Published: June 2010
By Gary Shteyngart
In and around the walled city of Lucca, T+L finds epic Italian flavors.
Rich, pretty Lucca. What shall we do with you?
Surveying the Lucchese skyline from one of the handful of remaining medieval towers above the city, you’ll see a sea of low-lying ocher roofs, bounded by regiments of evergreens, bounded in turn by mountains forming phantom camels against the setting sun. Italian cities make for easy drama. It’s all here. Take a walk through Lucca’s Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, a sun-bleached ellipse of medieval houses built upon the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. For all the beauty around you, the eye is drawn to a huge pair of boxer shorts hanging from a window. Everything is an open story. Here red-and-black towels indicate a supporter of the soccer squad A.C. Milan, here lives an overweight man, here is someone who pines for a stronger Italian state. One of the region’s most conservative cities, a right-wing dinghy floating along in Tuscany’s veritable ocean of working-class red, Lucca does go on, reveling, feasting off its very Lucca-ness.
And then a small tempest stirred the world press. The Kebab Controversy.
As newspapers reported last year, the city has banned new ethnic restaurants from opening in the city center in an effort to preserve the purity of its local cuisine. Too many of the town’s children were coming home bearing the greasy thumbprints of foreign kebabs. The local left wing quickly decried the “gastronomic racism” and “culinary ethnic cleansing,” while Italy’s minister of agriculture, a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League, supported the banning of non-regional food, proudly announcing: “I even refuse to eat pineapple.”
Lucca’s stand against the kebab-bearing Turks brings to mind not only the question, What on earth is happening to Italy? But also, What exactly are we looking for when we travel? Do we want to sift through the contents of a jewel box, or do we want to lean over the balcony of our hotel room and feel the gusts of a strange new breeze? Do we wish to see small pockets of history and tradition, or do we want to open our ears and hear the fresh news the world whispers insistently to us each day? There is no simple answer, although the masses of tourists ping-ponging between Lucca’s Renaissance-era walls seem quite happy with the jewel-box approach. And yet, we all crave surprise. Lucca is known for its churches, among them the 11th-century wedding cake of San Michele in Foro and the San Martino Cathedral, its sacristy containing Jacopo della Quercia’s magnificent Gothic tomb of a poor young dear who died in childbirth, her noble dog loyally roosting by her feet. But three months after my visit these images are relegated to quick postcard snaps on my phone. The only interior that still echoes in my mind is the Basilica di San Frediano. Not for its simple Romanesque proportions or its relative humility, but because in the sullen emptiness of one afternoon a middle-aged procession of just-off-the-bus Germans with their rolling luggage still behind them unexpectedly take over one of the chapels and, under the guidance of their skinny, polyester-clad pastor, suddenly raise their voices to God.
I’ve come to Lucca to visit friends, and to eat. Shilpa and Antonio live in the peaceful villa district of Monte San Quirico, across the river from Lucca. For Italy they are an unexpected couple. Antonio’s background is half Lucchese and half Piedmontese (which might as well be foreign around here), while Shilpa is Indian American. Antonio’s politics are center-right, Shilpa’s the opposite. Their frequent disagreements about the quality of pale, white, salt-free Tuscan bread are operatic, hilarious, and instructive. In a nutshell, a staple that to Antonio may represent identity, resilience, and Tuscan thrift, to Shilpa represents some pretty bad bread. Meanwhile, their son Zubin, a brown-eyed four-year-old, reminds us of his favorite nursery rhyme (“O is for Obama”). After a few hours with Shilpa and Antonio’s family, the Kebab Controversy and the reign of the Northern League begin to seem slightly abstract.
The first place we hit for sustenance lies outside of Lucca’s walls. What’s even more shocking for wine-soaked Italy is that we are headed for an award-winning brewery by the name of Birrificio Brùton. Inside this cavernous repurposed farmhouse, next to a sweet terrace filled with jazz and children, a waiter sporting sideburns and leather bracelets heats up a jar of baby food while stroking the cheek of a mesmerized youngster. Iacopo Lenci, the 26-year-old owner, serves serious beer and formidable pub grub. Lenci’s dad is a winemaker, which brings to mind both continuity and rebellion. We’re quaffing large amounts of Brùton’s notable Dieci beer, so named for its 10 percent alcohol content, a magnificently fruity creation endowed with notes of caramel and licorice, as well as the chocolaty Momus, which somehow stacks up against the kitchen’s lightly fried rabbit, juicy grilled onions, and a hamburger (yes, a hamburger!) composed of rich Tuscan meat and a familiar sesame-seed bun. The bun instigates another discussion on the quality and provenance of Tuscan bread, during which Shilpa says of Lenci and his groundbreaking brewery, “This guy’s the future of Italy. This is the only way it’ll go forward.” No one disagrees.
