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Nov 4, 2012 12:32 PM

"In Florence, Learning the Secrets of Tuscan Food"

I merely pass along this article from the Nov. 2 Washington Post (biting my tongue):

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    1. it may be a decent food tour (the places she's taking folks to seem perfectly fine) but the "clever" quotes from the featured tour-giver makes me cringe.
      I understand and appreciate the contribution of the many Italian food experts participating on the Board provide also tours and other mediated experiences to travelers, and I guess this is becoming quite a cottage industry, but honestly, the trend of so many visitors toward wanting their Italian food experiences packaged up for them, thinking that the best experience is obtainable in a packaged form, is a bit dispiriting.

      its true that following the recommendations in a book or on a website or app are somewhat similar, but directing your own steps and having your own experiences with local restaurants, markets, vendors etc is so very rewarding -

      13 Replies
      1. re: jen kalb

        Jen, I totally agree with you about this article in particular and tours (of any type) in general. In fact, I'm becoming increasingly concerned about how many CH posts seek the "best" of everything listed out in advance. At one level, I appreciate their quest--and their research; at another level, though, I know how much they'll miss by sticking to any list--even from members of this board. The rewards of exploring, or as you say "directing your own steps and having your own experiences," far exceed even the best of recommendations from others.

        1. re: jen kalb

          As oneof the tour-offerers, i hope i may tell our/my side of the story. I agree with what jen kalb has written, but you are forgetting one thing - most italy tourists are not at the level (interest, knowledge, inclination, confidence....) of chowhounders. They do realize italy and food isan issue but donot have the time to prepare themselves and do not trust themselves enough to be able to find the goode xperiences, at leastnotin the limited time they have. Just as they are booking theirhotel ahead of time based on recommendations (no matter where from) instead of looking around when they arrive at the destination (yes, i used to travel like that) they book a 3-4 hour food tour where they do not justget to taste stuffbut also learn about them, their history, place in culture, how they are used, etc etc - which would be a problem for most at least at the language level. Just like some take a tour of the colosseum (just an example), some take a food tour.

          1. re: vinoroma

            Sometimes, it's just fun to relax with a tour or a class and meet like-minded people. After all, it is a vacation. My husband and I really enjoyed your class, and I took a cooking class that was great fun, and something I've always wanted to do. As Jen noted, these classes or tours are a wonderful jumping-off point for individual exploration--for which there is no substitute--but individual exploration requires trust in one's own taste or judgment, as well as a bit of up-front research. The trick is knowing your own preferences and choosing accordingly. Taking some generic tour and saying you've "done" Florence, or Rome, or wherever, is antithetical to the ideal (i.e., "Chowhound-vetted") experience. But isn't the point of this site sharing our own experiences and observations, which are inherently subjective?

            1. re: vinoroma

              Jen - Overall, I feel similarly (and my wife and I generally act accordingly) but I've taken food (& other) tours right here at home in NYC to increase my knowledge, socialize and get a lot in with limited time available. I think that the issue is much more one of steering folks to things that might broaden what they'd get otherwise and not to rule out any method of doing it. I wouldnt trade in my own "directing your own steps and having your own experiences..." for anything but sometimes a nice package works better. Which package is the real important issue. At least for me.

              That being said, I'm sure that most would all agree that the proliferation of these packages has gotten pretty overwhelming. Our visits to Rome last year had us dodging way more than the usual # of groups traipsing around in areas where groups werent previously so prominent. For example, in Testacchio's market (the old one, just before it closed), we had a much harder time talking to some of the vendors & enjoying ourselves, as several groups led by (what looked like) American college kids who were working their way thru school brought their "foodie" tours thru, saying absurdly inaccurate things to their imprinted ducklings. And, in Florence, we basically left Central Market when the 2 foodie tours hit with a force that would have meant at least an hour wait on line for Nerbone (if they had any food left afterwards...and, just as importantly, a seat to eat at). But, that same situation (and the resulting feeling in the pit of my stomach) is unfortunately more present in our own current trendy Brooklyn than ever before as well and I think its just a sign of the times and that (hopefully) worthwhile package deals dont suffer too much because of it.

              I'm rambling more than usual, but I guess I'm trying to agree with all but the extremist views on this issue. I understand the emotional attachment to things that are, unfortunately, changing too quickly & probably too permanently and I think that there are parallels to other issues as well. Given what I know of minchilli, Katie Parla and Maureen F., my guess is that they'd be the first to speak out if all food was "packaged" and presented as a complete meal, no decisions on what else to buy necessary. But, I dont think we'd all agree that going back to raising the chicken and growing the veggies is the answer either. Maybe a good package experience can serve as an inspiration to branch out and explore the edges of what was shown? I think so.

            2. re: jen kalb

              At the risk of being labeled a completely cretin tourist, I'm defending the Taste Florence tours. My travel buddy and I went a couple of years ago, and it was great! We were the only two people in our group (not led by Toni, but a grad student who had been there for some time), so it was very personal. The local vendors we met recommended other restaurants and shops that we might have never have found on our own, and the tour led us to little back streets that we might not have found, even though my friend is fluent in Italian and we are both adventurous travelers. It expanded the scope of our exploration, rather than limiting it. Just the discovery of Perche No, which was not on any "best" lists, and is far and away the best gelato I've had in Italy (and we've eaten a LOT for the sake of science), was worth the tour! It was the last place we rushed to fit in just one more time at 11:30 pm before we departed. Just because it's a tour, doesn't mean it's inherently evil. :-)

              1. re: arashall

                first of all , first hand experience from a chowhound is a much better testimony than any article and you make valid points and a strong recommendation.
                the places she went to all sounded like good chowworthy destinations.

