Archive for the Pisa Category

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,

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,

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 has a restaurant and a cheaper osteria specialising in typical home cooking.

Ristorante Galileo at 6/8 Via San Martino.

Da Bruno at 12 Via Luigi Bianchi.

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.

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)…


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


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.


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




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.


This was the one I’d like to own.

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






20130518_130017… a scooter/helicopter hybrid…


…an Ape fire engine…


a bazooka scooter…


… 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.

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