Cappiano’s Osteria Numero Uno

A delightful detour if one is taking the route from Altopascio to Empoli across the Arno valley on the way to Florence is to cut across to Ponte a Cappiano, a major engineering work carried out by Cosimo de Medici and replacing an older bridge on the pilgrims route known as the via francigena and once protected by the knights hospitaliers of Altopascio. I have described this area more fully in my post at

I’ll just add here that if one parks one’s vehicle in the main square of this truly laid back town and walks round to the right one comes across an excellent osteria appropiately called ‘numero uno’.

We ate well and cheaply there with excellent pasta first courses and brilliantly cooked manzo and involtini for seconds accompanied by some of the best mashed potatoes I have tasted.

The osteria’s facebook page is at

Booking is essential. We didn’t book but were lucky as the osteria filled up quite quickly. Helpings were generous and some of what we couldn’t eat was packed away for us by the friendly proprietors and served for our supper too!


Ponte a Cappiano was a truly welcome break on our journey towards the capital of the Grand Duchy during yesterday’s brilliant spring day.

The Dormouse’s Den

If one takes the Via Brennero on the Lima’s other side from Bagni di Lucca one comes across this shop.

‘La Tana Del Ghiro’ means ‘the dormouse’s den’ and has only recently opened for business. The subtitle ‘dal campo alla tavola’ means ‘from the field to the table’ so the food is surely guaranteed free from those debilitating and polluting transport costs which shamefully characterise so much of the foodstuffs we buy today.

It’s a place that sells local agricultural products and also has a restaurant. At the moment the Tana is just starting but the proprietors have assured me that by the summer they’ll have plenty of food stocked which comes from our area. This includes olive oil, honey, potatoes, jams, cheeses, maize flour, vegetables, fruit, pickled vegetables inlcuding onions, crostini sauce, tomato puree, chestnut and wheat flour and mushrooms.

The restaurant is only open for evening meals on some days but the ambience looks promising and certainly what will be served will be both genuine and local.

I gather one thing ‘La Tana del Ghiro’ won’t serve you with is dormice. Although popular with the ancient Romans I’m glad these delightful furry creatures, which spent a large part of their lives sleeping, won’t be on the shelves!

Do phone up the Tana before going there for a meal. Its phone number and email are:

Tel. 0583 805864 –

Unitre Christmas Lunch at Borghesi’s in Bagni di Lucca Villa

Our Unitre (University of the Third Age) Christmas lunch was held at the Borghesi restaurant in Bagni di Lucca Villa a few days ago.

I’ve already written about the opening of Borghesi restaurant and bar in my post at

and described a meal there at:

but have not yet mentioned how good Borghesi is at catering for larger parties.

Despite the fact that the well-loved front part of the restaurant with its floral frescoes no longer forms part of Borghesi the space remaining is ample enough.

This was our menu:


The antipasto was very good, especially the fried artichokes.


The vellutata ai funghi (smooth soup with mushrooms and little bits of toasted bread with herbs) was excellent and went down a treat.


The maccheroni, (large edge-frilled pasta squares, not to be confused with the English ‘macaroni’ tubes) made with chestnut flour and ragù sauce, was also highly delectable.


The secondo, arista al forno (Tuscan pork roast) with patate duchesse (duchess potatoes i.e. potatoes mashed with egg yolk, butter and cream), was equally delicious.


(The pomegranate pips were not just Christmassy – they were a homage to Matilde di Canossa in her anniversary year – if you’d like to know more read my posts on this great lady at:

The dessert, which consisted of crema portoghese (a sort of crème caramel), was accompanied by castagnaccia (chestnut pancake) and ended a very enjoyable Christmas lunch which, at twenty euros a head (including wine, coffee, bread and cover) was very good value.

Visitors from across the big pond are often surprised at how rather smaller Italian meal portions are. But does one really want to depart from a restaurant with a bloated feeling? Each of the five courses was well proportioned and accompanied (of course) by good wine, bread and focaccia. We left the restaurant comfortably replete.

