Tuscan Wining and Dining

A part of our job that we take very seriously here at Tuscan Travel Group is sampling things before we recommend them. This philosophy applies to the properties that we represent (in this context, by “sampling” I mean visiting, touring, staying there if possible and keeping closely in touch with the owner). This also definitely applies to Tuscany’s various eating and drinking establishments. There’s a lot of material to sort through. It may take us decades to sip every wine and taste every prosciutto. But we will persevere!

This is a short list of some of our favorites, some new and some that we have loved for years and are worth the reminder.

Buca Mario— On my most recent trip to Florence only a couple of weeks ago, my mom and I had a very memorable dinner at this Florence establishment and loved every morsel of it. I’ve been to other restaurants that are highly rated and considered Florence “establishments,” and been disappointed, probably because my expectations were too high. In this case, my very high expectations were resoundingly met.

Located in the heart of downtown Florence, not far from the shopping district near Via Tornabuoni, Buca Mario’s entrance is so unassuming that if you blink while walking by you may miss it. The part you see from the street is a small, below street-level door that leads into a tiny room. The very hospitable staff are there to greet you and lead you to your table. Once you begin to head inside, you descend into the huge and beautiful buca (“mouth”), that was once an enormous cellar under a Florentine family mansion. The place is packed with locals and tourists alike no matter the day of the week, so it’s best to reserve in advance.

The extensive menu is a smorgasbord of authentic Florentine / Tuscan food. My mom and I shied away from the bistecca alla fiorentina, but saw other diners dive joyfully into the enormous T-bone steak that is well known in Florence. I ordered melt-in-your-mouth veal osobucco, and my mom ordered something, maybe lamb chops. I hardly noticed anything else around me once I started in on my veal.

Something to keep in mind if you haven’t been to Tuscany before, is that it’s a meat-lover’s paradise. Italians tend to eat that which is local and in season, and since much of Tuscany (including Florence) is inland, its delicacies feature a lot of red meat and game. Pappardelle con cinghiale (wild boar pasta) is one of my personal favorites. I highly recommend trying things in Italy that you think you might not like, because if it’s on the menu, it’s sure to be local and very fresh. You may surprise yourself.

 

Obica— This is an old favorite that we’ve mentioned in our blog before, numerous times. We just love it. Billed as a mozzarella bar, Obica is a whole lot more than that. It is located not far from Buca Mario, but the similarities end there. While Buca Mario is an old establishment serving traditional Tuscan fare, Obica has a new and modern feel.

After a day of shopping and sight-seeing in Florence, Obica is a great spot to stop for an evening cocktail. They have a beautiful indoor/outdoor lounge area just outside the entrance to the main restaurant. But I always try to go for dinner. Their unique menu features entire meals planned around the type of mozzarella that you choose. Start with your cheese choice, and then build the plate around that. And this cheese is so outstanding, I get hungry just thinking about it.

Sweet Wine Bar— This is a new discovery, thanks to our friends Christina and Charles, who live not far from this spot. If you’re up for an adventure, it’s worth taking a taxi about 5-10 minutes outside of downtown Florence into the Gavinana neighborhood to try this new seafood restaurant. I realize I just told you that Florence is known for local meat and game. But I love seafood. So if a restaurant really gets it right, I’m going to tell you all about it.

I was expecting an amazing wine list (and was not disappointed), but what surprised me was the simplicity and quality of the seafood. I ordered a mixed seafood grill and loved every bite. They also have a creative dessert menu, including a sort-of-cheesecake in a jar with fruit. I can’t recall the Italian name for it, but it was lighter and so much more delicious than any cheesecake I’ve had before. This is a don’t-miss restaurant.

Enoteca Fuori Porta— After talking about a great new find like Sweet Wine Bar, I am feeling nostalgic and want to mention an old favorite again. This enoteca (“wine bar”) is located in the hip Oltrarno district of Florence (south of the river), and in the years I’ve been going there I have never been disappointed. I’ve been there at various times of the day— lunch, afternoon snack, dinner. I’ve been there with various groups of people— friends, my mom, my kids. Everybody has always been completely satisfied with the experience.

First of all, the location is lovely. You can sit outside on their front patio, gazing upon one of the original medieval walls that surround Florence. The wine bar is right outside a large doorway carved into the stone wall (fuori porta means “outside the door”). Also, they have an outstanding wine list that’s sure to please any taste and mood. And finally, perhaps most importantly, the food is simple and divine. My favorite thing to do is order a nice glass of wine to go with a large platter of delectable meats and cheeses. The last time I was there, I ordered a simple crostini, which is toasted bread with various toppings like cheese and tomatoes. The portions are generous and the flavors are out of this world.

The Butcher of Panzano— When you’re ready to escape the hustle and bustle of Florence, the perfect direction to head is south into the rolling hills of the Chianti wine region. There are several picturesque towns sprinkled along the gorgeous highway between Florence and Siena, such as Greve in Chianti (which I love), Radda in Chianti (known for the best Chianti wines) and Panzano in Chianti, which is known for being a beautiful tiny town, and for the famous mad butcher.

