Restaurants, wine bars and other fun places
Before I write about some of my favorite restaurants (plus a few places to avoid or that were disappointing) I want to talk about why I generally love the dining experience in France and Italy. My daughter says I’m the slowest eater in the Western Hemisphere and maybe that’s why I sometimes think I was Italian in another life. Being able to sit at a table and talk and eat for pretty much as long as you want is something I was born to do.
My first trips to Italy and France consisted of three bike trips and a volunteer trip in the Puglia region and consequently most of our meals were taken together. To say they were long and liquid would be a mild understatement. We had a few meals on our own but, again, several of us usually went out together so they were also long and liquid meals.
When I started traveling with my sister, I realized that this is the norm rather than the exception. And I love it. I can’t tell you how much I hate how wait staff in American restaurants are constantly up in your face, asking “how is everything?” My assumption is that they try to annoy you enough so that you’ll leave and they can get another tip.
It’s no surprise that Italy is the epicenter of the slow food movement. Kudos to them.
And the other equally important aspect of dining in France and Italy is that you get actual food that’s locally grown and seasonal. What a surprise to find that greens actually have flavor. And to pick up a piece of fresh fruit from a local market and realize what it’s supposed to taste like? Amazing. Even simple dishes like a cheese plate with fresh pears is incredible. And as an aside we’ve had some wonderful meals at wineries which you can read about in my Vineyards and Enotecas post. I have included a couple of enotecas below for those readers who don’t want to wade through my Vineyards post.
I’m hoping to add some new restaurants and enotecas after my visit to Verona, Vernice and the Greek Islands in October 2017. So keep checking back.
Il Grappolo Blu, Montalcino, Tuscany
I first ate here on my 2000 bike trip in southern Tuscany. We were on our own for dinner after two wine tastings and a couple from New Jersey asked me to go with them to Il Grappolo Blu. I’m not sure how they learned of it and can’t remember what I ate, just that it was a fun evening, laughing and talking over great food while it stormed outside.
Whatever it was-the ambience, the food—I knew I wanted to bring my sister here when we came to Italy in 2010. Here’s what I wrote in my journal: Last night after cleaning up we tried to do the wine tasting at the enoteca across the street from Palazzina but they were about to close up so we had one glass of wine each and headed to il Grappolo Blu, a restaurant I ate in on my second bike trip. We grossly over ate but it was our first real meal in 36 hours other than Roberto’s wonderful breakfast. Between the two of us we had ribollita, a cheese plate, caprese salad, chocolate soufflé, wine……. Everything is made fresh and the owner was super nice to us.
We ate there every night we were in Montalcino and on the last night I wrote, We had our last dinner at il Grappolo which was super busy and up until the end only the cute bus boy was friendly. Then Sue told the owner it was our last night and he gave us a free dessert wine which freaked Sue out at first because she’d tried grappa for the first time at Banfi. But it was delicious and as we got up to go, the owner came out from behind the bar, kissed us both and asked our names.
In 2014 we came back for three nights; the first night with my niece and her friends and the next two nights with my daughter. As in previous visits the food was wonderful. One of my niece’s friends said she almost licked the bowl after eating the ribollita. Both my daughter and I had the Tuscan sausage and beans which we tried to recreate at home but couldn’t match the flavor.
Not only is the food incredibly fresh, it’s made to order, even the chocolate soufflé which is beyond decadent.
Whenever I’m in Montalcino, I’ll eat here.
La Taverna di Baietto. Montalcino
We’ve stopped at this little trattoria a number of times for lunch, having pizza and snacks. It’s right across the street from the B&B we’ve stayed at and has outside seating next to our favorite enoteca. Whether eating outside or inside, the food is good and fresh and the service pleasant.
The main reason I’m giving a shout out to La Taverna is that in September 2016 our walking tour stopped in Montalcino for about an hour and a half and my sister and I walked directly here and grabbed an outside table.
