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Trip report from Bologna, Pienza, and Rome

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My husband and I traveled to Italy in April/May 2013, and used this forum quite a bit when choosing restaurants. So I thought I would report back on our experiences in the hopes of helping others. I posted a full trip report on Fodors, so I am just copying the restaurant reviews here.

BOLOGNA:

We visited the region because we love food. I did a lot of research and decided that I wanted to do a one-day cooking class and visit some of the factories that produce the famous local products. Once I found the class and tour I wanted to do, I decided it was best to base in Bologna for logistical reasons, even though I had heard that the restaurants in the city were past their heyday. Many say that you need to venture out of the city for the region’s best. I spent hours researching on Chowhound, Fodors, etc to choose restaurants, always knowing in the back of my mind that we shouldn’t necessarily expect mind-blowing meals.

Unfortunately, I was right.

Our first night was a Sunday, so it was difficult to find a restaurant open. But of the limited options, we settled on Ristorante da Nello al Montegrappa.

http://www.ristorantedanello.com

In my broken Italian, I told the host that we had an 8PM reservation (prenotazione was one of the 20 words I learned during the trip!). He offered us either outdoor or indoor seating, but since the weather was a little iffy, we sat inside. He led us downstairs into a brightly lit, but cozy room. We had a really fun waiter and with his help, ordered a bottle of red wine. It was delicious so our meal was off to a good start. Since we like to share everything, my husband ordered for both of us – polenta with mushrooms, lasagna verde, and veal Bolognese. My husband really confused the waiter and the waiter got the impression that we wanted everything at once, but really we would have preferred at least the polenta to come first. We learned that for future meals, we would just each order something and worry about sharing once it came to the table.

We received the food, and I would say that it was good. Totally fine. Just not “I specifically chose this destination to eat well” good. Again, I was glad that I had lowered my expectations a bit as far as the restaurants went because that allowed me to enjoy the meal without feeling disappointed. The mushrooms didn’t have as much flavor with the polenta as I would have liked, and the lasagna was a little too heavy without being heavenly. If I love something, I will find room in my stomach, and in this case, I was happy to take very reasonably-sized portions and leave it at that. We opted for the cheese plate for dessert which was quite good. With one espresso for my husband, a bottle of water, and the coperto, the cost was 75E.

Several nights later, we had a 9PM reservation at Da Gianni. I went around and around on this reservation, almost choosing Cesari or Serghei, but ending up here. I liked the dining room – smallish and rustic. The waiter helped us pick out a bottle of red wine (we always just ask for a recommendation whenever we eat out). We ordered tortellini in brodo and gnocchi with pomodoro sauce, and I enjoyed both. The pomodoro sauce was particularly good, showing off the fresh tomatoes. Craving something green, we got an insalata mista, which was standard. For the main course, we had braised (or roasted?) lamb, and it was excellent, falling off the bone and well-seasoned. The broccoli and potatoes that came with it were adequate. For dessert, we ate some type of chocolate mousse cake that was delicious. Overall, a very enjoyable meal. Not necessarily one for the record books, but quite good (and certainly much better than da Nello a few nights before). With a bottle of water and the coperto, our bill came to 80E.

Our food tour (www.italitandays.it) and cooking class (www.bluone.com) were phenomenal and we loved the city itself, so Bologna was a hit! Just be careful of your plan hinging on restaurant meals.

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  1. SOUTHERN TUSCANY:

    On our first night in Pienza, I did some quick online research and decided that we should try Latte di Luna. We called and they didn’t have availability, so we settled on Trattoria da Fiorella instead.

    http://www.trattoriadafiorella.it/

    What a lucky break for us! This was one of the best meals of our trip. The restaurant was small and cozy. We ordered a carafe of house red that was excellent, as well as fantastic bruschetta. The dish that put the meal over-the-top was a risotto with in-season zucchini and pesto. That risotto lives in my memory and I will be trying to recreate it! We also enjoyed fried lamb chops, whole braised baby artichokes, and a side of white beans. Somewhere in there we ordered a second carafe of red wine, and finished things off with a panna cotta with raspberry topping and an espresso for my husband. Add a bottle of water and the coperto and it was only 60E! Amazing meal.

