OK,here is the rundown on my trip to Tuscany - very long but only a fraction of what I could say. If people are planning a trip, feel free to write me - this is my second trip to Tuscany in 2 years - and I have lots of opinions!
Florence: Stayed at the Hotel Lungarno, reasonably expensive, small but exquisitely decorated rooms, cool balconies looking across Arno to spires etc. Good service.
Florence meals: Went to Cibreo at the advice of just about the entire world. Hideous service, very so-so food. First claimed we hadn't reconfirmed reservation (we had), then huffily seated us at awful table. Everyone in restaurant American and loud. Rushed waitress reels off menu in English at 100 mph. Tiny antipasti (you don't order) dumped on table. Good but truly bite sized. Wait almost an hour for first course. Keep asking everyone why it's taking so long. Everyone rushes off without comment. Other people have finished meal during our wait. Finally comes, unmemorable pesto and ricotta sformata for me - bland bland bland. Excellent yellow pepper soup for my boyfriend. Small saucer of paste consistency polenta as apology for delay. Salty second courses (tiny). Annoyed by end of meal. Completely unmemorable dessert.... So don't bother! Ignore the hype.
Much better, although still with a high (but not 100%) tourist content, was the Cantinetta Antinori. Similarly priced to Cibreo ($100 for two), but hearty delicious food. Particularly good was a baked eggplant appetizer, fettucine with cream and meat sauce, pot roast cooked in Chianti and onions, braised mushrooms and artichokes, a perfect peach poached in vin santo. Great wines. Only the risotto (really just rice) not good.
Siena: stayed at the Hotel St. Canterina, just outside the Porta Romana, nice simple rooms, gorgeous garden, affordable, friendly. Siena is terribly touristy by day, much better at night when all the Sienese come out and the buses leave.
Siena meals: Had one of our warmest, if not particulary gourmet meals, at the Ristorante Fuori Porta (the name means outside the gates, and it was a short walk from our hotel, in a residential area of Siena. Delicious pasta with cinghiale sauce, good asparagus, fun appetizer buffet, had a tasting of desserts - some excellent, some not, but fun. Dessert includes a bottle of vin santo and a bottle of grappa placed on the table- help yourself. Owner opened a bottle of wine for himself and a companion, and gave us glasses - very friendly -90% Italian diners - final check $36 for two - and we were stuffed.
Another Siena rec is the Antica Trattoria Botteganova, also outside the town, this off a highway heading towards the Val de Chiana. Hard to find, ask directions. Unlike many places in Italy, a truly worthwhile splurge - had a totally decadent tasting menu, changes every night, but the highlight was teeny weeny baby lamb wrapped in bacon and truffle pici. Very friendly waiter - great help with the wine list. Many tourists, but at least they were European (spanish and french in our room) and less loud. About $120 for two.
Cortona: What a beautiful town - many tourists but not as bad as Montepulciano or Pienza (where we had a delicious cheese picnic lunch - all the restaurants were packed with bus tourists - buy some cheese and sit outside). Stayed at Il Falconiere, an absolutely beautiful inn with gorgeous views, huge beautifully decorated rooms, about $225 a night but totally worth it. Don't however eat there, we did one night, and it was fine, but overly refined and bland for Tuscan cooking and the stuffy formal Relais Chateaux service just doesn't jive with the Tuscan vibe. Plus any restaurant that gives the woman (me) a menu without prices just turns my stomach. More expensive than its worth.
Instead, when in Cortona, eat at Castel Girardi, it's on the highway heading out of the top of Cortona, about 5 miles down the road on the right. Family run, packed with locals. We ate there three times. Great meat and cheese platters for appetizers, delicious crostini too. The pici al fumo (a tomato and cheese sauce) is heaven on earth, and the tris (a succession of three pastas) will leave you blissful and gloriously stuffed. Actually got to use some Italian. Cheap yummy wines, delicious berry dessert. About $20 a person to be stuffed beyond belief. Truly wonderful. Go. You will feel like you are (finally) in Italia.
After Cortona, went to La Chiusa for two nights. The rooms are spacious, a bit odd, and pricey - $300+. (Very parsimonious breakfast for that price). The food is perfectly delicious, all the raves are not wrong - just not particularly worth $200 for dinner. The multicolored swirls of sauce on the plate struck me as more midtown than Tuscan. Entirely American except one bewildered Italian couple celebrating a birthday. The service very warm in a very inauthentic practiced way. I know I won't dissuade anyone, but I think the glory days have passed.
Our second night we passed on La Chiusa and went to La Grotta just outside Montepulciano. Heavy local element (some Americans). Warm family-run place, very sweet, enthusiastic waiter. Heavenly cheeses, fabulous tagiolini w/ truffles, great wine, perfect salad, fresh plum cake (oh, those plums!) - total damage, $75.00 and a warm handshake from the waiter - who clearly loved food and loved seeing people enjoy it. Go!
