“I only only cook things I would feed my own grandchildren,” says Mauro, owner and chef at Il Canto del Maggio, the Slow Food establishment in the Valdarno area of Tuscany that he has been running, along with his daughter Simona, for the past 25 years. He says this while he is showing us his garden, which he doesn’t trust anyone else to plant. The incredible lightness of the food he cooks and the freshness of every flavour comes from his convictions about good food.
We’ve been coming to Canto del Maggio since before I had a blog, and I’ve always meant to write about it, but usually I would get sidetracked by the food and not have enough pictures to post. We were introduced to this restaurant 15 years ago by a professorial couple who live in the area – he’s a food historian, so he knows his stuff – and we’ve returned over the years, always enjoying the food. This weekend we were guests in one of their cute Tuscan-style vacation rentals in the tiny borgo in which the restaurant is located, so I’ve had a bit more time to explore, as well as to talk with the chef.
Getting a good look at the property’s many gardens and animals is a wise idea before sitting down with the menu. The goose and rabbit kept near the restaurant were so cute, I am sad to think about the sauce they’ll likely end up in, but at least they had a happy life!
Mauro keeps a wonderful structured herb garden complete with cute features like a laser-cut metal sculpture and a “Bugs Hotel” to attract positive fauna.
I saw the provenance of all the delicious greens we tasted in the restaurant in Mauro’s orto located near the property’s gorgeous infinity pool, where at this point in April we saw the last bits of winter cabbage and cavolo nero, and newly planted fresh onions, garlic, strawberries and mint, soft radicchios and more.
In Italy you hear a lot of talk of chilometro zero restaurants, and this is a real one. Translated literally as zero kilometres from production to plate, it’s a type of eating that in North America some call the hundred mile diet. The concept of eating locally and seasonally is neither a fad nor impossible in Italy, it’s a culturally-rooted lifestyle. Most “contadini” or country folk do it naturally, while if you live in the city, you may know someone who has a little plot of land (or be blessed with an allotment of “orto sociale” or community garden) from which to get tomatoes in summer and pumpkin in winter. But even the supermarket selection changes seasonally, and most Italians would shame you for eating strawberries in January (if you could find them).
To get a good sense of all the dishes on offer on this spring’s menu, we ordered most of the appetizers: a sformato of artichokes with a sprinkle of pistachio; delicately sliced finocchio and orange salad, a green salad with local Valdarno pecorino (a Slow Food presidia), and a cheese plate with savoury dips.
For primi, the boys had a classic pappardelle with duck, which was very light, while us girls had a potato and leek purée and gnocchi with spinach and a pecorino sauce. The latter sounded potentially heavy but was fluffy, flavourful and wonderfully light.
The secondi came around: a huge duck egg served with asparagus and a sliver of truffle; veal tartare; or the more homely Valdarno chicken.
But perhaps the best part was the dessert. There was a wonderful chocolate cake like a rich brownie, but my favourite thing was a cup with crumbs and the lightest mousse of cheese, a kind of deconstructed cheese cake.
There are so many reasons we keep coming back to Canto del Maggio: the attentive yet unassuming service, the fresh KM0 ingredients, and the fact that you feel happy but not overfull after eating a 4-course meal. The price is also a bit of a plus: Mauro says the area doesn’t tolerate more than €35 per person, no matter how good the food is. We think it’s worth more. Shhh, don’t tell anyone about this place.
Osteria Il Canto del Maggio
Località Penna, Terranuova Bracciolini (15 minutes from the Valdarno A1 highway exit, 45 minutes outside Florence)
Apartments rented nightly or weekly, €95/night, €700/week for a small 1BR. Pool access only for guests.
Disclaimer: I was a guest at Il Canto Del Maggio as part of a blog tour organized by Italian Eye Events, a creative wedding and events planner in Tuscany. The decision to write about this place, however, is entirely my own, fueled by my entirely unconditional satisfaction with regards to the food and quality of service received.