Secret Tuscany

Porto Ercole

Porto Ercole

A far cry from Tuscany’s familiar gently rolling hills, Monte Argentario’s appealing mix of mountain, ocean, island and lagoon makes it one of Italy’s hidden treasures, writes Emiko Davies.

The first time I visited Monte Argentario, a wild promontory on Tuscany's southern coast, we stayed in a clifftop cottage above a cove near the fishing village of Porto Santo Stefano. Every evening from our kitchen we watched as the island of Giglio just offshore became a silhouette against a sunset the colour of Campari - a rather nice view as we sliced artichokes and untangled tentacles for octopus stew.

Forte Stella - one of the three fortresses in the area - sits high above Porto Ercole. 

We returned a year later to this quiet, seemingly overlooked stretch of Tuscan coastline closer to Rome than Florence. This time we made Porto Ercole, the older and smaller of the two villages on Monte Argentario, our home for six months. We settled into an airy apartment flanked by olive groves, where wild boars - cinghiale - frequently woke us as they rummaged through bins. The view of the port became our daily weather forecast. (We learnt, like the locals, how to tell a humid day from a cool, dry day by the look of the water on the port.)

One of the many archways in Orbetello. 

Monte Argentario lies in the Maremma, a region within a region notable for its rugged beauty - in sharp contrast to the tamed, rolling hills of central Tuscany. It's full of wild forests, crumbling Etruscan towns, old farmhouses and dusty, prickly pear-lined roads leading to sandy beaches. The tip of an ancient mountain, Monte Argentario lies a few kilometres offshore, connected to the mainland by two long sandbars named Giannella and Feniglia. (The latter was the spot where Caravaggio died in 1610, on his way to Rome to plead for a papal pardon on a charge of murder.) The lagoon of Orbetello between these narrow sandbars is teeming with eel, fish and birds, and well known as a refuge for migrating pink flamingos.

It's this mixture of mountain, ocean, island and lagoon that makes this promontory so appealing, not just for exploring but also for savouring. Fishing remains a mainstay of the local economy, so the table is dominated by abundant seafood and supported seasonally by wild mushrooms and boar, chestnuts, ricotta and pecorino. Here are a few of my favourite places to eat on Monte Argentario.

I Due Pini

Local catch.

On the winding coastal road between the towns of Orbetello and Porto Santo Stefano, this unassuming restaurant on a pebbly beach known locally as La Soda has old-school charm and wonderfully fresh seafood. Start with the house antipasti, which might include tuna fillets in olive oil, fresh vinegar-cured anchovies - a staple of Argentario's table - and squid stewed with wild mushrooms, a local dish that marries Argentario's sea and mountain on a plate. Grilled scampi and spaghetti with vongole are favourites. Locals gather beneath fluttering, bright-coloured beach umbrellas at tables irresistibly close to the water for informal lunches, while indoors there's white linen on tables, wooden rafters and rustic-chic décor. Or hire a couple of the restaurant's deckchairs and umbrellas and make a day of it. 

Località la Soda, Porto Santo Stefano, +39 0564 814 012.

 

Trattoria a Casa di Paolo e Rosita

As the name suggests, this modest trattoria is the home of Paolo and Rosita Bracci and it's a full family affair: Rosita and the couple's son turn out traditional home cooking in the kitchen, while Paolo and their daughter work the floor. The focus here is the classic dishes of Argentario, the kind of food you're likely to find only in family homes. Expect the likes of minestra di riso e femminelle, rice and crab soup available only in autumn when these lagoon crabs can be found, and pesce bandiera gratinato al forno, rolled silver scabbardfish, a delicious, meaty, white-fleshed fish baked with a breadcrumb crust and topped by a dollop of tomato sugo. Rosita's fresh pasta is always made in-house and the seafood is fished locally; the family is happy to identify the fishing boats that supply them. 

Via dei Tre Ragazzi 46, Porto Santo Stefano, +39 0564 813 139, trattoriapaoloerosita.it.

 

L'Antico Forno la Schiaccia

Pizza time at L'Antico Forno la Schiaccia in Porto Santo Stefano. 

Located in a backstreet accessible through a tunnel (look for the green sign in the archway) from the port, this no-nonsense bakery is one of the oldest and best in town. It specialises in the traditional treats of Porto Santo Stefano, most notably a pizza by the slice called schiaccia, served plain, topped simply with tomato and olive oil, or with a delicious combination of stewed sweet onions and salted anchovies. Try the sugar-encrusted corolli, little ring-shaped biscuits, to dip into coffee, tea or wine, the Tuscan way. This very traditional bakery still uses strutto, or lard, for many of its preparations - ingredients, in Italian, are clearly displayed so you know what you're getting. 

