Tuscany as It Was Meant to Be
Reached by a road that snakes through the Maremma's most lyrical hillside, Caino is the restaurant you've always dreamed of finding in Italy. From the intimate rustic-elegant setting to the pedigreed foodstuffs edited into a small, flawless menu—everything here is preciously Tuscan, without the whiff of commercialism that sends the rest of Italy jealously screaming, "Tuscany is ruined!"
Caino is a labor of love for Maurizio and Valeria Menichetti—she's the kind of woman who was probably born with a maternal look. In 1984 the couple took over his family's osteria in the walled village of Montemerano, and slowly confected it into a shrine to regional flavors. Along the way they procured remarkable cheeses and stocked the cellar with vintages from up-and-coming producers. Recently they were overwhelmed by the news of their second Michelin star (a rare bit of insight for the Italian version of the blindly Francophile guide).
Waiting for dinner you can dote on the amuse-gueule, an adorable heart-shaped tomato gelée in a fragrant pool of olive oil; watch Maurizio twirl and decant his Montepulcianos; and devour a crusty ricotta-stuffed bread loaf, all the while trading spa tips with other tables—Saturnia is nearby.
The food comes, and the conversation stops dead. Mind you, it's only trippa e fagioli, but what tripe, what beans. The same instinctive finesse has you gasping with pleasure at the acquacotta,a peasant potage of yesterday's bread, tomatoes, onions, and olive oil, topped with a bright-yolked fried egg. This is osteria fare as imagined by Perugino.
True to its inland location, Caino doesn't bother with fish (except, of course, baccalà). You won't miss it as you listen to Maurizio extol the virtues of their squab, from a small supplier called Greppi—so amazing he and Valeria serve it raw, as a carpaccio—or the aristocratic buttery richness of Chianina beef with flourishes of pricey porcini. If it's on the menu, be sure to try the boar (from Parco di Uccellino, Maremma's vast nature reserve), larded with olives and served with a side of perfect roasted potatoes.
The road out of Montemerano feels twistier at night, all the more reason to book one of Caino's three charming new guest rooms. And in case you thought dinner was a mirage, pack a jar of Valeria's pickled artichokes—though even they taste too good to be real.
Truffles and Cabbages in a Veneto Spa Town
In my hotel room I find a brochure entitled Slim Psychosomatically. "The majority of diets don't work," it announces. Oh really? Luckily, slimming isn't what has brought me to Abano Terme, northern Italy's mud-treatment center, just outside Padua. Weaving past gaggles of northern Europeans fresh from their iodine baths, I head for Casa Vecia, a restaurant that first intrigued me two years ago.
Casa Vecia is run by a quartet of brothers: Nicola and Massimo Agostini graciously attend to the dining room; Stefano and Andrea cook. On my earlier visit I'd eaten in the garden, so the restaurant's sauna-like wood paneling, cottage-cheese walls, and embossed yellow tablecloths had passed me by. (It's all actually quite sweet.) But the cuisine is instantly recognizable—full of little quirks and surprises that quietly subvert alta cucina conceits.
For instance, my main course is an egg—honestly, one perfect poached egg—topped by a julienne of subtly unctuous veal tongue fortified with a truffled Marsala sauce. It's a dinner of champions, and I still remember each bite. In an illicit marriage of flavors, the antipasto brings together barely cooked scampi, cured venison from the Valle d'Aosta, and a crisp cabbage slaw splashed with apple vinegar. This is the Veneto, so more cabbage follows as a base for a warm mousse encircled by an orange-touched onion sauce. Thousand-lira ingredients suddenly taste like a million dollars.
Light semolina gnocchi is the only conventional pasta on the small, well-priced menu. It arrives in an unusual sugo of rabbit liver and truffles, which has the dark, mellow intensity of a Verdi baritone aria. A polite breaded veal loin is shocked out of complacency with a radicchio-and-black-olive sauce that boldly layers bitter on bitter.
The wine is another discovery: La Poja Corvina, a rare Veneto red with a smoked-cherry nose, from Allegrini, known mainly as a producer of big Amarones. And to think that people come to Abano Terme just to smear themselves with mud.
Border Bravado in the Alto Adige
Take a wealthy autonomous region whose peaks and lakes draw discerning European urbanites. Add a vigorous wine culture, a charmingly fused Austro-Italian cuisine, plus an ultra-professional restaurant school. Eccolo: Alto Adige, Italy's new gastronomic mecca.
Among the area's many outstanding restaurants, none is more lauded than Zur Rose, a 10-minute drive from Bolzano, where chef Herbert Hintner heads Italy's energetic association of young restaurateurs. In a vaulted, whitewashed room that recalls a very new church, Hintner woos gourmands of every persuasion with clean, confident, bicultural cooking. Austrians swoon over the Gorgonzola-and-red-wine soup with a plump onion dumpling, and the moist fillet of zander, a type of perch, encased in a golden shred of potatoes. Italians tuck into a warm cuttlefish salad showered with olive oil, and devour every last bit of the chanterelle lasagne in a bright parsley sauce. Desserts are a sweet riff on peasant traditions: chocolate frittata with cappuccino ice cream; a tangy cheese-whey fluff in a ragoûtof raspberries. Bravo, wunderschön!
The Most Amazing Red Sauce in Naples
I wasn't expecting to find stylishly youthful flavors in a neorealist city like Naples, and certainly not amid the British civility of the Grand Hotel Parker's. But a tip from a friend leads me to the hotel's penthouse restaurant, George, with its mesmerizing view of the bay (the reason to go at lunchtime). This is where chef Vincenzo Bacioterracino is breathing new passion into obscure Neapolitan classics.