27/29 Via di Voltaia nel Corso
Tel: 39 0578 758 615
Perfect for a light lunch, tea, or just a rest stop after trekking through Montepulciano, the historic Art Nouveau café, with its balcony overlooking the Val di Chiana, has been a favorite of those with a discerning eye, from Luigi Pirandello to Federico Fellini.
50 Via XX Settembre
Colle di Val d'Elsa
Tel: 39 0577 920 549
You can catch two pigeons with one bean—as the Italian expression goes—by booking a table chez Arnolfo. First it will allow you to discover picturesque Colle Alta, one of the most overlooked historic towns in Tuscany. The restaurant itself (your second pigeon) perches on the edge of the old town, with views over a steep wooded valley that can be enjoyed from a panoramic terrace on summer evenings. Inside, the small Baccarat chandeliers and discreet splashes of contemporary art hit a note of lush urban elegance. The menu changes seasonally, but could include a starter of white and green asparagus served in a series of variations—the fat, white Bassano asparagus immersed in an egg-white foam, with an asparagus tempura arriving as a mid-course surprise; or scampi in balsamic vinegar with a scallop of foie gras (Arnolfo swims against the tide in inland Tuscany with its good selection of seafood dishes—though meat and game feature too). Desserts, such as the frozen chocolate soufflé with mint gelatin, are equally impressive. And the service is a pleasure to watch. The huge wine list has some amazing vintages.
Closed Tuesdays, Wednesdays, six weeks from mid-January to the end of February, as well as the last week in July and the first week in August.
3 Via della Cervia
Tel: 39 0583 55 881
At first glance, this historic buca in Lucca's centro storico looks like a parody of an Italian trattoria, with copper pots and whole prosciutti hanging from the ceiling—but it's actually one of the city's most sophisticated and successful restaurants, boasting excellent service and an unparalleled wine list. Meat-filled tortelli Lucchesi, breast of guinea hen with sweet Muscat grapes, and baby goat on the spit with herbs are staples of the menu. In colder months, try a wonderful country soup called frantoiana (olive press), made with Lucca's renowned extra-virgin olive oil, or an equally good zuppa alla garafagnina, a soup of spelt and vegetables. Among the filling desserts, the caramelized fruit with chestnut gelato stands out. The only downside is the fact that dishes sometimes arrive with unseemly haste—so fast that one seriously doubts they've had time to prepare them all from scratch.
Closed Sunday evenings and Mondays.
13 Piazza della Vittoria
Tel: 39 0565 701 021
Fulvio Pierangelini, the moody but brilliant front man of the "Red Shrimp," is a real chef's chef, a man who is better known within the trade than he is to the general public—perhaps because his creations (which lean toward seafood, with the occasional foray into meat and game) are neither loud nor flashy. Take one of his signature starters: passatina di ceci con gamberi, which is just what it says: lightly steamed prawns in chickpea purée—the latter consisting of nothing but chickpeas, water, and a little olive oil. It's such a simple combination that you wonder why nobody else thought of it before. Since then, of course, plenty have—but Pierangelini keeps an edge thanks to the perfection of his cooking techniques and times, which are also on display in exemplary dishes like pigeon-breast risotto or herring-filled ravioli with burrata (a sort of buttery, melting mozzarella from Puglia). Desserts range from classic (crème brûlée) through creative (licorice gelato) to bizarre (little parcels of beans and peppers served with custard). There are only 20 covers in the sea-view dining room, which is elegant without excess. Pierangelini and his wife usually greet diners personally—so if you speak a little Italian you'll have a richer experience, as the chef likes to embellish his tips and explanations with anecdotes and ironic asides. Compared to many restaurants at this level, the Gambero Rosso is not prohibitively expensive: Count on $200 a head with a good bottle of wine.
Closed Mondays, Tuesdays, and from the end of October until mid-January.
