300. That’s the estimated number of small businesses shuttered, either temporarily or permanently, in the province of Lucca, thus far on this rollercoaster ride named 2020.
Naturally, the loss of so many shops, restaurants, bars and agencies of all sorts is deeply scarring for any community. In Italy, it’s particularly crushing considering the bureaucratic-gymnastics required just to get a business up and running.
Hopefully, that dynamic is changing as new regulations to streamline the entrepreneurial process are in discussion. Vediamo. (We shall see).
In the meantime, we mourn the loss of many beloved places, including our own personal kitchen-away-from-home, the place where everyone knew our name and we knew theirs. La Bottega dell’Oste. This was our “Cheers.” From birthdays, anniversaries and home renovation landmarks to just-because-it’s-Thursday Thursdays, this was the spot we marked all of our occasions. We should all be so lucky to have such a spot, right?
If 2020 is teaching us anything, it’s to rally around the people, places and principles we value. And, just as with the people in our lives, let’s not hold back in showing our love for special places in our communities. In that spirit, this seems a grand time to shine a spotlight on a few places which we have come to treasure in this magical town.
Plus, in this time of social distancing, raging wildfires, loathsome-leaders, and when every day’s news seems too much to bear, here’s a tasty topic to bring us all to the table.
Il Cibo d’Italia, aka, Italian food.
Everyone’s invited to belly up. Whether you’re a Lucca resident eager to experience new dishes or frequent visitor counting the days until the travel gates open again, there’s something on this list for you. Or, maybe you’re an arm-chair traveler, who will never step foot on Tuscan soil. That’s okay, too, you might just find recipe inspiration for creating magic in your own kitchen.
From Michelin-darlings to divine dives, Lucchese cuisine is Tuscan cuisine, but with its own distinctive style and flavor. In historical terms, its ingredients are often thought of as farmer or peasant food. The dishes are hearty and based on flavors that thrive here in this land wedged between mountains and sea, where summers are scorching and winters come with bucket loads of rain.
Let’s dig in. Here are our recommendations for the “Best Eats” in Lucca, beginning with our most recent visits in each category.
The Finer Things
Osteria da Pasqualino Gubitosa
Every foodie knows, when you spot a local chef or restaurant owner shopping in the market, you drop your own list in hot-potato-speed and follow their lead. That’s how we tasted the freshest buffalo mozzarella of life after running into charismatic restauranteur Pasquale in Gino Frutta. “You must try this,” he said, likely noticing that I had become his stalker, as he pointed to an inconspicuous vat containing tiny clear bags of fresh mozzarella. Then, he added a piece of advice I’ll never forget. “Eat it at room temperature so you really taste it. You foreigners serve everything too cold and ruin the flavor.” He even helped me select wine pairings for that evening’s dinner.
Last week, we had the sweet pleasure of celebrating our 18th wedding anniversary in the courtyard of his restaurant. Like in the market, we asked him to lead. The journey began with the most tender and thinly-sliced grilled octopus (insalata di polpo), before moving onto ultra-rich mushroom ravioli (ravioli con funghi), and culminating with perfectly-seared grilled tuna (tonno grigliato). At Pasquale’s suggestion, we enjoyed the meal with a Vermentino Nero (Vigne Basse).
There was only one piece of advice we didn’t heed. He suggested we split a portion of ravioli instead of ordering two. Pasquale, we should have listened to you.
We were too stuffed to even consider dessert. “Not this time,“ we said in unison. Yet, as we stood at the door to say goodbye, Pasquale appeared from the kitchen with a small torte and glowing candle in honor of our anniversary. Standing there on the street, we blew out the flame, then devoured the tasty almond cake. What did I wish for? Naturally, for many more anniversaries and many more celebrations at Osteria da Pasqualino Gubitosa.
With outside seating in one Lucca’s most picture-perfect squares, Ristorante Mecenate offers the opportunity to soak in the nightly ambiance of bustling Piazza San Francesco. I should note, that since coming out of lockdown in June, we have resisted dining indoors, with few exceptions. For us, choosing spaces with open, circulating air seems prudent. There will come a day when we feel safe dining inside and when that day comes, we look forward to nestling inside this restaurant’s incredibly cool dining room housed in a historic laundry and fabric-dying warehouse.
Okay, on the menu! This is what’s heralded as a Zero Kilometer experience, meaning locally grown and produced ingredients are the focus. This is how Ristorante Mecenate beautifully describes the concept: “Paolo grows the vegetables, Renato makes the salami, Alessandro the beans, Normal the oil, Maria and Marco ricotta, Renato and Marco the house wine and Stefania the honey.” The result is a dinner that tastes and smells of place, this place, Lucca.
Two classic Lucchese dishes steal the spotlight here and offer something to please everyone. For meat-loving Matt, there’s Tordelli Casalinghi Lucchesi. Tordelli are egg-based pasta crescents similar to ravioli, stuffed with pork or beef. They are paired with a rich meaty sauce brewed with onions, celery, carrots, sage, cinnamon, red wine, tomatoes and olive oil.
