Saturday morning, we said goodbye to Florence and headed to Siena, Italy by train. We had originally only planned on taking a day trip to Siena but when our hotel in Florence could not keep our room past Friday night, we decided to make a weekend of it in Siena instead. This ended up being a fabulous decision as we had a wonderful time of it, exploring this historic hill town in Tuscany.
Siena was once a powerful city-state, even more powerful than Florence until the Black Death decimated the city in 1348. Siena remains then, in many ways, a classic medieval town, rich in art, history and architecture of the time. While swarming with day-tripping tourist by day, by evening and in early mornings it is a delight to explore on foot and in relative peace and quiet. But of course, we arrived in Siena around mid-day and our taxi from the train station had to fight through throngs of tourists to drop us off at our base for the next few days, the Hotel Duomo (in the heart of Siena, the only cars allowed are taxis and permit-granted cars dropping off guests at hotels, bringing deliveries, and other essential operations.)
We began our explorations by grabbing some quick paninis and sitting down in Siena’s glorious Campo, marveling at the architecture and atmosphere in this wonderful city square. I then had to pause on our way to Siena’s Duomo under a street sign bearing my name – Pellegrini meaning “pilgrims” in Italian, and apparently this ancient street had been used by pilgrims of the past on the way to what was once planned to be one of the largest and grandest churches in the world.
After a rushed tour of the Duomo (we would return the next day to see more) and related museums and architectural sites, we were finally ready for a full evening meal. To this end, we spied a promising-looking establishment named Ristorante San Desiderio down a small alleyway. The menu looked promising, they were open and I was hungry, so why not? This decision ended up being as wise as our last-minute plan to visit Siena had been in the first place.
Ristorante San Desiderio is located in an ancient, deconsecrated Romanesque church. Records for the location date back to the year 1012, or even earlier to the reign Emperor Charles “The Hammer.” Its history is long and complicated, like many such buildings, having served as an operation center for troops, a warehouse, a seminary and meeting place along as a church. The interior of the restaurant is spacious, with high ceilings and many well-spaced tables, quite a bit different from many of the small cramped trattorias and osterias one finds in Italy. I studied the wine menu first and selected a well-priced (20 Euro) Nobile di Montepulciano, knowing we would be going for hearty meat entrees this evening. Truly, it is amazing the quality of wines one can enjoy in Italian restaurants for under $30 US, whereas at home one can hardly find a barely decent bottle for the price (and why I tend to BYOB so much at home…)
We began with two wonderful antipasti: a mixed branzino and salmon carpaccio (8 Euro), and baked eggplant rollatini stuffed with scamorza cheese (7 Euro). I loved my carpaccio, served with thin wafers of fennel and tiny orange wedges. The eggplant was delicious as well, topped with a light pesto along with tomato sauce. Both were perfect size plates to awaken the appetite without being over-filling.
Next, I had to try the prawn and zucchini risotto (10 Euro) which was as delicious as the description promised it to be – and stunningly presented with several whole prawns ready to be dissected and enjoyed! My companion loved his Strozzapreti in a delightful pesto sauce (8 Euro), not too garicky but fresh, light and nutty in flavor. Deciding on our secondi selections had been a challenge as San Desiderio offered so many tempting choices. But I had to finally try the Osso Bucco (13 Euro), which has long been a favorite holiday meal for myself and my mother – so I know how much work it is to prepare properly! The osso bucco here was outstanding, perfectly fork-tender and rich with the flavor of an all-day simmer in wine and tomato sauce. The side of couscous was non-traditional yet enjoyable, something different from the typical risotto or pasta. Quite surprising – and quite enormous – was my companions fritto misto of meat (15 Euro). We expected a small plate of various cuts, but instead received an overflowing platter of veal, beef, pork and zucchini (zucchini was absolutely everywhere on the menu in Italy this trip). Everything was deliciously crispy and not at all oily. As stuffed as I was from my own entree I couldn’t help but steal a few bites of breaded meat and vegetable.
Somehow we found a small bit of room for dessert – a shared slice of pear tart, nice and light, a good choice after such a filling meal. Our total bill was only 91.50 Euro for all of that food and wine, including two espressos, mineral water and a coperto for 2 of 4 Euro. Everything about our meal was perfectly executed and delightful, and the atmosphere all that one could hope for. Ristorante San Desiderio definitely earns top marks from me and is an establishment I’d heartily recommend to any other travelers bound for Siena looking for a wonderful Tuscan meal at a good price.
Ristorante San Desiderio
Piazza L. Bonelli, 2
Closed on Tuesday