The best restaurants in Tuscany

This is it folks. For the final post of Tuscany Month, celebrating the release of the totally redesigned 2010 Lonely Planet Tuscany & Umbria, I am listing, by my modest estimation, the best places to eat in Tuscany. I’ve selected restaurants from the full budget range for various reasons that will be made clear in the reviews, however I’m leaving out the Michelin starred places, because featuring those would just be too easy and probably too expensive for most visitor’s inclinations anyway.

Caveats: the restaurants on this list are merely my personal selections, chosen on the strength of my two thorough Lonely Planet research trips through the region. However, this list has not been endorsed by Lonely Planet, nor for that matter, anyone with unassailable Tuscan dinning expertise. I have eaten at all of these places, usually only once, though sometimes twice, and I fully acknowledge that a single visit to any restaurant is not a wholly fair judgment of its full potential (or shortcomings). Also, again, I have not accounted for Florence and northwest Tuscany in this list, as this is not my research area. For my purposes, prices for a ‘meal’ include a pasta dish, a meat dish, a dessert and the coperto (service charge), but no drinks/wine. All prices listed were accurate as of spring/summer 2009.

Cantina Senese (Livorno)
Borgo dei Cappuccini 95; meals €17-20
Sound familiar? That’s because they made the “Best cheap eats in Tuscany” list too. It’s really a special place, for great food, reasonable prices, local color and all around atmosphere. The front half is a guys-guy hangout area, with food at prices that locals will pay on a weeknight being served just beyond at long wooden tables. It’s been almost a year, but I frequently think about the mussels and cacciucco di pesce (fish stew) that I had here. If, for whatever unlikely reason, you end up spending the night in Livorno, you may consider staying longer just to eat here again.

Antica Osteria da Divo (Siena)
Via Franciosa 29; meals €45-50
Despite my sizable eating obligations in Siena, not to mention the top-end prices here, I couldn’t help but eat at Divo twice last year. It’s very much a tourist place, but holy smokes is it ever good. Most seating is in the carved-out cellar with rough-hewn walls said to be former Etruscan tombs. The inventive menu includes dishes such as cannelloni with ricotta, spinach, grilled sweet peppers, tomatoes and Tuscan pesto sauce. The buckwheat lasagna au gratin with pheasant and fennel seeds in a creamed garlic and squash sauce is, obviously, quite the sight. Avert your eyes from the prices and enjoy an incredible eating experience.

La Libertaria (Portoferraio, Isola d’Elba)
Calata Matteotti 12; meals €28
This was an unexpected treat. Though I was directed here by the local Slow Food guy, I had initial misgivings as the place looks pretty moribund from the front. Seating capacity and backdrops are meager (a tent in the alley or out on the sidewalk, 5cm from speeding traffic), but the food is divine. Also, in the unlikely event that nothing on the menu turns your crank, the kitchen is open to requests! The linguine sarde e finocchietto (pasta with sardines and fennel) is unexpectedly excellent (I don’t normally dig on sardines) and the cooked-to-perfection tonno in crosta di pistacchi (tuna fillet with pistachio crust) was one of my favorite meals of the entire trip.

Gelateria di Piazza (San Gimignano)
Piazza della Cisterna 4
This is, hands-down the best gelateria in Tuscany. Oh you think you know a better one? One that’s not right on a famous, tourist-trap main square and therefore more authentic? Actually, you don’t because I probably ate the gelato wherever you’re thinking and I know what I’m talking about. Still unconvinced? Ask world famous gelato expert Tony Blair (OK, he’s nowhere near a gelato expert, but you know the guy has had the best of the best of everything) who is quoted, right on the wall, as saying “all the family thought the ice cream was delicious” See? Case closed. Master Sergio uses only the choicest ingredients, like pistachios from Sicily and cocoa from Venezuela. There’s a variant based on Vernaccia, the local wine, and, if you want to be more adventurous, saffron cream.

Il Pino (San Gimignano)
Via Cellolese 8-10; meals €37-42
When I first ate here in 2007, I had the raviolone di pecorino delle crete con lingua stufata e carote e porri all’aneto (sheep’s milk cheese ravioli with stewed meat, carrots, and leeks), which still ranks as the greatest pasta dish I’ve ever had anywhere in Italy. Sadly, it wasn’t on the menu in 2009, but the massive pasta plates and truffle-based specialties were still exceptional. The atmosphere here is spruce, vaulted and airy and the service is friendly and attentive. The ‘chocolate mousse with chocolate’ might sound funny, but the joke’s over when you taste it and realize it’s factually correct – and devastatingly good.

Ristorante Don Beta (Volterra)
Via Giacomo Matteotti 39; meals €30-45, fixed price menus €12-21
If you read my 2009 Best and Worst of Tuscany list, you’ll remember this place, as it earned the title ‘Best Meal’. And unlike most higher end Tuscan restaurants, both times I was here, the place was filled with locals. It’s all about the truffles at Don Beta. Four truffle-based primi piatti, and five secondi are enhanced by their fragrance. This is the place to sample the fungus, people. Prices aren’t listed, as truffle costs vary on a weekly basis, so it’s a good idea to inquire about prices before ordering, though they are generally reasonable. Alternatively, choose the mouth-watering tortellone di sfoglia di Spinaci Noci e Radicchio (spinach ravioli with walnut and radicchio sauce) or the Bistecca di Cinghiale alla griglia (amazingly tender wild boar fillets grilled with rosemary).

La Tana del Brillo Parlante (Massa Marittima)
Vicolo del Ciambellano 4; meals €30-35
OK, I didn’t actually eat at this place, though not for lack of trying. I was there on a weekend and it was totally booked out. However, a waiting list of discriminating locals can’t be wrong, so I’m putting my faith in this place anyway. Satisfying the Slow Food checklist to the letter, the diminutive interior ‘den’ seats a mere 12 people (in summer up to another six can squeeze into tiny alley tables). It’s billed as the ‘smallest osteria in Italy’. If you intend to dine here in summer or on the weekend, reserve 2-7 days in advance. Pork is their fixation, particularly the regional cinghiale alla Maremmana (Maremma wild boar).

Sobborgo (Cetona)
Via Sobborgo 6; meals €40
At the end of the piazza, the attentive staff serve an amazingly savory (and amazingly dainty) ravioli di chianina e dragoncelli con porcini (ravioli stuffed with beef and tarragon with porcini mushrooms). Even the bread here is swoon-worthy. If the idea of a €40 meal makes you take pause, you can off-set the price by staying a few blocks away in the perfectly nice La Cocciara, one of Tuscany’s best hostels.

Ristorante Fiorentino (Sansepolcro)
Via L Pacioli 60; meals €28-32
Exceptionally friendly and, having been in the same family for four generations, one of those legacy Tuscan restaurants known throughout the region. Daughter Alessia, an architect/sommelier with a degree in kitchen sciences and occasional guest on cooking TV shows, is guiding the restaurant into 21st century excellence. Dad, Alessio, still oversees day-to-day business, including the kitchen, where the pasta’s homemade, the imaginative menu changes with the seasons and there’s nary a freezer to be found.

Osteria del Teatro (Cortona)
Via Maffei 2; meals €32-40
Friendly service, fresh flowers on every table and a liberal meting out of truffle shavings awaits diners here. Featured in nearly every Italian gastronomic guide, its walls are proudly covered with photos of actors who have dined here. In summer, expect to find the recurring ravioli ai fiori di zucca (pumpkin-flower ravioli) among the recommended pasta plates.