I have no hesitation in recommending Borghesi for even the larger groups (booking, of course, on tel 0583 86514). Its standards of cooking have improved even further and the week-day fixed lunch at ten euros has to be of equally good value.

I do hope that the Borghesi will open out the back of their restaurant so that summer diners may have the option of eating under sunshades as in another well-known restaurant in Bagni di Lucca Villa.

Congratulations to Borghesi for having reached their nineteenth month of good quality catering in Bagni di Lucca Villa.



A Major Arcana at Barga

A fascinating exhibition of paintings by ever-innovative artist, photographer and Barga News supremo Keane, celebrating his thirty-first year as an essential component of the Barga social landscape, opened last Saturday. Based on the Marseilles Tarot the paintings grace the new bistro at the Locanda restaurant in Barga Vecchia.

The opening was enhanced by a rinfresco and a jazz trio

Tarot cards may mean for most of us some form of divination, like the I-Ching or the ancient Roman manner of examining sacrificial entrails. In Italy, however, tarocchi (tarot cards) have meant a card game popular since early renaissance times. It was only at the end of the eighteenth century that tarot cards became associated with foresight.

Specifically, the Tarot is a deck of playing cards, usually consisting of seventy eight cards used for trick-like games (bridge and whist are included in this type of card game) dating back to the mid-fifteenth century and perhaps originating in Ferrara, Bologna or Milan. This type of pack spread to various parts of Europe reaching the height of popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The standard fifty-two card pack then overtook them in general use, although today Tarot-pack based games have returned with some popularity.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Tarot -pack became associated with the Kabbalah and other mystical traditions. The development of these theories was initiated by the French freemason Antoine Court de Gébelin. In the mid-nineteenth century the occultist Eliphas Levi developed the cards’ mystical aspect. By the early twentieth century the esoteric significance of tarot were pursued by the French occultist Papus (pseudonym of Gérard Encausse) and Oswald Wirth in a series of important publications. Later the French Tarot School began to be ousted by the English School born within the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

A typical tarot deck consists of a pack of cards plus an additional twenty-one, which in Italian are called ‘trionfi’ (triumphs), and a single card known as the Fool, making a total of seventy-eight cards. The traditional card deck is divided into four suits (Italian or French) of fourteen cards each from Ace to Ten plus four figure cards also known as “honour” or “court” cards. These are the King, Queen, Knight and Knave. The trumps are usually illustrated with human figures and mythological animals and numbered from 1 to 21, usually in Roman numerals. The Triumphs and the Fool are known as the Major Arcana and the other cards are called the Minor Arcana.

There are many differently designed tarot card packs. Some years ago Sandra and I started to collect them but we never got to the end! Here is some of our collection:

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Originally, tarot cards were hand-painted and there is an exquisite set from the Estensi court of which we have reproductions and also one from Milan’s Visconti court.

With the invention of printing, however, the cards were able to be mass-produced and their popularity spread well beyond the aristocratic courts to taverns and inns.

The most usual Tarot card design is the one from Marseilles. Here the triumphs are as follows:

. Le Bateleur (The Mountebank, The Juggler, The Magician)

II. La Papesse (The Papess, or The Female Pope)
III. L’Impératrice (The Empress)
IV. L’Empereur (The Emperor)
V. Le Pape (The Pope, or The Hierophant)
VI. L’Amoureux (The Lovers)
VII. Le Chariot (The Chariot)
VIII. La Justice (Justice)
IX. L’Hermite (The Hermit)
X. La Roue de Fortune (The Wheel of Fortune)
XI. La Force (Strength, or Fortitude)

XII. Le Pendu (The Hanged Man)
XIII. [usually left unnamed, but “called” L’Arcane sans nom, La Mort, or Death]
XIV. Tempérance (Temperance)
XV. Le Diable (The Devil)
XVI. La Maison Dieu (The House of God, or The Tower)
XVII. L’Étoile (The Star)
XVIII. La Lune (The Moon)
XIX. Le Soleil (The Sun)
XX. Le Jugement (Judgement)
XXI. Le Monde (The World)
no number. Le Mat (The Fool)

Two forces have combined in the creation of the Barga Locanda exhibition. The male force is represented by Keane who has taken the Marseilles pack, as restored by Camoin and Jodorowsky. The female power is that of Paola Marchi, already well-known for her ‘brut’ paintings.

