Antica Osteria di Meati

Sometimes you find a great restaurant in the most unlikely place. Such is the Osteria di Meati it a tiny hamlet just outside of Lucca. The village of Meati is so small as to be almost non-existent; It’s on a tiny, obscure road that you would likely be driving only because you had gotten lost; and the restaurant itself is totally unassuming, looking rather like a neighborhood bar. Only the large number of cars parked outside hint at the treats waiting within.

Osteria di Meati

Inside is a rather ordinary bar with a few tables; a reservation will get you a table in simple, but pleasant, dining room in the rear—crowded with happy, well dressed, hungry locals. And why not? The food is fantastic, and unbelievably cheap! About half the short menu consists of daily or weekly specials, all composed of fresh seasonal ingredients and house-made pastas.

It’s difficult to make a plate of tuscan beans with slices of lard sound as good as it is, but this is a must have antipasto. The Tuscan crostini with chicken livers is among the best versions I’ve had of this Tuscan classic. Grilled vegetables are also very nicely done. The risottos and pastas are consistently excellent, particularly the daily specials, which might feature wild game, wild mushrooms or fresh herbs. The segundo tend to feature rabbit, duck, eel or tripe as specials, though there is always roast chicken or sliced steak. The meat dishes are perfectly prepared and seasoned, evidencing an un-fussy, yet sophisticated hand in the kitchen. The rabbit and duck were both delicious, and Cinghiale, a classic Tuscan stew of wild boar and olives that is too often lackluster, was perfection. Desserts are pleasant and the house wine decent.

I’m not sure who is in the kitchen, turning out this fantastic food, but the owner and his teenaged son run the dining room, with a friendly welcome and great enthusiasm.

And Unbelievably—four courses, house wine, coffee will set you back little more than €20 ($20) per person. If you can find it, I enthusiastically reccomend a meal—or several—at the Osteria di Meati.—Clay Doyle

Antica Osteria di Meati

Meati is about 3 kilometers west of Lucca

Follow the signs to Meati from the old road SS12

Telephone (39) 0583-510-373

Reservations advised

Originally posted November 2002. I revisited the Osteria di Meati several times in October of 2006 and found it better than ever. Sunday lunch on the lawn with big bistecca Friorentino is a special treat.—Clay

Tuscan Grapes

Marfield’s Smokehouse

Marfield's Smokehouse and Pub

Leavenworth, Kansas, northeast of Kansas City, and known primarily as the home of a Federal Penitentiary and a Military Prison, could be considered “off the beaten track”. Though it was once, in the mid 19th century, the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco, today it has a decidedly sleepy, small town atmosphere. There aren’t too many places worth eating if you find yourself in Leavenworth—but there is one tiny place that is terrific—perhaps even worth a special trip.

Marfield’s is a small Bar-B-Que joint in downtown Leavenworth—in a part of the country famous for Bar-B-Que and steaks. It was recommended to me by the proprietress of a local giftshop, the wife of a retired army officer who had lived for many years in Europe, and seemed to have a great appreciation for good food.

I Didn’t know what to expect really, as it’s a very unassuming sort of dust colored stucco shack on an empty block—with not even a sign outside. But once you step through the door it is a real surprise—very nicely done up in a manner that is both friendly yet stylish. There are nice wooden booths with really nice copper clad tables and pale spare walls. The place is quite small, but divided by a low wall into two rooms—one with six small booths and the other with a long bar and a few tall tables. The building was once a carriage house, and had been a bar and restaurant for a long time after that. It had been closed for a while when David Spangler, proprietor and chef, acquired it. After extensive interior renovation, he opened Marfield’s in January 2002.

We arrived for lunch a bit after two, rather late for lunch—especially in the midwest—and as we were the only customers at that hour, we had a long conversation with David. He had previously owned a larger restaurant, but wanted to get away from the problems of management, and have a small place where he could fully indulge his passion for good food. He did all the renovations himself—including inlaying the bar top with a collection of vintage souvenirs—and during our visit served as both chef and waiter. And the food was excellent. I had the BBQ ribs—they are falling off the bone tender, with a fine smoky crust and accompanied by David’s own-recipe sauce for dipping. (This is his Dixie sauce—vinegary and complex; he offers a sweeter, more conventional BBQ sauce as well, in response to local demand). Of course I had to order all the side dishes as well—a fine potato salad, crunchy fresh-tasting coleslaw, and a special concoction of baked beans that are perhaps the finest I have ever had. The menu is limited—ribs and steaks; a few large salads; a hamburger, and some sandwiches at lunch. There’s a nice assortment of beer on tap, and a full bar as well.

This is truly Travel Tip material—a real find. It’s delicious, it’s new, the owner is great, there are not so many good places to eat in Leavenworth—and it is not a place you’d be likely to wander into on your own.

