Travel Journal: Italy – Part 2, Tuscany Eats

Welcome back to Travel Tuesdays!  We’re still talking about Italy and plan to for quite a while (yes, it was that good of a trip).

Our time in Tuscany was jam-packed with activities.  Though the pace of these activities was slow, just like Tuscany itself, it was probably our most planned portion of the trip; however, rather than running around to museums and cultural landmarks, these plans were leisurely experiences, most of which were food and wine based, which made it probably the coolest part of the entire trip.  Read all about what we did in Part 1, and enjoy reading about what we ate while we were doing it right here.

Siena (nights of July 1 and July 2)

We got into Siena just in time to do a very quick change and whore’s bath before running to the Contrada Dinner.  We were staying in the Onda neighborhood and, therefore, had purchased tickets to that specific contrada dinner.  Some contradas host their dinner in large open squares in their area of Siena, others, like ours, hosted at looooong tables in a narrow alleyway.  There are assigned seats and we happened to be next to some of the only other English speakers so we luckily had the ability to make fun dinner conversation.

italy part2_1
The head table, featuring the Onda contrada heads and the jockey

Each contrada prepares their own menu for their own neighborhood.  I’m not sure what everyone else ate, but our meal consisted of bread that was served out of laundry baskets (since there were so many of us), a meat and cheese plate, penne amatriciana, pork medallions with apple compote and roasted potatoes, and crème caramel for dessert.  (The food was tasty but, unfortunately, didn’t photograph well.)  Of course, there was all the wine you could drink.  The food was not the best we would have during the trip (how could it be when just our contrada prepared for about 700 people), but it was way better than anything I’ve had at a mass produced meal of that scale.  Also, this is the one time where you’re really paying for the experience rather than the food and I would do it over again in a heartbeat.

italy part2_2
After our own meal, we walked past the Giraffa contrada area, which was set up in a square (vs. in a long alley like ours)

We woke up the next morning and enjoyed the lovely breakfast at our hotel.  I LOVE that all hotels take on the B&B mentality (probably because most are boutique hotels vs. our mega places here in the US) and include breakfast in the room rate.  This was by far the best breakfast of the trip.  Tarts and eggs and meat and cheese.  I loved it.  They were also more than happy to prepare coffee to our specifications so I enjoyed an americano with the spectacular view.  I also tried the red orange juice, which is a flavor we don’t have here, but it’s sweet and delicious.

italy part2_3

As this was the day of the big Palio festivities, we spent the morning exploring Siena (one day is enough) and the afternoon doing all things Palio.  In between, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in the very top of our neighborhood that Albert had noticed on his run that morning.  Osteria San Giusseppe gave us one of the best meals of our entire trip – definitely top 3 for sure.  This is one I would recommend to anyone going to Siena.  The place feels a bit cavernous (in fact, the waiters let me walk down into the easily accessible wine cellar right in the middle of the dining room) so it’s the perfect vibe for the medieval village of Siena.

Albert started with a meat and cheese plate.  This is something we did often during the first half of the trip and this was one of the best ones we had as it included some amazing house made dried sausage.  I started with a souffle that was creamy perfection.  It can be tough to properly prepare a souffle or panna cotta but they NAILED it.

For entrees, Albert had a version of alfredo with gamelli pasta, broccoli, and sausage.  I had chocolate pasta with wild boar sausage in a milk sauce.  It was absolutely incredible.  I know it doesn’t look so pretty, but it was absolutely delicious.  It tied with another pasta (we’ll get to that one in Amalfi) as the best of the entire trip.  How lucky to have such a fabulous meal so early on – it really set the tone for the vacation!

italy part2_9

After the Palio was over, we decided to walk around til we found a good looking place not too far from our hotel that had outdoor seating.  We ended up at Papei Trattoria.  Albert had a gnocchi while I had a veal steak.  Both were very good, but the best was our fun discourse with the waiter at the end of the meal who kept bringing us dessert wine and limoncello.  We also had a fabulous bottle of table wine for 10 euros.  It baffles me how good even the cheap stuff was in Italy, particularly in Tuscany.

italy part2_8
Steak is THE thing in this region

Our final meal in Siena was another stop at that lovely breakfast buffet the following morning before our driver picked us up for a wine tour of Chianti.

