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Trip Report Trip report: Mostly Food Notes in Tuscany (with florence) and Bologna

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We just returned from a week in Montepulciano, Florence and Bologna and I will post a few notes here with thanks to everyone who answered all of my questions prior to our trip. We have made several trips to Italy at this time of year and prefer it due to the lack of crowds and the winter sales. We did have one rainy day in Florence but otherwise the weather was, while not always warm, very tolerable with a heavy cashmere sweater and a wool jacket. I brought only the shoes I wore on the plane, black Merrill leather clogs and found them to be amazingly comfortable, if not the most stylish footwear.

We flew Delta from JFK to Rome. Plane was an hour late and due to an annoying problem with luggage, missed our connecting flight to Florence. So we had to take the next flight which brought us to Florence about 3pm. Rented an automatic Citroen from AutoEurope at the airport and drove the A1 highway from the airport south to Montepulicano. A very easy drive with only a little traffic at the autostrada exit. Arrived in Montepulciano and proceeded to our hotel, Terrassa de Montepulicano. I highly recommend this place. It is run by Roberto and his wife, Vittoria, who live in part of the building. Roberto is ebullient and just plain terrific. Price was 85E for a double room with separate sitting area.

Unfortunately, the restaurants we had planned on trying in Montepulciano (Borgo Buio, Diva e Maceo, Quattro Venti) were closed due to both the time of year and the fact that we were there on a Sunday and Monday. So we had two decent, if not exciting, meals at Le Bricole (spelling may be off) which is in the lower part of town. Good wood-fired pizzas and good pici with meat ragu. Very reasonable prices. Very friendly service so this is a good option if other choices are not available for one reason or another. Dinner for two less than30E with house wine.

The next morning we awoke late, after the scheduled breakfast hours. No problem, said Roberto. Had breakfast and spent about an hour chatting with him in a mixture of fractured Italian and broken English. We could have passed the whole day with this guy. A real character in the best way!

After breakfast we drove to Le Cappezzine on the Cortona road for a private tour of Avignonesi, one of the region's most celebrated producers of vino nobile and vin santo. A highlight of the tour was seeing how the grapes are dried for the production of vin santo. The wine tasting, held in the magnificent main building of the complex, was accompanied by a plate of three pecorini (local cheese) in three states of ageing, along with some of the typical salumi: Tuscan prosciutto, lard, cappicola, etc. Although this was a tour arranged for my partner, who is in the business, the winery is open by appointment to the public and I highly recommend their tours. You can get an idea of their operation at their web site.

That afternoon we drove to gorgeous Pienza (half an hour from Avignonesi) for one of the best meals of the trip at Latte di Luna. Even on Monday in January the place was full and we were very happy that we had booked a table that morning. I began with their justly famed fettucine lavished with black truffles. Secondi for me was wonderful crisy roast duck, and for my partner, roast suckling pig (only one portion remained by the time we arrived at 2pm). With a side of white beans and house wine and water the meal for two came to E. 35, which I consider an amazing bargain for that quality of food. This is a very casual place with friendly service and I only wish it were closer to my own home!! Highly recommended.

The third day, Tuesday, we drove to Florence and, with the printed directions from ViaMichelin, found it a snap to enter the city and drive to the Avis location for the car drop-off. Three nights in Florence were spent at B&B In Piazza della Signoria, which came to feel like home to us. Our room, decorated with original frescoes, opened onto the Piazza and we had the run of the place: access to the kitchen/bar; free internet; great breakfast; helpful staff.

I will not detail the sightseeing since that has been done before here with much skill. Suffice to say that one morning at 9:30 am we walked in to the Accademia and shared David with about 6 other people. One of the reasons that I enjoy travling in January. There were no lines and no need to make reservations for the key sights.

There was, however, a small crowd at Farmacia Santa Maria Novella where I spent a memorable hour on the only bad-weather day (heavy rain) we had that week. Contrary to what I have read, this place is a snap to find on Via della Scala; it even has a green neon sign out front!

We had two excellent dinners at Il Guscio in the Oltrarno. I had reserved a table in advance and we enjoyed the place so much that we returned a second time two days later. Dishes we particularly liked here included the ricotta-stuffed ravioli with a sauce of guinea hen (faraone); matagliati (hand-torn pasta) with sauce of shrimp and zucchini flowers; grilled baby lamb chops; grilled veal chop; peposo (Tuscan beef stew-like preparation); and the house special antipasti that included a vegetable mousse and a packet of robiola cheese baked in filo dough. In looking at the bill for one of our dinners here, I see that a meal of one house appetizer; two primi; two secondi; half-liter of house wine and water cost E. 65. Reservations are essential here. Open for dinner only. Via dell' Orto, 49.