David did say he was having a sign made, however!—Clay Doyle

Marfield’s Smokehouse & Pub

312 North 2nd Street, Leavenworth, Kansas

Telephone: 913.651.4401

Tuesday-Saturday 11am-9pm

Tuscan Food and Wine

With an emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients and straightforward preparations, it is no wonder that Tuscan food has become a favorite around the world. Still, there is nothing like a trip to the source, and Tuscan food in Tuscany offers both familiar favorites and delicious dishes and ingredients not often seen in America. Best of all, food and wine in Tuscany is not only great, it can also be a great bargain—even in the most touristy areas.

The ultimate meal in Tuscany is Sunday lunch, and the ultimate Sunday lunch is the justly famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina—a two-inch-thick slab of beef cooked on a wood fire. This is possibly the best steak in the world, and strangely impossible to recreate outside of Tuscany. Order it at Casa al Chino (53037 San Gimignano; +0577/946022; fax +0577/946045; $8-20), an unpretentious farm restaurant in the hilly fields seven kilometers west of San Gimignano—by far and away the best place to eat near this touristy town. Start with very traditional antipasti—the crostini with chicken liver (rather like a New York chopped liver) or an assortment of cured meats. Sample the pastas, as all are good and you can share an assortment of three among the table. Then have the bistecca—though served for two persons, it can easily feed three. Skip the lackluster desserts though, and have a justly famous italian gelato later. Sunday lunch draws a festive crowd that ranges from stylish young couples to extended families with children and grandparents, but it’s a good choice for lunch or dinner any day.

Only a few restaurants serve the bistecca, but within central Florence, the lively Baldovino (Piazza Santa Croce; +055/234-7220; $10-30) offers a huge version as well as fantastic homemade pastas (try the pear and ricotta ravioli) and not to be missed desserts. The atmosphere is lively and informal.

In Siena, head for the tiny Osteria la Chiacchera (Costa di S. Antonio 4; +0577/280631; $6-9) on a steep and narrow alley by the San Domenico church. Run by a group of hip young Sienese, the atmosphere is fun (shared tables) and the food is excellent. Try the bici, a Sienese specialty that’s a thick spaghetti, and the daily specials. There’s a variety of tasty tarts to conclude your meal but, quirkily, no coffee.

In Lucca, the locals flock to the Trattoria da Leo (Via Tegrimi 1; +0583/492936; $5-8) for hearty traditional pastas and fantastic roasted meats. There’s always a lively crowd at this family-owned trattoria, drawn by the friendly staff and low prices. The nearby Giulio (Via delle Conce 45; +0583/55948; $6-9) is good choice for Lucchese specialties: try the white beans with tuna, the bread or emmer soups or the house-made maccheroni; you can skip the unexciting meat courses, but do have the traditional (and unusual) chard tart for dessert.

In Pisa, avoid the restaurants around the Duomo and its famous tower, and make the short walk into the little-visited center of this pretty university town. Have a traditional meal at the bustling Osteria dei Cavalieri (Via San Frediano 16; +050/580858; $8-12) or an elegant one at La Mescita (Via Cavalca 2; +050/544294; $10-18). The complex, original food here can be fabulous—when it works; the huge, reasonably priced wine list makes up for any excesses in the kitchen.

The best food can turn up in the most unlikely places. The hamlet of Meati, 4 km southwest of Lucca is no more than a handful of scattered buildings, and the Osteria di Meati (Meati; +0583/510373;$5-8) looks like little more than a roadside bar. But the welcome at this family restaurant is sincerely friendly and the food streaming out of the kitchen to the tables of stylish locals is unbelievably good. About half of the short menu consists of daily specials in season—mushrooms, game, tripe, eel. It’s hard to make a plate of beans topped with lard sound good, but it was amazing, as were the risotto, homemade pasta with a sauce of game birds, and the delicate meat courses duck, rabbit, and traditional, but far better than usual, dish of cinghiale (wild boar) with olives. One can hardly believe that four excellent courses and house wine cost only €20 Euros a person.

House wine is almost always quite drinkable. Nice Chianti’s, even with some age on them, are usually reasonably priced. Many excellent wines carry simply the label “Rosso” as winemakers are blending grapes in new and interesting ways; ask for recommendations. And if you want to drink a famous Montalcino or Montepulciano be prepared to pay—and don’t bother with one less than ten years old; these big reds need plenty of age. Do try the traditional dessert of cookies and a glass of Vin Santo.

Reservations are expected, and often essential, though they can often be made the same day. Meal times are rigid in Italy—do not make the mistake of thinking you can eat any old time. Plan to sit down to Lunch between 1 and 2:30 and dinner between 8 and 9:30. Go on the late side and you will have the advantage of seeing what the other diners are ordering; it’s often more informative than the menu.

By Clay Doyle {Published in Out & About, 2002}