Review: Il Peperoncino and a Day Trip to Pisa, Italy

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

We really relied on TripAdvisor while we were travelling for recommendations of good local restaurants to visit. That’s why when we walked past a pizza restaurant in Pisa and the waiter on the footpath called out to us, “Don’t walk past! Come in for a meal! Trust TripAdvisor!”, we looked at each other doubtingly and kept walking.

That’s because we had looked up said pizza restaurant earlier and found out it was ranked #636 of 769 restaurants in Pisa. Someone should tell that waiter that simply being listed on TripAdvisor doesn’t mean that they’re trusted by tourists – having a high ranking is what matters!

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Luckily we had already earmarked a local family-run restaurant based on earlier research – this one was ranked #7 of 769 restaurants! Il Peperoncino is only about ten minutes walk from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and serves up delicious home-cooked pastas with a smile. The owner of the restaurant is very friendly to all customers – he was showing some American kids how to make tiramisu when we first entered the restaurant!

ilpeperoncino-02They have a simple menu – a handful of appetisers, a dozen pastas and a dozen pizzas. What makes it special is their ability to accommodate any special dietary requests – vegetarians and vegans won’t have any issues here, and if you want to make any small adjustments to a particular dish, you can. The owner speaks perfect English and is happy to chat with you to make sure that you get exactly what you want!

Antipasto Toscana, 5.50 Euro
Antipasto Toscana, 5.50 Euro

We started with some bruschetta to share – the Antipasto Toscana. Included in this are two slices of bruschetta with chopped and herbed fresh tomatoes, one slice with smokey grilled zucchini, eggplant and capsicum, and one slice with ‘lardo di Colonnata’, a local Tuscan speciality of cured pork fat. It sounds incredibly unhealthy, but lardo is actually quite delicious – you only need the tiniest sliver of it for the full-bodied flavour of it to really spread across your palate. A great little starter to share between two people.

Tagliolini Salmone, 11.50 Euro
Tagliolini Salmone, 11.50 Euro

K chose one of the daily specials advertised on the chalkboard – a Tagliolini Salmone with a pistachio crumb on top. This was a remarkably light and delicate dish, especially when compared to other seafood pastas we’d had in Rome. Their light touch with the creamy sauce meant that the pasta never congealed and stayed quite fresh with just the lightest coating of salmon-infused cream. What initially looks like a small serving proved to be quite filling in the end!

Spaghetti Chitarra, 11.50 Euro
Spaghetti Chitarra, 11.50 Euro

I chose to have a pasta that wasn’t advertised at all, either on the menu or the daily specials! I’d thought about ordering the Linguine Ai Frutti di Mare (seafood linguine), but the owner suggested Spaghetti Chitarra with seafood as an alternative daily special which they could make up on the spot. What a choice – rich with perfectly cooked juicy clams, mussels, prawns and squid, this spaghetti was quite light, flavoured mainly with the bold ocean flavours of the seafood.

Il Peperoncino is the place to go for light, delicate pasta cooked with love. You won’t find heavy sauces and giant servings here, just great local and homemade ingredients cooked with respect and served up in a perfectly belly-filling meal. There’s a dish here to suit everyone – and if not, just ask the owner and they’ll make something for you! Il Peperoncino is a must-visit when in Pisa.

Il Peperoncino is located at 95 Via Santa Maria in Pisa, Italy.

Pisa is an easy hour’s train ride from Florence, a perfect distance for a short daytrip. We took the trip specifically for extremely touristy reasons – everyone needs a photo of themselves holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa right? We booked our tickets to climb the tower in advance which I do recommend, especially in peak holiday season.

We also added on some extras to our tickets, including a visit to the Cathedral of Pisa and the Baptistry as well. Of the three, I’d actually say that I preferred the visit to the Baptistry. It’s less visited than the other two, and has been perfectly designed for vocal projection. Every half hour, a security guard will walk into the centre of the Baptistry and begin a series of vocal harmonies that echo around the space, combining to create a beautiful melody. It’s quite magical, and worth a visit.

By the time we had lunch at Il Peperoncino, visited those key sites and wandered the streets, shops and markets of Pisa for a few hours, it was time for us to head back to the train station for a train back to Florence…but not before stopping into Oro Gelateria for gelato! Their gelato has an intensity and purity of flavour that’s difficult to find – when you order a mango sorbet as I did, it tastes as though you are literally just biting into an actual mango. It’s quite remarkable, and worth a visit!

Review: All’Antico Vinaio, Florence Italy

Tuscany and Florence in particular, is famous for their many panino shops selling their local Florentine specialty – Panino al Lampredotto. Sounds pretty delicious right? However it won’t be to everyone’s taste – lampredotto is cow’s stomach, simmered in stock with spices and herbs for hours until it’s just edible enough to chop up and serve in a panino. I’m not going to lie, lampredotto isn’t quite to my taste either, but luckily there’s no lack of other panino shops in Florence selling other delicious sandwiches.

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All’Antico Vinaio is one of the most famous, with long lines outside their store at lunchtime every day. Everyone who’s ever been to Florence will have passed happy customers sitting in the local piazzas, walking along the streets, or even just sitting right in the gutter outside the shop, munching on their delicious sandwiches.

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So what’s the appeal? Part of it might be the honour-system self-service wine outside the shop, for only 2 Euro. More than a few people were taking advantage of this great deal. The main appeal however, is what you can see the cabinet behind the wine – that amazing Italian porchetta. Along with countless legs of salty prosciutto, smoked Tuscan vegetables, and large wheels of cheeses, All’Antico Vinaio uses the best and most tasty ingredients in their sandwiches.

