Trip Report: CT, Lucca, Siena, Florence, and Roma (long)
Thanks to everyone who helped us decide where to eat as we travelled through Italy over the past 10 days or so...we had some truly divine dining experiences and, as can be expected, some forgettable ones, but all in all we did quite well. Here's where we were:
Cinque Terre: We stayed in Monterosso al Mare at a tiny agritourist Buranco off the beaten path and above the city. In addition to hiking the trails and exploring the tiny towns, we had two fairly decent dinners. One was at Ristorante Via Venti on Via XX Settembre 32, a tiny gem of a place on a little hard to find street that unfortunately has been discovered by Rick Steves so the entirely of the place was speaking English but the food was quite good. We had a lovely pear & cheese ravioli - tiny bundles of heaven, really - and a crab gnocchi which were unexpectedly refined for such a small town, or maybe we'd just been warned so often that CT food is mediocre that we were quite pleasantly surprised. You'll need a reservation for this one.
Our second dinner we left the tiny town and took a shuttle bus up to Il Ciliegio in Localita Beo; the restaurant will send a shuttle to pick you up and take you away. Naturally it was raining, so we weren't able to enjoy their panoramic outside seating but the restaurant was quite nice, very large, and filled with a tourist/local mix. The owner was watching soccer on a TV at the front of the restaurant - very sweet. Our primis were outstanding: we shared a spaghetti for two with seafood (I'm heartsick that I didn't bring a pen along to capture the exact dish & can't find their menu anywhere on line right now) which was served at the table in a giant ceramic pot and cooked perfectly al dente. We ate the entire thing...it was amazing. We both had swordfish for our secondi: mine was just grilled simply and my husband had one that was breaded and cooked almost like schnitzel. I can't remember what we had for dessert, but I'm sure it was similarly wonderful. Its certainly worth a visit.
Lucca: From CT it was off to Lucca where we stayed at the gracious Hotel Ilaria - they took such lovely care of us, I can't say enough good things. Lunch was at Ristorante Giglio where I had the best caprese salad I've ever eaten (it was a hot day and the mozzarella was delightfully runny) and a very nice spaghetti alla vongale; my husband had a maccheroni lucchesi ai funghi porcini which was very light, very delicate.
Dinner was at La Buca and was FANTASTIC. The service was a bit stuffy and typically Italian (significantly slower than two ex-NYCers are used to!) but the food more than made up for it. Sharing a lovely bottle of red wine, I started with the porcini risotto which was one of the most exquisite things I've ever eaten; my husband had gnocchi with a Bolognese sauce and he still says it was the best pasta of our entire trip...they simply melted in your mouth. We had a steak and stewed veal to follow which were also quite memorable. I think we had something chocolate for dessert but I can't quite remember. This was a standout.
Siena: from Lucca we drove to Siena and lunch was a simple sandwich at Antica Pizzicheria which we took down to eat on the square Il Campo and people watch. Dinner was at Antica Osteria da Divo which was also a standout. We began with oysters with melon...simple and clean and with the "typical" antipasti of pate and bruschetta and meats. Primis were a hand rolled Senese pasta with deer ragu, black olives, and rosemary crouch bread (I thought that this was the most perfect pasta of our entire time in Italy!) and an incredibly creative presentation of gnocchi, octopus and cuttlefish served in a tomato sauce within a phyllo pastry "bowl" on the plate...it was lovely to look at and tasted of the sea...quite amazing, actually. We shared the roasted rabbit thigh and the guinea fowl breast and were somewhat disappointed with the rabbit but the guinea was outstanding and perfectly cooked. We enjoyed this meal as well - highly recommend both this and La Buca.
Florence: From Siena, we dropped the car off outside Florence and this is where the eating really took on momentum! First of all - thanks so much to the recommendations for the 500 touring club. We took an old '68 Fiat into the Tuscan countryside with our brilliant guide Sophie and spent a terrific afternoon wine tasting & exploring in our tiny car. If you want to know more about this experience (or others – we had a great trip!), see pics & etc, just send an email and I'll share more.