Please remember that I warned you that central Tuscany is not shy about meat consumption. Though it seems that “nose to tail” butchery is in vogue right now, the butcher of Panzano has been cooking that way for 40 years. He feels that to waste anything, even a tendon, is disrespectful to the animal. If that sounds a little odd to you, note that he also hosted a public funeral for bistecca alla fiorentina (the classic Florentine T-bone steak dish) during the mad cow disease scare a few years back, and that a memorial plaque remains to this day. This man takes his job very seriously.

Dario Cecchini is the long time proprietor and butcher of the Antica Macelleria Cecchini (macelleria means “butcher shop”), and his presence in Panzano may be what put the tiny town on the map. I recently stopped by to see what all the fuss was about. Although Dario was getting ready to close up for the day, he welcomed our group by shoving glasses of Chianti into our hands and pointing us to the buffet table. There was an impressive and inviting display of meats and cheeses for the tasting. One of his employees also gave me a grand tour of the establishment, which occupies 2 buildings, one on each side of the main street that cuts through Panzano.

As I wandered out into the street, glass of wine in hand (see photo), I delighted in how different this butcher shop is than any I could find back home. There are at least 3 different dining rooms, including one that is carved into pure ancient rock below ground. In addition to selling high quality and delicious cuts of meat wrapped in butcher paper, this butchery also serves amazing meals to hungry meat lovers. I’ve heard that lunch is the best meal to enjoy here. I learned about the 3 menu options, each menu clearly focused on meat. I can’t wait to go back someday for a leisurely lunch.

 

 

 

La Bandita Townhouse Caffe— From the Chianti region, if you continue heading south, the rolling hills become even more dramatic and breathtaking as you enter the Val d’Orcia region of Tuscany. One of my favorite towns in this area is Pienza. It sits perched on a hilltop with breathtaking views of the valley below. Pienza is famous for pecorino cheese. The way to do this town right, in my opinion, is to park your car right outside the ancient walls, meander through the cobblestone streets sampling cheese as you go, and end up at the very surprising La Bandita Townhouse Caffe.

The reason I say it’s surprising is that you would not expect such a modern, high-end foodie gem right in the middle of this tiny, remote Renaissance village in Italy. The owner is a former music industry executive from New York, and he brings a very hip vibe to this corner of the world.

The Caffe is located on the ground floor of the boutique hotel La Bandita Townhouse. The same owner also has an amazing B&B in the countryside right outside of Pienza, called La Bandita Countryhouse, which is in our portfolio of properties. Both the townhouse and the countryhouse are beautifully done, and strike exactly the right chord of relaxation and luxury.

Poggio Antico— While we are down in southern Tuscany, I’d like to mention one of our favorite wineries. The area of Tuscany around Montalcino is famous for the lovely Brunello wines. A few years ago, when Brandy and I were visiting the area scouting properties, we brought our husbands along for a day of wine tasting and blogged about it here. We visited multiple places that day, but Poggio Antico stands out in our memories.

I believe that, even if it had not been a beautiful October day right in the middle of harvest, we would still have loved Poggio Antico. But the fact is that we ended up visiting on the most perfect day. The skies were clear and we could see miles of stunning vistas in almost every direction. We had scheduled a tour followed by a tasting. This is how wine tasting is done in Tuscany. It’s quite a different experience if you are accustomed to buzzing quickly through several wineries in Napa. In Tuscany, you visit one or maybe two wineries in a day, so that you have plenty of time to tour the facility and hear the details of what makes each wine special. There’s never any rush. And visiting during harvest is the best, as you get to see the wine being made in real time.

Poggio Antico makes a delicious Brunello and several other wonderful reds, all of which they are more than happy to ship to the US. This does not make Poggio Antico unique in the region. However, the friendly, knowledgeable staff and the beauty of the estate stand out in my mind. Also, they have a highly-rated restaurant on the property, making it easy to make an entire day of your visit.

 

 

Colle Bereto— Last but certainly not least, I want to tell you about a recent find, which is without a doubt my favorite winery in all of Tuscany. This one is in the Chianti wine region between Florence and Siena. While Brunello remains, in general, my favorite Italian wine, a really good Chianti can give it a run for its money. Colle Bereto makes a really, really good Chianti.

During the winery tour, which is stunning even in March (off season), be sure to have your camera ready. And even while fawning over the amazing scenery, be sure to listen. The knowledgeable winery manager, Bernardo, will tell you all about the very particular process the wines undergo to make them special. None of the ingredients, nor any part of the process from vine to bottle, is sourced offsite. They control every aspect of the wine so that you are sure to taste nothing but the best. I left that day with a smile on my face and a case of wine headed back to California.

 

Apart from the high quality of the wine, what makes Colle Bereto stand out is the wine tour experience. Following the tour, your group is led into the stunning cellars where a candle-lit, multi-course lunch is presented with wine pairings. It’s simply fantastic. You must reserve in advance and spring for the lunch option. We’re sending all of our guests and friends to this winery from now on.

Buon Mangiare e Bere! (Happy Eating and Drinking)