Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Eat your way round Tuscany

Ask Aoife. Forget Ask Jeeves, or even Google – when it comes to restaurant recommendations I ask Aoife.

Aoife O’Riordain is another travel writer who worked at the Independent – but she should be a food writer. Her other passion is Italy. So before flying to Tuscany last week the first thing I rooted out was her last feature on Florence. And after dumping our bags at quirky Casa Howard, our B&B, my boyfriend and I flip-flopped over the river Arno for supper. For that ‘dining with the locals’ experience she had name-checked Trattoria Cammillo (Borgo San Jacopo 57r, 00 39 055 212427, closed Mondays).

This atmospheric neighbourhood restaurant is crammed with locals in three higgledy piggledy little dining rooms. A rich pungent rabbit macaroni and a creamy sea bass ravioli started the holiday perfectly.

I texted a thank you for the tip. “Where are you eating tomorrow?” she fired back. “You should try Cibrèo, but go early.” And so it began.

According to my guidebook Cibrèo (8/r Via A. del Verrocchio, 00 39 055 234 1100) in Santa Croce was split in two, the more formal restaurant full of tourists and three times the price, the little trattoria buzzing and full of locals. You share cramped tables and you can’t book. We ate with a German couple and two New Yorkers working in Hollywood. The waiter squeezed onto the table with us to explain the menu. It was pure theatre.

Cibrèo gives you a gourmet take on traditional homespun Tuscan dishes and injected a bit of pizzazz into Florence’s food scene when it first opened. Soups are a speciality. I slurped the spicy fish soup, my boyfriend the traditional Tuscan vegetable - more of a thick stew. Then for mains, pigs cheek, dark and rich. The trattoria had bags of atmosphere and a dollop of Italian chaos.

After a couple of days in Florence we were moving on to Fortezza de Cortesi a rustic old farmhouse B&B, dripping with climbing roses outside San Gimignano for a few nights. Just down the road in the little town of Colle di Val d’Elsa Aoife had another two favourites: Arnolfo, with its two Michelin stars and Officina della Cucina Populare (via Gracco del Secco, 86; 00 39 0577 921796; - funky, contemporary shabby chic and exciting flavours.

“You’re my pawns,” Aoife texted as she moved us around the Tuscan chessboard.

We sat outside on the quiet street as the restaurant was packed. I had the Pecorino cheese flan with slithers of pear and drizzled with honey, followed by a rich ricotta and chard tortelli with butter and sage sauce. Iain tried the local speciality Pici, a thick spaghetti with suckling beef ragu. For dessert, spelt and ricotto pie with dried fig ice-cream.

In Greve in Chianti: ‘Go to Mangiando, Mangiando on the main square.” We did. And had one of the best spaghettis vongoles I’ve tasted under the jaunty yellow awning.

We went off piste a couple of times. We found a lovely little enoteca in Radda, La Bottega di Giovannino which started life as a food shop in 1965 and is now a cosy little wine bar. And at the winery and monastery Badia a Coltibuono, also in Chianti we had a lovely lunch: gnocchi di ricotta ripeni di cozze su guazetto di mitili (ricotta cheese and mussel dumplings on a mussel veloute) followed by a selection of local goat and sheep’s cheese with rhubarb chutney washed down with the monastery’s organic Chianti Classico Reserva 2007.

Aoife’s piece de resistance, however, was Locanda Borgo Antico. Partly because we couldn’t find it. “Off the beaten track, outside Greve, in Dimezzano,” she told us. It wasn’t in my guidebook, on our map or on the sat nav. “Are you sure?” I quizzed. “You doubt the oracle?’ came back at us.

“It’s outside Lucolena, in a little clutch of houses hidden among the trees.” We found Lucolena on the map so set off in the car to hunt it down. The terrace overlooking hills blanketed with chestnut woods was picture-perfect, the restaurant an old farmhouse, again full of Italians – not a tourist in sight. “Have the pappardelle with wild boar,” Aoife texted. It’s delicious.” It was. (00 39 055 851024;

Lucy Gillmore was the Deputy Travel Editor at The Independent and is now a freelance writer based in Edinburgh.

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