On recommendation of many on this board, we went to il Pizzaiolo (right near il Cibreo) and had what we considered to be the best pizza of our trip and possibly best we’ve ever had. Very casual, some English, but outstanding pizzas (we had the Quattro stagione) and wonderful salads. This was a great first lunch in Florence, chased with gelato at Grom.
Dinner was supposed to be at 4Leoni on Via dei Velltini near the Piazza della Passera but they were fully booked and our concierge apologized profusely and then recommended the restaurant with the most hideous name: GoldenView Open Bar. She said it was across the river a few meters down from the Ponte Vecchio and she couldn’t say enough good things. We were wary (English name, close to major tourist attraction) but I’m glad we took her up on the suggestion – its very modern, quite lovely, and my husband’s primi of seafood risotto numbers among the most exquisite things either of us have ever tasted. We started with bruschetta and salad, he had the sumptuous risotto and I had an (almost) as good tagliatelle with wild boar. We shared the osso bucco for our secondi which was quite wonderful as well. I’d absolutely return there on future visits simply to try more on their menu (which seemed almost a bit TOO big) and highly recommend – don’t be put off by the name!
We did make it to Quattro Leoni the next night for the pear and cheese tortollinis that seem to make everyone swoon and they really were quite good. The fettuccini with truffles was a disappointment but we did share a beef stew that was delightful. I don’t feel that it met our expectations - which, granted, were high - especially in the setting of some other transcendent meals we had during this trip.
The next day we hit ‘Ino on Via dei Georgofili by the Uffizi olive tree for the best paninis of our journey. This isn’t street food, but rather we had very refined sandwiches (one simply prosciutto and olive oil and the other salami and crème parmesan) with a lovely glass of wine and congratulated ourselves on being the only ones there who spoke English. It’s a local lunch favorite, as was evident by the foot traffic.
In the evening, we went to Trattoria Sostanza-Troia on Via dei Porcellana by the train station – a little nothing of a street – on the recommendation of good friends who went twice during the same trip. This isn’t haute cuisine; it’s a small restaurant with communal wooden tables but we shared an enormous bistecca Florentina, a wonderful cut of meat, and the pollo en beurre on the recommendations of our friends. I have no idea what they do to this chicken but it melts away in your mouth and is simply the most divine thing I could have imagined. The envious couple next to us actually ordered it for dessert. As we were leaving, people were making reservations (absolutely required – two seatings at 7:30 and 9 and possibly closed on the weekends) to come back in a day or two…was a highlight.
Rome: The food in Rome was not as captivating as in Firenze, although we did have some nice meals. We had wonderful cinnamon and chocolate gelatos at Gelataria alla Scala off the piazza della Scala in Trastevere as well as a very nice lunch at Trattoria da Lucia in the same neighborhood. Really nice pastas there and our first good bread in a while.
Dinner was a quickie (it was pouring) at Pizzeria la Montecarlo on Vicolo Savelli which has been touted as a contender for best pizza of Rome but we found it to be just fine, nothing special. They were very busy that night, though, with locals and tourists alike. We went to La Piazzetta on Viccolo del Buon Consiglio for lunch and enjoyed some nice pastas with not so nice service and to Paris Ristorante in Trastevere for dinner with a similar problem – sub-par service (by all standards) and decent but unmemorable food. Mussels and an artichoke fritti to start and tagliolini y porcini and a stellar chicken dish (the standout of the meal) which I can’t find on their website menu. We wandered around the neighborhood for drinks after dinner; very busy and colorful nightlife!
Our final day in Rome, we enjoyed better pizza at Le Coppelle Taverna downtown on Via del Coppelle along with many locals on their lunch hours. Very good ‘za: we shared a funghi and prosciutto pizza and one with peppers. Gelato followed at Giolitti which was a zoo but really, really good.
Dinner was at Trattoria Monti with friends we’d met the night before at Paris; I just received an email that they returned to Monti the very NEXT evening to try dishes we hadn’t explored together. It was a wonderful meal – I know Monti has received some negative comments on chowhound but we had attentive service and very well executed food. Their tortinis are to die for: we shared a red onion and parmesan one, and a radicchio and asiago one, both delicious. We had lovely pastas – my husband had a memorable rigatoni – and I had a porcini risotto which was very delicate…not quite to La Buca standards in Lucca, but close. We shared secondis which were also very nice – it was a very consistently good meal, from start to finish, which seemed to us a rarity sometimes.