Località Chiarone Marina
Tel: 39 0564 890 295
With its gray sand and not exactly limpid sea, the beach resort of Capalbio, south of Monte Argentario, may not look like much to those with Caribbean standards, but for Rome's left-of-center politicos, journalists, architects, and film and TV types it's a popular summer nesting ground. Hangout of choice is the "Last Resort," a chic shack that stands on the very last scrap of Tuscan beach before you hit the border with Lazio. You can rent a couple of sunloungers under an ombrellone for the day (though from mid-July through to the end of August, you'll need to book ahead), play a game of bar football, or just come for a swim, followed by a light lunch that might take in panzanella (Tuscan bread salad) or calamari with potatoes. They're open daily from late May until the end of September, and also on Saturday evenings, when music and lights create a chill-out Balinese vibe.
Località San Pietro
Porto Santo Stefano
Tel: 39 0564 825261
High up above the busy sailing and fishing harbor of Porto Ercole is another, more rural world of olive trees and small kitchen gardens. It's here that you'll find this upmarket trattoria, its pretty summer terrace, with views down a green valley to the sea, shaded by a spreading cherry tree and vine pergola. The seafood cuisine is good without pretensions; standout dishes include the croquante tuna steak sprinkled with sesame seeds and Sicilian pistachios and the spaghetti in a delicate hake and tomato sauce. Service is cordial and efficient, and the arcadian bliss is sealed by little touches like homemade bread (focaccia, walnut) and sorbets (green apple and jasmine, passion fruit). To get there, take the inland road from Porto Santo Stefano to Porto Ercole.
4 Via Roma
Tel: 39 0571 668 188
Push past the loaves and cream puffs in this unassuming bakery in a Medieval hill town, and you find yourself in a tiny back room that hosts a restaurant–wine bar with just seven tables surrounded by shelves full of tempting Tuscan vintages. The reason for the odd mix is that mom runs the pasticceria while her son is a wine-and-food buff—so rather than go their separate ways, they adopted the very Italian solution of cohabiting. The menu is strong on meaty Tuscan specialties such as tonno del Chianti, pork morsels that are cooked in wine and preserved in olive oil, or roast Chianina steak fillet with balsamic vinegar and rocket, but there are some good primi too, including gnudi—spinach and ricotta balls—in walnut sauce. There's a small but interesting selection of regional wines by the glass; if you go by the bottle, the choice (at least of Tuscan wines) is almost endless.
8 Piaggia di San Martino
Tel: 39 0575 352 035
Arezzo has no shortage of worthwhile places to eat, but on recent visits it's this little osteria–wine bar just off Piazza Grande (one of the venues of the monthly antique market) that has really won our hearts. Plain wooden tables crowd into a single vaulted, bottle-lined room with parchment-colored walls; there are a few more outside on a raised street-side veranda. Wine is the main act: There are more than 800 bottles to choose from, and a selection of around 20 wines by the glass chalked on the blackboard (note that these are only the top-end vintages; ask if you want a more humble quaffing wine). But the food does more than just soak up the alcohol: Alongside wine-bar classics such as crostoni (open toasted sandwiches with toppings like mozzarella and anchovy) there are some more substantial hot dishes such as zuppa di cipolla al forno (a "solid" onion soup that can be eaten with a fork) or a local rarity, grifi all'aretina (calf's snout stew), all simple but succulent. Service is friendly, and the final bill is unlikely to exceed $30 a head unless you really go to town on the wine.
2/4 Via San Carlo
Tel: 39 0578 748 606
In the historic center of Pienza, this family-run trattoria has a pleasant, simple dining room and an outdoor terrace shaded by market umbrellas in summer. Of course, at lunchtime it's full of tourists, but there's no arguing with the quality of the typical dishes served here: tagliatelle with truffles, local bread soup with vegetables, duck with black olives, and the real party piece, maialino da latte (roast suckling pig). Finish your meal with the restaurant's homemade semifreddo—a sort of frozen custard that comes in various versions, including orange (arancia) and hazelnut (nocciola).