                I guess I was responding first to the quotes from the owner which I did not find at all as cute as the writer and second to the trend toward packaging up a whole trip in these kind of experiences. Im all for cooking classes, wine tastings, walking tours etc - Ive taken them myself and they can greatly enrich and overall experience but you dont NEED a tour to experience Florence or Rome or Bologna or any other destination and its a mistake to let them become the experience - they should be a jumping off point to your own exploration. Or so I feel...

                1. re: jen kalb

                  I think this is a great thing to say but just isn't practical in reality. Most people visiting Italy from the US have full time busy jobs and families in their home country, don't speak Italian, and don't know a lot about Italian food except what they see in "Italian" restaurants. They get two weeks of vacation a year, and let's say they're spending 3 days of it in Florence - are they going to chance just walking around hoping to stumble on some great place in the 3 evenings they have available? The wasted money and precious time on a lackluster experience is what drives me to research a ton before I go anywhere, and what drives people to take tours.

                  How would someone in that position in Florence know who to talk to in the market (after living in Florence for 4 years I know some people are friendlier than others and most don't speak English), what bread to taste at the local forno, where to find special items like oil, balsamic, wine and truffle based products that aren't overpriced for tourists? Keep in mind the person in this example doesn't speak Italian. Some places like Vestri mentioned in the article are not even in a place a tourist would go, they would probably have spent hours wandering that part of the city before stumbling on it.

                  Sadly, it's just not a reality for people to be able to do this on their own unless they have a month to take out of their life to dedicate to this noble cause. Most people spend a couple of days in each city... the unfortunate truth is that the slim percentage of people that have the money to go to Italy and have extra money to spend on a tour don't want to wander around and try to find things in a city they aren't even well oriented to yet. They want someone to do that leg work for them. Considering this, I think tours like Taste Florence and also vinoroma's wine tastings are the best options - they are not mass produced or mass marketed, they are well researched and led by knowledgeable guides. This is also why Katie Parla & Elizabeth Menchilli's apps are useful as well.

              2. re: jen kalb

                I think a food tour has it's place for visitors A good food tour should be more then shepherding guests to places to sample food/wine. It should be a source of cultural information that one does not get from reading a general guidebook or just eating/drinking on one's own.. Hopefully a good food tour will open up to visitors of other possibilities. One should not take a food tour as an end to a visit of a place.

                1. re: PBSF

                  This article shows what many freelancers like Jamie Rich are all about. Using a word such as “gourmet” tells you something about what comes next. "Mr. Gourmet" never got anywhere near Florence.

                  So Mazzaglia created a tour “ in 2008 to introduce tourists to authentic Tuscan cuisine.”
                  Yes, very authentic:
                  “Italian bread topped with truffle butter.” What is truffle butter?
                  “bathed in truffle-infused honey” Truffle infused honey? Exactly what is that.
                  “we thrill over hybrid Super Tuscan wines” what is a hybrid Super Tuscan?
                  “And as we sip a bold Chianti Reserve,” A "bold" Chianti Reserve?

                  Just shocked that there wasn’t truffle oil. Rich knows nothing about Florentine food and it appears to me that Mazzaglia either doesn’t know much or, if she does, dumbs down her clientele. This seems to me to be very little about real substance and a lot about theater, and a lot about a freelancer probably getting a free tour in return for an article. And yet, people will be sucked in by the article because someone says “it is real authentic cuisine”, whatever that may be.

                  A good food tour has its place. This does not seem as if it is a good one. And this is what my beloved Washington Post has come to. What a shame.

                  1. re: allende

                    I was similarly struck by the balsamic vinegar tastings, theparmigiano, the lambrusco and, as you say, all the truffle flavors and agree that it didnt sound like a very tuscan-centric food tour, but the shops seemed bona fide enough. t I think shop owners are always please to trot out the balsamico to tourists- it was the first item the Volpetti folks drew us into tasting in Rome last month -its SO expensive and lots of tourists do seem to want to take it home.

                2. re: jen kalb

                  You may not like the writing style of the writer (but this isn't really a forum for criticizing writing styles is it? ) but I don't see how you can criticize the food tour experience. Is it the fact that someone is paying for an insider's view of food culture in a foreign city that is bothering you? Have you never been to a city and had a friend take you around, show you the markets and vendors where they shop? Is this off limits too?

                  And if you went to a city where you didn't speak the language, and wanted an insider's view of the cuisine, you wouldn't go on a food tour? In say, China or India where you may not speak the language and not be able to recognize local produce and dishes?

                  Or is it the fact that someone is 'curating' a cultural experience for you? Because every time you step into a museum or exhibition you are having your cultural experience curated for you.

                  I also view food tours - and tours in general - as teaching/learning experiences. Hopefully the person leading you around (wheter its the market, the Vatican or the Uffizi) will impart knowledge that will enrich your life.

                  And I just have to mention that yes, there is such a thing as truffle butter. In fact, Procacci in Florence has been making their own for over a century (as to other high end gastronomic stores in town and in Siena) on an artisinal level. Same with truffle honey.

                  And finally, Toni Mazzaglia's tours get great reviews from people who have taken them. They are obviously not the folks that chime in here, but people who want an introduction to the foods in the market and are perhaps intimidated by the foreign setting and want to get the most out of an afternoon.


                  1. re: minchilli

                    Truffle butter and truffle honey on an artisanal level. Wow! Infuse the butter and honey with truffles (forget where the truffles come from, but that is another story). Call it artisanal. Olive oil is also infused with truffles. Also artisanal? IMHO, all are abominations of what food should be.