Other meals in Florence included the famous boiled beef sandwiches at Nerbone in the Central Market; this is a great place for a very inexpensive lunch; they have a selection of local plates that you order and pay for at their counter and then take to a shared table opposite to eat in the company of a cross section of Florentines from workers to professors, and visitors to the city. Very cheap, closes at 2pm. One night we went to Cambi, also in the Oltrarno. This is a local favorite specializing in bistecca a la Fiorentina. The price for this dish, 35Euro per kilo, is very reasonable for the city; most of their other second courses are priced under 10 Euro. Excellent antipasti bar; mixed selection from the bar is E. 8.

In speaking with Andrea at our B&B about eating in the city, he told me that he does not understand why more tourists do not patronize the Oltrarno restaurants; Florence is so small that it is easy to walk almost anywhere and in general, away from the Pitti/Santo Spirito areas, the restaurants there are more likely to be patronized by locals than tourists and to offer better value than in more central locations.

I also spent some time scouting the shops in Florence since it was January sale time. Unfortunately, the sale had started the week prior to our arrival so selection was smaller than it might have been. Even with the poor value of the dollar, prices in many shops were quite a bit lower than back in NYC, especially with the vat refund. There were also many things that were not worth bothering with. I will not go on about my bargain hunting but will answer questions from any shopping fanatics with pleasure. Before I end this topic, I will say that one of the best things to buy in the region are dried porcini mushrooms; shops in the Central market have whole dried porcini for 8 Euro. Another buy are the Santa Maria Novella products which I have discussed on another thread here. I was glad I did not buy olive oil in Florence, which I would have had to carry around with me the rest of the trip; for a bit more (15Euro for a liter bottle) the Frescobaldi Wine Bar in the Rome airport was the best purchase point for me. At this time of the year the new oil is available everywhere; definitely worth trying if you are interested in food.

I will attempt to continue this report tomorrow when I am not as tired. Still to come: Train to the eating mecca of Bologna.

Author: ekscrunchy
Date: 01/24/2006, 01:08 pm

I realized after I posted this rambling account of the first part of my trip that I should have mentioned "trip report/food and dining notes" in the title. I would like to re-post with another heading but don't know how to do this. Help, anyone?

To complete my food-centric account of Florence, let me add that an excellent place for snacks or light lunches is located near Piazza della Signoria (close to our B&B) and also near the American Express office, where we purchased our train tickets for Bologna. This is the well-known Cantinetta del Verrazzano on Via de Tavolini, the enoteca/wine bar/bakery associated with a winery in Chianti. Although there are small tables, travelers might be more interested in the excellent focaccia-type snacks baked in the oven at the rear; you can walk to the counter in front of the oven, look over the day's offerings spread in front of you and listed on a blackboard (proscuitto with mozzarella and basil; tomato and mozzarella; fontina cheese with peas, etc), which will be heated up for you, and have a good, typical lunch for less than 3 Euro plus your choice of drinks. Another day we sat at the tables in the back room where the shelves are filled with wine books, and lunched on a platter of crostini (listed on the printed menu) and the new Brunello wine. Table service costs more, of course. Although this place is mentioned in many guidebooks, we found it to be very popular with people who worked in the area. The woman at our hotel told us it was her favorite lunch spot in the area. Across the narrow street is Perche No? which, along with Carabe, serves what many Florentines consider to be the the best gelato in Italy. When the Allies entered the city during the Second World War, legend has it that they gave priority to restoring the power grid to this block so that the gelato production could continue uninpeded. True or not, their white chocolate and dark chocolate with orange is fact. Via dei Tavolini, 19r. Closed Tuesday.

Next: Two days in "Big, Wise and Red" Bologna.

Author: ekscrunchy
Date: 01/24/2006, 02:00 pm

Forgot to add:
I remember a post in which someone asked where to get labels from wine bottles. At Cantineta del Verrazzano in Florence, in the room to the right when you are facing the oven, there is a rack on the wall filled with labels from the Verrazzano estate in Chianti that are there for the taking.

Author: TexasAggie
Date: 01/24/2006, 02:14 pm

This is wonderful, thank you so much for posting! It sounds like you enjoyed some particularly fine meals, I really appreciate all the detail in your descriptions and have added the restaurants to my Tuscany file.

Author: LCBoniti
Date: 01/24/2006, 02:32 pm

Thank you for your report. I will be going to Florence next month and will definitely try some of your suggestions.

