If you’re reading this blog, you obviously love food and don’t need me to tell you that Italy is one of the greatest culinary destinations of the world. 20 regions make up the boot-shaped country and each is revered for its own unique delicacies and prized regional ingredients.
Take Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy for example, where Parmigiano Reggiano and the balsamic vinegar of Modena are made; or Campania, gifted with the fertile volcanic soils that produce the lush San Marzano tomatoes – the base to the classic Neapolitan pizza. These are just some of the many high-quality, regional ingredients that make Italian food so delicious and noteworthy.
Early in September, I travelled to Tuscany, in the centre of Italy, to explore the region’s food treasures. Here’s my photo diary of what and where we ate, who cooked for us and the picture perfect spots we visited.
We touched down in Pisa, grabbed our hire car and made for Versilia in the north-western province of Lucca. As we pulled up at our guesthouse, my jaw dropped. A stunning converted farmhouse stood before me, marked by olive groves and ancient trees. Set on a hill overlooking the city of Camaiore, Locanda al Colle would be our home for the next four and a half days.
The resident chef, Gian Lucca, prepared our first wonderful meal in Tuscany – a “light lunch” of smoked salmon salad, with olives, pecorino cheese (the cheese of the region), cherry tomatoes, carrot & white cabbage with a vinegar dressing. The ingredients were crispy fresh and ripe with that “just picked” flavour. The sweet that followed was a dessert lovers’ dream; warmed sweet figs with creamy mascarpone cheese in a light and crisp pastry, topped off with a dusting of powdered chocolate.
A few kilometers from Pietrasanta is La Dogana, supposedly one of the “best restaurants in the area”. It certainly looked the part, with beautiful candlelit tables set within a lush green garden, thick cotton tablecloths and fine silverware but the food didn’t live up to its reputation. It started well with a plate of lovely, light, Arancini (risotto balls) and a seafood pasta with lashings of olive oil, sweet cherry tomatoes and al dente spaghetti, but then the dishes rapidly declined. My main course of sea bass, to share between two, appeared with no accompanying sauce and a serious lack of seasoning. My aunt ordered a mixed seafood platter; piled high with prawns, squid and mussels but again it was all batter and no seasoning or accompanying sauce. Both courses were very bland. Some of the failures could be forgiven if it wasn’t for the bill, which was over €300 euros for the four of us. When paying this sort of money I expect much more.
Each morning Locanda al Colle’s chef, prepared freshly baked pastries, including sweet brioche, almond breakfast muffins and savoury mixed seed croissants. Fresh tomatoes from his mum’s garden alongside cheese, honey, cured meats, fruit and cereal were also laid out for us to graze on. And eggs, cooked to your request, were offered each morning too.
In the day we took a leisurely walk around Pietrasanta and the Piazza Duomo. There seemed to be places to eat and drink around every street, as well as all sorts of works of art to admire. Still full from lunch we didn’t eat here, just pausing for coffee and to people watch.
After the disappointment of the night before, we returned to Locanda al Colle for a three-course dinner, cooked by Gian Lucca. The first course was a delicious squid salad with radicchio, rocket, tomatoes confit, grilled aubergines & almonds. Followed by cold pasta with courgettes, basil, olives & ‘pecorino in foglie di noce’ (sheep’s milk cheese aged in walnut leaves). A really simple dish and the first and only time I’ve been wowed by cold pasta. The final course was a sickly sweet chocolate & orange pudding with white chocolate sauce. I love chocolate but this was too much for me and didn’t come close to the first dessert from lunch (and no other dessert, in fact, thereafter).
Today, I decided to be a little nosey and catch Gian Luca in action in his kitchen. My timing happened to be perfect as he was preparing the pastries and bread for the following day’s breakfast. Watching him in action was a delight and his eyes lit up (as mine do) as he spoke about his passion. Gian also runs cookery classes at Locanda for guests and that day he was planning to teach his class how to make fresh pasta. Going by what I’d tried the night before this class would go down a treat.
In the evening we planned to take a trip into the centre of Lucca (about a 45-minute drive away) from Versilia to witness the Luminara (Festival of Light). The festival celebrates its patron saint, the Volto Santo, on the 14th of September and the night before (the 13th) a big procession goes through the main streets and squares in the city, which are all lit by thousands of candles. A spectacular firework display then follows. Unfortunately, we missed the whole event as my aunt wasn’t well enough to walk through the city’s cobbled streets. However, I did manage to find this incredible time-lapse video of the Luminara in Pisa (not Lucca) from photographer, Davide Abate, via YouTube, to bring the festival to life for you.
Video Credit: www.davideabate.com
Instead, we found Ristorante Ammodonostro within the walled part of the city to dine at. The food here was great and reasonably priced. To start, I ordered chicken liver paté and mum ordered crostini & bruschetta with mashed bean & bacon, ham & cherry tomatoes drizzled with balsamic vinegar, which we shared. The paté had a great flavour though it was a little less smooth than what I make. For mains, I had a huge chunk of veal, which was incredibly tender and mum had a succulent honeyed spiced pork again. Despite being full to the brim, we managed to squeeze a citrus crème brûlée in too, ending the meal on a high.
Since we’d arrived, my aunt and I had had been hankering after pizza – how could we not in Italy! So, on our final full day, we made for Lido di Camaiore (the seaside) in search of real Italian pizza. Walking along the promenade we came across a smart looking restaurant, branded simply in blue and white. Our eyes and noses made the right choice, Ristorante Pizzeria MANE delivered exactly what we had been dreaming of, light, pillowy based pizzas with beautifully fresh, full-flavoured toppings.
On our final night, Gian Lucca cooked us a four-course meal and appetizers – in hindsight we really shouldn’t have eaten so much at lunch as this was the biggest meal of the week. Highlights were the radicchio, with gorgonzola sauce & balsamic dressing, as well as the freshly-made pasta with cheese, tomato & aubergine. Although the beef braised in Chianti wine is also worthy of praise too.
Eating in Tuscany shows you that simplest dishes can be the most enjoyable ones because the ingredients are so fresh and unhurried. In summary, if you love food you will fall in love with Tuscany.