    When wine tasting at Poggio Antico the next day, their restaurant was closed, so after the tasting we ended up having lunch at Il Leccio.

    http://www.illeccio.net/

    When we booked, I thought that the restaurant was in Montalcino, but it turned out to be located in the nearby town of Sant’Angelo In Colle. This brought our understanding of tiny hilltowns to a whole new level! The whole town was about 200 yards across. For lunch, we had tagliatelle with ragu, which was pretty good but didn’t compare to the ragu we made during our cooking class in Bologna! The ricotta-stuffed tortelloni with butter and sage was seriously lacking. But we did have a delicious salad with mixed greens, endive, artichoke hearts and pecorino. With one beer, one glass of wine, a bottle of water and the coperto, our total was 46E. Overall our meal was somewhat mediocre, but I would still recommend it because of the wonderful setting and the opportunity to set foot in a town that was much more off the beaten path.

    On our last night in Pienza, we headed to dinner at Latte de Luna, where I was glad we had made a reservation a few days prior. The front patio is in full view of the main street, making it very popular.

    http://www.portalepienza.it/Siti_comm...

    The food was good, but wasn’t quite as memorable as our meal at Trattoria da Fiorella on our first night. We began with two pasta dishes, a cacio e pepe and a ragu. We followed that with their popular suckling pig which was excellent. We got two sides, but I didn’t take very good notes and don’t remember what they were! With dessert, a carafe of house red wine, a bottle of water, one espresso, and the coperto, the total was 53E. Not that our server was interested in letting us know. While we were used to waiting awhile for the check by this point in our trip, this time bordered on absurd. We mentioned it to a few people passing by, but after 30 minutes or more just hanging around (at least give me some more water or wine!), we went up to the front to ask for the check. At that point, the manager realized that we were tucked back in a room all by ourselves since the other tables had left, and I think that the server in that section had gone home. He was very apologetic and brought us complimentary limoncello which was a nice gesture.

    1. ROME:

      On our first night, we had an 8PM dinner reservation at L’Osteria di Monteverde.

      http://www.losteriadimonteverde.it/

      We hopped on the tram, rode a few short stops to an outlying, decidedly non-touristy part of Trastevere, and got a little lost walking to the restaurant. Anyway, after a short detour, we found the restaurant…which was completely empty. We had tried to be locals with what we thought was a late reservation, but it definitely was not. It was also a Sunday, so my impression is that restaurants are generally less busy with many choosing to have family time at home.

      Though the restaurant décor was pretty traditional, we were happy once we took a look at a menu. For the first time on our trip, we felt like we were somewhere with a more modern take on food. Not just giant bowls of pasta! As usual, we asked for recommendations and particularly at this place, I’m glad we did. We wound up getting dishes that I would not have ordered that turned out delicious. It was a great meal. Our amuse was a ricotta-filled zucchini blossom, which was fine. For our appetizer, we had beef tartare with onion slivers (it was on special) and it was amazing. We followed that with black ink squid ravioli with some type of fish filling, an incredible vegetable/phyllo-layered dish, and a potato-crusted bacala with a side of chicory. This was much more “high-end” food than we had eaten previously on the trip and we were in love. For dessert, we got tiramisu that was served in an adorable flip-top glass jar that my husband particularly enjoyed. He is the dessert man after all. With a bottle of red wine, a bottle of water, and the coperto, our total came to 71E. We did leave a small tip because we were so thrilled with the service and they did such a good job with the food recs.

      After visiting the Vatican one day, we decided to walk over to the renowned Pizzarium for lunch.

      http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant...

