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Posts Tagged ‘Tuscany’

Smart for Four rental car in Tuscany, Italy

In October last year, Jon and I traveled in Tuscany with our friends, Kate and Ray. We thought that trip was becoming another happy, but distant, memory, and then this week (note: six months after our trip), Kate received a couple of charges on her credit card from the rental car company we used in Florence: 92 euros for a traffic violation and 50 euros for an “administrative fee.”

And apparently we had not one, but two, traffic violations while driving in and out of Florence (just to pick up and drop off the car, bookending our trip driving around in Tuscany). So our total fees came to 284 euros. $451. Impressive. (more…)

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Dining Room of Il Canto Restaurant in Siena, Italy

You don’t need to travel to Italy very often to know that there’s a lot of deliciousness to be had there. The trick, though, is that like any other country, Italy has its share of really mediocre restaurants, and as a non-Italian speaker, I’m always challenged to find the restos that hit all the sweet spots for food, decor and service. Icing on the cake is that the other diners in the restaurant aren’t foreign tourists, like me (ahh, the selfish “I’m a tourist who doesn’t want to be with other tourists” paradox).

Carrying out my usual eating-on-vacation due diligence, I consulted friends who’d eaten in Tuscany in the past year, googled recent blog posts, scanned the New York Times, and waded through Chowhound boards and Slow Travel opinions. The latter two resources are great for up-to-the-minute tips, but the obvious downside is that I have a hard time deciding whose opinion to trust.

After all that info-gathering, the “fancy” meal I most anticipated was dinner at Il Canto in Siena. The September 2007 issue of Food and Wine magazine annointed Il Canto’s chef, Paolo Lopriore, one of the “top 5 chefs in Italy.” While rankings like these are suspect and never exclusive, I did some cross-checking on Chowhound and Slow Travel, and all voices agreed that the food at Il Canto would be classic, but with a twist (i.e., weird but not too weird).

Il Canto is part of a pretty Relais & Chateaux property, Hotel Certosa di Maggiano. We had quite an adventure finding it, because it’s on the outskirts of Siena, reached only after driving through winding, high-walled roads. Thank goodness we had cell phones and that the hotel staff were friendly and great at giving directions on the fly.

The upside of Il Canto’s location is that I felt like we were in the countryside, and it was easy to enjoy the romance of the hotel’s open-air courtyard.

The dining room is chandelier-big-flowers-thick-carpet formal, but it’s saved from a high-intimidation factor by the oddly frumpy flowery plates displayed on the sideboard and the crocheted doilies on the chargers. I think Il Canto is what your grandma’s house would like if grandma lived in a medieval Tuscan cloister renovated for modern style circa 1800.

I started the evening festivities with my by-now-familiar dance with the waiters to try to get tap water. No can do. Bottled water only. Sheesh.

Grissini came out, and they were crispy and olive oil-y, but served in cellophane. Between the cellophane and the doilies, I couldn’t tell what tone the restaurant was trying to strike.

Our group decided against the 100-euro tasting menu (170 euro with wine pairings) because there were too many things on it that sounded unappealing and too many tasty-sounding items on the a la carte menu only.

Mussels at Il Canto

A la carte, my mussels appetizer was so-so, looking like single-celled organisms (pre-historic times being one of those really gourmet eras, I hear) and tasting like oysters. I’m a fan of ye olde briney oysters, but then why not offer oysters instead of dressed-up mussels? (more…)

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Abbey Sant’Antimo near Castelnuovo dell’Abate, Italy

In a way, traveling to Tuscany is just one big shopping trip, because what’s super beautiful about the region are its vineyards, and what’s super tempting to do at vineyards is to taste and buy wines. Every now and then, we’d admire a sight like the Abbey of Sant’Antimo (see above), but I’ll admit that seeing the Abbey was incidental to exploring the area around Montalcino, home of brunello.

We visited three vineyards (Badia a Coltibuono, Villa Vignamaggio and Fattoria Poggio di Sotto) in Chianti and Brunello country and four enotecas (wine shops) in Montalcino:

Badia a Coltibuono gardens, Gaiole in Chianti, Italy

Badia a Coltibuono sits just outside Gaiole in Chianti, and handily enough for shopping fans, it’s not far from the Prada outlet in Montevarchi. There are beautiful formal gardens and an old abbey (now an upscale agriturismo, of course), which you can tour for 5 euros a person. We headed to Badia because we’d loved its chianti classico riservas, which we tasted when our friends C & M shipped over a case to London two years ago. The restaurant also got rave reviews on Chowhound and Slow Travel sites.

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Florence skyline, Duomo

Buon giorno! Jon and I are back in London after a trip to Florence and Tuscany with our friends Kate and Ray, with whom we traveled in Portugal a few months ago.

Tuscany in the fall is beautiful – New England leaf peepers, eat your heart out – but sadly we had a few days of rain and gray. I could have stayed in London for that.

Florence is also pretty, but is it just me or is the service and attitude in restaurants and shops rather poor there? Jon and I were last in Florence in 2003, and I don’t remember anything bad about it, but this time around, I have a few bones to pick, and it’s not just with Florentine places.

A little bitching and moaning before I get to the happier food and shopping reports:

1. If you don’t want to sit parched through your meal, bottled water is your only option. Ordering a carafe of tap water in Florence and Tuscan towns appears to be impossible. When I tried, at best I got a dismissive ‘no,’ and at worst, I seemed to have flagged our table as a “no service zone,” which meant we waited close to half an hour for any server to even catch our eye again. (You can imagine how popular I was with my tolerant dining companions).

2. Coperto. I hate coperto. In Italy, coperto is supposed to cover the cost of your place setting and crappy, stale bread that nobody ever wants to eat. I actually appreciated that one restaurant, Baldovino, did away with the charade entirely and didn’t even bother with the bread. They just charged the coperto. My two cents’: if the place setting costs that much, just add it to menu prices, please! Otherwise, I find it kind of deceptive.

Less rant and more rave to come. Ciao.

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