BARBERINO-TAVARNELLE, ITALY — Over the past 11 years I have spent a lot of time in this area, specifically in the two towns of Barberino and Tavarnelle in the Tuscan countryside, exactly halfway between Florence and Siena.
Over the past six years I have led over 600 people, in groups of 25 each, through cities in Spain and Italy. And although I’ve organized tours through Rome, Amalfi, Venice, Bologna and Milan, a lot of my touring time has been spent in Tuscany. If you take away the two COVID years where we weren’t able to travel overseas, that’s really 600 guests in four years. It’s hard work, but if you have to work somewhere, it’s not a bad place.
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A lot of what I do on these tours is to introduce my guests to the friends I’ve made here and draw people to the local hidden spots – especially the restaurants – that I’ve discovered. I am not a group travel type person. Never been will never be. But it’s not a group trip, or at least it doesn’t look like it. There’s something in the DNA of these trips that makes everyone feel like they’re traveling with friends. And, I guess, when I break it down, that’s what happens.
One of the biggest things about these tours that I lead is – as far as restaurants go – everything is successful and not lacking. That’s huge for most people. When traveling, for work or pleasure, I always plan trips around restaurant reservations. Even though I live, eat, sleep, and breathe restaurants, I always miss my mark when venturing into new territory. When this happens, I lost one of the few dinner slots.
These trips abound. In the words of John Irving’s character, TS Garp, the restaurant choices were “pre-disaster”. There is no failure. Every meal delivers, and they’re all different, because I like to cover all the bases during the week. My goal is for my guests to be seated in their seats on the flight home knowing that we have checked all the boxes.
Here is my Top 10 dishes in Tuscany 2022:
Honorable mention — Fried sage stuffed with anchovies at Ristorante La Fattoria, Tavarnelle.
10. Boletus and aubergine flan, Locanda Pietracupa, San Donato — Like most of the restaurants on this list, I’ve been eating here for over 11 years. Pietracupa is a refined country inn run by two couples. It’s always the first meal, the first hour, the first day for my guests, and it’s the perfect start to setting the mood and example of what’s to come.
9. Spaghetti with Veraci clams, La Trattoria del Pesce, Bargino — Much of Tuscany lies on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Seafood is big here, and it’s very good. When I was traveling here at first I was ignorant of the seafood as I live an hour away from the Gulf of Mexico which has some of the best seafood in the world and I own a few seafood restaurants and have constant availability. It was my loss.
8. Regina, Pico, Barberino Val d’Elsa — A Regina is a small piece of pizza dough that has been fried in olive oil and covered with a light amount of tomato sauce, a small sprinkle of parmesan cheese and a basil leaf. It has been called “the fried gold of Naples”. My friend Marco says it’s the original pizza. I’m just saying “it’s excellent” and worthy of a top 10 spot on this list.
Picò is in the historic medieval section of Barberino and is run by Giovanni and David. Their cocktail list is impressive and they think, like many Italians, that pizza and beer don’t mix because you consume yeast on yeast.
7. Calamari, Caffé Degli Amici, Tavarnelle — I should probably choose Giuliana’s peposo here, because I’ve been eating it for 11 years and it’s wonderful. But lately I ordered fried calamari here on my days off and made a meal out of it. They go straight into the seasoned flour (no egg wash or double breading) and fry them in olive oil.
6. Pizza Margherita, Place La Vecchia, Tavarnelle — I love thin and crispy pizza, and the pizza here is the thinnest ever. If it became thinner, there would be no crust. The pizza comes out very crispy and the toppings are minimal. I don’t know what those people would think of deep pizza, but regardless, the Margherita in Vecchia Piazza (the old square) is the exact opposite.
5. Mussels, La Trattoria del Pesce, Bargino — Again, simply prepared, excellent. Nothing more than olive oil, pepper, a small amount of garlic (they use a lot less garlic than we think) and salt. Perfection. I use the Mengelberg method when eating mussels using one springform pan like a little tong to pull out the next one.
4. Pappatacio, Pasticceria Bagnoli — Martha Foose calls him “Schnecken”. I’ve always called it – probably wrongly – like a croissant with cream and raisins. My favorite family Italian bakery calls it pappatacio. Whatever the nickname, it’s a perfect pastry and checks all the boxes for what I look for in a pasticceria breakfast item. I eat one (or two) every morning I’m here.
3. Chianti tuna and raw vegetables, Antica Macelleria Cecchini, Panzano — Dario Cecchini, the man Anthony Bourdain called “the most famous butcher in the world”, is certainly a talented butcher, but he is also a brilliant restaurateur and just an all-around great guy with an unrivaled taste for living and making happy people. .
Chianti tuna has nothing to do with seafood. It’s pulled pork with capers, vinegar and onions, accompanied by its house mustard. It is singular and unique and very tasty.
Crudités that arrive in a bowl at the start of the meal – carrots, daikon, celery and red onion – are paired perfectly with a side of extra virgin olive oil enriched with a pinch of seasoned Cecchini salt.
2. Lasagna, Trattoria Mario, Florence — I always thought lasagna was more of an American-Italian dish than a local dish. But it is served in a few restaurants here. Authentic Italian lasagna is nothing like its American-Italian counterpart. I grew up eating lasagna covered in copious amounts of cheese and drowned in tomato sauce. The Italian version uses bechamel, bolognese and a minimal amount of parmesan.
The two best examples I have ever eaten are at Trattoria Leonida in Bologna and Trattoria Mario in Florence. It’s not on the menu, but they cook it specially for our group. It’s always one of the highlights of the week.
1. Penne alla Bettola, Alla Vecchia Bettola, Florence — I am told that this is the birthplace of Penne alla Vodka. This is my favorite pasta in this region, so who am I to argue? This is pasta perfection and never disappoints. Unlike the American version of this dish, there is hardly any added cream. The combination of tomatoes, olive oil and onions – mashed – creates more than enough creaminess and silky texture for a sauce that pairs perfectly with penne pasta. I drive 40 minutes into town on my day off to eat this pasta dish and count the remaining days of my trip by how many times I have left to eat it.
Bucatini al Amatriciana
1 pound dry bucatini pasta
1 liter of water
¼ cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ pound Guanciale (cured pork cheek) or pancetta, medium diced
2 cups marinaras
¾ cups yellow onion, finely diced
1 tbsp garlic, minced
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
Pecorino Romano grated as needed
• Cook bucatini according to package directions.
• Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add pancetta, stirring frequently so as not to burn, until cooked through, about 6-8 minutes. Add onion and garlic and continue until onions are soft, not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the marinara and crushed red pepper and stir until the sauce is hot.
• Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add the hot bucatini pasta and mix well.
• Divide among six serving bowls. Finish each with grated cheese if needed.