I apologize for the length of this post (you were warned) but if you made it this far and still have questions or desire more info, feel free to get in touch.
re: ms. chow
Glad to hear you had and enjoyed the petti de pollo en burro at Sostanza. It is truly an exceptional dish and I always recommend posters to try it when they go for the bistecca. Question: did you have reservations for Sostanza? When we last went, we arrived just after they opened and were seated without reservations. By the time we left, the restaurant was not quite full. This was in early December, so that might have made a difference.
I live in Liguria and I sometimes encounter SPAGHETTI AI FRUTTI DI MARE IN CARTOCCIO cooked and served in a casserole dish or metal pot rather than in aluminum foil. Perhaps that was your dish?
When I ate an absolutely exquisite lunch at Buca di Sant'Antonio, I found the service to be professionally so polished it was a joy, but it was gracious and warm as well. I was immensely impressed.
CJT: We absolutely required reservations (on a Monday night, no less!) and people trying to walk in were turned away at the door, at least for the 9 PM seating...I can't speak to the necessity at the earlier seating. I think you can make same day reservations, even, and be fine, but we asked our concierge to call them the day prior.
summerUWS2008: It very well may have been exactly that dish - you're speaking of the one at Il Ciliegio? It was aMAZing! And a true Ligurian dish, certainly. La Buca was professional and mostly polished, yes, but it was lacking the gracious and warmth. Our waiter looked like he'd rather be anywhere else but at our table (worth noting that my husband and I are well mannered, appropriately dressed and somewhat food savvy when out in public so we're hardly the type to induce a tableside cringe!) and took his time to get there, even when the restaurant nearly cleared out at the end of the night. This was in stark contrast to some of the better service we had later in our trip, and was worth noting because it was the ONLY low point of the evening. The food is unreal!
I've not eaten at Il Ciliegio. David Downie recommends it in his book, although he doesn't mention the dish you had. It wouldn't surprise me if the dish you had was "market" based -- meaning, had you come another day, you might have found other sea creatures in your pasta! If you like to cook, there are lots of recipes for spaghetti ai cartoccio online, some with frutta di mare. It helps if you know a fishmonger willing to sell you small quantities of a variety of fresh, not frozen, seafod. Not always easy, but if you are in nyc, maybe not impossible.
From my one happy experience, the service at Buca di Sant'Antonio set the standard as to how wonderful professional Italian waitstaff can be. They helped make the meal a joy. I've got my fingers crossed that your experience was a true anomaly. I so treasured my last visit, that were I to have experienced what you did, I would have written to the owners, more in sorrow than in anger, and asked them to look into the situation. I'm not suggesting you do -- just relating how strongly I hope the traditions of fine, gracious service I experienced there survive the fame the restaurant has garnered.
I think Italian restaurant culture can be significantly different than NYC. For example, most restaurants dont desire to turn tables, you have your table for the evening so there tends to be a much slower pace and gaps between courses. And generally you dont receive your bill until you ask for it. Did you ask? Service is professional but not necessarily friendly, esp if you are not known. Some people do complain about disappearing waiter syndrome, but the much more relaxed pace can be a surprise to Americans. Ive sometimes felt that service dragged - it may be mostly because generally when travelling its just my husband and me and we are tired at the end of a day of touring. Do you really think it was any more than this?
re: jen kalb
I'm willing to give our server a pass for an "off" night. I agree that Italian restaurant culture is quite different than in the US (especially in NYC!) and that, yes, the table is generally yours for the night. However...because every other single nuance of our La Buca experience (and Lucca in general) was SO outstanding, the "poor" service was that much more surprising and noticeable. Its hard to articulate - but I would not call it fine, gracious service. It was entirely adequate, and he made a lovely wine recommendation and cracked a tableside (half)smile here and there...but it wasn't in synch with the transcendence that was the rest of our dining experience. I'll write it off as an isolated incident and would willingly return!
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