Paola has brilliantly interpreted the pack at and her interpretations add resonance to Keane’s paintings and truly embellish Barga’s tarot bistro. Keane has not slavishly copied the Marseilles tarot in large format but has cropped some of the cards to produce startling effects.

The narrow corridor leading to the intimacy of the bistro is already influenced by aspects of the Major Arcana and the bistro itself is permeated by the subtle power of the Tarot.

One wonders whether the divinatory power of these cards will guide further dual forces to find themselves and whether the right choices will be made by them. Only time and this marvellous recreation of the Tarot by Keane and Marchi will tell…


PS The trick card origin of the Tarot is evidenced in the Italian word ‘taroccato’ which derives from ’tarocco’. Beware of taroccati goods sold to you because they are false! Similarly, life is full of tricky situations which a reading of the Tarot cards by a qualified diviner can help avoid.

Fish and Chips – Italian Style

This was yesterday’s lunch menu at the ‘Circolo dei Forestieri’ restaurant and bar in Bagni di Lucca Villa:

In case you weren’t sure what the items meant or looked like here goes:

Primi piatti = first course choices

Mezzemaniche alla pescatora = Mezzemaniche-shape pasta with fish sauce


Gnocchi ai formaggi = Gnocchi with cheese


Tortellini panna e prosciutto = Tortellini with cream and ham


Farfalle alla boscaiola (funghi, piselli, pancetta) = woodman-style butterfly-shaped pasta (mushrooms, peas, bacon)


Tortelli o pasta con ragù o pomodoro o arrabbiata = Tortelli or pasta (spaghetti) with meat sauce or tomato or angry (spicy sauce)



Secondi piatti = second course choices

Scaloppa di tacchino burro e salvia = Escalope of turkey with butter and sage


Filetto di merluzzo impanato con patatine fritte = Breaded cod fillet with chips

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Polpettone in salsa di pomodoro e basilico = Meatloaf in tomato and basil sauce


Bistecchina di maiale o petto di pollo alla griglia = pork steak or grilled chicken breast


Salciccia e wurstel alla griglia = grilled sausage and wurstel


Insalatona con uovo tonno pomodoro mozzarella e mais = Big salad with egg, tuna, tomatoes, mozzarella and corn


Bresaola, rucola, grana, e pomodorini = Dried beef ,rocket salad, parmesan and cherry tomatoes


Contorni = vegetables

Patate prezzemolate = Parsleyed potatoes


Zucchine al funghetto = Zucchini and mushrooms


Sformato di verdura Misto lesso: patate, carote, zucchine, fagiolini = Mixed boiled vegetable flan: potatoes carrots, green beans, zucchini


Insalata mista = Mixed salad


Pomodoro con cipolla = Tomatoes with onions




1/4 litre of wine red or white

Still or fizzy water


Bread and schiacciata (Tuscan flatbread with added olive oil)

(Not all the photographs are mine: we couldn’t eat everything on the menu! The filetto di merluzzo impanato con patatine fritte is mine, however.

I’d booked a large table under a sunshade in front of the elegant building. The weather was lovely, the food delicious and the company very convivial. Without mentioning any names this included a gentleman who is  a professional photographer who has contributed some wonderful photographs of ‘Lucca Comix and games to Debra Kolkka’s blog and is also the genius behind San Cassiano’s fb page. Another gentleman is noted for his increasingly fine wine above Ponte. Of the ladies one is the daughter of traditional figurinai (plaster-of-Paris statuette makers) who had immigrated to northern England and set up a factory there. The other is a designer.