I ordered a salad that I haven’t been able to stop talking about—fresh greens, tuna, tomatoes and mozzarella. It was so good that I refused to rush and made us late meeting the group, making my sister mad at me. But it was worth it.
San Gimignano, Tuscany
My sister, daughter and I ate here in October 2014. It was my sister’s birthday and my daughter and I treated her to dinner here. We still talk about how amazing the food was from the appetizers through the crème brulee, which was flamed at the table. I know one of our appetizers was a mixed bruschetta and I think my sister had the pappardelle with wild boar. I had chicken and I believe my daughter had lamb. To that we added roasted potatoes and other vegetable side dishes. It was towards the end of October and starting to get rather chilly at night and we especially enjoyed relaxing in the cozy room, sipping wine and laughing—a truly memorable evening.
Osteria di Fonterutoli, Chianti
In the fall of 2014 we ate at Osteria di Fonterutoli twice. The first time my sister, niece, her friends and I had taken a tour of the winery which was fascinating. The second time my sister and I came with my daughter. What I remember most were their antipasti, especially the eggplant timbale and the mixed Tuscan meats and cheeses. When we were there with my daughter, we became hysterical when my daughter told the waiter he sounded like he was from Canada. He was totally insulted and said, “I am from Albania. Do you understand what I’m saying to you.” We got to laughing so hard that I can’t remember what I had.
Il Gatto Bianco, Montecatini Terme
After a bad experience at our hotel restaurant I randomly picked this little trattoria about a 10-15 minute walk from the main tourist area.
We had a darling waiter—Edison—in fact the only waiter and even when the restaurant got crazy busy, he was good natured. We asked him his name as we were finishing our meal and he said ‘my mother’s sister named me so I would be a bright light; so far not so much.’ But my sister and I disagreed. He is a very bright light.
We had a good laugh when I ordered, acqua naturale and he thought I spoke Italian and started rattling away until I said, ‘solo piccolo Italiano.’
He brought us bread and a spicy tomato sauce with our wine and we dipped the bread in the sauce and thought it was very tasty. I ordered a mixed seafood grill and my sister ordered a spaghetti carbonara. We oohed and aaahed over the presentation of her pasta and Edison said, “hers is better’ and it was; a beautiful plate of langostini, prawns, a fish filet and the obligatory squid. (I have to admit I’m not wildly fond of squid and was trying to hide it when Edison told me I wasn’t finished.) I thought my sis’s carbonara was exceptionally good too, in a light lemony sauce.
He suggested a lemoncello to finish—all for 45 euros.
Il Vicolo Montecatini Terme
One of my favorite restaurants on our 2016 trip.
Even though our waiter kind of rolled his eyes when we asked for just a glass of prosecco rather than the whole bottle, he poured us generous glasses and only charged us 3 euros apiece. I had a pasta that looked like a flat rigatoni with a meat sauce and Sue had a linguine pesto both of which were very good. We finished with a crème brulee which was to die for; all for 29 euros.
Da Nonno Marianno
This is a little pizza place about 1 KM from Hotel Villa Cheli, south of Lucca on the ss12. My sis and I ate here in the fall of 2015 when the restaurant at our hotel was closed and had calzones the size of my head.
So we decided to try it again in September 2016. I asked for an insalata mista but the waiter said there were three choices; green, red and tomato so I opted for green. The greens were very fresh and tasty but I would have preferred more vegies. My sis and I shared a capricciosa pizza—ham, mushrooms, artichokes and a fried egg; thin crisp crust, wood fired and delicious. They even cut it in half for us. One of the best pizzas ever. We added water, a ½ liter of wine, chocolate torte and espresso for 24 euros.
We tried to go back the next evening but our hotel couldn’t get through to make a reservation. So we went early hoping to get in but found out that was a no no; absolutely have to have a reservation.