                    When I first went to Procacci in 1975, thought it was a beautiful place with food for sale, some of which didn't make sense. I had forgotten, until now, about all the truffle products. Abominations.

                    1. re: minchilli

                      If people can post on Chowhound that they read an article about a Tuscan food tour and it made them "drool," then others can post on Chowhound that they read the same article and it made them "gag." Agreed? What is bothering you is the negative reaction, not some imagined abuse of the forum. (I also gag every time I read the new buzzword "curate" on Chowhound being applied to food. I've said it before in other forums.)

                      People come to Chowhound all the time asking about food tours in Italy and people here help them, recommending some not others or none. It is a legitimate topic of discussion for a food board. And one of the big features of any food tour is the language used by the tour guide. I hope you won't discrouage discussion of it. There is a huge problem in Italy currently with a traditional cuisine being falsely marketed as pop fashion. I don't care if doing that is very popular. That's not the test of the worth of anything.

                  2. Just to be clear:

                    I've nothing against food tours on principle. I have a lot against food writing that is like this.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: barberinibee

                      Great point - the writing is what put this one over the edge for me!

                      1. re: ekc

                        I too would have ignored it if there had not been those stupid quotes to set me off! so much food travel writing is about on this level, (like this

                        1. re: ekc


                          I hope you'll help me find a good piece of fish for dinner in Portland over on the Portland metro board!

                          1. re: barberinibee

                            Absolutely - I'll pop over there in a minute! For as much good food as we have here, it is an amazing quiet Chow board!

                      2. re-enter the post after many replies--I remain disturbed about "tourists" seeking secrets of the authentic as defined by others (for a profit or not). I love Firenze, but it's one of the most touristy of towns in Italy; to find the authentic secrets of Toscana requires a car to travel the narrow roads and the mind and spirit of an explorer--not a semi-passive tour participant. If that's not your preference, relax and enjoy the good food you find.

                        48 Replies
                        1. re: Longing for Italy

                          @ Longing for Italy
                          "to find the authentic secrets of Toscana requires a car to travel the narrow roads and the mind and spirit of an explorer..."

                          You hit it right on the head. Perfect!

                          1. re: allende

                            These secrets, just what are they?

                            1. re: thebigjelly

                              Just good Tuscan food, no truffle butter, no truffle oil, no fuss, simple, seasonal, should taste of the ingredients, no coverups. I was taught long ago, by a Florentine who is very knowledgeable about Tuscan food, that that is what it should be. It is very simple food, but very difficult to prepare well.

                              It's not the "greatest" or the most interesting food in Italy because there are too many other regions that very much trump Tuscany (e.g Piemonte, ER, Sicily), but it is very good food when done well. When not it becomes a caricature of itself. Agreed?

                            2. re: allende


                              What a minute! I thought the best restaurant in Tuscany was in Forte dei Marmi. Lorenzo's, agreed? If so, anybody with the mind and spirit of an explorer can take the train there..

                              1. re: barberinibee

                                Did I say anything different with regard to my favorite restaurant in tuscany?

                                I presume your prior post: was aimed at minchilli, not me

                                "If people can post on Chowhound that they read an article about a Tuscan food tour and it made them "drool," then others can post on Chowhound that they read the same article and it made them "gag." Agreed? What is bothering you is the negative reaction, not some imagined abuse of the forum."

                                1. re: allende


                                  Sorry that my post responding to yours was unintentionally cryptic.

                                  What I wanted to raise a red flag about is the advice giving by longingforitaly that a CAR is required to taste marvelous authentic food in Tuscany. You have so often talked about the great food at Lorenzo's in Tuscany, I want to point out to people that if they are not driving in Tuscany, they can still find qualityTuscan food experiences.

                                  Below, I took your list of recommended Tuscan trattorie and pointed out which can be reached by means other than a rental car without a lot of hassle.

                                  I'm not against car trips in Tuscany (or anywhere in Italy), but a lot of people are being needlessly discouraged from going to eateries that are in fact reachable by other means with this false picture that you might as well give up on eating authentic food in Italy if you aren't renting a car. It isn't true.

                            3. re: Longing for Italy

                              I dont know...seems to me one can have a very tuscan experience in Florence visiting say Mario or Del Fagioli and ordering some ribollita or pappa pomodoro some crostini with chicken livers, some castagnaccio, or other such.. Maybe not the greatest food of tuscany but highly characteristic; Its easy to find bad food there, but finding good food is not all that mysterious or difficult either. Certainly, you don't need either a car or a tour to find tasty tuscan food in florence as plenty of posts on this Board attest.

                              1. re: jen kalb

                                Of course one can have a "very Tuscan" experience in Florence. Not that difficult. But, as Longing For Italy implied, it is easier out of the city.

                                As I said, it's not that it is difficult within Florence, it is that the overwhelming majority of restaurants in Florence don't live up to the standards that were once the norm. The number of tourists has increased tremendously over the last 20-35 years and they can be conned... and are. There is one famous restaurant where we saw people milling around outside at 11 AM waiting for the restaurant to open at 1 o'clock. Only English and Japanese was being spoken. A friend who was with us, and lives only two blocks away, says that is the scene twice a day.

