Italian Sunday Lunch in a Small City

Pranzo in Pontremoli
San Geminiano, the town's patron saint, holding the symbol of Pontremoli. The Ponte dei Quattro Santi, Pontremoli, Tuscany.

First of all, you have to come early.  No, you won't have to wait in line to dine, and no, you won't have trouble parking. It's because Pontremoli is a quintessential Italian small city.  It's a lovely and historic town and the center of Alta Lunigiana, as this part of Tuscany is known. To explore it is part of the whole Italian lunch experience.

One of Pontremoli's many bridges. This is the Magra River.
The history is practically endless.  Probably founded about 1000 BC, the town was a market center and seemingly always a hotbed of political activity.  The conflict between the rival Guelph and Ghibelline factions in the early fourteenth century in Pontremoli brought about the construction of the Great Bell Tower (Il Campanone) to separate the rival camps. (Ghibellines were the imperial party, while the Guelphs supported the Pope.) During these medieval times Pontremoli was a major stop on the Via Francigena, the famous pilgrim road between Canterbury and Rome. The ownership of Pontremoli changed often: the French, the Spanish, the Milanese, the Genovese all had a piece of the action.

In poking around the town, you can’t help but see all this.  The stonework, chipped and worn from centuries of use, the river arched by ancient bridges, the narrow alleys and palaces that are built of the local pietra serena, a hard gray sandstone that looks as peaceful and sturdy as it sounds.  Just walking around is wonderful. See More Information below to learn more details about Pontremoli.

A modern Stele statue.
But…if you have time, don't miss Il Museo delle Statue Stele Lunigianesi - the Museum of the Lunigiana Stele - it is fascinating.  The Stele are rudimentary human figures carved of stone, which are found throughout Europe, and which are up to 5,000 years old.  The epicenter, however, is here in Lunigiana, and the museum - in the Castello del Piagnaro - at the top of town has gathered the best collection of stele known.  They theorize that the small statues were used as border markers, or markers for where the best fords on a river existed, but in fact, it’s all speculation.  The statues themselves are sufficient.  Uncannily ancient, simple, powerful, they evoke a common humanity.  The museum is open 9.00 - 12.30 and 14.30 - 17.30 (closed Mondays).  If you can, it’s always good to check that the opening times are correct for the season (0187 831439).  Despite the lack of comprehensive English translations, it’s worth it to go – words and facts aren’t essential to feeling the presence of these statues.

Osteria della Bietola

For lunch, we chose Osteria della Bietola, a small and attractive restaurant in a tiny alley (luckily there’s a sign on Via Garibaldi, the main pedestrian way).  It’s a simple osteria with nice wooden tables in an old stone room, capacity for about 30 people (we reserved ahead 0187 831949). We were warmly greeted the owner,  Dani Alfonso, who also provided excellent service during the meal.

Tagliolini with ragu
Even though it’s Sunday lunch, we had already eaten a bit, so we regretfully skipped the antipasto.  There’s only one antipasto on the menu, the house special, with salumi (cold cuts) and the delicious local specialty torta d’erbe (vegetable pie), and it looked quite good.  But we went directly to the primi.  You can choose ravioli, tagliolini, gnocchi pontremolese (incorporating chestnut flour), gnocchi di patate, or testaroli (a local specialty similar to a huge pancake, often eaten with pesto). Then you choose a sauce: ragu, funghi, pesto, olio.  We ordered ravioli with funghi, and tagliolini with ragu, and they were both just the way you’d want them.

Ravioli with mushrooms
The tagliolini, made in house, were perfect - sturdy and still al dente without the slightest bit of gumminess, and sauced with a ragu that brought together a chunky meat base with just the right amount of tomato and vegetable -  and not a drop of oil left at the end. The ravioli are also made in house and have a filling of bietola (swiss chard) and ricotta, with the balance more green than white, which gives them a wonderful taste.  The sauce is tomato based, which was a surprise, and absolutely laced with dried porcini, creating a deep, rich taste.   Simple home cooking at its very best!

Coniglio Cacciatore
The seconds were also tasty and well-prepared.  The rabbit cacciatore is not your Little Italy cacciatore. This coniglio was very tender, no tomato at all, having been prepared with good olive oil with herbs and green olives.  The chef, Giuliana Massari, told me that the secret is in the herbs – sage, rosemary, thyme, and parsley.  I’ve made this dish at home, and my toque is off to her – she knows the exact right amount of each to enhance the rabbit.  The other second was grilled baby lamb chops, which, while delicious, were pan fried rather than really grilled, and so lacked the expected charcoally bits.

The house wine is a nice bottle of Chianti, which goes well with the food. We skipped the desert offerings of Tiramisu, Panna Cotta, and several fruit torta in favor of an excellent espresso.  Our entire lunch, which was all we could possibly eat today, was 53 Euro.

Chef Giuliana in her small but incredibly clean kitchen.

Osteria della Bietola
Via Della Bietola, 4A
Pontremoli MS
Tel. 0187 831949
Closed Thursday

More Information

Pontremoli Slow Food The food specialties of Pontremoli, such as testaroli, are described on this page of the indispensible Ciao Lunigiana website. Pontremoli Well informed travel info about Pontremoli. The author, Martha Bakerjian, is based in Lunigiana.

Terre di Lunigiana The Italian section of this extensive website has detailed information on Pontremoli and its surroundings.

Written by Martha