After spending almost three weeks traveling in Italy, it has been hard to start writing about it – perhaps it was the sheer quantity of delicious meals or maybe it was because the restaurants themselves seemed sort of anonymous – the type of place I’d stumble upon and maybe never visit again. But that is one of my goals with this blog – to find and record amazing meals around the world so that the most memorable ones don’t disappear into the fuzzy haze of pleasant travel memories.
As I procrastinated writing, I did dutifully take pictures of every dish and gelato I ate (much to the amusement of my husband’s family, who would start each meal with exaggerated cries of “Don’t eat it until Michelle has photographed it!”). I’ve found that these photos are actually an extremely helpful chronicle of what we’ve done each day, framed by the meal and where we ate it. I tend to remember experiences by the food and the people I shared it with anyway and it’s been fun to take pictures and learn how to do basic editing.
Before I launch into the food itself, a bit on the Tuscan context for food. It is easy to become desensitized to the rustic beauty of the landscape after a few days, but it is truly a unique place, seemingly frozen in time. The golden hills roll gently with wheat, the grape vines grow in neat lines as they climb up the mountainside, and silver olive trees grace the side of the roads. The food comes directly from the land and you can taste it in the flavors. Tomatoes are sweet and crisp; pasta is light and rolled thin; boiled eggs have a golden yolk that tastes like the farm. Dishes have few ingredients and strong flavors – the wild boar ragu is salty and the pecorino is soft and richly perfumed. None of these observations are groundbreaking. But even coming from California, it is truly a rare treat for me to experience this bounty of fresh foods, grown and cooked traditionally, without preservative or ornamentation.
While nearly everything we ate was delicious, there were a few meals that warrant special mention:
Il Valdambrino, Ambra
The best pizza we had in Tuscany was at a small pizzeria outside Ambra, located just off the road. The tables were set up in the grassy front yard of the casual restaurant. As we sat down, I was immediately enveloped by the smells of fresh basil, rosemary, and thyme, growing abundantly from big pots lining the yard. This was a promising start. We all shared buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes and various meat crostinis to start, which was pretty much how we started every meal. The caprese was quite good and the meats included some local preparations that we hadn’t encountered elsewhere (including one that looked like raw ground beef but actually tasted like a delicious fennel sausage – jury is still out on whether it was actually cooked).
But the highlight was the pizza. I am a pizza traditionalist and almost always order either Margherita or Pepperoni. I stayed true to course here and had the Diavola, basically a spicy pepperoni pizza. It was fantastic – it came right out of the wood burning oven and the dough was thin, crisp, and light; the homemade tomato sauce was delicately sweet but also pleasantly acidic and thinly spread; the cheese was sprinkled to cover the whole pizza consistently (I hate pizza where you get stuck with bites of only sauce) and the pepperoni was appropriately spicy (I had some Diavolas where you needed to down a glass of water after every bite!). I managed to polish off my entire pizza without too much difficulty, accompanied by a spicy and rich Borella de Montalcino, a blend of grapes famous in the Chianti region. Fresh pizza, good wine, sun setting over the Tuscan hills, and the sweet smell of basil in the background – it’s hard to beat.
La Loconda di Tommaso, Castelnuovo Berardenga
La Loconda di Tommaso, with an outdoor patio set on the main square of the tiny stone hill town of Castelnuovo Berardenga made for an equally memorable, and totally different sort of meal. With a French-infused, refined Tuscan sensibility, Chef Tommaso created some of the most delicate and flavorful dishes I experienced in Tuscany. We started with a pink prosecco served with a peppered prosciutto and cantaloupe jelly, served with the chef’s compliments. The menu was extremely creative without feeling at all pretentious or uptight – it included items such as frog soup with cuttlefish and roasted frog leg (served in what looked like a murky pond with spinach waterlilies) and carpaccio of fillet smoked hay and parmesan ice cream – we never quite figured out what hay meant but we all determined that we preferred traditional gelato flavors.
I started with the pappardelle stuffed with ricotta and truffle. The scent of truffle wafted over as the waiter approached the table, and the homemade pasta was the thinnest, lightest pasta I’ve had (except for the equally thin lasagna noodles in Deruta – stay tuned) and was filled with an equally light, fluffy ricotta. Bites were passed around the table.