                                Compare a "good" Florentine trattoria with a prosaic place like Le Vedute outside of Fucecchio (about 20 miles from Lucca) and you'll see what I mean. Here is an ordinary trattoria, nothing more, but the ingredients and care in the preparation of the food, is driven by the fact that they really have to work to retain their clientele. They have very few tourists. There are many such places in the countryside and the coast in Tuscany. Are there similar places in Florence. Yes, but they are overwhelmed by the pedestrian places that pretend to serve good Florentine food, but are either not up to the task or really don't care.

                                1. re: allende

                                  Just got this from their Nov/Dec newsletter.

                                  This is one of our favorite trattorie, not in Tuscany but in Emilia Romagna. This is eating in the countryside, not in the cities e.g. Bologna, Modena, Parma. Why go to those cities when the countryside surrounding them beckons.

                                  Only people who really care about food are willing to do these things. As far as I know, it doesn't exist in Florence (I'd be very happy to correct my mistake), but in the countryside of Tuscany, you have restaurants and trattorias that really care about food. They might not do something exactly like this (although they might), but there are many Tuscan restaurants and trattorias which in their own way do something like it i.e. serve great food (and in this case with an excellent wine list to boot).

                                  Inno al Porcello:pranzo del 2 dicembre
                                  Anche quest’anno l’Hostaria propone l’annuale giornata all’insegna del maiale, ma con un’ invitante novità: il PORCEDDU allo spiedo!
                                  Il programma è così fatto:
                                  MEGAPERITIVO ALL’APERTO vicino allo spiedo
                                  Le Polpettine di pasta di salame Il fegato di maiale con l’alloro, alla maniera di Aldo La mortadella di Palmieri Il culatello di Zibello Il “Boccon del Reverendo”bollito Il nostro tosone nella pancetta La polenta con le pestate di lardo Il prosciutto di Parma 36 mesi Vino: Cremant de Bourgogne Rosè
                                  Bersi Serlini Franciacorta Mill 2000
                                  A TAVOLA
                                  I Passatelli di Parmigiano in brodo di carne
                                  Il Porceddu sardo allo spiedo dell’amico Franco (sardo) appena cotto con le patate arrosto
                                  Il nostro zabaione con la torta cioccolatina
                                  Ci accompagna la musica

                                  1. re: allende

                                    I have to know allende in regards to the "famous resto" with the huge lineup at 11 am. Is it Marios?

                                      1. re: allende

                                        Im thinking Sostanza? its the only real global icon on that list

                                        1. re: allende

                                          I'm thinking Cibreo or Enoteca Pinchiorri.

                                              1. re: allende

                                                Brava, erica! You should have a Botticelli Birth of Venus apron for your prize!


                                                (Or a food tour if you prefer.)

                                                1. re: barberinibee

                                                  Or dinner at Il Latini!!! With a few of those bagged dried spice mixtures thrown in. (I did receive one of these "authentic blends" as a parting gift before I hopped the shuittle bus from a Positano eatery, but that one is getting stale by now..)

                                                  I so enjoyed this thread..thank you for posting that article, even if it caused a some of us to lose a few taste buds.

                                                  1. re: jen kalb

                                                    I noticed those lines when I was there in 2001, and apparently they are still there. (OK..full confession, I made a reservation and ate there solo on that trip; I wish I could remember why I chose to eat there....could it have been mentioned here that long ago?? Even then it was a total tourist factory, with a pre-set meal..get them in, get them seated, get them out type of not at all bad, if I can remember correctly.

                                                    Have you ever wondered just why it is that some places "click" with a cohort of travelers, and remain popular for so many years? Il Latini was apparently featured on a Rachel Ray program, but I think the lines predated that program.
                                                    Those two places in Montepuertuso are in the same category, I think, and I am sure there are reams of others in all the major locales on the tourist track.

                                                    1. re: erica

                                                      in 1978 we ate at Il Latini on our first visit to Florence. It was exactly the same factory then, had been a fave in the Frommer $5 a day book for years. An overload of mediocre Tuscan food and wine, lots of tourists crammed in elbow to elbow I still remember my husband groaning on our way back to the hotel.

                                                      1. re: jen kalb

                                                        From 1978 until 2012...quite a run, in any city.

                                                        What do you think accounts for their "success?"

                                                        1. re: erica

                                                          must have been longer than that - the frommer guide was a real 60s phenomenon. I think the set meal (removing the need to choose, scary to tourists), the huge size of the meal which made it seem a good value and the crowd of similar folks (it was all tourists, as I recall} made it very comfortable for the mainly young crowd who went there. We certainly have not been back since, maybe the food has improved somewhat in the intervening years, I certainly remember it as dull but very standard tuscan fare and wine.

                                                          1. re: jen kalb

                                                            I can't speak to the 70's, but we started travelling to Italy about the same time we were married (1990), and I remember I Latini being among the recommended trattorie by Patricia Wells. It seemed to have dropped off the radar screen, or been regarded as too touristy, in subsequent years, and didn't even merit a mention in a later Gourmet article (which I keep and use to this day) by Faith Heller Willinger--probably late 90's--nor did it merit a mention in her book, Eating in Italy, originally published in 1998. Never tried I Latini myself, so I can't speak to the quality, but I think that it is fair to say that, overall, the American understanding of Italian food has grown considerably since the 70's and even the 90's. Of course, "grown considerably" is not the same as "fully appreciates."

                                        2. re: allende

                                          Just to note that Fucecchio is about a 15 minute taxi ride from either the San Miniato train station or the San Romano train station in Tuscany.

                                        3. re: jen kalb

                                          I agree--BUT...

