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.
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.
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.
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