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Eat your heart out: Tuscany tastes delicious

| Sunday, Sept. 28, 2003

Superior local ingredients and a strong culinary culture make traveling in this region of Italy a memorable gastronomic adventure.

The kitchens at La Posta Vecchia , Il Pelicano , the Convento di San Francesco and Hotel Terme di Saturnia are world-class. Other fine dining restaurants to note:

  • Le Mura , in the medieval village of Capalbio, delivers a surreal but tasty lunch. Roberta cooks, and Gerry guides you through local history--in their cozy home, formerly the castle bakery. The ancient stone oven serves as wine cellar. You'll be one of only a handful of diners, or even the only guest. Everything's fresh, made to order, a surprise (there's no menu) and expensive. The experience creates a time-warp.

  • Da Caino , in Montemerano, is a Michelin two-star restaurant, with a vast wine cellar. Owners Valeria Piccini and her husband, Maurizio Menichetti, are chef and sommelier respectively; their son serves as Maitre d'. Valeria's repertoire leans to robust pastas, rabbit, wild boar and truffles in season. The food is highly rated by some, viewed as overpriced by others. The leather-bound wine list comes 1-inch thick, so seek guidance.

  • Osteria del Vecchia Castello , a Michelin one-star going for two, is an elegant "destination restaurant." It's found with difficulty on an unsigned, rutted back road, in an unusually rustic setting, surrounded on all sides by vineyards. The handsome interior includes an anteroom where Alfredo Bevilotti (maitre d'/sommelier and chef's husband) graciously welcomes guests with complimentary Champagne. A wine-tasting room reveals the depths of the restaurant's cellar, and a sumptuous dining room matches the brilliance of award-winning chef Susanna Fumi.

  • Osteria del Teatro , less-pricey but definitely fine dining, offers a theater-themed atmosphere showcasing an accomplished chef-driven kitchen. Young Emiliano Rossi, whose architect father renovated the restaurant's lovely historic building in the heart of Cortona, professionally trained as chef and sommelier. His style: updated authentic Tuscan dishes, retaining the region's characteristic emphasis on fresh, seasonal, high-quality ingredients. Portions are large. Bistecca di Fiorentino, for two, featuring the prized Valdichiano beef, is ample for four -- and luscious.

    Eating well at more economical trattorias, you'll absorb local color and camaraderie:

  • Il Tortello belies its situation in Pescia di Fiorentino, a flea-bitten hamlet peppered with decrepit buildings and a forlorn phone booth. Actually it's very near I Tarocchi, and this lively, family-run trattoria serves excellent, inexpensive regional cooking. The interior surprises with damask tablecloths and napkins. Locals, including a boisterous construction crew, crowd the place. Everyone seems to know each other. Conversation bounces from table to table. The house specialty is pici, pasta with a squash-based sauce. Before leaving, stop by the small bar in one corner of the room to share a grappa with new friends.

    Scacciapensieri is conveniently located in the heart of Tarquinia. Its idiomatic name translates to chasing away bad thoughts. In the din of fervent prime-time dining here, it's indeed difficult to think past what's on your plate. Angelo Renzi, whose father runs a fancier place by the same name on the Lido, rushes about, taking orders, serving, bussing. Spirits are high. Tables jam tightly together, enjoining gossip and food tips. The kitchen specializes in local homestyle cooking, fish and meat. A three-euro bottle of local wine suits the satisfying platters. After lunch, the owner plants a raffia-covered Chianti bottle filled with homemade grappa on the table.

    Da Bruno, along the curving main street of Citta della Pieve, displays an unusual purple neon sign. Outside, a Jaguar claims a large parking space. Inside, local families, tucking into the daily specials, fill all the tables. Antipasti and dolci line up on a buffet table. Find locally made proscuitto, cheese, chickpea salad, grilled vegetables and traditional desserts. Homemade pastas come next, followed by fresh fish from nearby Lago Trasimeno. Da Bruno is a family affair--mama in the kitchen, papa and sons wait tables. Business is way brisk--and for good reason.

    Vino Veritas


    Tuscan wine is Chianti, right• Certainly the hills between Siena and Florence produce fine bottlings from the Sangiovese grape. But the same area produces "Super-Tuscans" -- more powerful, fuller-bodied wines blending cabernet-sauvignon, Merlot and other bold reds. Perhaps Sassicaia is the ultimate achievement of this wine-making style.

    Southern Tuscany's wines bear both similarities and differences to their northern neighbors. For example, Castello Banfi, now American owned, makes Chianti-style wines classified as Colle Senesi. But two outstanding designations deliver "big reds" more reminiscent of Piemonte: ruby-hued Brunello di Montalcino and garnet Vino Nobile de Montepulciano. These bold, densely extracted wines are built to cellar. Unfortunately, they're no secret, thus expensive. The same grapes, not destined for the grand wines, make up "Rosso" bottlings. Rossos designated "single vineyard" match red meat at lunchtime, when a Brunello or Vino Nobile would be too overpowering. Ask your waiter/sommelier for recommendations of their favorite producers.

    Further south and west, the "lost corner" produces Sangiovese-based wines, expressive of a unique terroir and climate and not blended with white wine. Morellino di Scansano, a denominazione d'origine controllata (DOC), established only in 1978, is 100 percent Sangiovese. With brilliant fruity flavors, it's easy to love, easy on the wallet and drinkable young. Top producers include Fattoria Le Pupille and Moris Farms. Look for Le Pupille's Poggio Valente, a single vineyard standout, as well as bottlings attributed to winemaker Elisabetta Geppetti. Geppetti also pioneered Saffreddi, a Scansano area of super-Tuscan style. Another standout is Moris Farms' Avvoltore (75 percent Sangiovese, 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 5 percent Syrah), just rated 93 by Wine Spectator.

    Think Tuscan wine, think red. But there are southern Tuscan whites to note: Bolgheri, from the coastal region; Bianco Vergine Valdechiana, from the Cortona vicinity; and Bianco di Pitigliano. Also, Chardonnay's now making its appearance in the Chianti region.

    - By Peter Haigh

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