                                          Of course one can find wonderfully "tasty" and even "good" food throughout Florence. For that reason, Florence has many places where one can just relax and enjoy lunch/dinner. However, this post started with the "secrets of Tuscan food," and then moved to "authentic Tuscan food;" to me, this moved the discussion beyond "tasty and good." We have taken many American friends to small places on the back roads (like the "ordinary trattoria" Allende notes) that the locals would proclaim as "authentic" only to find that our friends' American palates didn't proclaim that food necessarily "tasty or good."

                                          My point is "be careful what you ask for." American tasty vs. Tuscan authentic may differ!

                                          1. re: Longing for Italy

                                            well yeah, thats part of the issue I had with the article and tour - it emphasized out of region items like parmigiano and aceto balsamico, - where were the beans and vegetables?

                                            I am not sure what sort of secrets would have been conveyed or whether, if there were secrets, they would be more likely found in the country than in Florence. good quality fresh oils and other local terroir ingredients? High quality meats, game? Frankly, I think the reference to secrets was just the writers mindless blather.

                                            Given that tuscan food as a whole is pretty plain, maybe you have a point about american tastes sometimes not being satisfied in all cases. I have to admit not having yet developed a taste for castagnaccio for example after several tries,, though we DO like tuscan bread.. I mentioned a couple of places in the town that served (when I was there) good tasting (to my american taste) traditional tuscan cooking. However It seems like this discussion has too many strands to be coherent so I think I will stop for now.

                                            1. re: jen kalb

                                              Well, I'm a tourist and just spent five days in Florence. I ate at Mario's, I Due G, Cipolla Rossa, Casalinga, Del Fagioli, Sostanza, Pennello, Gabriello, & Paoli. No car, no back roads, I don't speak Italian, and as far as I'm concerned the food was authentic and regionally correct. Even the lousy local Chianti which was always served way to warm was typical in my experience. I'm waiting to hear about some of the secret places I missed but then they really wouldn't be secret would they? Kind of like advertising where your favorite fishing spot is. I'm leaving for Padua tomorrow, see you at Brek.

                                              1. re: thebigjelly

                                                glad you ate well - thats quite a lot of eating!! looking for hearing about Padua

                                                1. re: jen kalb

                                                  @ thebigjelly.

                                                  Glad you enjoyed your meals. I've only been to three of the restaurants. One is a long time favorite and it is the real deal. Two of the others, IMO leave a lot to be desired.
                                                  Lousy local Chianti served far too warm, doesn't sound like a good compliment to a good meal. Why accept it?

                                                  I think Longing For Italy used the word "secrets" in a bit of a jest (and I plead guilty as well).

                                                  There are no secrets... it's just a matter of searching. So with openness in mind, below is a list of trattorie in Tuscany that we enjoy. The food is Tuscan (no games played here with ingredients not Tuscan), well prepared, in a comfortable setting and with good wine lists. Wines are not served "way too warm." Again, these are basic trattorie, nothing more; we're not talking about Lorenzo and La Pineta. Next time you're in Florence you might head out of the city to try some and see how they compare to the meals you ate.

                                                  If you're driving to Padova, your best bet for food is stopping in ER or southern Lombardia on the way. Great places and much better than Padova.

                                                  Le Vedute which I've already mentioned outside of Fucecchio
                                                  Mocajo in Guardistallo
                                                  La Tana degli Orsi in Pratovecchio
                                                  Perbacco in Montescudaio
                                                  Dogana outside of Pietrasanta
                                                  Scolapasta in Castiglioncello
                                                  La Perla del Mare in San Vincenzo

                                                  The last two are fish trattorie

                                                  1. re: allende

                                                    guilty as charged...

                                                    At one level, it's no secret that virtually all of Italy's region-specific cuisine is driven by a no-compromise obsession with the highest quality of locally sourced ingredients. Beyond that, the "magic/genius" is in the preparation. My bet is, that in each of the trattorie listed above, what appears as a relatively simple and straight forward preparation is somehow elevated to a quasi-mystical "how-in-the-world-did-they-do-that?" status. Such preparation is beyond mere technique. Returning to the "authentic" part of the discussion, these non-mass-produced presentations somehow reflect the deep roots and particular passion of people anchored in place.

                                                    Maybe this can't be describe (or at least I can't describe it); but I'd suggest that Allende's mini challenge that you "...try some and see how they compare to the meals you ate" might be a revelation--depending on your palate of course :)

                                                    1. re: allende

                                                      OK; I'll bite: referring back to bigjelly's post, which are the three you've visited? (I'm guessing Mario, Sostanza and Casalinga.) And which was the real deal? assuming, of course, that you're talking about authenticity and not bargain prices.

                                                      1. re: lisaonthecape

                                                        I'm talking about authenticity and not bargain prices. Bargain prices only get a person mediocre meals, but many here don't realize it or do not want to admit it. Italy is expensive when it comes to good food, particularly anything to do with fish or seafood. Cheap house wine is usually the dregs of bottles left over from other clientele; really, although no one who drinks the stuff wants to hear it and, of course, no restaurant will ever admit it... but most of their patrons don't know the difference.

                                                        You got one of them right as far as the real deal with restaurants. Haven't been to the two others you mention. Would like to tell you what is what, but it would set off a furor and I don't need that (have tried to be helpful on this site and steer people toward places we think are good, in Tuscany, Piemonte, ER, Liguria, southern Lombardia and the Alta Badia).

                                                        Let's just leave it that there are good restaurants in Florence which maintain their standards... one just has to search for them and be picky (and not accept "lousy local Chianti which was always served way to (sic) warm").

                                                        1. re: allende

                                                          Fair enough.

