At the beginning of a week in Tuscany, I immediately stopped at a bookstore in Florence and bought an armload of Italian language restaurant guides--the SLOW FOOD OSTERIE D'ITALIA, MICHELIN ITALIA and the L'ESPRESSO restaurant guide to Italy. I also checked out a couple of websites and arrived with a batch of printed pages, so I figured that there was no way that I could fail to eat spectacularly well during my travels here.
Wrong. If I didn't expect much from the MICHELIN ITALIA, it didn't deliver much either, leading us to two very ordinary meals in restaurants where the gnocci was industrially made, sauteed zucchini was reheated in a microwave that turned it to mush, the bread was stale, and the grated Parmesan as fragrant and tasty as sawdust,and all of this despite the fact that the front doors of the offending tables were slapped thick with Michelin decals. This is why I think decals are a bad idea, since they live on long past any valid recommendation, and people tend to use them as visual abbreviations to good gastronomic judgement, i.e, "Oh, look, that place has a Michelin sticker, let's have lunch there." What I found really sad in my Michelin meals was that I naively never thought that Italy was capable of cheapening its food to such a degree. I also found, as I have for the last decade or so, that this guide's rudder tacks towards a fancified Gallic style of cuisine I haven't enjoyed in many years, or in other words, if you're wondering where la nouvelle cuisine went to retire into a polite senescence it was Italy.
The L'ESPRESSO Guide (L'Espresso is a weekly magazine) was essentially useless, but rather interestingly, almost never cross-hatched in terms of its recommendations with the Michelin Guide. Instead, this guide seemed to specialize in stylish or new restaurants, which are just about the last places I ever want to eat in Italy. Even though I had the 2010 edition, many restaurants were closed, too, and not recently, since staring through the dusty plate-glass windows of more than one or two, I saw heaps of junk mail in front of the door and dead philodendron plants at many addresses.
Maybe the most curious thing about the L'ESPRESSO Guide was that so many of the pizzerias it recommended no longer serve pizza at noon. In fact, pizza at noon has become a scarce commodity, being relegated instead to special Saturday night status at many restaurants (Why did I want a pizza at noon? Because after day six, I'd eaten too much and was trying to find lighter midday meals without skipping a single one--I love Italian food too much to ever skip a meal during a trip to Italy).
The third contender was OSTERIE D'ITALIA by the publishing arm of the Slow Food organization, and with such an estimable and serious pedigree, this was the guide for which I held out the highest hopes. It mostly delivered, too--even though Greve in Chianti has morphed into a tourist town on the same scale as the horrific Saint Paul de Vence in the south of France, I still had a very good if egregiously over-priced meal at Mangiando Mangiando and another very pleasant one at Taverna del Guerino. On the other hand, Hosteria Il Carrocio in Sienna, which got both a snail and a bottle of wine emblem, was baldly mediocre.
I also consulted some voices from the blogosphere. Faith Willinger, whose Eating in Northern Italy book was for many years one of my bibles (unfortunately, it was never updated) also runs a website, and it was here that I found her enthusiastic recommendation of Mamma Rosa in the town of Bargino. Unfortunately, chef Francesca Cianchi, the one Faith loved, moved on a longtime ago and the current restaurant is just plain awful. In fact, I don't think I've ever eaten a meal in Italy as mediocre as the one I had there last night, with a single example of the awfulness of the cooking being sufficient--a "terrine" of mozzarella with ham and olives sounded pleasant on a spring night, but what came to the table was a rubbery bowl of melted mozzarella with snippets of hot dog and cocktail olives that had clearly just come out of a microwave. I rest my case. What this experience emphasized is that any good blog or website must be as assiduously weeded as a productive and much-loved garden.
I looked at a lot of other Italian food blogs, but like so many of this species, many of the writers assume the ego-inflated role of gastronomic traffic cops, i.e, go or don't go, full stop, with no real explanation as to why they've made their judgement. If I'm wondering whether or not a voice is reliable, I want to read a criticism, not an offhanded off-with-their-heads look-at-me, look-at-me culinary sentencing. Tell me why the food was good or bad, who the chef is, who goes there, what the restaurant looks like, smells like, sounds like, etc. The harsh me-be-king cyber thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down just doesn't work for anyone who loves good food and admires good cooking as much as I do.
And this is why I want to thank Florence based cooking-school owner and fellow Italian foodlover Judy Witts Francini for the wonderful information on her website Divina Cucina. She generously posts a whole section on eating and buying good food in Tuscany, and it was here that I found the address of the best restaurant I ate at during this recent Tuscan trek, the absolutely charming Il Vescovino in Panzano, a place so sweet and simple that I am already dreaming of my next meal there and wishing there was some way to get a plate of homemade farfalle pasta with zucchini, fresh ricotta and finely chopped mint delivered to me over the alps in time for lunch tomorrow.
Il Vescovino, Via dei Ciampoli da Panzana, Panzano in Chianti, Tel. (39) 055-856-0152.