While it can be tempting to try and ‘do it all’ in Tuscany, we holed ourselves up in Pienza, a small, yet perfectly formed mediaeval village in central Tuscany and got to know our local area intimately. Staying at La Bandita Townhouse, a beautifully converted nunnery by an ex Sony music exec & his travel-writing wife, all the hard work had been done for us. We carried around their bible of must-do’s religiously; their recommendations giving us a truly authentic insight into Italian countryside living at its best.
Sette di Vino is a modest and authentic trattoria – its eye-wateringly good grilled pecorino and prosciutto would be worth the trip alone, as too the bean soup served with freshly baked pane.
The Bandita bible pointed us to Tre Cristi in Siena, an excellent seafood restaurant inexplicably miles from sea. Nevertheless, this turned out to be the oldest restaurant in Siena and it’s worth taking the twists and turns to find it: you won’t find this one on the tourist map. A raw fish starter was not what we expected – less sashimi and more ceviche, this was as outstanding as it was fresh. There’s literally nowhere to hide with raw fish – but minced and accompanied only by a smattering of citrus and herbs, this dish was memorable. A slow cooked pigs cheek broth came to the table with plump barley, lightly cooked calamari and prawns. Soup for the soul, this was quite simply, elegantly executed and several layers of excellent.
Not to be outdone, the La Bandita kitchen turns out some beautifully refined food too, and you’d equally have an enjoyable time eating here every night. Try the insanely good prosciutto & buffalo mozzarella starter and my faith in a good tiramisu was restored, thanks to their modern take on this classic.
Our final night in Pienza was the stuff of foodie wet dreams. Sitting in what would be their lounge room, the 12 seat Il Rossellini restaurant was modest, yet served up a fine-dining experience that would be hard to replicate. A husband and wife team, he simply refused to give us the wine we ordered and pointed us to something better. Luckily it was an outstanding 2007 Brunello di Montalcino, a red of distinction, and it’s not hard to see why. My starter – a goose breast carpaccio with onion ‘jam’, orange & pine nuts was extraordinary. My instinct would be ‘more onion jam’, but this was a lesson in restraint and it served only to heighten the subtle flavour of the goose. And the orange, again with the orange – they do things with them I never thought possible. A bowl of huge, fresh porcini foraged early that morning was all the convincing I needed to have that as my secondi, and I was rewarded with an incredible mushroom ‘steak’, simply grilled and lightly seasoned with a hint of fresh mint. Roast guinea fowl rounded out the meal and finished off with a great chocolate fondant pudding – perfectly molten on the inside and a metaphor for the night. This was not about re-invention; this was about using the best produce available and working with classic dishes executed with skilful precision mastered from years of experience.
La Bandita Townhouse Corso Rossellino 111, 53026 Pienza, Italy
Sette di Vino, Piazza di Spagna, 1, 53026 Pienza, Italy
Tre Cristi, Viccilo Provenzano 1/7, Siena, Italy
Il Rossellino, Piazza di Spagna, 4, Pienza, Italy
Pictures: La Bandita
Miss Bunting takes a detour to Modena for 3 Michelin Stars
Modena – the home of Ferrari, balsamic vinegar, Lambrusco and the #3 restaurant in the world, according to the San Pellegrino 50 Best. With such a pedigree, it would be easy to assume Modena might be a little on the flashy side.
A complete surprise, Modena is a sophisticated, jewel-box of a town that is so self-assured, it needs no gimmicks and merely chugs along to it’s own rhythm at a leisurely pace. This is village life as you’d anticipate: elderly men pottering around the city centre squares and chic women looking impossibly chic on bicycles. Even the produce as the beautiful fresh food market were insanely good-looking: plump, fresh, glossy and over-sized, this was some of the best fruit & veg we’d come across.
But to the restaurant we go, it being the only reason we diverted here en-route to Venice, the result of a happy planning accident that saw us booking Osteria Francescana before the 2013 list was released, which bumped it up to just under heavyweights Noma and El Celler De Can Roca. Book well ahead – I’ve no idea what the wait might be now.
First I need to get this out of the way: Miuccia Prada & her husband, with their net worth of some $12.4 billion were on the table next to us. In that context, it would take a meal of excellent proportions to focus me from this somewhat unexpected and spectacular diversion. And it did. Though there were about some 30 sideward glances – play it cool, I did not.
We opted for the ‘Sensations’ degustation – 1 of 3 to try, figuring the only reason you’d come out this way was to try what kind of kitchen experimentation goes on to take out third place.
12 courses, several amuse bouches, 2 bread baskets and a tray of petit fours later we rolled out of there, exhilarated in a belly-aching way. There is no way to describe the experience without sounding like a cravat-wearing foodie wannabe, but in that dining room, the journey Massimo Bottura takes you on makes complete and utter sense. Literally and metaphorically, the real pleasure was his interpretation of the different regions in Italy, starting at the heel in Sicily. An almond granita with a hint of bergamot and coffee bean to accompany 2 macarons: one oyster, one anchovy was as peculiar as it was good. Like many avant garde restaurants – reading it off a menu and tasting it are 2 entirely different things, things that sound like they shouldn’t work absolutely do, the components all working together to heighten or complement other complex flavours. This is brilliant but bonkers, artistic and show-stopping cooking.
The 11 courses that followed were a roll call of mind-blowing epicurean wizadry, as we took a gourmet tour of Italy from our seat in an elegant dining room in Modena. Next to Miuccia Prada, in case you’d forgotten.
Rome & Lazio gave us ‘Where the Ocean Meets the Sea,’ as described by our charming waiter, in the form of an al-dente, wet risotto with an intense flavour that can only be attributed to what would have been a pungent, tasty slow cooked broth of fish stock. This dish hit all the high notes – perfectly cooked and wave after wave of altering layers of flavour, some sweeter than others, this dish was really special.
‘Greens From the Hills’ and ‘From the Bottom of the Garden’ showcased some beautiful produce, including a generous helping of escargot in a vivid green chlorophyll sauce.
An oyster shell that came to the table with a mousse that tasted of oyster and a mouthful of lamb was mind-boggling good, eel glazed in local aged balsamic accompanied by apple jelly and the finest polenta was sensational.
Roast pigeon that look like it had been bludgeoned and served was confronting to look at, but the red glaze and perfectly cooked bird was so good, I charged on knowing each mouthful was probably worth $22.50.
The highlight for me was when our food journey ‘arrived’ in Modena in the form of fois gras ravioli with balsamic and leek. Each parcel was like a flavour bomb going off in your mouth, as each al dente parcel gave way to a burst of fois gras, the night could have ended there and I would have been fully sated, but on it went until the petit fours came out and like an elite athlete, I hauled myself to the finish line triumphantly, credit card ready to take it for the team.
There’s no doubting degustation at one of the top restaurants is an expensive way to dine, but when you have an experience as good as this – where technicality and vision converge and produce something you couldn’t dream up after 12 Lambrusco’s and a bag of magic mushrooms, it’s an experience to savour and remember.
And while I don’t know a whole lot about food, I can appreciate the level of technicality, skill and vision required at this level – and I’m happy to pay for it. If only to see Miuccia again.
Osteria Francescana, Via Stella 22, 41121 Modena, Italy