For pescatarian me, there’s Testaroli di Pontremoli. This triangle-shaped, flat, wheat pasta is often credited as the world’s first pasta of record. It’s a fantastically strange hybrid of pasta and focaccia with a taste all it’s own. When served with pungent pesto it’s one of the city’s most memorable dishes.
This spot exudes sophistication and elegance. It’s location near the historic Teatro del Giglio lends itself to attracting a theatre crowd, and everything about the experience feels theatrical. They describe themselves as a mosaic of people and experiences, and their whip-smart Instagram account gives you a beautiful view into the restaurant’s personality. “3 chefs • 1 big family • all wine addicted • 1 Michelin star.”
When we arrived for 8:30 reservations, we practically had the whole space to ourselves – with just the right about of attention. Neither aloof, nor overbearing, the waitstaff glided to and from the table, bringing water and wine and describing the evening’s specials in a well-choreographed dance. These are professionals.
A glorious array of small plates from the tasting menu followed (think: beef tartare marinated in wasabi; risotto with ginger), punctuated by the chef’s selection of amuse-bouches. These beautifully-presented “surprise” plates were a highlight of the experience.
As the sounds of a soprano came from the speakers and echoed through the Ristorante Giglio‘s dining room, the clock struck 9 p.m. It was as if a light switch flipped and bold and beautifully young Italians began pouring into the bar and dining room. In lighting-speed, the set changed and became a packed house.
For us, Giglio accomplishes a rarified feat in Michelin-star-nirvana – the right balance of tradition and experimentation, with enough dishes to happily fill any belly. (This wasn’t an eight-course foam-fantasy that left us famished and belly up at the nearest taco stand a few hours later. Sorry, Jose Andres’ The Bazaar Miami, I’m thinking of you). This is perfect-harmony dining.
Trattoria da Giulio
This is what you would call a classic dining experience. Inside the walls are covered with photos of actors, celebrities and politicians who have visited since the opening in 1945. Not only is this one of the oldest restaurants in Lucca, it’s also “our” oldest restaurant. This was our very first meal in Lucca. “Are you hungry?” our Airbnb host Pablo asked that first day in 2006. “I’d like to take you to one of my favorite restaurants where you can taste Lucchese food.”
That evening he recommended that we try the signature Farro Soup (zuppa di farro). Now we wouldn’t even dream of a meal here without that classic dish.
One positive that has come from pandemic-related measures is the easing of restrictions on outdoor dining spaces. Restaurants and cafes have been encouraged to extend their footprint outside, with tables spilling into courtyards and car parks all over town.
For Trattoria da Giulio, that expansion includes the coolest seating in all of Lucca, with white-table-cloth clad tables underneath a viaduct built into the historic walls of Lucca. It’s simply magic. As is the farro soup, even after all these years.
Just Because It’s Thursday:
Ristorante Des Arts
This week during Lucca’s beloved Volto Santo annual parade of lights, friends visiting from Pisa looked to us to select a restaurant for dinner. “Some place easy and low-stress,” was our friend’s request.
Naturally this year’s event attracted less participants than usual, yet still the city felt festive and bustling. I ran through my mind’s rolodex (remember those?) of places that wouldn’t dish out too much attitude for not having made a reservation on a holiday. This go-to spot immediately appeared.
As the name implies, it’s funky, eclectic and art-centric, a music lover’s dream. The downstairs dining room feels clandestine and moody with dark green banquet-seating and walls covered with albums, concert posters and instruments. Like the decor, the staff are delightfully cheery. Plus, there’s patio seating and a varied and reasonable wine list.
This is a good spot to try pici, a typical Tuscan pasta, wider than spaghetti thus more capable of clinging to the oh-so delicious sauces.
Trattoria da Vasco
The first time we dined on the patio of this restaurant, I attempted, in my brutal Italian, to make conversation with the waiter. “How long has the restaurant been here?” I asked. He answered in rapid fire as Italians are prone to do and I missed the first part of his response. “Ten years?” I replied. “No! One hundred and ten years!!”
We soon switched to English. 🙂
As the restaurant’s lovely Nonna placed bread and olive oil on our table, she looked at me, smiled sweetly and patted me on the hand. Not a word was exchanged, but I felt her pride and love for this place. I instantly got misty.
The menu and vibe are traditional – or, maybe – timeless, that’s a better word. Plus, there’s lovely outdoor seating on bustling Piazza Santa Maria. It’s a great place to contemplate the past, present and future of this amazing town.
Gino Bistro Bar
A shop jam-packed with the freshest regional fruit, vegetables and cheese (remember the mozzarella story from earlier?), and a small wine shop are located downstairs, with an elegant and exclusive dining room upstairs. Gino Bistro is one of our sentimental favorites. The day our offer was accepted for our apartment, we dined at Gino. After the closing meeting a few months later, we dined at Gino.
And, when an international film crew spent a week with us in Lucca shooting our episode for House Hunters International, yep, we all dined at Gino.
The special feeling isn’t only about the ambiance. It comes from sourcing Tuscany’s freshest ingredients. This snippet of a conversation we overheard while dining there should paint the picture.
“I would like the pumpkin ravioli,” said an English woman seated at a nearby table.
