Okay, “non-touristy” might be overstating it. But it’s a good bet that the ratio of Italians to Tourists in these places will be ever in your favor – meaning more natives than non.
I’m starting in Florence because, while it’s easy to find the places in all the guidebooks that are swamped, over-priced or just not very good, it’s more difficult to find a really great, well-priced and interesting spot for lunch or dinner.
Enter Tameró! (means ‘I will love you’) Located across the Arno (on the Pitti Palace side) in Piazza Santo Spirito, Tameró opened a few years ago and has been gaining local fans ever since. It’s owned by Massimo Gazzeri, a professional chef and all-around cutie pie.
Here you’ll find a decor thankfully free of straw-wrapped Chianti bottles and bunches of grapes. You’ll walk in past the windowed kitchen and the well-stocked bar. Some of the walls are concrete, some have crazy colorful graffiti, one has a hole in it.
And the food! Traditional dishes are mixed in with more imaginative fare – roasted vegetables with burrata cheese; pasta filled with shrimp and bacon in pumpkin cream sauce; a black cabbage soup with feta cheese; and for dessert, ricotta cheese mousse with figs. Stick around after dinner when Tameró takes on a club atmosphere with live music.
Along the Autostrada
Just east of Florence along the A11 autostrada is the exit to Pistoia. If you’ve never been, you should definitely spend a little time there. Designated Italy’s Culture Capital for 2017, it has a beautiful Duomo on a huge piazza where it’s nice to sit with a spritzer or beer at the end of the day and watch “real life” – old men arguing and laughing, people returning from work, children chasing the pigeons, or just serene silence.
But when you get hungry, head in the general direction of the train station and find ll Pollo d’Oro (Golden Chicken). Don’t worry, it’s not the Italian version of KFC or Boston Market. Far from it. It’s a family-run pizzeria that just so happens to have earned a stellar reputation for its roast chicken. And rightfully so. But the pizza is the thing to try.
Straight from the pizza oven, the pies have thin, perfectly crispy crust and the freshest ingredients. Plus, there’s the ebullient nature of its owners, Stefano and Michela, who will welcome you with a hearty “buongiorno!” Michela speaks English in case you have questions about the menu, AND she is an excellent guide for Tuscany, especially Florence. She took us on a Coffee, Gelato, Chocolate Tour of Florence that was pure indulgence!
Moving further east, between Pistoia and Lucca, there is a road that heads straight up to Segromigno in Monte, and on around to Valgiano. You may need a navigation system or the map on your cell phone to find this place, but it’s worth the trek.
The road through Valgiano is curvy, and leads up to a high road that overlooks the valley below. At one point, there is only a church, and Osteria da Giomo.(2020 update: Permanently closed due to Covid.)
Again, family run and kind of a (good) surprise. They have a 25 euro Prix Fixe, which in this case means whatever they cooked that night and a lot of it. The “wine list” consists of you telling him red or white, and he chooses a vintage from a local vineyard.
Get a table facing the valley if you can. Once the sun goes down and the lights come up, it’s an amazing view over the Lucchese valley.
To reach my next recommendation, come into Lucca, head for the train station and park in the big pay lot next door – facing the station, to the left. You can cross the street right there and take a little secret staircase up to the top of the wall. From there, walk down the ramp to the left and down to the main street into the Piazza del Giglio. Next to the Hotel Universo is Ristorante Il Giglio.
For the 20 years I’ve been going to Lucca, I try to make this my first meal, sitting outside if possible. Everything is good, but seafood is a real treat here. Always fresh, never over-cooked. The service is impeccable, even outside where it’s a little more casual atmosphere. And the piazza is not usually a busy one, so it’s not noisy or crowded (unless it’s the monthly antiques fair).
Before I circle back over to Chianti, I want to mention this little place on Isola d’Elba (Elba Island) off the western coast, about an hour south of Pisa. You drive to Piombino, then drive your car onto the ferry that takes you to Elba. Plan to spend a day or two on the island if possible. It’s where Napoleon was exiled, lucky bast**d!
There are a lot of options for waterfront accommodations, plus beaches, resorts, craggy hills, but last year we took the north-side road over to Procchio and spent a day on the beach there.
Procchio is one of those Italian-style beaches where you need to rent a chair and umbrella from someplace that has their own stretch of beach. The owner of our hotel pointed us to a little place called Tahiti. From wherever you park, head down the long mall to the beach, and turn right. Not only was it an ideal place to lay around, swim and do nothing all day – with a bar serving spritzers right there – but we stayed for dinner and, WOW, so glad we did.
Gorgeous open-air spot that overlooks the harbor. Before you order anything else, get the seafood appetizer platter . It’s generous, and could be a whole meal. Even if you share it, you might just want to get a couple of other primi or one secondi to share. Lots of stuff on that platter I’d never eaten before, but it was all so good. We went back before we left just for dinner. Amazing!
Coming down the SS222 (La Chiantigiana, the road that runs down through Chianti to Siena), you’ll come to Radda in Chianti. Wonderful little hill town. You can park and walk around a bit. Cute clothing shops and a good shoe store, plus lots of food and wine to buy. When it’s time to eat, though, go to Le Vigne. ‘
Sometimes they run a shuttle from the town. Ask one of the shop owners, but if you have a car you can probably find it yourself. There are only three roads in Radda – two around the outside and one that goes through the middle. Le Vigne is on the southside road.
You’ll see the sign, but not the restaurant, because you have to go through the vineyard to get to the restaurant. It’s an ideal setting – tables outside overlooking the vines, or inside the rustic, comfortable interior. The food is excellent, and if you’re going to get Bistecca alla Fiorentina anywhere, Le Vigne is a good choice. Just understand that the price is per kilogram. I showed him how big of a steak we wanted, and he told me how much it would be. Seemed a good plan.
A short drive from Radda is the hilltop town of Volpaia, one of my favorites. I’ve rented a farmhouse just off the main piazza twice (La Pozza di Volpaia, pictured) and can highly recommend it for a relaxing, reading, walking, napping, eating and drinking vacation.
There is only one wine bar/cafe in town, Bar Ucci, and there is only one restaurant, La Bottega.
Perched on a hill overlooking the valley below, La Bottega’s tables are dappled with sunlight that finds its way through the trees and vines overhead. The vegetables come straight from the garden, and the pasta is homemade. The only thing better than everything-on-the-menu is the VIEW. Undulating landscapes full of cypress trees and vine-covered hills against a blue sky. The ideal way to spend a magical Tuscan afternoon.
My last pick is just north of Siena, in a little town – really just a bend in the road – called Ponte A Bozzone. At that bend is a bright red canopy that marks Osteria Pizzeria La Piccarda. We were staying at a villa up the road and went out looking for pizzas we could bring back to the house. Luckily, La Piccarda is what we found.
Those pizzas were so good, we went back for everything else they made. Very friendly, great service, delicious food, and a gelato stand just an easy stroll away. What more could you ask?
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