Thursday, May 5, 2011

The dining room (top) in the limonaia at Relais Il Falconiere, outside of Cortona, and an Il Falconiere sample dessert tray (bottom). Silvia and Riccardo Baracchi opened the inn in 1989, and in 1998 it became a member of the Relais & Chateaux group. The restaurant, under the direction of chef Richard Titi, earned a Michelin star in 2002. -- Photos by Peggy Harrison,

I recently completed an office move, and haven't been able to post for several weeks. At last, all of the boxes are unpacked, files have been (mostly) organized, and I'm ready to continue with lots and lots of posts!

As promised quite some time ago, the following is a list of places to eat that I've particularly enjoyed in Tuscany and Umbria. (Note that this doesn't include Florence, which I devoted a separate post to in January -- you can easily find it under 'Search this Blog.') This was harder to pull together than I originally anticipated as I had to look through my files and my journals for all the cards and notes I've taken over many years. Certain places are missing (I've misplaced notes and cards, while others I know are in one of my towering piles of materials to file) and on some occasions I neglected to jot down sufficient enough remarks to make a recommendation, and on others I simply forgot to write down the name of the place. In the interest of time and space, I'm not including many comments at all the way I did for my Florentine favorites, but I would like to repeat a few thoughts I emphasized in that Florence post:

'What I want, and what I think just about everybody wants, is good food. If good food is found at a trattoria that's popular with tourists, then so be it. Who cares? It may also be found at a tiny neighborhood hole-in-the-wall, a refined country inn, a renowned expensive restaurant, at a winery, and a corner pizzeria, all of which is also fine...What's ideal, of course, are places where both locals and tourists are happy, where Italians aren't overwhelmed by foreigners and the foreigners feel they've chosen a place that is clearly held in some regard by the locals.'

I continue to recommend all of the places to eat in this post, and I hope they're still worthy. Of course, nothing is a guarantee, and I'm not a full-time restaurant critic keeping up with everything on a regular basis. But people ask me for recommendations all the time, so please let me know if you have an unsatisfactory experience at any of these!

Before you make note of the listings, I recommend that you peruse not only Beth Elon's A Culinary Traveler in Tuscany, Carla Capalbo's The Food and Wine Lover's Companion to Tuscany, Emily Wise Miller's The Food Lover's Guide to Florence, Fred Plotkin's Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, and Maureen B. Fant's Trattorias of Rome, Florence and Venice for these authors' superior recommendations, reflecting their many years of expertise and research, but also the following: *Eating in Italy: A Traveler's Guide to the Hidden Gastronomic Pleasures of Northern Italy by Faith Heller Willinger (Morrow, 1998) -- many of Willinger's recommendations are still valid, but her opening chapters on Italian menus, reservations, service, tipping, when to eat, logistics, etc. are invaluable; *The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan, first published in 1973 -- the recipes are flawless, but the reason travelers should read (or re-read) this is for Hazan's thorough description of a typical Italian meal and what to expect with each course; *An Appetite for Umbria: The People, The Places, The Food by Christine Smallwood (Bonny Day Publishing, 2006) -- culinary guides to Umbria are practically nonexistent, so this would be a valuable book for that reason alone, but Smallwood's reviews of 25 places to eat are interesting and revealing snapshots of Umbria itself, and she notes that most of the places she recommends are small "and their owners have every intention of keeping them that way, preferring 25 customers to feel delighted about the food and service they have received, rather than 50 merely think the experience was good. In none of them is there a frenzied race for culinary decorations, nor are quality or innovation sacrificed for easy returns: many of these chefs and proprietors are supporters of small, local food suppliers and producers rather than supermarket chains, and all believe that offering good food -- and wine -- is a duty as much as a delight."; and Flavors of Tuscany: Traditional Recipes From the Tuscan Countryside by Nancy Harmon Jenkins (Broadway, 1998) -- aside from the very good recipes, Jenkins, more than just about anyone, has been chronicling life in the Tuscan countryside for nearly 40 years (she and her family own a farmhouse near Cortona). But as she notes in the Introduction, hers is a book about Tuscan country cooking, "not about how I bought a crumbling wreck and, with money, luck, time, and the aid of colorful locals, turned it into something of which Martha Stewart herself would be proud." Jenkins has been in Tuscany long enough to have witnessed rapid change (just one of which is that fields long planted with wheat, vines, and olives are now filled with tobacco and sunflowers, causing a dearth of groundwater because of too great a demand), but "food habits, fortunately, die hardest of all, especially in a culture like Italy's where food is taken seriously as an important -- no, the important -- factor in family and community life." She observes that the agricultural calendar in Tuscany doesn't vary much from a medieval Book of Hours, and noteworthy for visitors is that grapes, potatoes, prosciutto, wine, fresh olive oil, ham, pancetta, and sausages "play starring roles in year-round menus" along with tomato conserva, plum and fig marmalades, dried chestnuts, white and speckled beans, chickpeas, and dried wild porcini. Jenkins's friend Roberto, who runs La Solita Zuppa in Chiusi (see my recommendation below), once told her that "la cucina si fa nella storia; non si fa nella geografia" (cuisine is created by history, not by geography) but she doesn't agree: "cuisine is made of both history and geography, and the traditional cuisine of Tuscany, for me at least, is unassailable proof."

