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Dining High Points in France and Italy

Memorable food and wine, despite going (mostly) casual
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 16, 2012 11:21am ET

On vacation, with stops in Paris, Lyon, Piemonte and Liguria, my wife and I mostly avoided high-profile restaurants and opted for less-expensive wines. Still we ate well and drank a satisfying array of local favorites.

Even at the exchange rate, the euro hovering around $1.30, by my calculations that makes the prices in restaurants come out at parity with the same figures in U.S. dollars. Since restaurants in France and Italy typically include tax and service in the prices listed on the menu, a main course of 15€ translates to $20 U.S., about the same as a $15 entrée plus 9 percent tax and a 20 percent tip rounded up. And we found that wines generally were priced much less than we would expect to pay for the same wines in U.S. restaurants.

Herewith a few highlights.

Chez Antonin at Les Halles de Lyon (France). The brainchild of fabled chef Paul Bocuse, the food market in Lyon Part-Dieu is open to the public. It sells top-quality ingredients and prepared foods, much like the Ferry Building in San Francisco and Pike Place Market in Seattle. It also houses several casual restaurants. We had the best seafood on our whole trip at this bustling oyster bar, succulent (if slightly salty) fines claires oysters, sweet mussels steamed in wine, and a plate of perfectly crisp écrevisses roses, tiny crayfish to eat whole. With a glass of zingy Sancerre, a perfect lunch. (Website: www.chezantonin69.com)

EnoClub in Alba (Italy). We arrived in Alba to find the old central part of town awash in people enjoying a food-and-wine festival. I ducked in here, booked a table for an hour later, allowing time to enjoy the goings-on, including a 14-man marching saxophone band dressed in white knee-length shorts and white hoodies, which made them look like the sperm in Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex … movie. At EnoClub, even though we ordered only fried anchovies, tajarin with sausage, and a grilled veal chop, we did not go away hungry. Flavors were clean and focused, a bit lighter than most local fare, perfect with the Marchese di Gresy Nebbiolo 2010 (18€, if you can believe it) recommended by the sommelier. (Website: www.caffeumberto.com)

Trattoria Antica Torre in Barbaresco (Italy). Best. Tajarin. Ever. Watched chef Massimiliano Costantino cut the pasta and demonstrate how the strands remained unfazed when crushed (see my short video below). It tasted phemomenal too. Website: www.ristoranteanticatorre.com)

Ristorante Bovio, La Morra (Italy). The choice item in a terrific lunch was the vitello tonnato. Although the tuna sauce is usually made with cooked tuna pureed with mayonnaise, the restaurant insists the original version was a puree of tuna, olive oil and seasonings. It felt so much lighter and focused than what has become traditional. We indulged in a bottle of Paolo Scavino Bric dël Fiasc 2001. Heady stuff. (Website: www.ristorantebovio.it)

La Brinca, Ne (Italy). A rambling farmhouse high in the mountains above Chiavari on the Ligurian coast houses this family restaurant with a warm welcome, a kitchen that knows local ingredients intimately, and a wine cellar that offers some of Italy’s finest wines alongside local wonders. We drank Bisson l’Antico, a brisk, minerally white wine made from the local grape Çimaxà, a perfect accompaniment to thick, emerald-green basil-infused minestrone and a plate of ravioli stuffed with herbs and dressed only with extra-virgin olive oil. And the smoked punto di vitello! Texas barbecue fanatics could learn a few things from La Brinca on how to smoke a brisket. (Website: www.labrinca.it)

Ze Kitchen Galerie, Paris (France). A hit with the Paris culinary in-crowd, William Ledeuil’s food weaves hints of Asia into contemporary French cuisine seamlessly. I was especially taken with his green apple and ginger puree under a perfect raw oyster, and with his lightly pickled mackerel fillets criss-crossed with green and white asparagus. We drank Charles Joguet Touraine Clos de la Plante 2010, a tangy, mouthwatering white wine made from Chenin Blanc. (Website: www.zekitchengalerie.fr)

And finally, a brief story involving cork taint with a happy ending. During our time in Liguria, we kept hearing about a sweet wine made in the Cinqueterre called Sciacchatrà. At our hotel, the Miramare in Sestri Levante (www.miramaresestrilevante.com), we toddled down to the bar overlooking the picturesque Baia del Silenzio before dinner on our last evening there. We ordered the wine from their list. The server opened the bottle, but alas, it was tainted with the telltale crushed-aspirin blight of corkiness. Alas times two, it was the last bottle. But our wine guy dug up a half-bottle of Sicilian Moscato Passito—a perfect option, and we were so dazzled by it (and relaxed) I forgot to get the producer’s name. We sipped the wine and watched the colors fade on the bobbing fishing boats as the sun set. On checking out the next morning, I noticed we were not charged for the wine I ordered or the replacement. Classy.

Tor Kenward
St Helena —  May 17, 2012 10:17am ET
Susan and I also stayed with fond memories in beautiful Sestri Levante. We hiked thru the Cinqueterre, taking the steepest part out early so I could hunt down the elusive Ciacchatria and enjoy a glass or two at the end.
Mission accomplished, wonderful wine, stunning hike, indelible memory. Always enjoy reading your dinning adventures.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  May 17, 2012 10:30am ET
Dang, Tor. I wish I had known you had been there. It was like pulling teeth to get useful intelligence when we were planning our visit to Liguria. I finally got some ideas from Piero Selvaggio and Fred Plotkin. But heck, how far wrong can you go when there's great focaccia, pesto and seafood around every turn?

Unfortunately, our day hiking in Cinqueterre ended early as three of the five connecting trails were closed as a result of the floods last October. So we spent half the day in Portovenere, which turned out to be a great move. Beautiful place, that.

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