“I’m sorry, signora, we do not have pumpkin ravioli in this time,” patiently replied the waiter.
“Well, why not, it was the best dish I had the last time I visited.”
“Because, it is not the season for pumpkin ravioli, perhaps next month.”
Perhaps, this is where you come to eat what is currently at the freshest. You won’t be disappointed!
Trattoria Da Ubaldo
Anyone who has been to Trattoria da Ubaldo knows it’s an experience you don’t soon forget. I sometimes wonder how bland the gregarious owner Ubaldo must think the universe is outside of his restaurant. As he dresses every day in his signature skeleton suit, slips behind the wheel of his shiny Bentley, and looks out over the skull head on his dashboard. When he arrives to this space he has so meticulously created and hears the roar of the rocking soundtrack blaring past his outdoor tables, does he salute the skeleton hanging by the front door on his way inside? I like to think he does.
Don’t miss the opportunity to visit for the eye-popping Day-of-the-Dead decor and to taste the cheekily-named Vino del Cazzo (a play on Vino del Casa, aka, house wine. I’ll leave you to research the meaning of cazzo).
The vibe’s fun and friendly, but what will bring you back, time and again, is the taste on the plate. This is my favorite risotto in town. There’s a whole lot of penis-shaped paraphernalia (nope not kidding) around the dining room that I could gladly do without, but, hey, part of the “charm” of this place is the reminder not to take things too seriously. Turn up a glass of Vino del Cazzo and let the rocking vibe roll.
Trattoria Da Nonna Clara
This establishment should win an award for the most fitting name. It feels like your grandmother’s house. And, if your granny was Italian, this is how her food would taste.
Trattoria da Nonna Clara is known for homemade pasta classics like tagliatelle with tomatoes and basil and ravioli stuffed with ricotta. And, this is my favorite place to savor salty baccala with polenta and leeks. Matt dives headfirst into a plate of wild boar with olives and polenta (Cinghiale).
Just as with your own grandmother’s house, expect to leave stuffed – and, you’ll love every bite of it.
When you want an artisanal sandwich or salad as big as your head – and, really, isn’t that always? – Da Ciacco delivers with great value and taste.
For instance, take “Panino N 9” with mortadella, sweet onion relish, soft stracciatella cheese and pistachio sprinkles. You’re taking it, right? Or, my go-to, the vegetarian with marinated artichokes, brie, grana, and tomatoes. Yum!
With outdoor seating overlooking Piazza Napoleone, the beating heart of Lucca, this is also a great spot for ordering a cocktail plus meat and cheese board while watching the world stroll by.
In case you ever want to stalk us, just belly up on the patio of this lively cafe. We always show up at some point, as does everyone else in the neighborhood.
Proprietor Guilia is one of Lucca’s most beloved characters. As you will see from the photos on the wall beside the bar, she’s been at the helm of this corner cafe for a couple of decades and has developed a legion of fans. Always quick with a smile and plate of delicious snacks, she makes you feel at home instantly.
This is our spot for afternoon spritz, always accompanied by an excellent selection of small plates. She makes a mean bruschetta (believe me, it’s an art form), as well as quirky presentations, like the classic bread salad panzanella in beer glasses.
Right now, I’m thinking, “I need to finish this story, so we can head to Bar Martini for afternoon spritz!” #priorites
The Sweet Spot:
A few years ago, when I was writing a story assignment for Paste magazine about Lucca (you can read that story here: Weekend Layover: Lucca Italy), I spent a few days roaming the city with a woman from the Lucca Tourism Bureau. Not only would this woman become a sweet friend, she also introduced me to my favorite sweet treat in the whole city.
Buccellato Taddeucci has been keeping Lucca’s sweet tooth satisfied since 1881, y’all!
Famous for the namesake raisin-encrusted buccellato bread – and, it is delicious. But, it’s a different speciality that knocks me out every single time.
They make a sage and pistachio tart that tastes so light, green and barely sweet – it almost tastes healthy. Like medicine. You have to get there early because they go quickly. It’s a treat. When you stop by, pick up an extra for me, please.
As in every Italian city, the best gelato is a highly contested and divisive topic. Everyone has an opinion and can defend their choice with a zeal usually reserved for appeals court. But it’s not simply a question of who has the best gelato as a generic principle. Locals know who has the best coffee gelato, which may be different from who makes the best lemon sorbet or chocolate fudge.
One of our favorite Lucchese characters, a man who has lived here for his entire life, told us we could not even consider ourselves as “local” until we tried the pistachio from Cremeria Opera.
In fact, he felt so strongly about this topic, that he rang our bell one evening with a giant takeaway container filled with the stuff. It was the first time I realized you could get gelato “to go.” It was a magic realization on so, so many levels.
Now, this is our go-to pistachio. Still dialing it in for the other flavors. It could take a lifetime, and I hope it does.
Buca di Sant’Antonio
“You haven’t been to Buca di Sant’Antonio?”, we’ve been asked this question so many times, always accompanied by wildly-emotional hand gestures, that I almost blush when the answer is still, “Non mangiato li…ancora.”
Nope, not yet, but soon. And, when we do, I’ll be sure and update this list.