Access via No 2 Corso Umberto 1, Via Santo Stefano 17/19, Porto Santo Stefano, +39 0564 812 951.

 

Grano 

This tiny excellent pizzeria on the port serves Roman-style pizza al taglio: pizza by the slice. Crisp but satisfyingly chewy dough is shaped into long slabs and topped with just two or three ingredients: mozzarella with grated zucchini or potato, for instance, or, my personal favourite, tomato sauce, anchovies and dollops of tangy salsa verde. Don't underestimate the simple goodness of the pizza bianca, a plain dough slathered with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. There are only a few seats outside (within metres of the water and bustling markets), but no one minds takeaways at €1.50 per generous slice. 

Via della Marina 32, Porto Ercole.

 

Il Pellicano 

Il Pellicano. 

With spectacular sea views, a secluded location and even a private beach to kick back on, this luxury resort exemplifies 1960s Italian glamour. The focus is firmly on seafood in dishes by Puglia-born chef Sebastiano Lombardi at the resort's Michelin-starred restaurant. Start with crudi, then perhaps zucchini soup with poached egg and raw violet prawns. A dish of red mullet with fennel, endive and grapefruit features the prized local bottarga from Orbetello. Few can resist the Amedei chocolate trolley. For something less formal, head outdoors to Pelligrill to dine poolside on grilled catch of the day, and retire to the bar at sunset for cocktails by talented barman Federico Morosi. 

Località Sbarcatello, Porto Ercole, +39 0564 858 111, pellicanohotels.com.

 

Antica Fattoria la Parrina 

La Parrina pecorino made from organic sheep's milk. 

An organic winery, farm and agriturismo on the mainland not far from Orbetello, La Parrina's best asset is its store. Stocked with produce grown and made exclusively on the property, it's a one-stop shop for the makings of a special picnic. The farm's dairy products are outstanding: yoghurt, ricotta and a good selection of goat's and sheep's milk cheeses (try the Guttus, a bitey blue sheep's milk cheese). Aperitivo is sorted with a bottle of the farm's Parrina bianco DOC, a blend of white varieties including ansonica, the area's most important grape, and vermentino. And children will love visiting the farm animals, which include pigs, geese, goats, sheep and horses. 

Via Aurelia km 146, Località Parrina, +39 0564 862 626, parrina.it.

 

I Pescatori Di Orbetello

The spicy scaveccio at I Pescatori di Orbetello.

The headquarters of the Orbetello Fishermen's Cooperative is a modest eatery in a converted 19th-century stable suspended over the lagoon. The portions are generous, prices reasonable and there's prime sunset viewing at communal tables outside. It's a simple format: order and pay first, then take a seat and wait for your number to be called. This is the place to savour some of the area's oldest culinary traditions, such as anguilla sfumata (spicy smoked eel), scaveccio (Orbetello's version of escabeche, made with fried eel marinated in vinegar, chilli and herbs) and bottarga. A typical summer menu might include house antipasti (the likes of chickpea and bonito salad, and potato mash topped with grated bottarga), fusilli with zucchini and bottarga, and gilt-head bream, grilled whole. 

Via G Leopardi 9, Orbetello, +39 0564 860 611, ipescatoridiorbetello.it.

 

Vigneto Altura and Arcobalena 

Giglio, one of seven islands that form the Tuscan Archipelago, is just a short ferry ride from Porto Santo Stefano, and what a gem it is. Here, Francesco Carfagna has painstakingly restored Vigneto Altura, an abandoned vineyard on an almost impossibly steep hillside. His unique signature wine is made from ansonica, known as ansonaco on Giglio. It's a white wine that should be treated like a red: served cellar temperature rather than chilled and even, as my sommelier husband, Marco Lami, recommends, decanted. With little intervention in the vineyard or cellar, it's highly drinkable, slightly tannic, earthy, unfiltered and with a mineral quality that reminds you of its island origins. There's no cellar door but visitors can taste Ansonaco Carfagna at his family restaurant, Arcobalena. Located in the hilltop town of Castello, it's small and charming, with tables set on the street in warm weather. 

Vigneto Altura, Località Mulinaccio, Isola del Giglio, +39 0564 806 041, vignetoaltura.it; Arcobalena, Via Vittorio Emmanuele, Isola del Giglio, +39 0564 806106, arcobalena.net/ristorante_arcobalena.htm.

 

Emiko Davies is the author of Aquacotta: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany's Secret Silver Coast (Hardie Grant Books, $49.99).


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