What did I have to eat? After a delicious plate of tortelli (sometimes spelt tordelli here) con ragù I went on to devour a plate of fish n chips, Italian style. The breaded coating of the cod was a very satisfactory alternative to batter, and the chips were neither soggy nor too crisp. Only missing from the course were the soggy chips, the newspaper wrapping and the rain which I remember usually accompanied my eating of fish and chips (pesce e patate) on a park bench in the UK and…..the mushy peas.

Wine vinegar, tomato ketchup and mayonnaise ad lib accompanied the offering.

First course, second course, wine, bread, schiacciata, and coffee were all included in the price of euros 11 (£8.66 in sterling). You could have dolce (dessert) for an extra. But regrettably there was no room for it in my stomach. Tipping, of course, is optional in most places in Italy too.

The sunshine, pleasant mountain views and the conversation were all free, however!

To paraphrase what one of the lunch guests said, I sometimes feel quite Italian about food in the UK but quite English about food in Italy….

(Resolution: must perfect my crumpet-making technique.)

Two Birthdays in One Day

Sometimes in Italy, the European heart-land of the small shop and business owner, the shop you expected to be open is closed. This may be because of a national holiday or patron saint’s day (which varies from locality to locality). Sometimes it might be because of ‘ferie’ i.e. the shop is taking a holiday either private or public. Because of the substantial number of public holidays this can happen quite frequently.

More sad are those black-bordered signs on closed shop doors with ‘chiuso per lutto’ (closed for mourning) written on them. We’ve had a few too many of them in and around Bagni di Lucca in the last couple of years. My blog readers will know which shop-owners they refer to.

It was, therefore, with genuine happiness that I saw a different reason for a shop to be closed when it should have been open, This is the new flower shop at Piazza Ponte d’Oro Piazza of the Golden Bridge) at Chifenti: ’Chiuso per maternità’ (no translation needed – and no prizes for guessing whether it was a boy or a girl!) ‘Complimenti’ to the delightful girl who runs the shop with such charm.

As my highly agreeable lunch companions commented ‘you can more or less narrate shopkeeper family history by the signs on their shop fronts’.

Incidentally, when we had lunch at the ‘Circolo dei forestieri’ we were presented with a little plate of very wonderful sweets and a glass of prosecco. ‘It’s our birthday’ said the pleasant girl who’s a partner in the wonderful reawakening of Bagni di Lucca’s legendary restaurant. ‘It’s one year today since the circolo has opened,’ she added.

The lunch, as usual, was top-class (two courses plus wine, water, bread (delicious, 3 varieties) and coffee, all for euros 11.

I’ll leave you to guess at some of the dishes we savoured (the finocchio alla grattinata was particularly scrumptious – fennel cooked with besciamella sauce –  and the penne with cream were heavenly), and what we couldn’t finish off we could take away in a doggy-bag (or ‘scatola di famiglia’), something which all eating places must now provide by Italian law.

(Spot the colours of the Italian national Flag – ‘il Tricolore’)

It’s these small but O so endearing touches that melt one’s heart in Italy – quite apart from the people, the food, the wine and the beauty of this magical country’s scenery and artistic heritage.

Eating at Marchetti

I hadn’t dined at Marchetti’s in Castelnuovo for some time and it was a real pleasure to return to this shrine to good home-style cooking which is situated in one of the most picturesque areas of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, the palazzo in the centre of town with the arches, behind the town hall.

Founded shortly after World War II by the great-grandpa of the young barman trattoria Marchetti has remained in the family for over seventy years now. In the warmer season the restaurant spreads its tables out onto the portico itself but on this blustery, rainy mid-day I huddled with the other diners in the cosy interior. Indeed, even in February it’s often necessary to wait if one doesn’t book ahead. I waited just five minutes before a place was found for me.

If you are a group of at least six it may be a good idea to book the tiny annexe which is almost like an Irish snug.

It’s nice when the owners recognise you in a restaurant even if you haven’t been there for some time and I received a warm welcome.

