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September 2013 week in Tuscany - food and wine

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We've just returned from a wonderful, good food-filled trip to Florence, Livorno, Punta Ala and Chianti. Here is the scoop:

Florence: Sostanza - a recommendation from a local and a great start to our week. The butter chicken (get all Indian food references out of your head) is to die for (quite literally, if you ate it frequently). It's a chicken breast effectively cooked in butter. Plain and unbelievably delicious. Staff was great and you can see into the small but open kitchen. Waiters speak enough English to be helpful to those with weak Italian, but not so much that you feel like you are in a tourist trap. Nothing fancy, just good food and we recommend it highly.

Cibreo - sadly, the evening we went to Cibreo Trattoria the inside seating was closed and it was too warm (for us) to sit on the patio, They directed us to the Cafe which was a really pleasant surprise. We ordered a three course meal (which was more like 5 when you considered the selection of about 8 very small plates we shared as a 'first course'). The food was really creative and featured flavour combinations we found really interesting. The staff was friendly and helpful. Also had some very intriguing and well chosen wine pairings. Still would have loved to try the Trattoria, but didn't feel we had missed out on a good meal by eating at the Cafe.

Trattoria Mario: While not easy to find, it was easy to enjoy. They purport to open at noon, but when we arrived at 12:05 it was clear that they must have opened before noon and we were lucky to get the last two seats available at one of the big communal tables. The offerings are on the daily chalkboard, but we were only interested in one thing: steak Florentine (which is really just grilled steak). Bring your appetite and a friend, because they can`t do a steak that`s much less than a kilo. OK, that includes the bone, so we didn`t feel TOO guilty that we managed to finish it. Certainly not the best food we had, but steak well prepared, good value and a fun experience. And a great place to grab a well priced bottle of Brunello.

Lucca: Didn't eat in Lucca, but did visit a fabulous enoteca called Calasto featuring wines from producers in the area which, but for this visit, we probably wouldn't have tried. And as with most enoteche in Italy, you can purchase wine to take with you (be sure to ask for the take away price, which is less than the price to drink in house).

Livorno: Sadly, circumstances conspired against us having the quality of meal we're sure you can find in Livorno. Our first night we ate at the hotel, which was fine but a rather stale approach to seafood. Our second night was a Monday and many of the restaurants we'd found were closed. After a LONG wander, we opted for some pizza and called it a night.

Punta Ala: We ate both nights at the Relais & Chateau Hotel Cala Del Porto and both meals were outstanding. Tuna tartare, veal, venison, duck, classic ravioli with sage butter....it was all just exceptional. The wine list, as you'd expect, offered great variety and you could find a great bottle for 30 euro or 100 euro. The surroundings were among the most breathtaking of our trip, overlooking the harbour and, if you arrive before sunset, you can look out to Elba. Gentlemen may feel out of place without a jacket, but a tie isn't required. We cannot recommend this place highly enough.

Grosseto: Lunch in Grosetto wasn`t anything special but the enoteca we found featured one of the two best wine selections we saw in one place in Chianti: Locanda de Medici. The owner was friendly and knowledgeable and happy to spend time enducating you on wines of the region (including introducing us to one we`d never tried, Montecucco).

Montalcino: One of the biggest finds of the trip was a wine store in Montalcino that featured 100 wines you could taste by the glass, Enoteca di Piazza. You`re given a magnetic stripe card which you feed into the machine. Each bottle is labelled with the cost to buy the bottle and an LED display with the cost of the tasting. You insert your card, grab a glass from the rack, hit a button and enjoy your tasting. The bottles are sealed with argon gas, hence the ability to provide that many bottles to taste. You`re charged for the cost of your tastings (although when we bought 3 bottles they waived the tasting fee). If you`re a wine drinker, and aren`t driving, you won`t forgive yourself if you miss this place.

Siena: Another enoteca, another great meal. This time Enoteca I Terzi. I had a rustic Tuscan dish with tuna and white beans - complete heaven and a great interpretation of the `good food prepared simply` approach in Tuscany. My spouse had a pumpkin risotto (that made me wish I`d ordered that too!). Not surprisingly, a terrific wine selection as well (we left with another bottle to bring home).

Chianti: We stayed at Castello di Tornano where we also ate our 3 dinners. While the food is really good, and wine has been produced at the property for over 1,000 years (and their Chianti Classico Reserva was really very good), it`s quite out of the way and probably not worth the trip for a dinner. What is worth the trip, however, is a cooking class. We spent 4 hours with the chef (who speaks English very well) and made cantucinni (a variety of biscotti), ravioli (with our own home made pasta) with ricotta and spinach and finished with sage butter, deep fried zucchini flowers and pork with a red wine and juniper reduction. We`d make a course and enjoy the fruits of our labour, along with pretty much all the wine we could drink. It was our last full day in Italy and we truly couldn`t think of a better way to spend it - one of the highlights of the entire trip.

All in all, a successful trip!

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