Trattoria di Pandimonio Florence/Firenze
Great appetizers, nice ambiance
My sister and I ate here in the fall of 2015 and had a wonderful mixed antipasto tray that included a cauliflower soufflé and other interesting selections. So we brought my niece here on our first night in Firenze in September 2016 and like our visit the previous year we found the appetizers wonderful but the primi piatti not so great. Our appetizers were salami, ham, some type of meat with fennel plus fried vegetables. Our primi were tortelli di patate, some type of spaghetti with meat sauce and a ravioli with ricotta and citrus and shrimp. My sis and I didn’t care for ours but my niece thought the ravioli was very savory. She also ordered meatballs with fagioli in a tomato sage sauce which we all thought was terrific.
Like the previous year we were seated in the garden room which is very nice and the wait staff was attentive and did offer us dessert when we indicated we didn’t care for our pastas. But last year they brought us lemoncello and acted as if it were free but then charged us for it. So we declined dessert. Still it was a pleasant dinner and we laughed and talked until fairly late.
Salsamenteria dei Ciompi Florence/Firenze
I found this little restaurant in October 2017 while attending a language class in Florence. On Thursday afternoon of my second week I was wandering the area near Sosta dei Papi on via Pietrapiana partly looking to find a place to have a late lunch, partly looking for a restaurant to take my sister and mostly killing time, waiting to hear if she was going to get out of Amsterdam.
I paused in front of Salsamenteria and a young guy immediately came out and practically drug me inside to show me their pastas which he said were made fresh every day. He also said all the food came from their farm near Siena pointing to a picture on the wall. While its very small with fewer than 10 tables, I liked the looks of the restaurant with its white washed exposed brick walls and pink neon signs.
So Friday night I brought my sister here after Sosta. Here’s what I wrote: Around 7:45pm we walked to Salsamenteria, the little trattoria I’d seen Thursday and had one of the most phenomenal meals ever. I’m too tired to write anything now but Sue was over the moon and I was too. I had pasta with freshly sautéed vegetables, Sue had a fresh tuna salad; we both had a nice glass of wine (a Brunello maybe), limoncello and the biggest tiramisu I’ve ever seen. All for about 46€. We ate here again our last night in Florence after once again going to Sosta and had pretty much the same food, although Sue had a pasta carbonara. The only negative our second visit was that we had to sit in the area near the front door which was a bit chilly and noisy.
Here are a few pictures.
I’cche ceꞌ ceꞌ
I found this little trattoria in a book I bought before my first trip to Italy. It’s located on a tiny street off of via dei Greci between Piazza Santa Croce and Piazza della Signoria. I came here after my bike trip and one of my favorite memories was being seated with a group of people who had either come alone like I did or didn’t have reservations. We all talked and laughed through dinner, especially when a couple from Canada ordered a whole squid. The looks on their faces when it was presented on a platter with all its tentacles dangling off the edge were priceless. You can read more on their web site, http://trattoriaicchecece.com/
I returned when I came to Florence a few days before my second bike trip. I arrived before it opened and started talking to a couple of nice women from Minneapolis. We walked to an internet café, sent some e-mails, then came back and had a nice dinner.
I decided to try I’cche ce ce again the second Saturday I was in Florence. Here’s what I wrote: 7:40pm: At I’cche ceꞌ ceꞌ having a prosecco. Several people have come in since I arrived and the waitress has been very pleasant so don’t feel too awkward. Hope this was a good choice. If so, I’ll bring Sue here next Thursday. 9:30pm: OMG ate and spent way too much but it was delicious–insalata mista, ravioli con limone, crème caramel, vino, water… Best meal since I got here, not that there’s much competition.
I enjoyed it so much that when my sister and I returned to Florence from Venice I suggested going there Sunday night. When we stepped out of the hotel, we found an incredible deluge so went back and got umbrellas. Even so we were pretty wet by the time we arrived. For the first hour, we were the only ones there which was a bit awkward but we had a really nice meal. I can’t remember what Sue had but I had pretty much the same food as my previous visit.
