011), which was excellent (A) despite being one of the cheaper bottles on the menu at only €12.

20130601_225007The neighbouring town of Prado is famous for its biscuits so I tried the Biscottini di Prado con Vin Santo for dessert. They were fine (B), but not perceivably different from the other hard brittle ‘cantucci’ I’d been getting all over Tuscany.

20130601_224908The Castello di Uzzano (2004) vin santo (del Chianti Classico) was excellent though (A).

20130601_224422Finally I persuaded the waiter to see me a bottle of olive oil which had come from their own grove just 200 metres away.

Total cost €75 (not including the steak), €43 of which was the steak. Good food, but make sure you reserve, arrive early, and bring a book!

Il Portico (High Intermediate B+), 12/14 Via Enzo Cherzani, Tel. 055 883 9778, www.ristilportico.it

This is the easy option from the hotel (it’s between Carrefour and the First Hotel) and although it looks a bit modern and characterless, I ate and was served very well here.

20130603_200337Continuing my mushroom obsession for the second day in a row I opted first for the Risotto ai Funghi Porcini which was sublime (A).

20130603_202114More good Tuscan meat for my secondo; Lombatina di Vitella alla Brace, or grilled loin of veal, with a side of fries. Deeply satisfying (A).

Drinks wise I started with a glass of Prosecco (celebrating my last day of work) and moved on to a 2010 Chianti Classico called Rocca delle Macie which, if memory seves, was pretty good (B).

20130603_21074820130603_210718Finally, a glass of ‘Nivole’ Moscato di Asti (Michele Chiarlo 2012), also very good (B+),

which went well with an excellent Zabiglione (A). Total cost €47, which felt reasonable.

From the roads signs I passed I gather there are a few museums, parks and churches in Calenzano that might be worth seeing should you need entertainment. You could check them out on the tourist website.

Or you could hop on the bus to Florence. The bus stop for the #2 to Statzione Centrale is just over the road from the front of the First Hotel. It takes 40 minutes and costs €2 which you can pay on the bus. Reception can provide you with a printed timetable. The last bus back from town is at 00.30.

A peaceful life in Pisa

Posted in Italy, Pisa, Tuscany with tags , , , , on February 14, 2014 by gannet39

20130605_103024I 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.

20130605_104352It’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.

20130605_103914The 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!

20130605_103207The 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.

20130605_103731I 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.

20130605_103536I 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.

20130604_221013I 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).

20130604_222923To 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+).

20130604_225238For dessert I resisted the chocolate temptations on the menu and went for the ubiquitous Cantucci con Vino Santo.

20130604_230812However, 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+).

20130604_230517The 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.

20130605_202411First off, a plate of octopus carpaccio which was creamy and tender (B+).

20130605_204604Next 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-).

20130605_210232After 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.

20130605_202447Sadly though the bottle of house white I had with all this, Antiche Vie, didn’t have much going for it (C+).

20130605_214519Finally 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.

20130606_194345I 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.

20130606_200449As 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-).

20130606_200157For 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.

20130606_201806Tagliata di Maiale Grigliato Servito con Fagioli, aka slices of delicious grilled pork served with super bland boiled cannellini beans (A+C=B+).

20130606_210337Finally 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.

20130606_191847The 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.

20130605_105941I found more suggestions on this web page after I got home. There must be loads more.

20130605_101004I 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.

20130605_100843Other 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.

Pontedera home of the Vespa

Posted in Italy, Pisa, Pontedera, Tuscany with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2014 by gannet39

Pontedera is a small town in the province of Pisa in TuscanyAlthough not a bad little place, there’s not that much to see or do around town.
However, it is home to the world-famous Piaggio  company whose classic brands include the Gilera motorbike, the Vespa scooter (a mod icon)…

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…and the Ape three-wheeler (beloved by Sicilian peasant farmers and  Delhi taxi drivers).

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The factory, at 7 Via Ronaldo Piaggio which runs parallel to the railway line, has its own museum where you can see examples of their famous vehicles, ranging from the sublime to the silly, from down the decades.
Prior to the war they were a ship fitting and locomotive company but moved into aircraft and then motorised vehicles in the mid 40s.

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20130518_122736The first Vespa (wasp) was produced in 1946.

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My dad used to have a Vespa when he was in his teens so I thought I’d go along to see if I could find the model he rode and take some pictures for him. I’m guessing it was this white Vespa 50 from 1965.

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This was the one I’d like to own.

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There were lots of other weird and wonderful creations including a few bizarre prototypes…

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20130518_130017… a scooter/helicopter hybrid…

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…an Ape fire engine…

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a bazooka scooter…

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… and giant and extra long scooters, amongst many other oddities. There’s even a Vespa covered in reclaimed fish skin and another decorated (badly) by Dali.

The museum is open 6 days a week from 9 till 6, except Saturday when it closes for an hour for lunch (which caught me out).

20130518_125637I stayed at the Hotel Armonia www.hotelarmonia in Piazza Cadutti To get there turn right out of the station and walk down Via Dante Alighieri (second right out of the station square) for about ten minutes.

It’s a very nice hotel with spacious, elegant rooms, good wifi and breakfast and very accommodating staff. So much so that, when I was chucked out of the Piaggio museum at lunch time, they even let me back into the room I’d checked out of while I waited for my train. Now that’s service.

Unfortunately though I didn’t eat particularly well in Pontedera on the two nights I was there, which was a bit of a disappointment…

La Polveriera (Intermediate C), 54 Via Marconcini

Came here on my first evening when it was chucking it down with rain. No doubt this added to the atmosphere of the place which was quite gloomy, not helped by the dirge like soundtrack of instrumental hip hop interspersed with other bizarre musical choices, some good, some not. The young girl serving was very pleasant but the rest of the staff appeared to be teenagers who didn’t really seem to know what they were doing.

