ITALY: When Art Meets Food and Wine
Story and photography by June Naylor
A Fort Worth writer and her husband spend a glorious two weeks nibbling and sipping their way through Tuscany, Florence and Rome
We lost count of the many friends who vacationed in Italy at about the same time my husband and I spent two glorious weeks there over the summer. Several of us feverishly messaged each other about one thing — where to eat. Like-minded friends understood: Memorable travels through Tuscany, Florence and Rome entail finding food and drink as rewarding as the scenery and art.
With our days of haphazard sightseeing and lucking into a great meal mostly in the past, we did a lot of prep work. Our post-pandemic world is one of required reservations, booked well in advance, whether we are visiting a museum, church or trattoria. Planning our lunches and dinners within arm’s reach of specific art, architecture and wineries made for a dream trip. Here’s how it unfolded:
Staying near the village of Montepulciano in southeastern Tuscany, we wandered daily along the Val d’Orcia loop, a drive weaving through rolling, green-velvet topography punctuated by the region’s signature spindly cypress trees. A place known for extraordinary wines, it’s also full of towns and hamlets where we poked our heads in artists’ studios, toured churches, stopped for wine tastings and hiked to hilltop medieval fortresses to marvel at breathtaking landscapes sweeping toward the horizon.
In Montepulciano, we found a mosaic artist toiling over beautiful creations while his cats napped in a corner, and a coppersmith whose family’s work includes that on top of the Duomo in Siena.
We were particularly taken with the Church of the Madonna di San Biagio, a Renaissance masterpiece in cream travertine. Nearby, we booked lunch at Caseificio Cugusi Silvana, a dairy farm where shopkeepers put together a picnic basket filled with pecorino cheeses cut to order, cured meats, bread, jars of olives and mushrooms and honey and a lovely bottle of local rosé. Nabbing a table shaded by olive trees and framed by fat rose and rosemary bushes, we whiled away an afternoon of simple grazing and sipping.
Twenty minutes south, the burg of La Foce provided two extraordinary experiences: After touring exquisite formal gardens surrounding a storybook villa, we settled into one of the traditional Tuscan eating events, a dinner of bistecca alla Fiorentina at Dopolavoro.
An airy space with a contemporary country house styling, the restaurant draws patrons who travel an hour or more to feast on giant porterhouses cut from the local Chianina cattle. Served alongside grilled vegetables and garden-fresh tomato soup, the steak was the right match for a bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo red.
A short drive west of Montepulciano, the town of Pienza combines the best of Renaissance architecture with the perfect Tuscan piazza, all in a jewel-box package that’s easy to cover in an hour’s walk.
After a wine tasting at Le Chiuse nearby at Montalcino, we landed in Pienza for a lengthy, lovely dinner at La Bandita Townhouse Caffe. The owner-host, an expat from New York, guided us through discoveries like rabbit and pistachio terrine with toasted brioche and apple chutney, tagliolini with Sorrento lemon sauce and grilled lamb chops with artichoke puree and Romesco sauce. We also got a worthwhile crash course in grappa tasting, which taught us that the golden, aged variety is the smooth choice to sip after dinner.
Just west of Pienza, the village of Bagno Vignoni provided the only unplanned lunch of our trip. Wanting to take a dip in the legendary hot springs beneath the cliff-top town, we had to scurry for shelter during a downpour.
The staff at Bistrot Languorino warmly accommodated us, serving my husband and me sumptuous plates of ravioli lavished with pistachio-studded cream and topped with sun-dried tomatoes and slices of supple roasted pork tenderloin with bacon on top, arranged over sweet-and-sour red onion tendrils laced with balsamic vinegar. When the rain stopped, we lingered in the town’s shops, arranged around a rock-walled pond, and hiked down to those soothing hot springs.
My artist husband fell hard for the treasures of Florence, naturally. And we nailed delicious lunch and dinner bookings right around the corner from each must-see art palace.
A fellow artist sent us to Cru Wine & Tap, a tiny, humble place that’s a four-minute walk from the Duomo and an eight-minute walk from the Bargello Museum.
Recently opened by a chef whose nearby family farm provided the produce for the dinner we enjoyed in an open-air courtyard, Cru (an acronym for cucina rustica urbana) served us an appetizer of baby tomatoes and parmigiana atop flatbread; pureed beets with fresh basil and local pecorino in the chilled soup; and ruby-centered tuna crusted in black sesame seeds paired with a tasty chardonnay from Verona.
Of course, pizza and pasta cravings were sated at every turn: A six-minute walk from the Accademia Gallery, we shared our delight at seeing Michelangelo’s “David” over a quintessential, feather-light-crusted pizza at Fuoco Matto; and a two-minute walk from the joys of Botticelli’s greatest works at the Uffizi Galleries landed us at Vini e Vecchi Sapori, a petite osteria serving artful pappardelle and fettuccine creations with lush cream-and-vegetable treatments.
The latter serves a side of spirited attitude, as the handwritten menu, which changes daily, notes there’s no pizza, ice, cappuccino, spritzes or ketchup — because all anyone needs is exceptional food and wine.
A savvy veteran visitor pointed us toward the lesser-known but incredible Palazzo Corsini, a baroque palace and gallery in the Trastevere neighborhood with masterpieces by Caravaggio, Rubens, Bernini, El Greco and van Dyck.
Just a four-minute walk away, the humble and welcoming Hostaria del Roody — where closely set tables allowed for convivial chats with a Dutch family and a couple from Tennessee — served delicate beef tartare with soft-cooked egg and fresh truffle shavings, grilled eggplant and tomatoes, and lamb chops lavished in fresh herbs.
Our favorite lunch was a cold seafood salad, grilled prawns and spaghetti all’Amatriciana (with tomato and bacon) at Costa Paradiso, just a five-minute walk from the Borghese Gallery & Museum, filled with still more works by Bernini and Caravaggio, as well as those by Raffaello, also known as Raphael.
We indulged in the obligatory, decadent gelato while elbowing through crowds to see the Trevi Fountain, then made a 12-minute walk to dinner at Satiro, a cozy, contemporary trattoria in the Monti neighborhood. There, we satisfied yearnings for tomato risotto with shellfish, tonnarelli (a thicker spaghetti) cacio e pepe and classic tiramisu.
Our last evening turned out to be the best: After battling the Colosseum hordes, we rewarded ourselves by walking 10 minutes to Osteria Oliva, where our sidewalk feast — a traditional three-course extravaganza — was one we still talk about.
Starters of zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta and Catalan-style prawns were followed by saffron gnocchi with crispy zucchini slices and chopped pistachios, along with fettuccine with tuna ragu, and then plank-grilled cod and octopus carpaccio for our mains. Here, the sommelier led us to a bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. It was ideal for toasting our endless fortune of a fortnight of artful indulgences.