Via Monte alle Croce, 10r, Florence
Prior to our trip in the fall of 2014, I researched restaurants and wine bars in Florence. When I went in a few days early from the rest of the group, I tried a couple on my own. I loved Fuori Porta, the other, not so much.
Part of the reason I like Fuori Porta is its location—on the way back from the hike up to Piazzale Michelangelo. It’s a welcome relief plus a great location to people watch as you sit and have some wine (and water) and snacks. I brought my sister here in 2015 and then my sister and niece in 2016 after the de rigueur walk to beat jet lag—up to Piazzale Michelangelo and back. Our favorite snack is the mixed crostini and my niece has become adept at recreating this great appetizer at home.
2017 Update: My opinion of Fuori Porta changed in the fall of 2017 and here’s what I wrote in my journal: Fuori Porta was disappointing; the crostini weren’t good and by the time I ate what I could, the place was empty.
Still I got a nice picture of the area near the bar.
Alla Sosta dei Papi
Borgo la Croce, 81r, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
Given my disappointment over Fuori Porta, I felt fortunate to have found Alla Sosta dei Papi. I stumbled on it first through Tripadvisor and then looked up its web site http://www.sostadeipapi.it/.
I was thrilled when I found it would be close to both my apartment and the school, although it took me several tries before I found it on Borgo al Croce. I went there my first Saturday in Florence and here’s what I wrote: 5:55pm: @ Sosta with a huge glass of chianti. Tried to order a panino but got crostini. May have to get another order. At least the crostini are better than Fuori Porta. In any event I finally feel like I’m where I want to be. This place is great. 8:55pm: Holy shit!! I’m drunk. But got to talking to two nice women from New Zealand and had a prosecco and another order of crostini.
And when I say ‘huge glass’ I mean filled to the brim all for 3€ along with three fresh, good crostini. They have a huge selection of bottled wines as well as big vats of house wine for just over 4€. I bought a bottle one evening, going back at least 4 times over the next two weeks. Then I brought my sister here the Friday night before we left for Verona and parts east and again our last night in Florence. She loved it too and we took lots of pictures you can see below.
With one exception, I was always treated pleasantly when I came in alone. I felt I could sit as long as I wanted, writing in my journal or studying Italian. The second time I came in I wrote, I embarrassed myself by saying ‘bottella’ not bottiglia, but it still feels nice to be part of the ‘scene.’ When I happened to mention Sosta in my Italian class, my teacher seemed surprised that I had found it and agreed it was the best value in Florence.
The one exception was the evening I stopped after going to Il Museo dell’Opera dell Duomo. I asked for a prosecco and unlike my first time, the woman working the ‘bar’ gave me a tiny glass and was border line rude to me. Weirdly enough the first time I brought my sister, we were sitting at a table made from a wine barrel, and the same woman came out of the back room and started shoving our table, almost spilling our wine.
Still it is our new favorite and I can’t wait to go back.
La Salamandre (Villeneuve les Avignons)
After more than 30 long hours of planes and trains and rental cars that ended with a frustrating hour trying to find our hotel in Villeneuve les Avignon, my sister and I stumbled upon this restaurant in a lovely square in Villeneuve. The food and service were so good the first night that we came back the next three nights. Not only was our food fresh and delicious, it was very reasonably priced, including the wine and the desserts. We finished almost every meal with the decadent profiteroles which were the best I’ve ever had.
I’m not sure if our ‘waiter’ is also the owner or manager but no matter how busy the restaurant, he was always pleasant and helpful; letting us take the rest of our bottle of wine back to the hotel one night; giving us each a free glass of wine our last night. We ate in a lot of restaurants as we traveled to St. Raphael, Lucca and Florence, but we never had better food or service.