20130516_201613I ordered a primo of Spaghetti dei ‘Matelli’ con le Telline de Marina, tiny angel-wing clams that are a favourite of mine, which had disappointingly already been shelled (hard work but satisfyingly fun) and tossed in butter with the pasta. It was fine (B) but didn’t blow me away.

I went for the secondo, Francesina di Polpo con Patate because it was described as a typical local dish. It turned out to be cold sliced potatoes with diced octopus in a tomatoey sauce which did absolutely nothing for me (C) so I spared you a picture.

Ditto the contorno of Verdure Grigliata, grilled aubergines, courgettes and chicory, which were a bit on the raw side and would have benefitted greatly from being dipped in a bit of olive oil before being introduced to the griddle. They were pretty hard to digest as my bloated belly reminded me at 4am that morning (D).

The mezzo carafe of house white was only just drinkable (C-). Stick to reds in Tuscany is the lesson I should have learned by now.

Trying to cheer myself up I succumbed to a slice of chocolate tart (B) and an unchilled limoncello but the warm lemon curd flavour just compounded my misery. Limoncello has to be frozen to be drinkable!

A colleague had been here and had some quite decent prawns which are what I should have gone for. Won’t be giving it a second chance though. Total cost with the thankfully free limoncello €42.

A couple of doors down on the corner at 21 Corso Principe Amadeo is the Bulldog’s Cafe which might sound like it’s infested with skinheads but is just a plain and simple place frequented by a young crowd where you can watch music videos with your chosen nightcap.

Aero Scalo (Intermediate B-), 8 Via Roma, Tel. 058 752 024, Closed Monday

I ate here the next night with my colleague David, who along with the hotel receptionist had recommended the place to me.  The owner greeted us and gave us the menu verbally, all of which he said was typical Tuscan food.

David went for the chicken liver pate on toast which looked ok and I opted for the Risotto ai Frutti di Mare. It was over salted but my companion, who has been in Tuscany quite a lot, said that that is what they do here. I’m a bit of a salt addict myself but it was too much for me even.

20130517_203259We both had the Ossobucco, the second night in a row for David. It was fine (B) if a bit oily, but I had been spoilt by an amazing version I had in Milan a week or so earlier (see the Milan Gioia post) which blew this one away.

Not wanting to give up on local white wines, I’d matched the risotto with a non-descript bottle of ‘Sangervasio’ Chardonnay (C)  but gave up on it after the second glass and went for a carafe of house red which was a bit better (C+).

Total cost was a reasonable €36.

If I were in town again I might come back to Aero Scalo, or I might just go for a salad and a pizza at Anitica Pizzeria da Cammillo at 155 Corso Matteotti which is supposed to be good. They have supposedly been around since 1870 so hopefully should know how to make a good pie by now. They also specialise in Torta de Ceci (chick pea pie) which sounds interesting.

Or you could save some euros and have the €6 lunch buffet at the Cafe d’Oro in the square at the end of Corso Matteotti, near the pizzeria above. It was fine if nothing special (B-).

Another colleague recommended the local rosticceria, but there are two of them so it was hard to know which to go to. Il Pollo Gigante is opposite Aero Scallo on Via Roma.

If you are choco-dipendenti (a chocoholic) you might want to procure some Amadei luxury chocolates which are made in a village nearby.

I didn’t have time to go but the Piscina Comunale (public swimming pool) is at Via della Constituzione. In 2013 it cost €7.40 in the morning and €4.90 in the afternoon. Remember your cap.

So Pontedera wasn’t a great foodie experience, but the museum was interesting. Hope you have better culinary luck than me.

Lucky Lucca

Posted in Italy, Lucca, Tuscany with tags , , , , , on May 10, 2013 by gannet39

20130505_18585320130505_185859Lucca  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.

20130505_192915Fortunately 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.

20130504_205031To 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.

20130607_225832Trattoria 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.

IMG_4746Sheffield 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.

20130607_214530I started with a bowl of the local hearty soup Garmugia Lucchese, made of peas, artichokes, asparagus, and in this case, with meatballs (B+).

20130607_220624Pollo 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+).

20130607_214303Tim selected a bottle of Palistorti di Valgiano red from the local Colline Lucchese DOC which was really good (A) while not being too pricey and a great match with the chicken,

20130607_230209I can’t remember what the desserts were (a good time was had!) but they looked great.

20130607_230600So, another great little spot. Wish I could go again!

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.

20130505_194210Again 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.

20130505_203423Cantuccini 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.

20130504_143024I 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.

20130504_144749Rather than a sweet I thought I’d try the Pecorini Tipici di Zona; three slabs of sheep’s cheese of various ages served with honey. The fresh formaggio was fine (B) but the oldest was sublime (A).

20130504_142422On the liquid front, a half bottle of red (B) and a glass of fragrant grappa (Vigna del Greppo) (A), the latter suggested by the friendly sommelier who used to live in York.

20130504_150547Both 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.

20130505_185943Lucca has several attractive churches, the most beautiful being San Michele, in the big piazza bearing its name. The facade is quite stunning and one of the main draws of the town.

20130505_185826Wander around though and you will find lots more little gems to feed the camera.

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.

20130505_185651I 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.

20130504_153850However 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.

Copy of photoLucca is lovely and you cannot help but be happy here. Hope I can visit again soon.

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

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