Restaurant discoveries – outside the walls

By Patrick Bénard, sixth in his Fuori Tutti weekly series

Our only real challenge when in Italy is adapting to the local schedule. Not being morning people, Erin and I struggle to adhere to the Italian meal and pizzolino (nap) timetables.  If you don’t abide by the local program, you miss out on so much. Restaurants serve meals at generationally agreed upon times, businesses open and close for siesta, and then open again. This is especially true outside the walls where businesses don’t rely primarily on tourist revenue. I feel no resentment for this and strongly believe that it’s the visitors responsibility to adapt to local customs, wherever they are. This is particularly true in the case of lunch (in my opinion) as the custom of the afternoon pause engenders a healthy and happy time with family and friends. All virtuous intentions aside, we regularly adapt poorly and find that colazione blends into pranzo, with aperitivo just a few hours away. 

Dhea’s Ristorante for a pranzo di lavoro

On this day, we rose with the bells of our local campanile, and set out to be exemplary part-time expats. Our goal was to enjoy one of the greatest deals to be found in Italy, the pranzo di lavoro: a set lunch menu offering a first, second, contorno, coffee, water and sometimes wine for €10-12. This workers’ lunch is offered in many non-tourist cafes and restaurants throughout Italy, with service rarely being offered after 3pm. A three course meal is more food than we usually consume for lunch, so on this day we skipped breakfast in order to accommodate the extra calories, and we chose Dhea Ristorante (Viale Luporini 144, Lucca) for its proximity to the walls.

Located a few hundred meters from Porta Santa Anna, Dhea sees few tourists, catering to a lunch crowd that is predominantly blue collar and clerical. A large parasol-covered seating area seats 20 or so comfortably, while inside seating can accommodate up to 70. The first course of pasta is de rigueur, for the secondo we chose a large tuna salad and a plate of prosciutto and mozzarella. Although not included in Dhea’s pranzo offer, we accompanied our meal with a glass of perfectly adequate and inexpensive local white wine. Meat dishes were also an option.  Keeping in mind the €12 cost, this meal was spectacular. I’m not sure we could replicate these dishes at home for any less money. Dhea is well worth the walk, and may become a regular destination for lunch. Just be sure to skip breakfast.

Dinner at Osteria Villa di Corliano

Back in New York, we usually grab dinner at 7:30 or so. In much of Italy, 7:30 is a guaranteed way to ensure you’ll be the only patron in the restaurant. Knowing this, we arrived at our dining destination at 8pm, and were still the first guests at Osteria Villa di Corliano (Via Statale Abetone 50 a San Giuliano Terme). Owned by the same family since 1563, the villa and its grounds host a hotel and the osteria, as well as gloriously decaying outbuildings and gardens. The setting is such that you can feel your wallet shrink as you enter the grounds, but our purpose today is value, and this place offers that and more. Accessible by car or bus (around 20 minutes for each), the osteria is hidden behind the main renaissance villa. The menu is faithful to the house’s antique recipe books, with no touch of “fusion” or modernity. Prices are absolutely modest and this holds true for the wine list. The dining area is comfortable and beautifully lit (beautiful lighting being a rarity in a country that has ironically provided so much great design in illumination to the rest of the world). 

We should have eaten lightly given our large lunch, but being dedicated to Lucca News and its readership as I am, we ordered the Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a contorno of ratatouille, along with a bottle of Carillo Pinot Nero. My steak was perfectly seared, cooked exactly as I’d requested. I chose poorly on the wine (the Pinot, although excellent, wasn’t up to the task of the steak). The poor selection was entirely my fault, I’d been advised differently but insisted on my initial choice. 

A memorable meal in an unforgettable setting, for less than half of its equivalent cost in the US, UK, or really anywhere else. 

If you have any suggestions for other “outside the walls” establishments you think are worth a mention, feel free to message me with your recommendations.

Until next time: Fatte a modo

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