Ristorante Da Delfina, via della Chiesa, 1 / 055.8718.074. I first read of Delfina in Nancy Harmon Jenkins's Flavors of Tuscany (the final chapter, 'When You Go to Tuscany,' includes recommendations) and I'm so glad I went because I had one of my most memorable meals in Italy here.

I am a huge fan of the Autogrill, Italy's chain of rest stops on its toll highways. This may seem incredibly odd, since rest stops in North America are among the worst places to eat on earth. What you can find at an Autogrill may include a cappucino -- served in a porcelain cup with saucer -- that is downright delicious; a panino (remember that the Italian word for a single sandwich is 'panino' while the plural is 'panini,' which no one ever gets right in America) that is made with prosciutto and other quality ingredients and that is then pressed properly for immediate consumption and not put in a microwave; and a salad made with arugula, real tomatoes that have flavor, and creamy mozzarella....and a whole host of other yummy, healthy things to eat. Yes, at a rest stop. Some enterprising person should investigate extending the Autogrill franchise in the U.S.

Osteria La Solita Zuppa, via Porsenna, 21 / 0578.210.06 / Though I already enthused about La Solita Zuppa in the pages of my book, I can't leave it off this list. As I read in Florence, Venice, & The Towns of Italy: Artists, Writers, Architects, Curators, Historians, and Gourmets Reveal Their Favorite Discoveries in the Ultimate Insider's Guide (The Little Bookroom), Solita Zuppa is "perfect for lunch or dinner if you are in the neighborhood, and worth a detour if you are not," written by Nancy Winter, archaeologist and librarian. My two meals here, one lunch and one dinner, were positively outstanding, and I believe the owner and his wife could write a cookbook based on their recipes that would be very appealing.

Caffe Bar Signorelli, via Nazionale, piazza Repubblica. Now that I think about it, I'm not sure the Bar Signorelli is particularly noteworthy. I just like it here, and I am a fan of the works of Luca Signorelli, the Renaissance painter born and buried in Cortona, so I like the association. It was one of the first places I ever went to in Cortona -- before Frances Mayes put Cortona on the map -- and the vibe was cheery and warm.

Relais Il Falconiere, just outside of Cortona in localita San Martino a Bocena / 0575.612.679 / I also raved about the restaurant here at this justifably famous inn in my book, but as with La Solita Zuppa, I couldn't leave it off this list! The restaurant is in the old limonaia on the beautiful grounds and earned a Michelin star in 2002. My lunch here was on my short list of 'best meals in Italy' and every morsel of it was delicious and I didn't want it to end.

Trattoria Tacconi, via Dardano, 46 / 0575.603.588. This is a very unassuming little (actually, I would use the word tiny) place, with only five or six tables, and open only for lunch. There is no menu to speak of, just whatever the husband and wife team have prepared for the day, so if you have dietary restrictions this may not be the best place.

Gaiole in Chianti
Osteria at Badia a Coltibuono, localita Monti di Sotto / 0577.749.031 / Cooking enthusiasts know Coltibuono for its cooking classes, taught by Lorenza de' Medici, the most famous member of the Stucchi Prinetti family, owners of this beautiful abbey. But the restaurant on the grounds is also a "find" to know about, with good Tuscan food served outdoors (note that it's closed from 8 November to 12 March). If you like what you eat and drink you can buy all the Coltibuono products, plus local ceramics, in the abbey's shop, and you can also spend the night(s) in the abbey's 8 double guest rooms and 3 apartments.

Antico Caffe delle Mura, piazzale Vittorio Emanuele II / 058.347.962. Even if the only reason to go here is because of its location right on the magnificent walls of Lucca it would be enough, but as it happens the food is good and the decor evocative.

Enoteca La Fortezza, piazzale Fortezza, 0577.849.211 / Sitting in the inner courtyard, surrounded by the stone walls of the fortress (which you can walk on!), is hugely wonderful as you sample local cheeses, salami, sandwiches and, of course, wine.

Caffe Poliziano, via Voltaia nel Corso, 27 / 0578.758615 / You can have a meal here at this Montepulciano classic or just stop for a glass of wine or a coffee or a snack.

Trattoria Latte di Luna, via San Carlo 2/4.

Plus pecorino, pecorino, pecorino! I don't think I wrote down the names of the shops selling this iconic Tuscan cheese, but it doesn't matter: you'll see it everywhere in this small, hilltop village renowned also for its stupendous views over the surrounding Tuscan countryside.

Porto Ercole
Trattoria La Lampara, lungomare Andrea Doria, 50 / 0564.833.024. I made mention of this Porto Ercole fixture in my book as well, and it's a popular place right by the water named for the light on Italian fishing boats. My husband and I were taken here years ago by Katie and Robin Coventry, founders of the Marina Cala Galera in Porto Ercole.