I tend to be a primi kind of girl and don’t usually order the meat-heavy secondi course but I was glad that I had here. I had the “small duck cooked at low temperature with chickpeas” and it was amazing. I love duck, and usually order it whenever it is available. This was one of the best duck dishes I have ever experienced. The tiny breast of duck was pink throughout, dusted with flakes of translucent salt, and had the consistency of brisket – it seemed to have been truly “slow cooked” rather than sautéed. The duck leg retained a thin layer of crunchy skin and was deeply flavored when I pulled it off the bone, its consistency a pleasant contrast to the duck breast.
And the chickpeas. They made me think that I had never truly experienced chickpeas before. And honestly, I think that every chickpea I’ve ever eaten must have come from a can (I usually just get them in salad bars and never thought much about them before). These chickpeas were freshly dried and rehydrated in-house, perhaps in something more flavorful than just water. It wasn’t just the taste that was different – the consistency was totally different as well, a cohesive, compact mass that bore no resemblance to the grainy legume that cleanly splits into shiny halves in my salads. I never thought that I would wax poetic on a chickpea, but there you have it. It was a masterful dish.
My husband had the boned roasted pigeon with fresh spinach which was equally good. I had never tried pigeon before and the flavor was delicate and the texture not unlike the duck. All of this was accompanied by yet another delicious wine, this time from the Sorleome vineyard in Villa a Sesta, a small village just a few kilometers up the hill from Castelnuevo.
Tommaso came out at the end to ask how everything had been. We assured him it could not have been better. As we walked back to the car, we passed an artisanal gelateria with a rainbow beaded door – despite being stuffed from an excellent meal, we felt compelled to stop. I had licorice gelato, which was surprising and delicious – it was an evening of wonderful food firsts.
Cooking at Montalto, with help from Art & Cooking
The next fantastic meal was actually one we prepared ourselves. My husband’s family had arranged for a private cooking lesson from one of the chefs at Art & Cooking culinary school in Siena to come teach us in our apartment at Montalto (the beautiful converted castle where we were staying). It was an incredibly fun and empowering experience. Learning to make each dish from scratch simultaneously made cooking feel less intimidating, while also hitting home the need for gobs of time and fresh, seasonal ingredients. I suspect the reality of daily cooking (which sadly, I don’t do much of) is something in between, and it made me excited to spend more time in the kitchen to find out.
We started by doing all of the chopping and prep work for each of the dishes – our undisciplined version of mise en place. We prepared a panzanella, with day old Tuscan bread soaked in water and crumbled, cherry tomatoes, basil, red onions marinated in vinegar, celery, salt, and olive oil, which was served cold. Next we made Pollo alla Chiantigiana, starting with the Tuscan base of minced carrots, celery, garlic, and onions, reduced down and cooked over a low heat. In parallel, we began to make a berry tiramisu, with fresh egg yolk custard and berries macerated in sugar, sherry, and maraschino liquor.
The highlight came last – making fresh pasta for spinach and ricotta stuffed ravioli. This was the revelation, because while it was time consuming, the basic steps were not extremely difficult and it felt like something I could actually try at home. I mixed the eggs into the flour and needed it until it was smooth. I then rolled it through the hand roller over and over to get the flat sheets needed for ravioli. We sprinkled the table with flour and spooned teaspoons of the filling onto the top half of the pasta. Next we folded over the bottom half of the pasta sheet, using our fingers to push out any air bubbles and press the two layers together. We then used a small serrated pizza cutter to trim and separate each individual piece. The last step was pressing the edges with a fork, which not only made an artistic geometric pattern but also ensured the pasta would stay closed. We quickly made a sauce of sautéed cherry tomatoes, garlic, and basil and we were ready to eat.
Everything was amazing, accompanied by the well-priced Il Grigio 2008 Riserva Chianti from San Felice (a beautiful vineyard and converted boutique hotel we’d visited earlier in the week), and the feeling of accomplishment that we had made everything ourselves.
Osteria Le Logge, Siena
Our next memorable meal came a few days later in Siena, at Osteria Le Logge, recommended by our teacher-chef and located on a small lane just off the central Il Campo piazza. We arrived in town in the early evening and enjoyed a spritz (a vibrant orange drink made from aperol, prosecco, and sometimes soda) at one of the many restaurants on the picturesque Campo.