Panzano (nights of July 3 and July 4)

The majority of July 3rd was spent drinking, not eating, but that was sort of the point!  We did, at some points, have to soak up the vino so we took a couple food stops.  The first was at the second winery we visited, where they prepared us the most unique starter: bread soup.  It was basically bread that’s been blended with tomato and basil and then topped with a drizzle of high quality olive oil.  It looks a bit like gruel, but once you’re over that, it’s quite yummy.

italy part2_19

We also each received a lovely platter of meats, cheeses and crostini.  This was our first introduction to chicken liver paté crostini that we soon learned is a common app in the region.  There was also a sauce made of concentrated wine – almost like sweet aged balsamic.  It was a perfect platter.

italy part2_20

Another one of our stops along the wine tour was Greve, which features a pretty serious butcher shop called Falorni.  There, we picked out some goodies that we could snack on in the car and back at the B&B.

italy part2_18italy part2_17

After a very long day of wine tasting (rough life), we crashed in our room for a bit before heading out to supper.  On our drive into town, Daniele, our driver who is from Panzano, pointed out his favorite restaurant.  Being a small town, it wasn’t difficult for us to find our way back to Cantinetta Sassolini.  It seemed a little dead inside until we realized there was a lovely garden dining area.  Bingo!

italy part2_10

We started with a charcuterie platter (which, again, came with chicken liver paté crostini, yum) because we felt we always needed to get one, especially in this region.

italy part2_11

For entrées, Albert had chicken with olives and herbs and I had pesto risotto with burrata and aged balsamic drizzle.  My risotto certainly did not look like the most exciting item on the menu, but it was so good (that burrata!) that I have even attempted to recreate it at home.

The next day was the 4th of July, but it was very different from our typical star spangled day as we did a Butcher for a Day private experience at Macelleria Cecchini.  We were there for 6.5 hours and spent that time checking on cows, walking through a vineyard, cutting up a beef leg, and making sausage.  The last few hours, however, were spent cooking and eating.

italy part2_14

First, we helped prepare the most amazing braised meat dish.  It was so rich and heavy that Albert thought this was our lunch.  We were soon informed it was “just the antipast” and we headed outside for an eating extravaganza.  We started with a platter of Cecchini’s signature items including chianti sushi (beef tartar), chianti tuna (pork boiled in white wine and stored in olive oil and sage so it resembles tuna), and cosiminio (similar to meatloaf).  Then it was onto the main course which was about 6 different cuts of meat, including the spider cut (a small muscle at the hip – since there’s only two in the whole cow, this is usually reserved for the butcher himself for special occasions) and the famous bistecca Fiorentina.  There was also pinzimonio (veggies with a dip made of olive oil and their special season salt), potatoes, and olive oil cake to end the meal.  Oh and wine.  Lots of wine.

italy part2_16

It was a good thing our B&B was just down the hill from the butcher shop because we essentially rolled there and into bed for naps.  By 9 PM we still weren’t hungry but couldn’t bear the thought of missing a meal in Italy and the opportunity to try something new and local so we walked to a nearby restaurant.  The town of Panzano is small so we simply walked to the center of town and into Oltre il Giardino, the first restaurant we saw with outdoor space.

italy part2_21italy part2_22

For once, we skipped the appetizer course and just got entrees.  I couldn’t even squeeze in a glass of wine.  Albert had a meat platter with beef and sausage, while I had ravioli with butter and sage.  Honestly, I ordered what looked to be the smallest, cheapest item on the menu because I didn’t think I’d be able to eat, but I was very impressed by the ravioli.  It was one of those cases where the simple things are sometimes the best.

Foodie Field Notes: 

  • Local Fare:
    • Meat meat meat.  Tuscany is known for their meat, beef in particular.  Every menu will be very meat heavy.  After a week you’ll be ready for something lighter, but make sure you eat as much meat as you can because it’s prepared so wonderfully here.  It’s rustic with a deep flavor that is hard to come by elsewhere.
    • Of all the meat, the Florentine Steak (la bistecca Fiorentina) is what you’ll hear people talking the most about.  Make sure you try one.  In other meat news, I thought all the braised items were particularly stellar.
    • This is the region to get a good charcuterie plate.  It should come with chicken liver paté crostini, but if it doesn’t, order an app of that as well.
  • Tips: 
    • All the meat is cooked very rare.  I have no problem with that, but I know a lot of people (Albert included) who prefer their meat pink not red.  If this is you, be sure you tell your waiter; otherwise, it’ll arrive to your table still mooing.
    • You don’t have to do the full Butcher for a Day experience like we did; however, I still highly recommend eating at Dario Cecchini’s spot.  50 euros per person will get you TONS of food and wine, and it”s reeeeeally good meat.
    • We found that most restaurants in this region were very good because they’re all local, family run places.  That wasn’t necessarily the case when we got to bigger cities where there are enough tourists they don’t need to concern themselves with being great.  In this area, however, you’re dealing with small towns who have to locals coming back to keep business going.  Quality is consistently good, so don’t stress about finding “the best” – just pop into whichever restaurant’s menu beckons you from the street.
    • The wine in this region is so so so good.  It’s also crazy cheap.  It’s unnecessary to bother with anything more than 14 euros.
    • Eat outside as much as you can.  We like to do this no matter what in the summer (who doesn’t love fresh air and sunshine?!), but it is particularly nice in Tuscany .  Staring at the rolling hills and vineyards while you’re eating and sipping wine will take your breath away.