Cheap trattorias in southern Tuscany

by Lee.Marshall

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.

TRATTORIA CHOICE

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.

 

 

 

Lee.Marshall

I've lived in Rome since 1984. For the last fifteen years, I've made a living as a travel writer specialising in Italy (I'm a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveller UK and the US travel and lifestyle magazine Departures). But that's really just an extension of the way I live in places and the way I travel: I've never been the kind of person who always goes on holiday to the same place, or who settles on one favourite trattoria and never eats anywhere else. So if I have any authority as a Rome expert, I suppose it's because - in addition to my passion for my adopted hometown – I'm just plain curious.

I arrived in Rome with my partner in September 1984, fresh out of university in England and with no clear idea about how long the stay might last (was it a holiday or a serious move? Neither of us were sure). It was touch and go at first, and fate took a hand in our decision to stay: on the day the money ran out, we both found jobs teaching English. Then came the sheer effort of finding somewhere to live, assembling all those bits of paper that Italian officialdom is so fond of, getting to grips with a new culture, a new language, a new job. All of this gave me an unusually intense and untouristy introduction to Roman life.

I’m ashamed to say that it was four years before I got around to looking inside the Colosseum – by this time I was an honorary Roman, and so I had the same slight resistance that a New Yorker might have to visiting the Statue of Liberty. But it was probably also something to do with the obviousness of the attraction – by this time my wife and I (we got married in the Rome registry office on the Campidoglio in 1988) had visited most of the city’s Medieval churches, toured the lesser Etruscan sites of Lazio, been to Ostia Antica (easily my favourite Ancient Roman site in Italy) three or four times. It’s the richness of Rome that I’ve always loved: ten different visitors could spend ten days in the city and not overlap once.

Not long after the birth of our daughter Clara in 1990, I gave up English teaching and became a freelance writer, soon specialising in two of my great passions – film and travel. In between the major film festivals, my wife and I worked on updates of the Time Out Rome guide and I wrote article after article on Italy for Condé Nast Traveller and other publications.

But it has always been a special treat to be able to write about Rome – I think I put more or myself into these pieces, because I'm working out on paper how it was that I came to think of this city as home. It’s difficult to analyse one’s love for a place. There’s the food, and the wine, and the weather, and the sheer beauty of the city – all those things are important. But the draw for me has a lot to do with Rome’s air of theatricality – all those Baroque stage sets that just happen to be piazzas and churches; and all those locals who walk and talk and gesture with the innate confidence of people who are always on camera. After more than a quarter of a century and plenty of run-ins with reality, I have never quite got over the feeling that my life in Rome is one long film (shot, or course, in golden evening light).

These days I divide my time between an apartment in the Testaccio district of the city and a house in the Umbrian countryside, but for all the charms of la campagna umbra it’s still Rome that really stirs my soul. I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of this passion in my Rome Expert guides and blog for Simonseeks. Personally I don’t think anyone can ever claim to be a real Rome Expert: there’s just too much to see, do, eat, study and drink. But I’ve built up a decent Rome radar in the last couple of decades – and I’m going to give it my best shot.

My Rome

Where I always grab a coffee
My local is a buzzy place called Linari (Via Zabaglia 9) in the down-to-earth Testaccio district. They know just how I like my cappuccino (in a small glass, with less milk than usual), and their cornetti (breakfast pastries) are some of the best in Rome.

My favourite stroll
Rome backstreets in general. I love working out routes across the city that take me down Medieval lanes and across Renaissance piazzas, avoiding the traffic. It makes you realise that there’s a secret city out there that those in cars never see.

Fiction for inspiration

The great Rome epic novel has yet to be written – but I enjoyed When We Were Romans, written by my friend Matthew Kneale, which gives a very evocative and dramatic child’s-eye-view of the Eternal City.

Where to be seen this summer
The hot ticket will be Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI contemporary art and architecture museum (www.maxxi.beniculturali.it), due to be inaugurated towards the end of May. It should breathe new life into the rather sleepy Flaminio quartiere north of Piazza del Popolo, where cool bar/restaurant chalet Tree Bar (Via Flaminia 226) currently gives a taste of how the area might evolve.

The most breathtaking view
Rome spread out like a 3-D diorama from the main terrace of the Gianicolo hill above Trastevere.

The best spot for some peace and quiet
Rome’s Orto Botanico, or Botanical Garden, is perhaps not the world’s best kept, but it is a lovely green oasis on the edge of Trastevere (Largo Cristina di Svezia 24, tel +39 06 4991 7108, entrance €4, closed Sun).

Shopaholics beware!
I love the quirky mix of shops in the lanes that lie just one or two blocks north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Artists’ supply shops, designer chocolate, creative jewellery and accessory boutiques, vintage clothes stores, shops selling modernist antiques, my favourite no-brand jeans brand, SBU (Via San Pantaleo 68-69, tel +39 06 6880 2547) – this is a great area for alternative shopping.

City soundtrack
Load Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on your MP3 player, and use it as your background music. It’s pure Baroque drama – just like Rome itself.

Don’t leave without... looking through the keyhole of the gate into the garden of the Knights of Malta HQ on the Aventine hill (Piazza Cavalieri di Malta). The cupola of Saint Peter’s is framed at the end of the rose walk, with the rooftops of Rome on either side. Where else in the world can you see three sovereign states through one keyhole?