Eating Well Above the Plain in Nicola

Ristorante Da Fiorella Dominates Lunigiana Bassa. 

Excellent Food and Huge Views in the Historic Hill Town of Nicola.

The hill town of Nicola overlooking the plain in lower Lunigiana.
The hill town of Nicola overlooking the plain of Luni. Beyond is the Caprione peninsula, Ameglia, and the Magra River.
Nicola is the most evocative village in the lower part of Lunigiana. High on a sharp little hill that bumps out of the coastal plain just before Liguria becomes Tuscany, it is poised for filming a movie set in the middle ages. So in truth, we didn't really need an excuse to visit twice. However, both times we just happened to visit around lunch time, and Da Fiorella was the only restaurant in town. Heh, heh.

Da Fiorella Bread & Focaccia
Da Fiorella. Bread & Focaccia
The restaurant is in a nice pink building with a stupendous view of the sea and the coast, and you are warmly welcomed when you enter. The first good thing is the first thing they bring you – an amazing bread basket. There's a focaccia topped with poppy seeds that's just the way you always hope focaccia will be – almost crispy, almost creamy, with seeds that really have flavor. Next in the basket is an excellent bread, and another focaccia with sesame seeds – if anything even more delicious.

The antipasto misto is not the usual selection of sliced meats. It has five portions - torta di verdure; torta of rice and onion; eggplant caponata; stuffed cabbage; and polenta incatenata, a creamy soft square of polenta with beans and vegetables just showing through. All except the caponata are flavored with great Parmigiano cheese. Each one is worth a sentence rich with adjectives - the flavors complemented each other perfectly, and left us enthusiastic for the primi.

Da Fiorella Ravioli con Ragu
Da Fiorella.  Ravioli con Ragu
On our first visit, we ordered two primi piatti. The first was house-made lunette, half moons of pasta filled with radicchio and gorgonzola, which came topped with chopped walnuts and drizzled with butter. Very enjoyable. The second was a thick soup of pureed chickpeas with fresh quadrucci pasta. Anything with chickpeas sounds like a simple dish, but it was actually extraordinary: the quadrucci were perfectly cooked squares of hand-made pasta that never got gluey, the ceci soup was nutty, and seasoned with a touch of fresh tomato, garlic, and oil. It was served with grated Parmigiano, fresh olive oil, and black pepper on the side.

On the second visit, two more primi. The first sounds a little predictable – ravioli with ragu. Da morire! The ravioli filling declared itself, but didn't control, and the meaty ragu played a great supporting role. A tribute to the kitchen for all the care brought to this dish.

Panigacci from Lunigiana Bassa
Panigacci from Lunigiana Bassa
The second primi was panigacci and these continued our Lunigiana education. The best known panigacci from upriver Podenzano are made of wheat flour, mixed with salt and water until it forms a thick paste, and cooked in hyper-heated shallow bowls of clay, which are stacked so the top and bottom of the panigacci are cooked simultaneously. The resulting pancake-like jobbies are about 1/4 inch thick, and served with cheese and coldcuts, or even nutella. At Da Fiorello, however, a tradition from the Ligurian end of Lunigiana is preserved - they make crepe-thin panigacci in a cast iron pan, and while they’re still hot, roll them with fillings: one with pesto and cheese, the other with olive oil and cheese. The little brown spots on the panigacci added crunch and flavor, and they were a prefect primi. (Thanks to the excellent local website Le Cinque Erbe for: I Panigazi di Castelnuovo Magra).

Oven-baked Stuffed Rabbit
Oven-baked Stuffed Rabbit.  Coniglio Farcito al forno.
In our two visits, we tried three secondiDa Fiorella offers numerous grilled meats, and the Coniglio alla brace (grilled rabbit) we ordered was perfectly cooked, still juicy but thoroughly cooked.  The Coniglio Farcito al forno (stuffed rabbit) was more interesting though. The rabbit is, of course, boned, then topped with a thin layer of prosciutto and a stuffing that is rich, cheesy, eggy, the whole thing is rolled up and baked, and it's truly delicious, the flavors intermingling. Our other carnivore adventure was another local specialty, which you can probably tell is one of our weaknesses. The Agnello di Zeri, (Zeri lamb) - a little village in the mountains near Pontremoli in Lunigiana Alta - is famous for its tenderness and delicacy, and can be hard to find. This was oven roasted and tasted just as good as it sounds. The portion was generous and the pieces as meaty as a local lamb can be.

A lunch with due coperti, a ½ liter of the light but flavorful house red wine, and a one antipasto, two primi piatti and one secondo, cost 41E. The same with no antipasto, two primi piatti and two secondi, cost 47E. In our humble opinion, all of this combines to make Da Fiorella a regional treasure. They’ve been in business since 1970, and their mission statement is clear: they are dedicated to "cucina tipica" in order to offer visitors a voyage into the tastes and flavors of Liguria. Punto e basta, secondo noi.

Da Fiorella in Nicola di Ortonovo.
Da Fiorella in Nicola di Ortonovo.
Ristorante Da Fiorella 

Via per Nicola, 46
Nicola di Ortonovo

Closed Thursday. Reservations advised.
Da Fiorella Website
Tel. 0187 66857
Cell 331 7451707

In 2017, the name of the comune of Ortonovo was changed to Luni. Most signs still say Ortonovo.

Written by Martha