61 Via Carducci
Forte dei Marmi
Tel: 39 0584 874 030
In summer, it's next to impossible to get a table at this Michelin-starred classic when chic vacationing Italians take over. If, however, you should manage to snag a reservation, try the flash-baked calamaretti and the bavette sul pesce (macaroni boiled in the juices of the dish's crustaceans and shellfish rather than in water). Other signature dishes include an excellent bollito di pesci (boiled fish platter, served with homemade mayo) and fillet of turbot with aromatic herbs, served with a truffle and courgette flan. The dessert to go for is the chocolate soufflé with pear and pear ice cream. The bright-white Art Nouveau dining room has well-spaced tables and impeccable service.
Closed Mondays except July and August, when they open daily, evenings only.
1 Via del Piano
Monticchiello di Pienza
Tel: 39 0578 755 163
This charming osteria-cum-wine-bar nestles just inside the entrance to the ancient borgo (village) of Monticchiello, with a lovely little terrace overlooking Pienza, the Val d'Orcia, and Monte Amiata (book ahead if you want to be sure of an outside table). Inside, rustic tables with butcher-paper place mats set the casual tone. Unusually for Italy, it's open all day from 9 a.m. to midnight; you can stop for a morning cappuccino, lunch, afternoon tea, an aperitif, or dinner. Sommelier Daria Cappelli stocks 250 labels in her wine cellar, many available by the glass to accompany local pecorino or cold cuts. La Porta also serves delicious renditions of local specialties at lunch and dinner, from pici with roast duck ragù to a fine agnello in porchetta (lamb roasted in the same way as one would normally do porchetta, with garlic, onion, and aromatic herbs). The owners also have a few apartments for rent in the village.
33 Via del Porrione
Tel: 39 0577 48013
Though it calls itself a humble osteria, this is really more of a gourmet restaurant that likes to dress down. It's extraordinary that food this good is served within hopping distance of Piazza del Campo; curious, too, that the host, Gianni Brunelli, is a former extreme-left rabble-rouser and union organizer (check out the photo of him with Fidel Castro in the dining room). Since then he's added restaurateur, contemporary art buff (you can admire part of his collection on the walls), and Brunello di Montalcino wine producer to his list of achievements. The main dining room fuses wine and literary culture in its glass-fronted bookcases, which are packed with good bottles and good books. On the plate, fusion dishes like seared tuna with soya and wasabi alternate with more Tuscan treats—the latter more reliable, in our experience—like cinta senese pork liver served both whole and in sausage form; or the restaurant's trademark primo, malfatti all'Osteria (spinach and ricotta gnocchi served in tomato sauce). The wine list is extensive—at least if you stick to Tuscan bottles—with extremely reasonable markups.
Castiglione della Pescaia
Tel: 39 0564 944 322
Opened in June 2005 as the catering annex of L'Andana, Alain Ducasse's first Tuscan hotel, Trattoria Toscana is so far the more convincing part of the exercise (the hotel is overpriced and still needs to iron out some service issues). It's housed in a huge former granary, where polished wood beams arch overhead and a semi-open kitchen allows you to see some of the culinary drama unfolding. Despite Ducasse's Gallic origins, the cuisine here is authentically Maremman (from the Tuscan coastal strip), though it's veined with a modern Mediterranean lightness that one doesn't always associate with the region. The starters (toasty crostini with various toppings, salumi platters) are classic enough; it's in primi like gnocchi with chickpeas, green onions, and shrimp, or secondi such as shoulder of Chianti rabbit in sweet and sour confit that the twist worked by Ducasse's protégé Christophe Martin (the great man himself rarely shows) on the rather rustic local tradition is most evident. Grilled fish from the Tyrrhenian Sea or meat (lamb with rosemary, bistecca alla fiorentina) are other strong points. Desserts include a spectacular zuppa Inglese (rum-soaked sponge cake layered with fruit and custard).