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How do you assemble a sandwich? If you’re apprehensive at the idea of navigating the minefield of a million different sandwich filling combinations, All’Antico Vinaio has made it easy with their ‘Top Five’ as recommended by their staff and regulars. Some of the titles refer to favourite famous sons of Florence (Dante), others refer to the boss’s favourite combination, and one is even dedicated to the director Ron Howard, who spent 2015 filming the latest Robert Langdon movie with Tom Hanks in Florence (Inferno).

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After queueing for about fifteen minutes, we finally reached the front of the line and ordered our sandwiches. And what a handful they were!

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L’Inferno: Porchetta, rocket and spicy vegetable paste, 5 Euro

K opted for the Inferno sandwich, drawn to it by the thick slices of fatty and salty porchetta. Now I don’t know if Ron Howard went to All’Antico Vinaio for this sandwich regularly while filming in Florence, but you couldn’t blame him if he did – it’s a winner! The porchetta is definitely one of the highlights of All’Antico Vinaio, and any sandwich that includes it their home-smoked porchetta is one worth trying. This Inferno sandwich had a nice chilli kick to it as well through the vegetable paste – a nod to the fires of hell in Dante’s Inferno.

Panino with prosciutto crudo, pecorino and melanzane, 5 Euro
Panino with prosciutto crudo, pecorino and melanzane, 5 Euro

I chose to go my own way, confusing the sandwich artist behind the counter as I asked for a custom sandwich in extremely broken Italian, with a few unintentional French words thrown in for good measure. My panino with thin slices of prosciutto crudo, pecorino cheese and grilled marinated melanzane (eggplant) was a real winner – especially with the lashings of olive oil he added as I hadn’t chosen a sauce to go with the mix. It was simple bit effective – salty prosciutto, strong cheese, creamy melanzane, crunchy toasted panino. I’d be happy for them to add my creation to their regular menu with the name Gourmanda!

All’Antico Vinaio is a must-visit when in Florence. Whether you order a large sandwich each as a hearty lunch, or share a sandwich between two as a mid-morning snack, you’re bound to be blown away by the freshness of the ingredients, and the timelessness of their suggested sandwich combinations. For 5 Euro each, you really can’t go wrong!

All’Antico Vinaio is located at 65R Via de Neri in Florence, Italy.

Chanoy Honeymoon: Rome, March 2016

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

We did not plan our stay in Italy well at all! The Holy Week of Easter is one of the busiest times in Rome, with Catholics from all over the world descending on the city in pilgrimage. 2016 was a particularly busy year as a Holy Year/Jubilee of Mercy, and we couldn’t walk down a single street in Rome without seeing a habit or a clerical collar.

This meant that no matter where we went in Rome and what attractions we visited, we were always shoulder-to-shoulder in a large crowd. The Vatican Museums? Massive crowd. The Colosseum? Massive crowd. The Roman Forum? Massive crowd. St Peter’s Cathedral? Massive crowd. At the end of each day, I was happy to take the metro back to our suburban Airbnb apartment and relax in silence to give my senses a break.

For this reason in particular, I found it difficult to fall in love with Rome as a city. You can’t begin to appreciate what it has to offer, when you don’t have the opportunity to truly live a Roman life. You can’t appreciate the art in the Vatican Museum for example, when you’re being shunted from room to room, squished in-between packs of tour groups. There’s no one single quiet corner in the museum to be found. That’s no way to appreciate art.

The closest we came to living a more relaxed Roman lifestyle was when we visited places like the Testaccio Markets to do our grocery shopping or dined in a local high-end gourmet food store Eataly. Other restaurants we visited (relatively highly rated on TripAdvisor) were undoubtedly tourism-oriented: Ristochicco and Osteria Della Suburra. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can escape those tourist trap restaurants when you’re in the centre of Rome and its attractions!

On the bright side, it’s hard to go wrong with Italian desserts – gelato in particular! Gelaterias can be found everywhere, and they obviously range in quality. My general rule of thumb is that if you can see the gelato they serve on display, it’s not gelato you want to have! The best gelato is kept in metal canisters in the cooler rather than out in the open in refrigerated display cabinets as this will prevent ice crystals from forming, keeping the gelato at peak creaminess.

Gelaterias we visited include Don Nino (a little bit pricier than other gelaterias, but conveniently located near the Pantheon), Ti Amo (I recommend the mascarpone with caramelised fig, but don’t go out of your way), Gelateria Dell’Angeletto (fantastic if you have dietary requirements – they do a great range of dairy-free and vegan sorbets) and Gelateria Frigidarium (their house-special flavour tastes just like a Golden Gaytime!). Honestly though? There are so many fantastic gelato places around that you shouldn’t just limit yourself to these four. Plus, don’t forget the sfogliatella and the cannoli while you’re having dessert!

We also took advantage of one of the benefits of being in Rome during Holy Week – holy foods! Easter breads were bought and consumed at a great rate, from savoury ham and boiled egg hard loaves to soft and sweet brioche-like Colombas. If you can be patient, you can always buy the Colombas from the supermarket after Easter and pay only about 3 Euro instead of 10-15 Euros! Who doesn’t love cheap post-Easter sweet sales?

Despite all the earlier complaining about the tourist crowds, we would obviously visit Rome again. There’s so much on offer that we barely scratched the surface. Next time however, I think we’ll check the calendar beforehand to make sure it doesn’t fall on any religious holidays.