      So glad we did! Pizzarium is actually pretty close to the Vatican entrance, but because we exited at St. Peter’s, we had to walk all the way back around which took 20 minutes or so. This pizza was easily the best of our trip. They serve all different kinds of rectangular pizza that are available at the counter. You indicate how wide of a slice you would like, and they cut and weigh it for you. We tried four different types and my husband got one craft beer (they had a great selection) – all for 16E. The pizza was truly out of this world. We loved the crust and the toppings were fresh and delicious. We had heard that this place could get pretty crowded, but we didn’t have too much trouble – perhaps the rain kept people away because there are no seats inside. We managed to find a place to stand outside and enjoy our meal. I would definitely recommend Pizzarium if you are in the area…and maybe even if you are not! Just be aware that it is an order-at-the-counter type of place and does not have sit-down tables.

      That night was our big blowout dinner. We had considered Glass and Metamorfosi among others, but after much angst, we landed on Pipero al Rex, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Hotel Rex.

      http://www.hotelrex.net/restaurant.htm

      Oh. My. God.

      It was mind-blowing amazing. While we are only in our 30s, we are fortunate to have eaten at so many excellent restaurants since we make this a priority when traveling. Daniel, Babbo, Momofuku, Komi, etc. So while we certainly haven’t eaten everywhere, you can take it for what you will when I say that this was easily one of the top dining experiences of my life (so far!). This was one of those times when everything just seemed to come together…the ambiance, the service, the food, the wine. With the prices that these restaurants are charging, it’s easy to have impossible-to-meet-expectations, but somehow, Pipero al Rex managed to fulfill on all accounts.

      There are only six or seven tables in this chic, modern restaurant. Once again, we thought that we were being local by reserving at 9PM, but there was only one other table when we arrived. By 10PM, they were full. And some tables sat at 11PM…I don’t know who these people are that can sit down for a multi-course tasting menu at 11PM on a weeknight (and they all seemed Italian). Don’t they have to work? But hey, lucky them!

      At any rate, when we sat down, we were greeted by Alessandro Pipero, the proprietor. He was so kind and welcoming, and didn’t seem to care at all that we were much younger than what appeared to be their typical patron. Zero pretentiousness. In fact, he took a great interest in learning where we found out about him (I told him Katie Parla, though we also read about it on Chowhound), and seemed thrilled that someone our age was so excited about food. He asked if we would like to see a menu or if we would just like him to bring us some food. I had read that we should just trust him, so we chose the latter. There is no official tasting menu; it’s just whatever they feel like I suppose! He did check to see if there was anything in particular that we didn’t like (we were game for anything), and I just requested that we definitely get the pasta carbonara because I had read so much about it. Then he asked about wine. My husband asked if he could do wine pairings and Alessandro said sure. At that point, I felt the need to mention that we were splurging on the food so needed to be more budget-minded on the wine. Alessandro said, “I tell you what. The food will be 100E per person, and the wine will be 25E per person.” I couldn’t believe it! The food prices we were expecting, but wine pairings for only 25E?! We happily agreed, though I figured we might have somewhat limited offerings. I could not have been more wrong.

      They started us with a sparkling wine that was delicious. We were already so in love with Alessandro at that point, and things were just getting better and better. We had five or six amuses, each one a delight. And then six courses. I can’t remember them all but we started with duck tartare “tacos.” Who knew that raw fowl could be such a revelation? We had two pasta dishes, including the amazing carbonara, as well as one with roe among other things. There was a zucchini-something in there, as well as another course I can’t remember. I’m sorry; I’m a failure of a food writer. :) We were getting so full, and Alessandro asked us if we wanted a meat dish or if we were finished. We told him that we would like a tiny portion just to try it. We were so glad we did, because we had a succulent piece of pork tenderloin to finish off the savory courses. It really seemed like we could keep eating or stop whenever we wanted, even though we were working off a set price. (Okay, fine, it was a very expensive set price!) I remember thinking that each dish was so different and so wonderful. Oftentimes when you are doing a tasting menu, there are a few standout dishes, with a few “whatever”dishes, and a few letdowns. Not so in this case. We really enjoyed everything. And it was paced so well, which can be tricky for a multi-course tasting menu. The service was excellent in all regards.

