The best cheap eats in Tuscany

Mussels from Cantina Senese in Livorno

This might be my favorite Tuscany Month post, celebrating the imminent release of the totally redesigned 2010 Lonely Planet Tuscany & Umbria. (Which isn’t to say you should stop reading after this, I’m saving the crowd pleasing doosies for near the end)

Having now completed two Tuscany guidebook projects for Lonely Planet, I’m feeling emboldened to share some authoritative opinions about the area. My biggest fixation is how one might enjoy a first-rate Tuscany experience without having to cash in a bunch of grandma’s savings bonds.

Food is both one of the biggest reasons to come here and arguably the chief wallet-pulverizing expense. Even mid-range restaurant prices can be intimidating, thus many people resort to self-catered sandwiches and slices from the pizza window, which is just plain tragic. Once, I met a budget traveling family cycling through Italy who drove me to stuttering frustration when they bragged about never once eating a restaurant meal. Folks, if you don’t intend to eat at least the occasional proper restaurant meal in Italy, you’ve squandered one of the country’s primary enticements.

Special meals, in any price range, are frequently what leave the most lasting Tuscany trip memories, but in my experience some of Tuscany’s best meals can be found in the most unpretentious, simple neighborhood joints, where even a pasta dish with three ingredients (counting the pasta) will shock you with its flavor and counterintuitive complexity.

The good news is that virtually every city and village hides at least one place fitting the cheap eats bill, offering a full meal (pasta, meat dish and dessert) for less than €23 (US$33).  Below are some of my favorites (prices accurate as of spring/summer 2009):

Cantina Senese (Livorno)
Borgo dei Cappuccini 95; meals €17-20
I hate to play favorites, but this is probably my favorite, along with Trattoria Dardano in Cortona (see below). The meal I had here was outstanding and one of the cheapest of the entire trip. There wasn’t a single tourist in the joint when I last visited this place, despite already being listed in the previous edition of the guidebook. It’s part guys-guy hangout, part restaurant. The value-conscious harbor workers, who seem to know more about food than many self-described Italy food bloggers, are the first to fill the long wooden tables at this unpretentious and friendly eatery, with neighborhood families arriving later. Ordering is frequently done via faith in one’s server – I never saw a menu, and I was not disappointed. The mussels were exceptional, as was the cacciucco di pesce (seafood stew), both served with taste bud-melting garlic bread.

Osteria La Barrocciaia (Livorno)
Piazza Cavallotti 13; meals €20
For all its many faults, like wildly over-priced accommodation for example, Livorno is a killer place to eat, especially, of course, seafood. This joint may be the worst kept dining secret in town, but locating Barrocciaia still takes a careful eye what with it being the most inconspicuous facade and well-hidden sign in Piazza Cavallotti. Big sandwiches (€5) are sold out of the tiny front room, but with luck and timing you can score a table and enjoy the real reason every local speaks of La Barrocciaia with reverence. The menu fluctuates continually, as does the art on the walls, with the exception of grandpa’s picture, quietly supervising the third generation of management.

Il Castagnacciao Pizzeria (Portoferraio, Isola d’Elba)
Via del Mercato Vecchio 5; half/whole pizzas €3/6
Though the island of Elba is primarily a seafood eating experience, the especially popular Castagnacciao demands recognition. Down a very narrow street from Piazza Cavour in the historic centre, this is where locals go for takeaway or sit-down pizza bliss. A bunch of friendly guys taking orders, prepping and baking pizzas, are squashed behind an impossibly cramped counter. Yet somehow, from this mayhem, more than 20 different types of wood-fire pizza appear.

Cafescondido (Portoferraio, Isola d’Elba)
Via del Carmine 65; meals €23-28
Way up the hill from Piazza Cavour, toward Fortezza Falcone, the raucous café up front gives no sign of the delicious food served in the impressionist art-festooned back room. Servers deftly explain Elba-centric culinary permutations on the chalkboard menu. The table wine is better than average and there’s plenty of crostata to choose from for dessert.

L’Osteria (Siena)
Via dei Rossi 79/81; meals €25
This is a hair outside of my €23 per meal cut-off, but since they have to turn a profit in super-expensive Siena, I’m giving them a pass. Indeed, they’re the deal of the century in this otherwise intimidating eating atmosphere. I felt a little guilty about listing this place in the guidebook, being that a local pleaded with me not to put it in (hence, ruining it), but it was just too good. Plus the place was half-filled with tourists when I visited, so it’s not like I personally wrecked the secret. They serve no nonsense, but savory dishes at prices locals will pay. Skip dessert and pop over the road to Kopa Kabana for the freshest gelato in Siena.