For my primo I chose penne with pesto. The sauce was abundant and exquisite, the penne al dente just as I like them.

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My secondo consisted of bistecca di maiale con patate lesse (i.e. pork chop with boiled potatoes). Again, the ingredients were cooked to perfection and I doubt whether I have enjoyed such a chop for some time.

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Wine was as-you-please from a big (shared) fiasco on the table and water could be ordered either stilled or bubbly.

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I rounded off the meal with a caffé macchiato, nicely frothy as I like it.

As usual, grated cheese, bread and condiments were supplied as part of the meal.

Thankfully, tipping is not normal in family-run restaurants in Italy and my delicious lunch cost me just ten Euros – less than what I am now reliably informed is the price of a standard take-way fish ‘n chips in London.

The restaurant has some interesting old photographs and mementoes on its walls which are worth looking at. Like a few other places its decor doesn’t seem to have been updated for years and it has a quaint unplanned retro feel about it which I like.

There was even a song dedicated to the restaurant on one wall:

It was good to have a good Italian workers’ lunch before I embark tomorrow into the wilds of northern Europe, in particular to the great Wen (term coined in the 1820s by William Cobbett for London when he saw how rapidly it was expanding just like a sebaceous cyst on the face, which is what ‘wen’ means).

Snowy Mountains (in Lucchesia)

While shopping at Penny Market yesterday I was suddenly made aware of the snow that has recently fallen on the main ridge of the Apennines.

Here is a picture taken near the Ponte Della Maddalena (devil’s bridge to lesser mortals) which is close to the supermarket.

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Lunch time at la Ruota restaurant at Fornoli confirmed that I was not wrong in describing the food there as excellent. (See my post at

The farfalle with gorgonzola and radicchio (chicory) was delicious.

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The scaloppine (thinly sliced veal dredged in wheat flour, sautéed, heated and served with a wine sauce) with mushrooms and, thankfully non-frozen, chips was equally tasty.

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All this, washed down with a quarter litres of red wine and sparkling water and ending with a café macchiato, for 11 euros can’t be bad…

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Returned home I took my cats for a walk (or perhaps they took me) in the Longoio hinterland.

The long shadows and autumn colours were stunning. The cats had a great time too. It’s a pity that because of traffic many cats can’t be taken for a decent walk. I don’t think they’d appreciate being dragged along on a lead!

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Cosily freezing nights and true blue sky days may you long continue!

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Bountiful Borghesi

I confess I hadn’t yet eaten yet at the resurrected Borghesi restaurant in Bagni di Lucca Villa although it had its official opening at the end of last May. That auspicious day has been described in my post at

Yesterday I decided to try Borghesi out and was very happy I did! This was the menu displayed in the restaurant window. Use it as an exercise to improve your Italian since no English menu is displayed.

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I chose fettuccine with chestnuts, saffron and sausages and found it delicious. I’d never had chestnuts (now in full and abundant season) with my pasta before and the combination was irresistible.

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This was followed by roast beef which in Italy is sliced very thin and is done rare unless one wishes otherwise.  Perfectly cooked roast potatoes accompanied it.

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As usual a quart of wine (I chose red) and a bottle of (for me) sparkling water with wholemeal bread and focaccia accompanied the meal which was rounded off by an expresso.

The whole meal set me back just euros 11. I’m sure it won’t be too long before I’m back at the Borghesi!

Full praise should be given to Stefania and Fabio for bringing the Borghesi back to life. The original restaurant was opened in 1903 by Stefania’s ancestor, Raimondo Borghesi. His portrait, blown up from an old photograph, graces the entrance to the dining area which is calmly decorated in off- whites and with very discrete lighting. Raimondo was known as ‘the colonel’, not because of any military grade but for his measured and authoritative advice on life matters which was very much appreciated among the figurinai, or plaster of Paris figurine makers of the Bagni di Lucca area. These figurinai travelled the world selling their wares and the old joke has it that they were waiting to flog their statuettes to Christopher Columbus when he landed in the New World in 1492!