Francesco’s (St. Raphael)
The owners of our B&B in St. Raphael (Hotel du Soleil) recommended Francesco’s and we liked it so much we ate here every night we were in St. Raphael. It was about a 15-20 minute walk from the hotel but well worth it. It sits right in the marina, looking out over the harbor and the yachts. We took several spectacular pictures of the marina at sunset.
We loved that the entire front of the restaurant was always open to the marina and we could people watch to our hearts’ content while eating great food at a reasonable price. I think our first night my sister and I shared a pizza with salads, wine and some type of dessert.
Another night I had penne arrabiata and the owner (?) stopped by several times to tease me about it being hot. I don’t remember what Sue had but I think that was the night we tried their profiteroles which were great.
The not so great
Santo Bevitore, Florence
Not for singles
I had read good things in Frommers about this restaurant and when I asked the owner of the B&B where I was staying about a reservation she brushed me off suggesting a pizza place. I tried to find the pizza place but after walking around in the rain for a half hour and not finding it, I realized I was half a block from Santo Bevitore. The manager was turning people away who didn’t have reservations but I asked if it were possible to sit at the bar, not wanting to wander in the rain any longer.
He agreed but then sat me at the end of the bar, between bottles and equipment, treating me like a beggar. I’ve traveled extensively and eaten at all types of restaurants alone. Never have I been humiliated that way. I was checking out some restaurants for a group I was meeting and advised against Santo Bevitore and would never go back.
La Pecora Nera
Worst restaurant experience ever!
Since this restaurant is attached to Hotel Ercolini and Savi where my sister and I were meeting a walking tour and also was ranked #1 on Tripadvisor, we decided to try it the Saturday night before meeting our group.
Initially the front desk told us the restaurant was booked then later said there had been some cancellations. Since it was our first time in Montecatini Terme, we decided to take one of the cancellations.
We arrived a few minutes early and were curtly informed that we did not have a reservation. When I informed the waiter/maître d’ that I had been there when the concierge made the reservation, he hurried down to the front desk then had a whispered conversation with some other staff in the hallway, each of whom seemed to be saying, “not in my restaurant.’
We were finally seated in a room by ourselves and as one of the wait staff poured our complimentary prosecco, she whispered ‘complimentary’ as if she thought we were too gauche to know.
By then we were so uncomfortable, we ordered as little as possible to get out of there—ossobuco for me, which was OK but I’ve had better, and cheese stuffed crepes for my sister, which were very good. We sat alone for 20-30 minutes while the staff peeked in at us every few minutes as if we were animals in the zoo.
Three Italian couples were eventually seated in the same room, one of the women carrying a dog who was treated better than we were. Then a large Italian family came in. After that the wait staff were in and out constantly refilling wine and water glasses at the other tables but barely looked at us.
We were finally able to get someone’s attention, and ordered an espresso for my sister and a profiteroles to share. The waitress practically flinched and rolled her eyes.
We couldn’t get a check so we finally got up and went into the hallway and were hustled to the front desk to sign the check as though they thought we would leave without paying.
This was my 8th time in Italy in addition to France (twice), Spain and Scotland and have never ever been treated this badly for a relatively mediocre meal.
To be fair, two couples from our group ate there and said it was great. However they insisted La Pecora Nera was just the outside eating area although the menu was exactly the same.
Trattoria al Bersagliere/Verona
In the fall of 2017 my sister and I visited Verona for the first time. We took a side trip to Padua one day and got back to our apartment fairly late. The owner of our apartment had suggested the trattoria at the end of the street, Trattoria al Bersagliere. We decided it would be the easiest place to go for dinner and thinking we looked pretty good we wandered in. What a mistake!! The owner made us eat in the bar although at least 20-30 people came in after us and were seated in the restaurant. We were treated like garbage—poor service, slightly above mediocre food plus I’m pretty sure we were charged for a salad I didn’t order. The next day I wrote a scorching Trip Advisor review.
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