Enoteca Gustavo (San Gimignano)
Via San Matteo 29; snacks & wine from €2.50
San Gim’s historic center is decidedly starved for the kind of budget eating I envisioned for this list, but this enoteca (wine bar) gets credit for its impressive bruschetta menu and plates like cheese with honey to go with the substantial selection of wines There isn’t much elbow space inside, so go for one of the outside tables if you can, where the people watching is superb.

Osteria Porta al Cassero (Montalcino)
Via Ricasoli 32; meals €24
They’re a hair over my €23 limit, but they get bonus points for atmosphere. It’s a simple place selling hearty peasant-style fare such as bean and vegetable soup, Tuscan pork sausage with white beans and a “pan-roasted roasted rabbit”. That’s right, “roasted roasted”. Don’t ask, as my companion and I did, how a rabbit can be roasted twice unless you want to ignite a 30-minute, osteria-wide, impassioned debate on Tuscan cooking terminology.

Osteria dell’Acquacheta (Montepulciano)
Via del Teatro 22; meals €18-24
This is a small eatery with the look and feel of a country trattoria and some of the most attentive staff in Tuscany. The food is excellent and mainly meaty, ranging from misto di salami Toscani (a variety of Tuscan sausages and salamis) to huge steaks. It fills fast at lunch. Arrive early or reserve.

Enoteca a Gambe di Gatto (Montepulciano)
Via dell Opio nel Corso 34; meals €21-30
This exacting husband and wife team are renowned throughout the region. They travel the country in winter to acquire the absolute best products from organic producers. The daily menu fluctuates wildly, depending on market offerings. The wine and oil served in the restaurant are also on sale in their enoteca.

Osteria da Tronca (Massa Marittima)
Vicolo Porte 5; meals €23-28
Squeezed into a side street, da Tronca is an intimate stone-walled restaurant with lots of antipasti (€3) to choose from and a memorable tortelli alla Maremma (pasta filled with ricotta and a type of spinach, covered in homemade ragu). For mains, you can’t go wrong ordering anything with cinghiale (wild boar).

Torre di Gnicche (Arezzo)
Piaggia San Martino 8; meals €21-26
Just off the Piazza Grande, this is a fine old restaurant that’s staunchly traditional (lunch service starts at 12.30pm and not one second before!), offering a rich variety of antipasti. The ample range of local pecorino cheeses is enriched by an extensive red wine list.

Trattoria Il Saraceno (Arezzo)
Via G Mazzini 6; meals €24-28
Arrive at the stoke of noon, because by 12:30 this places is hopping and you may go hungry. With 60 years in business, this trattoria serves quality, varied Tuscan fare attracting a lunch and dinner crowd that keeps the swarm of servers dashing. The impressive wine collection is hard to miss, as it conspicuously lines the walls along with classic pictures of Arezzo. They also do pizzas, starting at €5.

La Grotta (Cortona)
Piazzetta Baldly 3; meals €20-28
I’ve found this place, at the end of a blind alley just off Piazza della Repubblica, to be closed at very odd times, even for Italy. Should you find them open, it’s a reliable choice. Twin-roomed and intimate, it has all the virtues of a traditional trattoria. If you go for strong flavors, begin with the beef carpaccio, followed by the cheese ravioli with truffle sauce.

Trattoria Dardano (Cortona)
Via Dardano 24; meals €19-24
Dardano, my second favorite, barely, to Cantina Senese in Livorno, is one of those no-nonsense yet still unexpectedly wonderful trattorie that feature prominently in every Tuscany travel memoir, doing amazing things with ostensibly simple dishes. You’ll be elbow-to-elbow with locals and giddy, idealistic visitors, seriously considering buying and fixing up a nearby farmhouse on the strength of their lunch.

Trattoria da Leo (Lucca)
Via Tegrimi 1; meals €19
The outdoor dining area of this wildly popular place is smooshed into a tiny, but busy street in Lucca’s historic center. Known all over northwest Tuscany, the menu gets a little more adventurous than what you’d expect at a budget-end place, which is how I ended up eating here three times in three days last spring. They’re well used to tourists, managing to be friendly and non-rushed, which is hard to find in this category of eateries.