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It had always been Stefania’s wish to bring the Borghesi (whose building she owns) back as a family business. It must have been an enormous risk she and Fabio, who are both pensioners, took to invest in the refurbishment of the place, particularly when Italy is not completely out of its austerity neck of the woods. But it has certainly paid off. Both daughters, Laura and Paola, work part-time in the restaurant whose cook is a brilliant graduate from Barga’s Alberghiera College (hotel catering and Management College).

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If one wants a more intimate setting than the princely plushness of the Circolo dei Forestieri then this is the place to go to. It’s truly family, pet and child friendly and the homely food, served in adequate portions, is really tasty!

A Stunning Castle Comes to Life

The fortress of Verrucole is near San Romano to the north of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana in the upper Serchio valley. It once formed part of a complex defensive system whose other main protection points are Mont’Alfonso fortress, just outside Castelnuovo, the castle in Castelnuovo itself, Camporgiano castle and the fortified town of Castiglione di Garfagnana.

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We first visited Verrucole for a mediaeval afternoon described in my post at in 2005 to attend a mediaeval afternoon with dancing, sword fighting and cross-bow shooting.

Since that time, and thanks to European Union funding, the fort has been almost fully restored and we were keen to revisit it a couple of days ago.

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Parking is in the actual village of Verrucole itself and there is a steep but not difficult fifteen minutes’ walk to the castle gate where a “dogana” now charges admission (standard is 5 euros. For more price and opening time information see the web site at

The first thing we noticed was the restoration of the keep to its full height which is now crowned by an octagonal roof. We were advised to visit this part first and were treated to a truly interesting display of medieval life carefully explained to us by a young man who’d graduated in mediaeval studies and really knew his stuff.

He explained much about daily life, fighting strategies and medical practice of those times in which the castle was used.

For example did you know that the Italian word ‘ammazzare’ – to kill – come from mazza which is that steel ended club-like weapon guaranteed to smash anyone’s cranium in? It naturally became a symbol of power in the English mace, which is a symbol of mayoral power through the UK and, indeed, form part of the UK’s and the commonwealth’s parliamentary regalia.

The Mace

We almost needed medical attention ourselves since there was a plant with large sweet berries growing in the herb garden by the tower which I tasted but did not swallow. It was, in fact, belladonna, three berries of which can kill one adult outright but which in small doses was used by mediaeval damsels to enlarge their eye pupils and make them more alluring.

The chain mail was particularly heavy and explained the fact that those crusaders wearing it in the holy wars against the Muslims were unable to bear the heat generated by such heavy armour as against the more lightly clad Saracens.

The one thing chain mail armour could not withstand was the arrow and we were led into the courtyard to the north of the tower for a demonstration and hands on experience of firing from long-bows.  I managed to hit the target but it must have been beginner’s luck.

The crossbow and even the muzzle loaded harquebus were unfavourably compared to the long-bow whose archers won us the battle of Agincourt, After all, twelve arrows could be shot in one minute with a long bow whereas only two could be fired in the same time by the crossbow and the harquebus.

We then visited the top floor of the keep which was laid out with dioramas and a souvenir shop. The view from the windows here were absolutely stunning, looking out over both the Apuan and Apennine range.

Looking at the fantastic location of the fortress I could easily understand why it was seriously challenged only once, in the twelfth century.

We then walked around the rest of the fortress which originally had two separate keeps joined together by further crenellated walls in the fifteenth century and treated ourselves to some delicious fruit salad ice cream and blackcurrant tart.

We thought that our visit was one of the most satisfying ones to any castle in Italy. It wasn’t just another pile of rubble but a well-kept, well-organised place in an awesome location. The bringing to life of the castle via its brilliant mediaeval guide, the excellent refreshment facilities, the characters in appropriate costume: in short, the total presentation was an example of how a castle should be presented to the public. Full mark for the effort put into Verrucole. It really made our day!