      The whole time, we were poured copious amounts of wines, trying several whites and reds. I’m sure we were not poured particularly expensive wines, but each one was fantastic, so we were in heaven. We finished off with three dessert courses, including the last plate of 5 different bites, one of which was the most incredible homemade marshmallow. At this point, we felt like we had gotten so much for our money that we were taking advantage of them! Even taking the expense into consideration. At 125E per person, it was worth every penny.

      Restaurant scenes change quickly, but for now, I can’t recommend Pipero al Rex enough for someone who wants to blow their budget on a meal. I bet I will be looking for something that compares for years to come!

      One night, we had no plans for dinner and didn’t feel like cooking but also wanted something totally different – we were getting pretty sick of pizza and pasta. So we found a nearby Indian restaurant named Jaipur on the internet, and it turned out to be just what we were looking for!

      http://www.ristorantejaipur.com/

      We ordered way too much of our typical Indian favorites and thought it was excellent. With one large Kingfisher beer, our bill came to 44E.

      On our last night, we had an 8:30PM dinner reservation at Cesare al Casaletto.

      http://www.parlafood.com/cesare-al-ca...

      We took the #8 tram to the far reaches of Trastevere, and the restaurant was right next to the stop. When we arrived at the restaurant, it was already pretty full, including lots of families. This was clearly a locals’ neighborhood joint , and was the first time that we had really seen Roman families eating out. To start, we ordered a couple of the fritti that we had heard so much about. We got the fried gnocchi with cacio e pepe sauce, as well as the polpette di bollito (fried veal meatballs) with pesto. They were both delicious but were a little heavier than I might have liked. Of course, I ordered fried food so you would think I would be okay with it! Mostly, I think that these plates were clearly meant to be shared by more than two people, and instead of exhibiting some restraint, we ate way too much of our appetizers. We were stuffed before we even got our entrees! We ordered two entrees, including the bucatini al’amatriciana. I don’t remember the other entrée or side dish. With a bottle of wine, dessert and service, our total came to 74E. It was an enjoyable meal, but I think it would work better with a larger group, so that you could really sample the different fritti that they are known for, without either stuffing yourself to finish or wasting an abundance of food.

      That's it! We had a lot of great meals in Italy and occasionally stumbled upon a few bad ones at nondescript places I don't remember the name of. But I know that we ate even better because of the helpful folks on Chowhound. So thank you!

      1 Reply
      1. re: caze17

        Wow! Great detailed report. Thanks so much for checking in with this . Sounds like you ate very well making good choices not only in where you went, but in what you ordered

        www.ElizabethMinchilliInRome.com

      2. Thanks very much for taking the time to post your reviews. Feedback like yours is always wlelcome here.

        1. What a great report! Thanks.

          1. Thanks very much for posting here. I think there are a couple of big takeaways for other people who might be following in your footsteps.

            The first is that I do understand that the hotel area of Bologna is tough on Sunday nights, but Da Nello has netted so many blah reviews here in recent years (and deservedly so!) I hope people will take it to heart to find someplace else if they know they are headed to Bologna. (Sometimes I wonder if Da Nello ends up drawing so many tourists because it is around the corner from the Batali-blessed Diana, so when it is closed or full, people just wander over.) Anyway, with only 2 meals in the city, if you are arriving on Sunday, worth trying to find someplace else, even if it means a longer walk or a cab ride.

            Also, I would like to spread the word that the primary job of waiters in most restaurants in Italy is to serve food to customers, not collect money from them, which is up to managers/managers. Waiters seldom have the authority to tell those people what to do. If a check isn't produced the first time you ask for it, if you still want it, get up from the table and go to the register to pay.