                                                          I do want to say thanks for all of your wonderful posts, especially on Piemonte. My husband worked there years ago (near Mondovi), but since then, we've usually been visiting friends and haven't explored the wonderful dining scene. We're hoping for a fall trip soon, preferably senza ragazzi.

                                                          1. re: lisaonthecape

                                                            Your comment was very kind.

                                                            We hope to continue to go to Piemonte several times a year and will write up the experiences in the hope that others might benefit in some way.

                                                          2. re: allende

                                                            I have had some very disappointing meals in Florence over the years - including the "memorable" experience of being offered, many years ago a cruet of rancid olive oil for my salad at a restaurant that is still in existence there. I would recommend places only where I have had good meals - but there are limitations. Its un reasonable to expect a top quality steak or seafood at a restaurant that charges relatively low (i.e. slowfood level) prices.If you order a steak there you will get a lesser cut. In these places we enjoy and recommend the typical cucina povera dishes like ribollita, stews or simple pastas (NOT with truffles). As to wine, normally these days we order a bottle if we think we can drink a bottle, sometimes glasses if we really dont want very much - in the simplest places a carafe (for us, a mezzo litro) will be our drink.

                                                            Notwithstanding Allende's statement that you will receive the dregs of other customers bottles in your carafe (this may be the practice in some places that mainly serve bottled wine, shudder) there is still vino sfuso in the carafes in simpler places. Look around and see whether the other patrons are drinking from carafes or bottles and make your decision. ts definitelyI not going to be the best wine of the region, but it will be inexpensive, usually acceptable and very occasionally even delicious.

                                                        2. re: allende

                                                          Again, many of the places on allende's list of worthy Tuscan trattorie with good wine lists are reachable by train or with a combination of train plus brief taxi ride:

                                                          Le Vedute outside of Fucecchio: train to San Romano or San Miniato plus 15 minute taxi ride

                                                          La Tana degli Orsi in Pratovecchio: there are two train stations in Pratovecchio

                                                          Dogana outside of Pietrasanta: it's a seven minute taxi ride from the Pietrasanta train station

                                                          Scolapasta in Castiglioncello: there is a train station in town

                                                          La Perla del Mare in San Vincenzo: there is a train station in town

                                                          So please, let us retire this myth that the only way to eat authentic or excellent food in Tuscany is to rent a car.

                                                          1. re: barberinibee

                                                            you make a very worthwhile point and the travel info is a great supplement to Allende's recommendations, but I would just like to point out that for a person based out of Firenze, the travel time using these solutions can run an hour or more each way, and connection times may not be helpful, and train stations may be away from the town center, or the restaurant outside the town.. As a person who was very interested in lunch destinations out of the Center in both Rome and Genoa, I did not in the end find visiting them practical as an adjunct to touring in the center - the day would basically have been consumed by the lunch related travel .It may be very worth it for serious eaters!

                                                            1. re: jen kalb


                                                              Allende mentioned and I will echo that only people who are serious about food will venture off the tourist track. HOWEVER, please, please investigate what I have said with actual train times and realties, and contrast that with the typical tourist advice for Tuscany (which is to pay a fortune for a day tour of the Chianti). Please please stop pooh-poohing the idea that one can't find a great lunch in a non-touristy part of Tuscany unless one rents a car.

                                                              A traveler who is "basing" in Florence can VERY EASILY plan to have a marvelous lunch in Allende's recommended trattoria in Fucecchino. It is 50 minutes to take a train to San Miniato or San Romano. Taxis are parked at the station, and it is only 15 minutes to Allende's recommended place .Therefore, one can have hours of morning sightseeing in Florence and get on a train at 11.53, and be at Allende's recommended place just in time for lunch.

                                                              And guess what? The small Tuscan town of Fucecchino is itself a chance to experience something other than mass-tourism destroyed Tuscany. It has its own "palio" and historic center.

                                                              Maybe it isn't worth it to you, but it is definitely worth it for the many, many first-time and 10th-time visitors to Italy who ask: "Where can I find food that isn't tourist corrupted and how do I find the real Tuscany apart from the tourist Tuscany?" The typical (tourist) answer is: "Oh, you MUST rent a car" and then people are pointed to Chianti or southern Tuscany --- which is filled with tourists and dubious eateries.

                                                              You can get on a train and go to a untouristed, historic Tuscan town and have a classic Tuscan lunch. It s NOT that hard for the motivated.

                                                              Should you add an extra day to Florence to do this? Maybe. But let me point out that the Italian mid-day break -- the pausa -- means that you can go have lunch Fucecchino at 1pm, stroll around the town after lunch and be back in Florence by 5pm, for more sightseeing until 7.30pm.

                                                              1. re: barberinibee

                                                                bb as you know, I lighted discussion of this topic by deploring the packaged approach some folks take to Italy As a person who spent all my free hours for about 3 months poring over local Indian train timetables and plane schedules to see if I can get from here to there in rural india without hiring a car and driver, and who has spent endless hours to figure out whether I can get to a desired restaurant by public transport in areas like the Campo Flegrei (where the supposed train line had closed and buses on the defined routes were illusory we wound up walking about 20 miles that day) and , including becoming quite familiar with the bus lines in the Val Graveglia quite recently, Im with you on the value of making the effort. Its just that it has to be balanced out with other realities for short term tourists.

                                                                I think this discussion has done them a service by suggesting that there are alternatives and some lovely possibilities. Our little trip up to Ne by taxi (after the bus alternative was not available absolutely justified the effort..

                                                                1. re: jen kalb

                                                                  Yes. I realized after re-reading my post that spending part of the afternoon viewing James Brown videos on YouTube got to my writing style.