Looking forward to more . . .

Author: ekscrunchy
Date: 01/24/2006, 02:59 pm

Thanks to both of you. I will post the Bologna notes, also very heavy on food, as soon as I can. Let me know if you have any food-related questions about either place.

Author: ekscrunchy
Date: 01/24/2006, 06:22 pm

After three nights in Florence, we took a morning train to Bologna (26 Euro for two second-class Eurostar seats purchased at the American Express office in Florence) Due to luggage, we taxied to our hotel; as in Florence, taxis are expensive and as I recall, it cost bout 10 Euro for the ten minute ride to Hotel Roma, where we were booked for two nights. Hotel Roma proved to be an excellent choice for the money. The location is as central as is possible, a two minute walk from the Piazza Maggiore. A double room on the top floor had a separate sitting area and decent sized bathroom. Ceilings had wooden beams and, while the decor is nothing to write home about, the room was very comfortable. The view from the room was of the rooftops of the city. This appears to be a businessman's hotel; staff are very friendly and there is a reportedly excellent restaurant on the premises. We did not eat here, though. The room price includes a decent breakfast and tax.

We arrived in time for lunch and walked about 5 minutes to Trattoria Gianni (A la Vecia Bulugna) on Via Claveture, 18. We arrived about 1:30 and were lucky to get the last empty table in the place. This restaurant is a member of Slow Food, which we find to be a very reliable barometer in helping choose where to eat. It is a casual place that is a bit off the street so you would not come upon it when walking. The menu offers the typical dishes of the region. nothing elaborate, just great unfussy food. We were both eager to try to famed tortellini in brodo of Bologna and that did not disappoint. For second courses we selected from the menu of daily specials. I had baked rabbit (yes, it does taste like chicken, but delicious chicken); my partner could not get enough of the pasta and so ordered strozzapretti a la Gianni, fresh pasta with tomato and prosciutto sauce. Dessert was a sinfully delicious zabaglione-type confection made with mascarpone and topped with crumbled crumbs of amaretti cookies. With h ouse wine and water, the bill came to about 50Euro, but I cannot find the bill so this is a guess.

Unlike Florence, Bologna shuts down tight for the mid-day break, so keep this in mind when you plan to sightsee and shop.

We had reserved in advance for dinner that night at Caminetto d"Oro, another Slow Food place about 10 minutes walk north of the piazza off the main Via Independencia. This is a more upscale place with a contemporary look; most men were in jacket and tie. Service, however, was very friendly and one of the waiters spoke excellent English. Dinner here began with a plate of the most prized salumi of the region, culatello. With two excellent pastas; one secondi of baby lamb chops with roast potatoes, fennel, and zucchini; and a bottle of the local Lambrusco (I had to try it) the bill came to 75 Euro. Again, advance reservations were essential.

The next day after a round of sightseeing we made it to Tamburini, which is among Italy's most celebrated food shops and truly a marvel. You can try some of the things you see here at their self-service, cafeteria-style lunch which is unlike any cafeteria I have ever visited. You can order half-portion of the pasta dishes; there are also salads, vegetables, meat and fish dishes. Nothing is labeled, you just point and are handed a plateful. With wine and water we paid under 10E. This is one of the better food bargains I have experienced in Europe. The streets around the deli are packed with shops selling all of the foods of the region. Parmesan cheese, in various stages of ageing, is one of the best things to bring home; the prices are about half that in New York City and all of the shops will vacuum pack your cheese to bring on the plane. I was hoping to purchase a bottle of traditional balsamic vinegar but the savings was not so great as to merit carrying it back with me.

For anyone who is interested in Mephisto shoes, Bologna proved to be a good place; my partner bought a pair of men's shoes from Mephisto's main line for 120Euro, less than half the New York price. this French company makes some of the most comfortable walking shoes around; their women's styles are not very fashionable but there are some nice men's designs.

I will return when I have more time to finish up with a final meal and some final thoughts. Thanks for reading!

Author: shadowcat
Date: 01/24/2006, 10:32 pm

I am very much enjoying your trip report! I'll be in Florence and Bologna next month and you have provided some wonderful dining suggestions.

I did have a question. How did you make your reservation with the Hotel Roma in Bologna? I have tried contacting them through their web site, via an e-mail address that another Fodors poster provided, and by fax, and have had no response.

Author: ekscrunchy
Date: 01/25/2006, 07:51 am

As I remember, I also had some trouble with their web site. Here is the e-mail address. I used it and always received a response within a day or two at most:
[email protected]

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