As I get ready to leave for my annual hiking and touring adventure in Tuscany, final details are coming into focus. And those, in turn, are bringing up memories of a wonderful dinner in Lucca last year.
Lucca may be my favorite town in Tuscany, with its hilly surroundings, intact walls, friendly people, and relative lack of tourists. Sure, there are still plenty of out-of-towners walking around, but the people on the street are mostly locals – especially off the main drags in the middle of town.
You still see pockets of teenagers sitting against a stone wall in the evening, old men riding their bikes with fresh loaves of bread on the handlebars, clothes drying on lines above back alleys, lawyers in suits talking on their mobile phones and waving their arms, and artists sketching half-ruined walls in sidestreet parks. Basically, you still see the real Italy just walking around, unlike in places like Florence and Venice, where you almost feel you’re in a theme park.
On my trips, we always spend at least a night in Lucca. It isn’t just a great city to explore; it’s also a perfect base for hiking into the Garfagnana valley north of town, or the mountains either side of it: the rocky Apuane Alps or verdant Apennines.
In 2014, we came back to town after hiking to the Pania di Corfino, in the Garfagnana hills up above town. Just after lunch in a tiny restaurant in a mountain village — a lunch of handmade pasta with fresh mushrooms, in a restaurant called Il Fungo, or The Mushroom — we wound through oak forests and sheep meadows, up to this viewpoint:
Then it was back to Lucca for dinner. I call these trips Trails and Tables of Tuscany for a reason: It’s light to moderate hiking with severe eating. In Lucca on this night, we ate at a place called Il Mecenate, or The Patron.
Imagine walking through medieval streets, past old women walking their dogs and young women keeping an eye on children, with music coming from down an alley and men smoking outside a cafe, wordlessly watching you walk by. Then the street opens into a piazza, with a lit-up church on the far end, and to your left are some tables covered in white cloths.
It’s Il Mecenate, for me the best restaurant in Lucca. Perhaps that’s because in my mind it still glows with sentimental majesty — sophisticated and a little chic, but also family-owned, and always serving whatever is fresh and in season right now.
I don’t remember what we ate last year — meals on these trips eventually run together into one long hum of pleasure — but just this morning I got a proposed menu for this year. And now I’m all excited again. Here are some samples, via Google Translate. I am leaving in the linguistic goofiness to give you the whole experience.
Da tenere presente che il nostro ristorante offre sempre un menù di qualità, molto legato al territorio ed alla tipicità del prodotto. Keep in mind that our restaurant always offers a menu of quality, very attached to the land and to the characteristics of the product.
Di ottima scelta sono le materie prime usate per preparare i piatti, e per noi la soddisfazione del cliente è un serio obbiettivo anche in caso di gruppi di persone stiamo molto attenti alla qualità dei prodotti che portiamo a tavola, non lesinando assolutamente sulle quantità. With excellent choice are the raw materials used for prepare meals, and for us customer satisfaction is a serious goal even when groups of people are very sensitive to the quality of the products we bring to the table, absolutely no skimping on quantity.
Il menù proposto prevede l’impiego di molti prodotti a Km. Zero e quindi molto legati al territorio. The proposed menu provides the use of many products to Km. Zero and therefore much linked to the territory.
APERITIVO CON VINO BIANCO DELLE COLLINE LUCCHESI E BRUSCHETTA CON POMODORO CANOSTRINO LUCCHESE. DRINK WITH WHITE WINE OF THE HILLS OF LUCCA AND BRUSCHETTA WITH TOMATO CANOSTRINO LUCCA.
ANTIPASTI: Sfogliatine di cipolle, crostone di pane di farro con cavolonero e formaggio di mucca erborinato, Formaggio pecorino fresco di Castelvecchio di Compito, Manzo nel bigongio del Bullentini con pane “di patate della Garfagnana”, salumi della norcineria Bullentini con la nostra focaccia , budino di peperoni rossi alla crema di formaggio. STARTERS: Puff of onions, croutons spelled with cabbage Black and blue-veined cheese of cow, sheep cheese fresh Castelvecchio Task, Beef in bigongio Bullentini with the bread “of Garfagnana Potato “, meats of the butchery Bullentini with our cake, pudding red pepper cream cheese.
PRIMI: (pasta di nostra produzione): Tacconi pomodoro fresco pecorino e pepolino, e Tordelli lucchesi. FIRST: (pasta our production): Tacconi fresh tomato and pecorino thyme, and Tordelli Lucca (meat-stuffed pasta.)
SECONDI: Coniglio nostrale marinato alle erbe aromatiche e Tagliata di manzo alle erbe aromatiche (carne dal podere il castello Colle di Compito). SECONDS: Rabbit marinated with herbs and sliced beef with herbs (meat from the farm Castle Hill).
DOLCE e Torta di ricotta e cioccolata e piatto forte lucchese. SWEET cheesecake, chocolate, and piatto forte.
Before I go … about that piatto forte. There really are no words for it; all I could do is surf the web for pictures of it, then tell you it starts like this …
… and winds up like this:
And this is just one of about 10 dinners we will be having as a group, in between hikes, tours, visits, views, tasting wines and making friends. On evenings like this, and at dinners like this, it’s easy to forget all your troubles for a while and just be glad you’re alive and eating well.