Our next stop: a restaurant named Grano Salis, also outside of Lucca’s walls. Firouz Galdo, an Iranian-born architect working in Rome, was brought in to create a contemporary space full of light, wood, and pewter—the whole thing could easily sit atop a Hong Kong skyscraper. Grano Salis, full of young locals, is certainly in the pro-kebab camp. Its website weighs in on the controversy, noting that Italian cuisine is flooded with foreign influences and that there’s not a whale of difference between, say, sashimi and crudo or, for that matter, kebabs and the Italian spiedini. The interior of Grano Salis is covered in mottoes such as Mangia come pensi (“Eat like you think”), and thoughtful is the best way to describe the restaurant’s professional and knowledgeable waitstaff, who will say things like: “The octopus we saw today at the market was too small. We didn’t like it.”
What they did like were the succulent mini-clams in the ramen-thick, beyond-al-dente tonnarelli con polipetti e pecorino and the silky trippa of baccalà alla romana, sitting atop tomato and garlic on toast. We drink down a Tenuta delle Terre Nere, grown in the rocks of the Etna volcano, with an aromatic complexity that boggles the mind and leads to comments along the lines of “The filthiest wine I’ve ever had” and “It tastes like a very dirty child.”
Another night, we head for Ristorante Lombardo, in the pretty hills of Santo Stefano, 15 minutes outside of Lucca’s walls. Lombardo specializes in very honest Lucchese cuisine, such as the stewed codfish with leek, and also represents some decent and inexpensive local wines. Facing the port of Livorno, the restaurant’s terrace feels temperate and joyous with nuclear families, the mountains nearly glisten, and the lack of light pollution is spectacular. The egg-yellow tortelli lucchese are a meaty double threat—there’s beef and pork and bread crumbs inside, and beef and pork (and tons of vegetables) in the sauce. Lombardo’s pillowy specimens are so rich, eating them feels like biting into a Swiss franc.
In the opposite direction from the city is the famous Michelin-starred La Mora, which after 143 years still keeps tradition in check with its inventive cooking. The wine cellar is a glorious museum filled with dust-covered beauties—it’s worth a trip inside just to watch a 1980 Pétrus Pomerol gleam seductively—and the wine list leaves no stone unturned. We gorge on the aquadelle fritte, sweet tiny river fish that must have sardines for big cousins, then hit the chickpea soup with shrimp, an entirely successful interpretation of a Lucchese classic, saving room for the fiori di zucca that have been with us at the table for half an hour but are still living and breathing, still firm and crisp. A deconstructed farro soup bearing a spicy, vaguely Mexican kick puts a brief multicultural smile on our faces.
It’s time to head down to the city. The walls, built for defensive measures but never used as such, are perfect for an evening stroll, forming a kind of vertical expressway with handy exits. By sundown the parapets are overrun with chirping teenagers, industrious joggers, picnickers enjoying golden focaccia by the battlements, and any people who think they are in love. I commute along the north side to the Palazzo Pfanner, a hydrangea-scented refuge abutting the walls, and the most geometrically lovely spot in Lucca, a copse of bamboo reaching up to the San Frediano bell tower. Within the space of a half-hour, I traverse the length of the city to find Lucca’s gem of a botanical garden, where an 1820 Lebanese cedar provides tall comfort. To build an appetite I do some browsing at Carli, the famous jeweler along the Via Fillungo. Forgive what I said earlier about jewel boxes, because that’s precisely what Carli is, with its hushed, private air, its 17th-century safe, its bright frescoes, and its outstanding collection of silver, watches, and unusual objects such as Neapolitan corni (horns), amulets carved out of red coral that are imputed to ward off the evil eye.
Tonight’s dinner is at Trattoria da Giulio, an airy, pleasantly undistinguished space smack-dab by the walls. Shilpa and I sample a heavy and chewy zuppa di farro that clearly benefits from the use of only the best grain and that inspired Shilpa’s mom, on a previous visit to da Giulio, to proclaim it every bit as flavorful as khichdi, the Indian national comfort dish. Somewhere out there, the Northern League is not pleased.
