Florence, Pisa, Orvieto, Alba, Assisi, Poggibonsi … you have been there and done it! Montepulciano, Castiglione del Lago, Cinque Terre, and Asti. These too are names that spark signs of recognition from tourists, gastronomes, epicures, gourmets, gourmands and food-savvy Italians.
The provinces of Tuscany, Umbria, Piedmont and Liguria have been seducing travellers and locals for centuries, as much for the little gems of restaurants that lie off the beaten track as for famous establishments.
Once you have visited the leaning tower of Pisa, the bridge and Uffici Palace in Florence, hit the back roads to discover what Italy really offers – gastronomically.
A car will help you discover more interesting places.
Take Poggibonsi for example. It was here, where Umbria meets Tuscany, that I had one of my most memorable meals. Like most memorable moments, it was least expected. It just happened, and that is the beauty of such moments!
The driver (I was the “ pilot “) and I were starved after a day of driving the hectic Italian autostrada from Rome’s International Airport- Michelangelo. It was late and the distant hills lay shrouded in the blue darkness for which Tuscany is famous. As we neared the intersection, the sign read Il Rigogola Pizza Club and Spaghetteria. We thought the name to be interesting but not confidence inspiring. Regardless, we followed the signs and ended up in an industrial suburb. The parking lot was full with Italian licences plates
(always a good sign), so we decided to give it a try.
In downtown Bologna, around lunch time you can follow rotund, business people to their favourite restaurants tucked in back alleys and obscure basements. The food is always good and prices reasonable. Try it. This is a true and tried technique in unfamiliar cities.
Stumbling around in the dark, we came upon an entrance in the hedge at the back of the parking lot and fell into a delightful garden festive with lights and packed with families eagerly awaiting for the food they had ordered. All tables were taken but the dining room had free tables. A friendly waiter offered to move one to the patio under an avocado tree.
We ordered tuna in extra virgin olive oil and garlic baked in a clay pot; seafood risotto (Vialone nano rice, no less was used. It is better than arborio rice); wilted spinach sauteed with a hint of garlic, fresh salad with a simple but flavourful vinaigrette tossed tableside, and a bottle of Vernaccia di San Gimignano upon the recommendation of our server. The food was properly cooked and well presented, but we had to wait what seemed to be an eternity.
In Italy and France, where good food and taste count for more than simply filling the stomach, restaurants prepare most dishes from scratch. As the saying goes: “ Good food does not wait for the customer. You have to wait for good food.” Every dish tasted fresh. The seasoning was just right and the wine complemented both dishes very well. We also ordered fresh seasonal fruit. That’s what Italians use to finish their meals. They think desserts are too heavy, and detract from the meal.
Sometime later we were in Montepulciano talking to two architects and mentioned our experience. They looked surprised and told us that Poggibonsi is famous for food as locals drive there all the time to eat well, yet our guide never mentioned a word on the gastronomic mertts of Poggibonsi.
Tuscany, and in particular the Chianti region is full of such gastronomic gems.
Montepulciano is one of the countless perfect hill towns in the region – all living museums. In medieval times, feudal princes picked hills and built cathedrals and castles, often over Etruscan ruins. Then they fought bloody battles to enlarge their fiefdoms. Between battles they competed in architectural projects like building taller ands taller towers to boast.
Montepulciano is also famous for its pedigreed wine called Vino Nobile de Montepulciano. Vinted from a clone of Sangiovese, here called Prugnolo gentile, this is an excellent, deep dark red, full-bodied, fruity, complex, and flavourful wine to complement beef specialties for which the region is famous. You can visit Cantina L. Bigi, Cantina Fassati or Cantina Citivecchia to see how they care about their wines, and taste some of their finest.
A few kilometres away (regions in Italy are never more than a few kilometres apart) you can visit the 12th century town of Montalcino, the birth place of world-famous Brunello di Montalcino. The town’s fortress is still in good repair, housing among other things a wine shop where you can taste a range of Brunello di Montalcino and buy older vintages that you are unlikely to find elsewhere in the world. You can also buy excellent Pecorino cheese, ham and honey. The town is worth a visit. Once you are there, visit Fattoria dei Barbi just outside of town to sample local specialties and taste the fine wines of the winery. Nearby is Lago Trasimeno, a charming lake with many small villages on its shores. Restaurants serve delightful deep-fried fish, that you can wash down with a wine called Est!Est!Est! supposedly so flavourful, that a German bishop on his way to the Vatican liked so much, he decided to stay there until his passing away! His grave is still there. Locals pour a few gallons of his beloved wine on his grave annually. North and west on the Ligurian coast the town Cinque Terre is a haven for backpacking tourists who wander up and down the coast and venture inland. The beautiful scenery compels young, romantic people to spend time around here much to the dismay of locals. There is hardly any tourism infrastructure to cater to them and local resources are starched to the limit.
Locals, although they don’t say it outright, would be very happy if the backpackers never visit Cinque Terre.
But you can eat well here too. Small basement or o first floors restaurants, will serve you simply prepared delicious fresh Thyrennian Sea fish and pasta with pesto. Italians like good food, particularly seasonal and local food simply prepared. It is the freshness that counts! The locals have perfected by trial and error, preparation techniques to enhance their already superb flavour. Roaming small Italian towns, particularly north of Rome could result in unexpected, delightful experiences.
|Writer – Hrayr Berberoglu – E-mail – Read his books?
Professor B offers seminars to companies and interested parties on any category of wine, chocolates, chocolates and wine, olive oils, vinegars and dressings, at a reasonable cost.