                                                            2. re: barberinibee

                                                              travel vs. food

                                                              Since barberinibee seems to be addressing me RE the "myth" of transportation, I'll make one LAST comment. Barberinibee is correct that IF one can identify in advance a "worthy Tuscan trattorie," one could spend the day (as Jen correctly stated) traveling by train (or bus) and taxi to that place--all things are possible!

                                                              But barberinibee's own original post includes the words "secrets of Tuscan food;" her own subsequent response seemed to have left that topic. Even more importantly. barerinibee's substitution of "excellent" for "authentic" is quite a categorical error; there is a sharp distinction between "excellent" and "authentic." Florence (or any tourist town) is full of "excellent" food that may not be totally authentic; if one seeks "excellent" food as defined by their own palate--enjoy!

                                                              However, as I said in an earlier response, some of my American friends didn't think some genuinely "authentic" Tuscan food (as defined by life-long locals) was "excellent" (by their American palates).

                                                              My personal bias is that I like to explore a place and its food on its own terms; I like to discover rather than define or impose. Certainly I've done this without a car. But I rarely find "secrets" routinely hidden in plain sight. Good, tasty, excellent--maybe; secret--rarely.

                                                              1. re: Longing for Italy

                                                                @Longing for Italy,

                                                                First of all, the word "secret" is NOT mine. It is the title of the article in the Washington Post. I made no comment on it -- and deliberately went out of my way to say that I made no comment on it.

                                                                Please also note that I did NOT recommend Florence for eating in any way, shape or fashione.

                                                                I don't talk about "authentic" Italian food in Italy because I don't know what it is. Other people brought it up, not me. Certainly it is easy to identify that mozzerella is not Tuscan, etc. But the truth is that Italian culture is adaptive in the extreme. (I sometimes think of Italians as the Japanese of Europe.) Italian culture is also a very inventive culture, also when it comes to new recipes. You really can't say that this Tuscan grandmother's unique recipe is more authentic than another's, or even today's Tuscan chef's if he or she is working within a certain set of parameters. Sorry.

                                                                I have never eaten at allende's recommended trattorie or restaurants in Tuscany. My only interest in commenting on his and your posts was to point out that trattorie worthy of a foodie's or Chowhounder's interest can be found on train lines.

                                                                Last -- BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY -- I TOTALLY DISAGREE WITH YOU that in Italy, it is only "rarely" that secrets are routinely hidden in plain sight. Just the opposite. The tragic joke of foreign tourism in Italy is that so much that is truly wonderful when it comes to food (and other things) is staring people right in the face while they desperately (and blindly) grope for the "authentic" and the "real" and the "secret" Italy in the "countryside." One should come to Italy with eyes wide open --- and why not start with walking through Italy's urban food markets and buying and eating the fundamentals of Italy's great cuisines?

                                                                The whole idea that one needs a "priest" or a "local" to guide one to "secrets" in Italy is garbage to me, as is the advice that one MUST rent a car.

                                                        3. re: thebigjelly

                                                          Glad to hear you ate well. Especially glad you made it to Paoli, which I love and which always gets ignored since it's always deemed too touristy.


                                                          1. re: minchilli

                                                            I'd like to thank you all for your comments and recommendations. I'm a solo traveller this trip and the places I tried in Florence were basically chosen from what I gleaned from this board. Paoli was just a place I walked by, it looked good and was full of Italian families. My trip to Florence coincided with All Saints Day so the city was really hopping so to speak. My deal with wine is this, I'm 58 years old and have been interested in wine for over 25 years. I've collected and drunk the worlds great wines, mostly French, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhones, etc. Also Italian reds, Brunello, Barbaresco, Barolo, higher end Chianti and what we call in the US super Tuscans. Also this isn't my first time in Italy. The temperature problem isn't exclusive to Italy, it's also a problem in France. The French term for correct temperature is chambre which means room temp. But when that word chambre began to be used room temp was a lot colder than it is now, closer to cellar temp of 55 degrees. And you all know that most restaurants are a lot warmer than that. Most restaurants make it even worse wine wise by keeping the wine up high so it looks appealing to customers. And not to sound snarky or anything but a lot of Italians consider themselves wine experts just by virtue of their Italianess. (not sure if that's a real word) So, I'm more than a little apprehensive about ordering a bottle of better more expensive stuff. I realize I could ask for it to be chilled but as a tourist that doesn't speak the language I don't wont to come across as a snob and piss of a wait person especially before I get my food. So for those reasons I usually order the house wine and deal with it. The effect is still the same and more often than not that's what I'm after. (a Stoli martini with a twist would be great right now) Anyway, I'm in Padua for twelve days and plan on doing some day tripping to Venice, Vicenza, & Verona by train. I like to walk around and I live in L.A. so I'm sick of driving and don't want to do it here. I'd love some recommendations within those parameters, I'll report back, probably not about specific dishes but about what places I enjoyed. Thanks again and I hope I haven't bored you with this post.

                                                            1. re: thebigjelly

                                                              not boring at all - I agree with your critique of "room temperature" wine - in addition we find it disagreeable when a red (except for certain ones of course) arrives chilled, which happens to often. It takes attention for a restaurant to get this right.Im in the category (maybe you too) that came of age when the finest wines were accessible for single digit prices. It makes it hard to pay today's much higher prices for the fine vintages so I personally am very thankful that the standards of winemaking generally have gone up so much. I may not be drinking the top bottle any more very frequently but Im enjoying moderate priced well made bottles,chosen with a recommendation from the server off the low priced end of the winelist.