The next day I circulate hungrily within the city walls. At the touristy but still vital Buca di Sant Antonio restaurant, I lunch on a grilled fat-ribboned baby goat cooked on the spit along with an artichoke pudding that holds, but does not entomb, the complex, salty flavor of artichoke. For dinner, I lean back at Ristorante All’Olivo’s outdoor terrace, which is seductively shrouded in bougainvillea and the aromas of a superior kitchen. I partake of a langoustine that might as well be butter, amazing red mullet, fatty raw oysters, and a sauce of balsamic, oil, pepper, salt, and, yes, fellow kebab-defenders, soy.
But the best restaurant within the city walls for my euro is the newcomer Pult Drink & Food, centrally located in the Piazza dei Mercanti on the Via Fillungo. The staff here is as talkative and knowledgeable as the crew at Grano Salis: “I wouldn’t get that bottle first,” the waiter says. “It’s a little too insistent and powerful.” He steers us instead to an expansive Ribolla Gialla from Friuli. The owners used to have a popular shack by the sea and now they’ve gone big in the city, creating an outdoor summertime oasis favored by up-to-date locals—everywhere you look you’ll spot those famous Lucchese schnozzes buried tide-deep in fish. We feast on the red mullet and scampi so typical of nearby Livorno, and sweet shrimp that bring to mind Japanese ama-ebi. Pult has the best crudo in town, which is saying something, and nicely salted and olived sea bass. The fritto misto is ethereal, particularly the zucchini and shrimp; indeed the art of frying at Pult is deft and Japanese. The only warning: During late nights in summer, a terrifying dance party may break out.
This tale ends far outside Lucca, in the seaside city of Livorno. A short train ride away, tourist-free Livorno is everything Lucca is not. Flattened by Allied bombs, lacking any must-sees except for some canals in the so-called New Venice district and a church featuring, forgive me, one of Vasari’s ugliest paintings, Livorno nonetheless manages to thrill because of its diversity. The port city was once home to Italy’s largest community of Jews living outside of a ghetto and some of these free-range Jews are still in evidence, along with churches bearing Armenian, Dutch, Anglican, and Greek Orthodox affiliations. In addition to the slightly corroded sea air, I’ve come to sample Livorno’s famous dish, cacciucco, at Trattoria Antico Moro, a seafood restaurant that smells entirely like its wares. Cacciucco is one of several local dishes that have Jewish origins, a metaphor for multicultural Livorno. The fragrant stew is an amalgam of at least five different kinds of fish, made from whatever the fishmonger has on offer, set afire by liberal use of red pepper, enhanced by tomato and red wine vinegar and plenty of toasted garlic bread. With its array of dismembered sea creatures, a flotilla of fish tails peeking out, a distinctively non-Jewish langoustine hiding underneath, cacciucco looks like an underwater Battle of the Somme. It is the messiest dish I’ve ever seen or eaten, and it burns my stomach, ears, and eyes in a way that is memorable and real. After the studied perfection of Lucca’s cuisine, I am happy to live in a world where muddy fish stews can exist a short train ride away from heaps of golden tortelli lucchese, where kebabs are cheap and plentiful, and where a simple Tuscan farro soup can remind an Indian mother of home.
Gary Shteyngart is a T+L contributing editor.
Birrificio Brùton 5135 Via Lodovica, San Cassiano di Moriano; 39-05/8357-9260; dinner for two $65.
Buca di Sant Antonio 1/3A Via della Cervia; 39-05/835-5881; dinner for two $79.
Grano Salis Via Dante Alighieri; 39-05/831-900-093; dinner for two $90.
La Mora 1748 Via Sesto di Moriano; 39-05/8340-6402; dinner for two $127.
Pult Drink & Food 42 Via Fillungo, Piazza dei Mercanti; 39-05/8349-5632; dinner for two $99.
Ristorante All’Olivo 1 Piazza San Quirico; 39-05/8349-6264; dinner for two $100.
Ristorante Lombardo 4801 Via della Pieve Santo Stefano; 39-05/8339-4268; dinner for two $90.
Trattoria Antico Moro 59 Via Bartelloni, Livorno; 39-05/8688-4659; dinner for two $100.
Trattoria da Giulio 45 Via delle Conce; 39-05/835-5948; dinner for two $45.
See and Do
Botanical Garden 14 Via del Giardino Botanico; 39-05/8358-3086.
Carli 95 Via Fillungo; 39-05/8349-1119.
Palazzo Pfanner 33 Via degli Asili; 39-05/8395-4029.
Roman Amphitheater Piazza dell’Anfiteatro.
San Frediano Basilica Piazza San Frediano; 39-05/8349-3627.
San Martino Cathedral Piazza San Martino; 39-05/8349-4726.
San Michele in Foro Piazza San Michele, Foro; 39-05/835-3576.