Also really good in the La Chiusa area was Cantina Il Borgo, in the tiny very steep town of Rocca D'Orcia. No tourists made it up the narrow twisty road the day we were there, and we enjoyed a hearty Sunday lunch (pici and roast chicken) with a bunch of Italian families. Beautiful old room - not very expensive. Go!! Handmade pasta, double go!!!
re: jen kalb
Jen - I know exactly what you mean! When I was in Pienza last, it was deserted except for old men hanging out at the bar-caffe. The combination of the great exchange rate/booming U.S. economy and millions of best-sellers extolling Tuscany has really changed the region. I saw yet another one -- "A Garden in Lucca", featured at B&N the other day :( . Tuscany is the new Provence (which, I hear, is emptier than it used to be)! A friend of mine who is a travel agent told me that Tuscany is now the single most popular destination in Europe for "group trips."
Please hounds, if you ever have a favorite region where the food is fabulous and the setting sublime, do us all a favor and just post the news here! Don't give in to the lure of easy $$ and write a mass-market paperback! Please.
While Toscana is very popular these days, it always has been a tourist magnet. Still, it's possible to experience the area without sharing it with busloads of travelers checking off the chapters of "Tuscan Sun."
Our favorite spot (I won't name names, but email me if you really want to know) is only 15 minutes drive from San Gimignano and a quick hop by train to Florence, but we rarely encounter any other foreigners during our stays. We eat at the local trattorie, shop at both the Coop supermarket and the weekly market in the piazza in Volterra, and drive the back roads to explore the little villages that don't have a spectacular church or any famous art.
So here's my advice for the Tuscan traveler: rent a villa or stay at an agriturismo in an out-of-the way town, throw away the guidebook, spend your time wandering aimlessly, try to make contact with Italians as much as possible (take the time to learn at least a little of the language), and be open to new experiences.
And one last word for Italophiles looking for a good spot with amazing food: Sicily
re: Jim Dixon
Jim, you're an important contributor to these boards, I automatically click on your posts cuz you have a rare and important perspective, that of the serious kitchen gardener and cook...for all the high falutin' food expertise here, you're one of the pitifully few posters that knows the real relationship between the soil and the practical garden and the things we all talk about eating...which is invaluable, and under-represented here. You know what I mean.
But if you are gonna recommend a Tuscan villa out of the tourist path - no matter how right you are - full disclosure is in order, even if you post your web site address. With all due respect. Its just a courtesy to our community.
I've never gardened in Pacific Northwest, but I suspect you're still putting some great stuff on the table compared to us in the Great Plains. We're pretty much shut down except for the real hardies...though I still am catching fish, walleyes and bass, that I wish all chowhounds could taste. Fish that must be eaten on your knees, head bared, as somebody said. God, I wish I could have you all to dinner.
Just so all chowhounds could try 'em. This morning's walleye fillets, deeply marinated in lemon and olive oil and scallions, then gently fried in sage butter. Oh my.
Yeah I went off topic, so sue me.
re: bill pisarra, jr.
You're right, of course, but the tricky part is how to do it without violating the non-commercial posting rule.
So, here's full disclosure: I have a small business related to Tuscan vacations. Feel free to take my advice with a grain of salt.
That said, I also want to make it clear that I offer advice about our experiences in Italy because I'd like my fellow chowhounds to enjoy the food-loving country as much as we do.
If you wanted to find the Italians at Cibreo, you should have looked in the trattoria behind the restaurant, where they serve exactly the same food from exactly the same kitchen at 1/3 of the price. Either that or at Zibbibo, a new restaurant outside of Florence run by the ex-wife of the Cibreo owner, who reportedly took more than her share of the actual culinary talent with her when she left Cibreo.
A surfeit of foreigners at a Tuscan restaurant may not necessarily signify bad food, by the way, as much as it does high prices. Italians are on the other side of the high dollar-lire equation.
A surfeit of foreigners does not signify bad food - it merely signifies an atmosphere which may not be what you are looking for when traveling abroad. It's certainly not what I'm looking for. And high prices, as I stated earlier, are almost never "worth it" in Tuscany - in Paris, for example, I have discovered increasingly subtle and interesting delights as I've moved up the price scale. Not so Tuscany. Fussier service, smaller portions, but not better food...
As for Cibreo, I was delighted to have my negative impressions confirmed by a colleague who ate there recently as well. I suggest that anyone intrigued by the Cibreo hype follow Pepper's suggestion to the ex-wife's new restuarant. As for the trattoria, we checked it out one night - it was completely filled by an American bike trip which had taken it over for the night.