Bread soup, rabbit stew, Chianina beef, ‘pici’ (hand-rolled spaghetti), polenta with wild boar sauce… In Tuscany, if you know where to look, you can eat like a king for 20 euros a head
With their vine-clad hills and cypress-lined white roads, the southern provinces of Arezzo, Siena and Grosseto Tuscany seem to distil the essence of what most of us think of when we hear the word “Tuscany”. Prime art-and-history touring country, this is also a region where food, wine, history and territorial pride are intimately intertwined, and a plateful of papardelle alla lepre (flat pasta strands in hare sauce) is as much a part of local culture as a Lorenzetti fresco. There are high-end, cordon bleu restaurants scattered across the area, but in this earthy, tradition-rooted part of Italy, some of the most rewarding gastronomic experiences are also among the cheapest.
Take Siena: it is hard to believe that an organic farm restaurant could be located just a 10-minute walk from Piazza del Campo – but in a town that has kept its Renaissance boundaries fairly intact, green valleys push right up to the walls. In one of these, right behind the Palazzo Pubblico, a cooperative runs the remarkable Orto de’ Pecci (closed Monday evening) – a working farm and social project where volunteers tend the crops and help out in the cheerful restaurant. Think simple local dishes such as rabbit stew or tagliatelle in herb sauce; and think serious value for money, with the final bill unlikely to top €20 a head.
To continue in city-meets-country mode, check into Campo Regio Relais (mid-season doubles from €200), a charming six-room boutique hotel in a historic townhouse, with views across another of Siena’s semi-rural valleys towards the Duomo. The look is antique but light and bright, with rich silk fabrics adding a touch of opulence. Breakfast is a sumptuous spread of home-made goodies.
Lofty Montalcino bases its current fame on Brunello – one of Tuscany’s most prestigious, and pricey, red wines. While the wineries are often swish, state-of-the-art affairs, the town itself is a no-nonsense Tuscan hilltown – a perfect setting for Osteria di Porta al Cassero (closed Wednesday, about €24 a head), a paper-tablecloth trattoria housed in what used to be the stables of the castle. The almost unvarying menu is strong on unfussy local specialities: bread soup, polenta with wild boar sauce, veal tongue in green sauce and delicious potato-rich meatballs.
La Torre di Gnicche (closed Wednesday, about €25 a head) in Arezzo, in a steep lane just off Piazza Grande, is an absolute gem: more a wine bar with food than a full-on restaurant, it is a great place to order a serious bottle and a gourmet snack or plate of pasta without taking out a mortgage. Among the primi, the baked onion soup is a classic winter warmer; in summer, panzanella or a spelt salad (similar to that served in Garfagnana, a region in north-west Tuscany) offer lighter alternatives. Many of the salamis, cheeses and preserves are sourced from small local organic producers, and the wine list is encyclopaedic.
North of Pienza and Montepulciano, Montefollonico is one of those little walled Tuscan hamlets that is so perfect you keep wondering whether it was built as a film set. However, it is 100 per cent genuine – as is the welcome, not to mention the cuisine, at La Botte Piena (closed Wednesday, about €28 a head), which although relatively new has its heart very much in the age-old wine and food traditions of this fertile corner of Tuscany. Downstairs is a bar counter where you can sip a glass of Montepulciano wine and snack on cold cuts and bruschettas. Upstairs is the restaurant proper, where solid local fare such as pici (hand-rolled thick spaghetti) with breadcrumb sauce, or succulent Chianina beef steaks, are served up to a mixed crowd of locals and tuned-in tourists.
Between Montefollonico and Montepulciano, Hotelito Lupaia (double rooms from €240) is a delightful rural hotel done out with real shabby-chic design flair by the Italian family that set up Mexico’s first five-star eco-resort. It feels like the country home of a rather racy, globetrotting aunt with theatrical tendencies – at their most pronounced in the deliciously over-the-top Suite Rossa. Don’t miss the infinity pool with its rock'n’roll glitter lining.
The last comune in Tuscany before heading south into Lazio, Capalbio is a pretty walled town set just back from the coast, colonised by a left-leaning clique of Roman artists and writers. The town’s seaside extension, Capalbio Scalio, is a much more down-to-earth sort of place, however – with one of the region’s mostly unlikely seafood restaurants, in a rustic back room of the unassuming Station Bar (closed Tuesday in low season, about €28 a head). Tuck into tasty plates of spaghetti allo scoglio (with mixed seafood) or simple, squeaky-fresh grilled fish as the Pisa-to-Rome express races past outside. Take heart if you are without a car, by the way; though this is a tiny station, a few trains do actually stop here.
Prices above are per person, for two courses plus dessert, excluding wine.
L’Orto de’ Pecci (+39 0577 222201, www.ortodepecci.it), via del Sole, Siena.
Osteria di Porta al Cassero (+39 0577 847196), via della Libertà 9, Montalcino.
La Torre di Gnicche (+39 0575 352035), piaggia San Martino 8, Arezzo.
La Botte Piena (+39 0577 669481), piazza Cinughi 12, Montefollonico.
Station Bar (+39 0564 898424), piazza Aldo Moro 14, Capalbio Scalo.