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.