            When you wrote that you felt so relieved to get to Rome and encounter more modern food, "not just giant bowls of pasta", I went back to re-read what you'd been eating, and I noticed you had eaten quite a variety of dishes -- polenta, risotto, gnocchi, plus many meat dishes, salads and potatoes. Likewise, when you confessed that toward the end of your trip that you were "getting pretty sick of pizza and pasta", as far as I can tell, you'd only eaten pizza once. Eating pasta and pizza certainly isn't obligatory in Italy if you don't normally eat it much, not even in the countryside (especially not in Tuscany, which really doesn't favor pasta in its traditional cooking). And if you typically thrill to creative cooking over traditional cooking, you can find well regarded creative chefs almost anywhere in Italy if you let people know that's what you're looking for.

            4 Replies
            1. re: barberinibee

              Thanks for your always helpful insight, barberinibee.

              To your points:

              -I couldn't agree more on da Nello. Surely, there are better options, even on a Sunday. We would have been willing to take a cab somewhere, but when parsing through the glut of information on the internet, I really thought I was choosing a winner out of the Sunday option. I was mistaken. I think that it is hard to filter so many different points of view when you don't know the sources.

              -You are correct, in that if you are in a hurry, you shouldn't fear being more aggressive in getting your check. We generally didn't mind waiting a bit; the only time it was problematic was at Latte di Luna when our waiter had actually gone home! So we did, in fact, wind up going to the register. You are right that we should have done it much sooner.

              -I think that I might have given you the wrong impression on your last point. My main point regarding the "giant bowls of pasta" was more in regard to the style and presentation of food. We generally ate what I would consider comfort or traditional food which was certainly our choice, but finding ourselves in more modern restaurants near the end of the trip was a nice contrast. I don't mean to say that we didn't enjoy the more traditional style.

              And I love pizza and pasta! We were in Italy for two weeks (including Venice where we ate in no notable restaurants, so I didn't write about it here), and ate pizza and pasta countless times. I only included the "name" restaurants that Chowhounders might be interested in (or that I bothered to note the name!). So while we certainly enjoyed a variety of dishes over the course of our trip, it was mostly Italian, so Indian was a nice change of pace at the end. This was especially true for us as we live in a tiny resort town that has no Indian restaurants...and it is one of our favorite cuisines.

              No complaints - those were just our thoughts at the time!

              1. re: caze17

                Thanks for clarifying about what you left out. Even in Bologna, where pasta rules, my recollections of da Gianni have been that they don't serve giant bowls of tortellini in brodo or gnocchi, and you had mentioned reasonably sized portions at da Nello, so I was wondering if maybe a pasta making class in Bologna had done you in!

                If you ever feel like adding to this thread, people probably would be interested to hear about your other eating experiences. Chowhounders on this board aren't only interested in places they've already heard about, and new posters coming here to pick up information while planning a trip to Italy are likely to learn a lot from reading what worked for you and what didn't as you made your way around.

                Thanks again for adding to the knowledge base.

                (PS: I once waited forever for a check in Florence, and when I finally simply got up to pay at the register, I spotted the waiter behind the china cabinet locked in a hot kiss with a woman who had been sitting at a table near us -- who had also received noticeably speedier service the entire evening!)

                1. re: barberinibee

                  The pasta class did do me in...in a good way! :)

                  At any rate, the other restaurants we visited, I did not include, mostly because I don't remember the names. They would be someplace nearby sightseeing that we randomly stopped in, and truthfully, none of them were worth noting, so I didn't. I'm not intentionally holding out!

                  1. re: caze17

                    Yes, I understand. Thanks again for all you've written up.

            2. I just booked a cooking class in September with Bluone. I am glad to hear you thought it was a hit. Any tips for me. We are going to Bologna for the class (they had to split the day for us, first afternoon/eveing cooking class, then the next morning it the tour of the market). should we request any special foods, or anything?

              1 Reply
              1. re: Nbhitchcock

                We really enjoyed the class - I hope you will too! You can read about my experience in more detail on my Fodor's trip report:

                http://www.fodors.com/community/europ...

                Zucchini was in-season when we were there so that drove some of our choices. I would certainly try to take advantage of whatever is best in September. Otherwise, expect to get chatty with any others in your group, as well as the family...it will make the experience so much better. Have fun!