Other Italian Highlights
My recent trip to Italy involved tasting (and more to the point drinking) plenty of great wine, but that wasn't the only aspect I enjoyed while visiting such a culturally diverse country.
Here's a phrase I never thought I'd write - I enjoyed the Italian beer. The craft beer movement has found its way to Italy, meaning there's finally an alternative to bland mainstream products like Peroni and Nastro Azzurro. Many of the towns I visited had small local producers making a range of beers from California-style IPAs to dark, malty German beers.
Given its connection to Austria, it was no surprise that Bolzano in the Alto Adige had a brewpub called Hopfen & Co making good, malty, creamy beers - my favourite being a seasonal chestnut beer. Further south in Tuscany, the trend is for hoppy IPAs, similar in style to California though not quite as big and extreme. These beers aren't in mainstream bars or restaurants, but they're not too hard to find in more independent minded places.
Less surprising was the quality of restaurants. It's not hard to find good-value food in Italy, though look a little bit further and there are some extraordinary meals still at affordable prices. The key is freshly made pasta, as well as dishes based on local tradition and food. If you're travelling around Italy, here are some standouts:
Osteria a Due Spade, Trento
Like being in an underground cave hiding out in the Second World War. Small, atmospheric, great food, and a fantastic - and reasonably priced - wine list.
Restaurant Zur Kaiserkron, Bolzano
How does food get better than this, we asked ourselves in Trento, and then two nights later we ate in this superb restaurant in Bolzano. The attention to detail - regarding food, design, and service - is astonishing, and again another very good wine list.
Il Leccio, Sant' Angelo in Colle, near Montalcino
A clear sign of a good restaurant is when it's full on a Thursday lunchtime in November - even when it's in a small village in the middle of nowhere. A simple but freshly made pasta dish with mushrooms was a perfect lunch, especially with a wee half bottle of Brunello di Montalcino.
Locanda Amordivino, Asciano
Asciano is a village that has little but a museum with ancient vases decorated with prominent phalluses. Next to the museum, though, is this extraordinary restaurant where steaks are cooked on an open fire in front of all the guests.
All of these restaurants were magnificent: the truly crazy thing is they were all easily affordable too. Why anyone bothers to cook at home in Italy, I don't know.
While visiting Siena, I had a truffle beer which had intense, stinky aromas of, well, truffles. These are underground fungi often confused with mushrooms and are highly prized as well as very expensive. When I was visiting it was truffle season, which meant plenty of pasta dishes topped with the earthy aromas of truffles. Italy's truffles are white, in contrast to France's black version, so they sit very nicely on top of pasta. Still not sure I want such earthy aromas in a beer though.
This is a speciality of northern Italy, made from maize and found on many menus as an alternative to potatoes. Restaurants in Italy often have identical looking menus but each one has its own take. So with polenta, which can look and taste like mashed potato or be hard and firm like a potato cake. It doesn't quite have the complex texture of potatoes, but it goes well with the meat and game dishes common to the north.
One of the most difficult spirits to get right is grappa. Made from the pomace (leftover grape skins, pips, and stalks from fermentation), many producers don't take it seriously enough leading to pungent, unpleasant aromas of turpentine. However, if a producer handles the pomace carefully then grappa can be a sophisticated drink. In the north of Italy, grappa is often made from one grape variety, from Chardonnay to Gewürztraminer (black grapes are particularly difficult to make quality grappa out of), though it's hard to discern varietal character. Grappa has grapey, floral aromas with a perception of sweetness which makes it great for washing down heavy Italian food.
Tuscany abounds in beautiful hilltop villages. Some of them are tourist magnets, others are sleepy one-street towns. Either way, each has its own character with a different reason for visiting - the views, the history, a weekly market, or an unexpectedly fantastic restaurant. San Gimignano is one such village, attracting crowds of tourists for its beauty and its crisp, clean white wines. Another village is Montepulciano, again known for its wine. Visiting these villages all depends when you turn up: there may be hordes of tourists or you may be the only people there. In which case, head to the next village in time for lunch...