Antica Fiaschetteria Trattoria e Cantina, piazza Lippi, 4 / 0574.41225 /

Ristorante Fiorentino, via Luca Pacioli, 60 / 0575.742.033 / The menu changes daily here at the restaurant of the Locanda del Giglio, where I didn't stay because I only visited Sansepolcro for the day (to see Piero della Francesca's 'The Resurrection,' named "the best picture in the world'' by Aldous Huxley).

San Vincenzo
Gambero Rosso, piazza della Vittoria, 13 / 0565.701.021. Admission: I've never eaten here. So why does it appear on my list? Well, because I think a restaurant that has been rated the best in all of Italy many times deserves some notice, even if you are the sort of person to avoid that sort of thing (I usually am), and I have read so much about it, and the chef -- Fulvio Pierangelini, co-owner with his wife, Emanuela -- earned two Michelin stars, and I've made a Gambero Rosso recipe for shrimp and chickpea puree that appeared in Faith Willinger's Adventures of an italian Food Lover: With Recipes From 254 of My Very Best Friends (Potter,) and it was so delicious that I just feel I have to mention it, even if I can't offer my personal recommendation. Colman Andrews, a very fine food writer and author, wrote a great article about Gambero Rosso in Gourmet (January 2007), and he accurately notes that if the restaurant isn't better known to American diners, "it's probably because of its location, south of Livorno on the rather ambitiously named Etruscan Riviera." Unless you're visiting the Maremma region, you probably have no reason to be in the vicinity of Gambero Rosso. "It's in Tuscany, sure, but it's at least a two-hour drive from Florence or the Chianti region, and this particular area has no tourist attractions or luxury hotels." Among Andrews's numerous descriptions of Pierangelini are "...he is a self-taught, intuitive chef who plays by his own rules; he is part of no movement and chases no trends. Molecular gastronomy doesn't interest him. He just cooks." During his second visit to Gambero Rosso Andrews thinks to himself, "Damn, this food is good. So, er, is this the best restaurant in Italy? Who cares? And leave me alone. Can't you see that I'm eating?" When Andrews mentioned to Pierangelini that truffle oil was popular in the States, Pierangelini exclaimed, "I detest truffle oil!," which reminded me that Beatrice, at the wonderful online Italian culinary emporium, has been telling everyone for years that truffle oil is a farce, and that if you want to taste olive oil and truffles together, simply put slices of truffle in your favorite olive oil and there you go -- it doesn't get any better than that, and no chemically-produced mushroom essences are added to the oil. Oh, and that shrimp with chickpea puree I mentioned? Andrews relates that when Pierangelini first made the dish, shortly after he and Emanuela bought what was then a run down seafood restaurant already called Gambero Rosso, his father told him he could conquer the world. So I do recommend that you go. I'm certainly planning to! [and note that this restaurant has no relationship with the Gambero Rosso magazine and culinary and wine guides.]

Cane e Gatto, via Pagiaresi, 6 / 0577.287.545.

Enoteca Italiana, fortezza Medicea, 1 / 0577.288497 / Both a store and a bar, for snacks or lunch, and a must for anyone with a yen for Italian vino.

Osteria La Sosta di Violante, via di Pantaneto, 115 / 0577.43774. A guide named Francesco who I once hired for the day took my good friend Amy and I here for lunch. It seemed to be known mostly to locals, and was quite good.

Viareggio, Orbetello, and Isola Giglio
I've linked these two towns and one island together for one reason only: slices of pizza topped with thinly sliced potatoes, fresh rosemary, and olive oil, which I ate in all three places. Positively yum. Thank God that Jim Lahy, at Sullivan Street Bakery in New York (533 West 47th Street, 10th/11th,, makes a version which is just about identical.

Pork products and more pork products! Norcia has long been known for its pork products, so much so that the word norcineria still refers to a shop where pork and pork products are sold. A lot of shops, the names of which I neglected to record, offer free samples, and if you like pork you will truly be in paradiso.

affe Sandri, corso Vannucci, 32 / 075.572.4112. Around since 1860, Sandri is a landmark caffe with a beautiful dark wood interior and frescoed ceiling. I can't imagine a visit to Perugia without a stop at Sandri, reportedly the oldest coffee shop in town.

Il Mulino, piazza Matteotti, 6/7 / 0742.65.1305. This terrific place is owned by the Palazzo Bocci hotel ( across the street, where I've never stayed but I would very much like to.

L'Osteria del Matto, vicolo del Mercato, 3 / 0743.225.506. This family place is very near the outdoor market in Spoleto, insuring meals made with some of the best local ingredients. The collection of wooden Pinocchios is also a unique feature of the decor.

L'Osteria al Duomo, via San Lorenzo, 1 / 075.894.4400. This is a special place in the pretty town of Todi, very near the cathedral and piazza del Popolo but held in regard by locals.

Le Melograne at Le Tre Vaselle, via G. Garibaldi, 48 / 075.988.0447 / The restaurant in this lovely, lovely country inn is owned by Teresa Lungarotti and her stepsister Chiara Lungarotti, of the Lungarotti wine family. Le Melograne is a bit of a splurge, but is well worth it for the mix of regional Umbrian dishes and others from around the world, all in a beautiful setting.

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