This Sunday, another glorious spring day I might add, we headed northwest of Arezzo, to
the Casentino. We had chosen a restaurant, which is also a hotel, called “Costachiara”
(clear coast—the coast is clear?), from our bible, L’Osterie d’Italia.
The restaurant is located in the small town of Badiola, near Terranuova Bracciolini, right
off the Valdichiana exit from the A-1, the Autostrada del Sole or, as we call it, the Soul
Road. I can’t say we actually saw Badiola, but we must have been there because we
found the restaurant. The latter is a rather ugly new town with unattractive retail right
next to the highway (taking a page right out of the New Jersey notebook). On a more
positive note, Costachiara is an old farm complex just off a country road. You enter the
farm lane and first cross a bridge and then a wide green field before you reach the
restaurant/hotel. The setting is bucolic and seems at least a century back in time.
The foyer of the restaurant was full of antique country furniture, including a huge farm
table loaded with fresh field flowers. We sneaked a peak into one of the two dining
rooms (the one for non-smokers) and saw tables laden with an antipasto of various
prepared foods. Looking good!
Our waiter showed us to a table in the corner, with windows on either side overlooking
the fields. Looking better and better! We decided to order a bottle of wine from the
wine list, rather than take the easy way out with the house wine. We chose a local
producer, Tenuta Setteponte (7 bridges over the Arno in this area), and its 2001
Crognolo. According to the label, “crognolo” is the name of a bush that grows wild in the
area. The wine was a sangiovese, cabernet, and merlot blend—lush, fruity, and very
Being Americans, we couldn’t pass up the buffet, so we chose the antipasto table.
Mamma mia!!! There was faro (barley) salad; grilled eggplant and zucchini; sun dried
tomatoes with capers and anchovies; raw sardines cured with onion, lemon and parsley;
caramelized onions; smoked tuna with tomato and red onion; boiled beef with carrots
and sweet red bell pepper; cured sardines; porchetta (pork brined in salt and then
roasted with lots of garlic); aged pecorino; smoked ricotta (as orange as pumpkin pie);
air cured pancetta (bacon); prosciutto; and much, much more. Everything was
absolutely fantastic. As I always say, you can judge a restaurant by its antipasto. This
antipasto boded well. We felt as if we were eating at someone’s home. Everything
seemed to have been made just that minute and just for us.
Steve chose the tomato-less lasagne for his pasta course. It had a béchamel base light
as a feather and noodles equally delicate. I had the house-made pici (thick, hand-rolled
spaghetti, the only fresh non-egg pasta I know of) with a sauce of pigeon and pheasant.
Ohmigod! The seasoning was very interesting, almost Middle Eastern. I asked the
waiter, a garrulous young guy, if there was nutmeg in the sauce. He wasn’t sure so he
went to inquire of the owner/chef, who brought out two plates, one with freshly ground
nutmeg and the other with the pasta spices mixture--clove, nutmeg and (I think) allspice.
He offered the plates to me to taste the difference between the spices. Talk about
After all that antipasto and significant pasta, I passed on a secondo and ordered instead
a salad. Out came fresh-picked baby greens and dark green olive oil and syrup-thick
balsamic vinegar. Our waiter told us that his mother has a greenhouse nearby and
grows baby lettuces and bitter greens for the restaurant. I commented on the high
quality and viscosity of the balsamic vinegar to the waiter. The owner overheard and
came over to our table with a bottle of the stuff. “A regalo (present),” he said. I was
bowled over. It wasn’t just that 9-year-old balsamic vinegar from Modena is expensive.
It was the generosity of his spirit that got me. I didn’t even ask and I received!
Steve, on the other hand, was just hitting his stride after his lasagne, so he partied on
with the grilled meats, a house specialty. His mixed grill was cooked on a spit over a fire
upstairs in a walk-in fireplace in another dining room. Each of the meats was paired with
an herb. There was chicken wrapped around thyme, calve’s liver wrapped around sage,
veal wrapped around rosemary, and pork wrapped around fennel. I tasted a bite of
each, and it was truly remarkable, juicy, tender, and fresh.
When we’d entered the dining room, I’d spied a torta della nonna, a cake-ish affair filled
with crème custard and topped with pine nuts and powdered sugar. My description of
the ingredients, however, really doesn’t begin to convey just how exceptional it was.
Honestly, it was the best torta della nonna that I’ve ever had and was made by one of
the waitress/family members. It was great to compliment her in person on her pastry.
Not wanting to pass through Terranuova Bracciolini again, we took a different route
home through the Casentino. As we rounded a bend in the new-ish town of San
Giustino di Valdarno we saw hordes of people and lots of cars in a small parking lot. It
looked like a town convention. What the heck was going on? Turns out they were all
lined up at Gelateria Marisa. Even though we were stuffed and completely satisfied, how
could we pass up such an opportunity? Italians really know their gelato and if these
people were willing to wait in line for a cone, so were we. I had the chocolate fondant
(think brownies) and orange (ice cream, not sorbet). Steve had hazelnut, cream, and
blackberry. An altogether unforgettable experience! Buon viaggio and buon appetito!