Part 1: Restaurants
Situated about five miles south of Lucca, Vorno is a dead end with only one road in and out. The Monti Pisani mountains envelop it on three sides blocking direct access south to Pisa, and it’s thanks to this topography that Vorno has remained largely unchanged for centuries as life passed it by on either side. The first reference to the village of Vorno dates back to 944 and the valley and surrounding hills were frequently battlefields during the 400 years that Lucca and Pisa were intermittently at war in the Middle Ages.
Vorno is also the place where mountain water is collected from various natural springs, filtered and then funneled underground alongside the old aqueduct to the public fountains in Lucca, where it is used by many of the residents of the centro storico, including us, as their drinking water, not because you can’t drink the tap water but because the mountain water is better.
The aqueduct no longer carries the water today but that was obviously its original function up until Mussolini chopped a piece off to make room for the main road to Florence and then the Germans blew up an even bigger chunk.
When you approach Lucca on the autostrada from Florence you will see this large unsightly gap in the aqueduct. Perhaps not cultural and historical vandalism on the same scale as the destruction of the Ponte Santa Trìnita in Florence but disappointing nevertheless.
There is a path alongside the aqueduct that extends from Lucca all the way to the water collection area known as le Parole d’Oro (golden words). This is one of Lucca’s best excursions and one that Elena does regularly with groups of language students.
She’ll describe this lovely walk in more detail in Part 2 of this article on Vorno. But whether your appetite has come from walking the aqueduct or simply because it’s time to eat, there are three restaurants in Vorno that we really like, each one for different reasons, and very often we prefer these restaurants to the ones all around us in the centro storico.
Lo Scompiglio, (which can be translated colloquially as “creative chaos”) is the result of a multi-year multi-faceted project, started in 2003, to restore a centuries old tenuta (estate). For many years before being abandoned the tenuta was a self-sufficient farm cultivating olives, vines and fruit and incorporated a villa, farmhouses and woodland. It comprises 500 acres and the new owners embarked on a massive project, still ongoing it seems, to reclaim, rebuild and replant while keeping faith with all the traditional and indigenous crops of the area in a sustainable and organic way; everything from the vines and olive trees to the whole range of seasonal vegetables, fruit and wild herbs.
The restaurant is fully supplied by the estate’s own fresh produce as well as wine and olive oil and everything is recycled creating self-sufficiency in power and water for irrigation. Lo Scompiglio has also become a cultural center for performing and visual arts. It’s hard not to be impressed by all they’ve done and their tremendous dedication to doing things the right way.
This is one of our favorite places for lunch not just for the fresh, simple and creative use of local ingredients, but also because of the exposed outside seating area with its views north across the vineyards and the plain of Lucca to the sometimes snow-covered Apuan Alps (see photo above). Lunch can be eaten outside for at least 8 months of the year and if you’re a vegetarian then rest assured that everything you eat will have been grown around you.
Lo Scompiglio only serves its own estate wine and there are six choices on offer at very reasonable prices, two of which recently received Bronze medals at the 2020 Decanter World Wine Awards. Their wine is available for purchase and once a week they also sell their excess fresh produce direct to the public from their doorstep.
A Bimbotto couldn’t be more different. It’s been in the same place and run by the same family for 180 years and some of the stalwart dishes on the menu probably go back that far as well. It’s a casual restaurant that has a loyal, local clientele, and on a random Thursday lunchtime in January we seemed to be the only ones not on first name terms with the staff.
Elena's mother, Lisa, who we introduced on the Food & Cooking section home page, loves this restaurant because of its classic casalinga menu, all hand-me-down recipes from bygone days.
Nor is there anything fussy or pretentious about the décor as evidenced by the large tomato cans recycled as overhead light fittings and it has a cosy and welcoming atmosphere befitting its long history.
There are always some classic Lucca dishes on the menu like Rovelline lucchesi (see photo above), which are thin slices of sottofesa (bottom round of beef) dipped in flour, egg wash and breadcrumbs then quickly deep fried and recooked for a few minutes in a generous amount of pre-prepared home-made tomato sauce with onions and capers and flavored with oregano, rosemary and sage. This is Italian comfort food at its best and is often made by the Lucchesi at home using left over slices of roast beef.
Zuppa frantoiana, a hearty winter vegetable soup, is another traditional Lucchese dish but perhaps the most famous local menu item here is Tordelli lucchesi, a type of large fresh pasta ravioli stuffed with a delicious meat ragù (see photo below).
In Lucca it’s called tordelli not tortelli as it is in the rest of Italy and don’t be disappointed by the small looking portions in these photographs because they are in fact half portions of dishes split between us as we were trying to get through lots of different menu items at the same lunch.
A Bimbotto is also a well-regarded pizza restaurant with a wood-fired oven but we’ve yet to try one of the pizzas because the rest of the menu is so appetizing.
One of the good things about restaurants like A Bimbotto all across Italy is that they always offer house wine, either red or white, by the liter, half liter or quarter liter known as a quartino. This vino sfuso from the botte (barrel) is always good everyday wine and great value. At A Bimbotto a quartino will set you back only 3 Euro.
But don’t be fooled by the casual surroundings, there is a good sized cellar just off the restaurant where I caught sight of a surprisingly large amount of Tignanello and other Super Tuscans, probably because Vorno is, and always has been, a desirable place to live for wealthier Lucchese families. A Bimbotto happily caters to them too with several more expensive dishes on the menu like the classic Bistecca fiorentina.
Nicola Tofanelli, the latest generation of the family to own and run the restaurant is a qualified sommelier and maestro d’olio as well as being the head chef. He is very much the face of A Bimbotto today and he will be quick to engage you in conversation especially if you’re taking pictures of his food. The inside of A Bimbotto is shown in the photograph below.
La Cecca dates from 1946 and despite its somewhat ramshackle exterior is a little more formal than either of the other two restaurants mentioned, with a less chaotic interior and a more sophisticated menu.
Lots of home made egg pasta and interesting dishes with truffles, guinea fowl and rabbit. On a recent visit the Culatello di Zibello immediately caught my eye because away from Parma and its immediate surroundings this cut of prosciutto is not easy to find. The very last scrolling photo on the Food & Cooking home page of this website is in fact a big plate of culatello being consumed by us in the middle of Parma and it’s a bit like the famous Iberico ham in Spain in terms of price and rarity.
Only 30,000 of these special hams are produced each year versus millions of regular prosciutti and it isn’t likely to be approved for import by the US anytime soon so you should seek it out on your next trip to Italy.
La Cecca also has a good barbecue tradition including the best cuts of beef as well as lamb, which is not a typical Tuscan food apart from at Easter, and I love the heavy round iron plates that they use to flatten meat on the grill to get a good sear. I need one of those for the Weber grill on my balcony. Americans might think that they invented barbecue but meat cooked on an open wood fire is something Italians have been doing for centuries and they are very good at it.
There is plenty of outdoor seating here in summer and the inside is also quite spacious. There is no feeling of being rushed and service is attentive but discreet, and there is an extensive wine list with a good selection of local wines. But like every restaurant in Italy with even a slight whiff of formality, the atmosphere at La Cecca does nothing to inhibit the lovely Italian tradition of a long table packed with several generations of the same family for Sunday lunch, where young boisterous children are a normal part of the scene. Of course the decibel levels are typically quite high in a restaurant in Italy, with the usual animated conversation as the wine flows, so nobody notices anything anyhow.
La Cecca has chosen to stay closed during this difficult period so we have no photographs to offer but take it from us, this is an excellent place to eat.