For­get the fa­cade

Be­hind that or­di­nary ex­te­rior you might find fab­u­lous food

Life & Style Weekend - - ESCAPE - Read more of Ann’s travel tales at an­nrickard.com. TRAVEL with Ann Rickard

IN ITALY when it comes to trat­to­rias, what you first see is not al­ways what you get. A mod­est place with just a few ta­bles and chairs out­side its en­trance of­ten looks un­invit­ing. But, as we have learnt, first im­pres­sions are never right in Italy, and there is of­ten much more be­hind the hum­ble fa­cade of a small eatery.

Our first dis­cov­ery came in Volterra, an an­cient hill­top town in Tus­cany where the ru­ins date back to Etr­uscan times.

We could find only pizze­rias as we searched for din­ner, walk­ing on an­cient paving stones along a maze of nar­row streets flanked by hand­some old build­ings.

We stood out­side a small and un­pre­ten­tious place on the Via Ric­cia­relli read­ing the pizza menu along with a sign that said “fresh rooms in­side’’ and de­cided every place was go­ing to be the same in this lovely Tus­can town. We en­tered.

The in­side was even more mod­est than the out­side and our ex­pec­ta­tions were at ground level.

But the cheer­ful waiter pre­sented us with a list of pasta, fish and meat dishes along with the oblig­a­tory piz­zas, and a half litre of ex­cel­lent house wine.

“What a sur­prise,” we said and or­dered pici, a lo­cal pasta like fat spaghetti, along with a flo­ren­tine steak. But not be­fore a pizza to start things off.

Out came a pizza that could have fed a small coun­try: wafer-thin base and daz­zling with its colour­ful top­ping of tomato, basil, rocket and a gooey cheese called strac­chini. A man in a blue sin­glet spoke loudly into his tele­phone at a ta­ble be­hind us, but even that did not de­tract from the mouth-wa­ter­ing mag­nif­i­cence of the pizza.

No one had warned us about the flo­ren­tine steak so we gaped as half a cow came out hang­ing over a large plate.

The Queen of Meat, a Flo­ren­tine steak comes from an­i­mals fed on grass in a small region out­side Florence. It is usu­ally served in an enor­mous size (ours weighed 1.5kg), char­grilled over coals, and shared among about eight to 10 peo­ple.

We had no idea of this when we or­dered, ex­pect­ing a mod­est steak for one, but we manned up and ploughed through the de­li­ciously ten­der meat.

Af­ter we sat back with bulging bel­lies, I asked the waiter to show me the “fresh rooms” and he took me down­stairs where one splen­did stone din­ing room led to an­other and yet an­other and then an­other, all down an­cient steps and through stone arches be­neath el­e­gant domed ceil­ings.

“Th­ese rooms have been ex­ca­vated from ru­ins that are more than 1600 years old,” the waiter told me as he led me back up steps worn shiny with age. “We dine down here in the win­ter.”

Back up­stairs, as we reeled from the an­cient won­der of it, the waiter said, “Let me in­tro­duce you to the owner, he owns the whole build­ing.” It was our loud man in the blue sin­glet.

The next day in the be­guil­ing hill­top town of Mon­tepul­ciano it was more en­chant­ing dis­cov­ery when we awk­wardly strad­dled low wooden benches at one of just a few small ta­bles out­side a tiny hole-in-the-wall os­te­ria and or­dered a bot­tle of the lo­cal no­bile wine to eat with net­tle gnoc­chi.

(Gnoc­chi made with net­tles? Yes, and de­li­cious.)

Af­ter a last splash of the no­bile, we went in­side the os­te­ria look­ing for the loo and dis­cov­ered yet more an­tiq­uity, as stone arches led us through din­ing rooms, and steps took us down dim cor­ri­dors that mor­phed into rooms filled with cur­tains of air-dry­ing sausages, and then on to a wine cel­lar stacked floor to ceil­ing and then down to a me­dieval well sunk into the earth, its deep depths now safely cov­ered to just a metre be­low the sur­face, where rounds of yel­low cheeses were hang­ing to ma­ture. All that culi­nary won­der in­side a hole-in-the-wall eatery.

We have weeks more yet in Italy, and never again will we judge an eatery by its cover.

PHO­TOS: THINKSTOCK AND CON­TRIB­UTED

The search for the best out­door cafes in Italy un­earths a foodie’s dream and, be­low right, the best pizza Ann Rickard has tasted.

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