One of the main highlights of the meal was the wine —- we had two bottles of Fuligni’s Brunello de Montalcino wine, the first from 2005 and the second a 2004 Riserva to celebrate my father-in-law’s birthday. I started with a creamy burrata accompanied by cherry tomatoes – the dome of burrata had a light mozzarella shell on the outside and a creamy consistency inside, while the tomatoes had been skinned and topped with a touch of salt. My husband had lightly fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella, which were also delicious. I’ve tried to make this dish at home and it was terrible, so I was duly impressed. I had tagliatelli with a wild boar ragu as my primi and it was among the best I’d had of this dish – hearty but not too salty or heavy. The star of the first course was Isaac’s dish – lobster risotto infused with grapefruit. The grapefruit zest was the real genius – it added an unexpected citrus flavor that made you pause mid-bite. I was too full for the secondi course, but tasted everyone else’s, which were good, but not especially memorable (except for my brother-in-law’s braised lamb chop, which was fantastic). After happy birthday sung over hazelnut gelato, we were ready to roll ourselves back to the car.
Taverna del Gusto, Deruta
On my husband’s last day in Italy, the two of us drove to Deruta, a small town specializing in painted ceramics in Umbria. After two weeks of sun and heat, the day was cool and rainy. There was no way to anticipate that we were about to experience a meal that I know we’ll talk about for years to come. “Remember the time we wandered into the only restaurant into Deruta and found ourselves overwhelmed with the smell of black truffle, welcomed by the friendly red-faced proprietor who squeezed just one more table into his packed and cavern-like restaurant? Remember how happily strong that Umbrian wine was?”
Umbrian cuisine shares similarities with Tuscan cuisine, but it is heartier and richer. It is also the home of the black truffle, and it takes full advantage of this fortunate circumstance. We started with a farro salad with cherry tomatoes, basil, a sticky-sweet balsamic reduction, and cubes of the ubiquitous pecorino. This was when we began drinking our bottle of heavy, spicy Montefalco Rosso, from the Terre de Capitani vineyard, a real contrast to the lighter wines of Chianti.
Next we moved to the pasta course. I ordered lasagna with a bolognese, ricotta, and béchamel sauce. I think it was the best lasagna I have ever had (sorry, Mom!). The homemade noodles were light and paper thin, and the ricotta was cloud-like and fluffy. The bolognese was flavorful without being salty and the portion was generous but not too big. I literally licked the plate clean.
Not to be outdone, Isaac had tagliatelle with chopped up black truffle in a light butter sauce that we had been smelling since walking in the door. It was simply amazing. The kind of amazing where you close your eyes and unconsciously mumble “Mmmmm…..” with every single bite. We also ordered a side of potatoes we spotted at a neighboring table, which came oven roasted with olive oil and rosemary, crispy on the outside and creamy and moist on the inside.
By this point, we were happily through three-quarters of the bottle of wine and knew that we would need dessert to finish it off. The owner served us the house dessert, a whole grain oatmeal bar topped with sweetened marscarpone cheese and spread with a thin layer of homemade blueberry marmalade, cut into tiny squares. We thought it might be a good idea to squeeze in a cup of cappuccino before tackling the afternoon ahead, but the proprietor undid our attempts to sober up by giving us each a shot of Limoncello, a southern Italian dessert liquor, served on the house and with a grin. He was enjoying watching us revel in the meal almost as much as we were enjoying exclaiming over every bite. We stumbled out happy and very very full. We may or may not have impulse-purchased more ceramics after lunch.
Needless to say, it was a delicious trip. Luckily, all of these towns are hilly, so hopefully I exercised off at least a fraction of what I ate…
Additional information:Il Valdambrino
Via Dante Alighieri n.46
T + 39 055 99 69 89 La Locanda di Tommaso
Piazza Marconi 9-10
53019 Castelnuovo Berardenga
T +39 0577 355411 Siena cooking school: Art & Cooking
http://www.artandcooking.com/index.html Osteria Le Logge
Via del Porrione, 33
T +39 0577 48013 Taverna del Gusto
T +39 075 972 4120