Acute panino fatigue is a real consequence of overexposure to the A1 autostrada that paves its route along the central spine of the Italian peninsula. This is pavement I pound quite often in my lipstick red Mini Cooper S, as road travel is an important requirement of my job. As much as I love the bufalino sandwich with prosciutto crudo and mozzarella di bufala—that’s my Autogrill panino of choice—I often daydream-while-driving of exploring the infinite culinary options that exist just beyond those galvanized guardrails.
One day, I made a hunger-fueled decision to pull off the autostrada at exactly 1:30 p.m., the ideal prandial pause. The exit didn’t matter. I would order lunch at the first restaurant to appear on my path. The exit was Incisa Valdarno just south of Florence and the restaurant, located on a hill with a nearby castle and picture-perfect views from an outdoor dining terrace, was Il Canniccio. That gamble has now turned into a tradition.
I’ve calculated the distances down to the last kilometer. If I leave Rome traffic at a leisurely morning hour to drive up to Barolo, Valpolicella or Collio, or if I drive in the opposite direction from Northern Italy back to my home in the Italian capital, I always end up near the Incisa Valdarno exit precisely at lunchtime. Il Canniccio is my favorite A1 autostrada lunchtime destination and a pit stop is dutifully incorporated in my travel itinerary.
The location is perfect, the food adheres to an authentic Tuscan country cooking philosophy and Il Canniccio makes the best home cut potato chips I have tasted in Italy. The wine list is not great, but it gets the job done. There is a decent choice of half-bottles and smaller carafes of house wine in case your passenger wants to have a taste, while you the driver sit this meal out. Best of all, Il Canniccio evidently works with a prodigious supplier of black truffles because they are often featured on the menu. Now, with mushroom season before us, the daily specials will feature more truffles, porcini and yellow ovoli mushrooms served raw with olive oil and thin shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
During one of my recent lunches, I order a hearty plate of tagliatelle al tartufo nero, or hand-kneaded ribbon pasta with an abundant topping of black truffles. Sometimes the kitchen staff adds a little black cabbage to the dish, but the version I asked for was all tartufo nero. As I waited for my dish to arrive, I enjoyed a glass of the house white that turned out to be the 2017 Vaira Bolgheri Vermentino Caccia al Palazzo. It came in a quarter-liter carafe priced at just 3 euros. The wine is lean and easy, but there are pretty notes of citrus and honeydew melon to whet your appetite.
Next was a plate of succulent tagliata al tartufo. The tagliata was made with thin cuts of dry-aged Chianina beef cooked over coals. This is the same breed of cattle from Tuscany used to make the region’s encyclopedia-sized T-bone bistecca alla Fiorentina. That dish is, of course, also featured on the menu at Il Canniccio for a reasonable 45 euros per kilogram of steak. Those looking for a lighter option can opt for the tagliata like I did (at half the price). Toppings for your steak include rucola, rosemary, artichokes or black truffles. Keeping in theme, I went for the truffles.
Truffles aside, the home fries, or the so-called patate fritte “fresche” were a highlight of the meal. Fresh potatoes are cut razor thin and fried quickly to golden crispiness. You can get other vegetarian side dishes, such as a plate of the small white zolfini beans that are commonly served in Tuscany as a compliment to Chianina steak. However, those patate fritte are definitely worth the drive.
I ordered one of my favorite easy-drinking reds from the area, the 2016 Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico. This is an honest and naked expression of Sangiovese (with smaller parts Canaiolo and Colorino featured in the blend) from an estate located in Barberino Val d’Elsa, or one of the least-explored corners of the Chianti Classico appellation. The wine offers very crisp and linear acidity, followed by delicate flavors of forest berry, wild rose and potting soils. These are authentic tastes of Tuscany that pair perfectly with the succulent texture of the meat and the pronounced flavors of the fried potatoes. The wine never overpowers the food, but it primes the palate beautifully thanks to that lingering freshness.
With harvest (and mushroom season) around the corner, some of Italy’s tastiest meals are served up in the autumn months. All you need to do to find them is to get off at the right exit.