IN ITALY when it comes to trattorias, what you first see is not always what you get. A modest place with just a few tables and chairs outside its entrance often looks uninviting. But, as we have learnt, first impressions are never right in Italy, and there is often much more behind the humble facade of a small eatery.
Our first discovery came in Volterra, an ancient hilltop town in Tuscany where the ruins date back to Etruscan times.
We could find only pizzerias as we searched for dinner, walking on ancient paving stones along a maze of narrow streets flanked by handsome old buildings.
We stood outside a small and unpretentious place on the Via Ricciarelli reading the pizza menu along with a sign that said "fresh rooms inside'' and decided every place was going to be the same in this lovely Tuscan town. We entered.
The inside was even more modest than the outside and our expectations were at ground level.
But the cheerful waiter presented us with a list of pasta, fish and meat dishes along with the obligatory pizzas, and a half litre of excellent house wine.
"What a surprise," we said and ordered pici, a local pasta like fat spaghetti, along with a florentine steak. But not before a pizza to start things off.
Out came a pizza that could have fed a small country: wafer-thin base and dazzling with its colourful topping of tomato, basil, rocket and a gooey cheese called stracchini.
A man in a blue singlet spoke loudly into his telephone at a table behind us, but even that did not detract from the mouth-watering magnificence of the pizza.
No one had warned us about the florentine steak so we gaped as half a cow came out hanging over a large plate.
The Queen of Meat, a Florentine steak comes from animals fed on grass in a small region outside Florence. It is usually served in an enormous size (ours weighed 1.5kg), chargrilled over coals, and shared among about eight to 10 people.
We had no idea of this when we ordered, expecting a modest steak for one, but we manned up and ploughed through the deliciously tender meat.
After we sat back with bulging bellies, I asked the waiter to show me the "fresh rooms" and he took me downstairs where one splendid stone dining room led to another and yet another and then another, all down ancient steps and through stone arches beneath elegant domed ceilings.
"These rooms have been excavated from ruins that are more than 1600 years old," the waiter told me as he led me back up steps worn shiny with age. "We dine down here in the winter."
Back upstairs, as we reeled from the ancient wonder of it, the waiter said, "Let me introduce you to the owner, he owns the whole building." It was our loud man in the blue singlet.
The next day in the beguiling hilltop town of Montepulciano it was more enchanting discovery when we awkwardly straddled low wooden benches at one of just a few small tables outside a tiny hole-in-the-wall osteria and ordered a bottle of the local nobile wine to eat with nettle gnocchi.
(Gnocchi made with nettles? Yes, and delicious.)
After a last splash of the nobile, we went inside the osteria looking for the loo and discovered yet more antiquity, as stone arches led us through dining rooms, and steps took us down dim corridors that morphed into rooms filled with curtains of air-drying sausages, and then on to a wine cellar stacked floor to ceiling and then down to a medieval well sunk into the earth, its deep depths now safely covered to just a metre below the surface, where rounds of yellow cheeses were hanging to mature. All that culinary wonder inside a hole-in-the-wall eatery.
We have weeks more yet in Italy, and never again will we judge an eatery by its cover.
Read more of Ann's travel tales at annrickard.com.
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