                                                              On recent trips weve noticed a bit of a trend away from carafe wines in many places - more and more the restaurants that served them (for example in Rome) now offer a bottled "house" wine instead. The whole trend it seems to me is to a better but also more expensive product.

                                                              ps - if you want advice for the Veneto cities, you would be best off starting a separate thread - of course there are already a few threads findable by search.

                                                              1. re: jen kalb

                                                                What do you consider a price for a moderately priced wine? Just curious, nothing more.

                                                                1. re: allende

                                                                  Well, first and foremost, we look for a recommendation, and usually buy select wines in the 15-35 E range, mostly toward the lower end of that range and pretty much always regional bottles The wine [price range] pretty much correlates with the cost level of restaurants we usually visit - we expect and usually find that a restaurant that is careful about its cooking/provenance about its ingredients also offers interesting or at least very drinkable wine. Given more time, I think we would strike out and explore out-of- region wines or dip into some outstanding individual bottles, but as it is, we have little enough time to drink the local products (for example recently in Liguria) which are not available at any price here in NY. As you know in NY its a different story and we often wind up spending more for less and my husband gets disgruntled with the bill.

                                                                  Im curious also,what would you consider a normal bottle price for an average lunch at a good restaurant (one of the ones you recommend in E-R or Piedmont, say?

                                                                  1. re: jen kalb

                                                                    Thebigjelly said the following and, IMO, he got it totally right in all respects:

                                                                    He said: "And you all know that most restaurants are a lot warmer than that. Most restaurants make it even worse wine wise by keeping the wine up high so it looks appealing to customers. And not to sound snarky or anything but a lot of Italians consider themselves wine experts just by virtue of their Italianess."

                                                                    There are real problems with wine in Italian restaurants and one should only order an expensive or older bottle if the restaurant has a cellar and you know how it has been stored. As Thebigjelly pointed out, most restaurants keep their wines up high (for show) which means the wines are subjected to higher than normal temperatures (and corks drying out). Store wine this way over a few years and that's the end of a good bottle of wine. Even not stored up high and vertical, the temperature (and temperature fluctuations) in a restaurant is way too warm for long term storage. As Thebigjelly also said, "Italians consider themselves wine experts just by virtue of their Italianess." As he implied, most Italians who think they know wine really do not. As far as I'm concerned they present a good bluff, but wouldn't know the difference between a Brunello and a Barolo. They know nothing about vintages. All they know is a label and a name. This goes for the people in many, if not most, restaurants where wine is very secondary to food. So don't drink old or expensive wines in an Italian restaurant in Italy unless you know how the wines were stored and the owners know something about wines.

                                                                    So what do we do if that is the case? With rare exceptions we avoid those restaurants that do not have good wine lists and/or don't store their wine well. For us, it is very important to have a good bottle of wine with a meal. What else would one drink except water ( or perhaps a beer with certain food)? Fortunately, the situation has changed in the last 20 years, and particularly the last ten, in that many more owners of restaurants are paying much more attention to their lists and storage. It has completely changed the restaurant scene particularly in the countryside.

                                                                    You asked what I would consider a normal bottle price for an average lunch at a good restaurant that I recommend in ER or Piemonte. It all depends. When we're in Piemonte we tend to drink Barolo and Barbaresco and sometimes a barbera. Many trattorias have excellent lists (the greatest by far being Da Bardon). Good Barolo and Barbaresco (good producers and good vintages) are expensive, sometimes very expensive, but it is something that complements the great food and we drink those bottles a lot of the time. It is, however, not necessary to spend big money in order to get a good wine to drink. For instance, the 2010 barberas are out and are starting to appear on restaurant lists in Piemonte. There are very good ones for 12-25 euros so that fits within a "moderate" price. There are also a few good nebbiolos in that price range as well. So, there is no problem drinking moderately priced wines in Piemonte in either restaurants or trattorias.

                                                                    ER is another story. There are very few decent wines made in ER. The four main trattorie that I've recommended here (Da Ivan; La Buca; Locanda Mariella in Colestano; Da Amerigo) all have outstanding wine lists at very reasonable prices. Locanda Mariella's is the best but all of them are excellent or very good. If we don't drink a La Stoppa wine (one of the very few ER wineries we like) like the Macchiona, we'll drink Piemonte, typically a barbera with this food or a Rosso di Montalcino from Tuscany.

                                                                    In Tuscany, you're in luck with reasonably priced wines. We have a large cellar where we live in Tuscany and it's mostly stocked with Brunellos, Rosso di Montalcino, some Barolos and barberas and Lagrein from the Alto-Adige.

                                                                    Rossos have always been a good value for everyday drinking at restaurants or at home. Good wines at good prices. Interestingly, when we were down in Montalcino this spring, the Brunellos from the excellent 2006 vintage were being given away, or so it looked to us. We were buying cases of our favorites for 25-35 Euros a bottle. We loaded up the car. The very good 2010 vintage of Rossos (the Brunellos of 2010 won't be released for a while) were going for 12-20 Euros a bottle. We bought some as well. If I were going into a restaurant in Florence today and where you didn't know the storage conditions, I would be ordering the 2010 Rossos di Montalcino. Because most restaurants price wines only a little bit more than retail (unlike The States), you can get really good wines in that price range or a bit more and know that the wine hasn't been sitting around under improper storage conditions. Go to Piemonte and drink the 2010 barbera and you'll have the same situation, even though in Piemonte most restaurants know how to store their wine (but not all).

                                                                    Hope this helps everyone, not only you Jen.

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