The best laid plans often go awry, I’m told. But I’m always down for an adventure. When my brother’s dinner plans for us fell apart last minute, I rallied. Ae he drove us into Livorno, I googled restaurants. And I found La Barrocciaia, a highly-rated osteria on a side street near Livorno’s mercado centrale. Ben wasn’t too sure about it, and we couldn’t agree, but I won out in the end. I don’t often do restaurant reviews (I mean, I like food, just check out tastebuds) but I loved this place too much to not share it!
la barrocciaia osteria, livorno, italy
We walked slowly – angrily – through the darkened streets of Livorno, a northern port town in Italy’s Tuscany. The shuttered stalls of the mercado centrale rose ahead of us. It seemed like everything was closed, until I saw the glowing lights emanating from the narrow entrance ahead. As we approached La Barrocciaia, it was clear from the crowd outside that it was popular. My rule of thumb about restaurants is to avoid them if they are not busy at the local dinner time. (Ben disagrees – what say you?) If they’re hoppin’ though, chances are it’s a great spot – even if you have to wait.
Of course, we were both starving – it was well past our 7:30 planned dinner and we avoided snacking when we left Pisa because of the early dinner. So, by 8:30, I was hangry and so was Ben. It was obvious in our bickering!
We stepped inside, but the small entry was full of others seeking a table. The staff behind the tall, brightly lit counter was deftly handling drinks, panini, people, and antipasti. After a moment, he nodded to us.
“Una tavola per due,” Ben asked. It would be a half hour wait.
I nodded my approval, and we gave a name. I asked Ben if he wanted a drink, and ordered a glass of red wine and a beer. The total? €5!
a lesson in italian
We sat outside – yes, even in January it was warm enough – and sipped at our drinks while others around us ate delicious looking panini, charcuterie, and antipasti. (A side note about Italian food+words… did you know that what we call “a panini” is in fact already the plural form of the word? In Italian, a panino is a sandwich, and with the “o” ending, the plural ends in “i”! Antipasti is the plural form of antipasto, which just means appetisers.)
Finally – maybe twenty five minutes later – we got our table. It was a small wooden table next to a family we had seen outside, a young couple and their daughter. And as it was a tiny Italian osteria, the tables were preeetttyyy close together. To the point that basically we were at the same table, minus a nice one inch gap.
Personally, I love that about Italian restaurants. And Greek. And Spanish. They’re fun, they’re loud, they’re entertaining. Ben though? Not so much. Just a heads up if you do ever go here, it is loud, and everyone everywhere will hear you.
Anyway, the server immediately set down a basket of bread and a small plate with some cured meat and dip. It’s covered in the service charge, called coperto, that they levy at the end of the meal. Ben ordered me a red wine and himself a beer.
This is what I got!!*
*To my surprise, at the end of the meal, it’s not what I paid for. I only paid for what I (and Ben, later) drank. Go figure!
dining at la barrocciaia
We got no menus. My first impression was, “hey, they’re busy, we’ll get one when it frees up.” But a few minutes later, I realised maybe it would all be told to us.
And, lo and behold, it was! When we finished our little plate of dip, a young woman came over and started speaking to us. I could understand her, but she switched to English anyway to tell us the menu for the night.
Having hastily done some research on food in Livorno and local restaurants, I already knew what I wanted: cacciucco, a rich tomato based seafood stew. The minute she mentioned it, I grinned. We decided to split the carbonara pasta as our primo course, then Ben chose the breaded fish and I the stew.
The carbonara came out about ten to fifteen minutes later. It was piled high with clams and mussels, looking beyond tasty. I was so hungry, I didn’t take a picture!
When we finished that, all our plates were whisked away. Another ten to fifteen minutes went by, and our secondi came out. This I did take a photo of, because ohmygoodness how could I not?! How freaking mouthwatering does this even look?
There were clams, mussels, octopi, squid, tomatoes, and a small piece of bread greedily soaking up all the juice. Phenomenal. I cannot recommend this enough!
At this point, our family neighbours left us and the table was reseated with a trio of Italians. The wine started talking to them, and somehow I got a business card for a sailboat. When we finished, Ben ordered a dessert and two ponce.
One (slight) issue I take with Italian restaurants is the allowing of hawkers inside. They’re hawking cheap crap too, or roses. However, our new friends bought roses – and gave me one. I left it on a bicycle during our walk back to the car.
Livornese food is different to the rest of Tuscan food. Livorno was a free state until the late 1800s, and as a result was influenced by the myriad of cultures who came through. Seafood in Livorno is so fresh that at some restaurants, you’re selecting still-live fish from a platter. And anything alla Livornese is going to be flavourful and rich. This includes the infamous ponce (“pon-shay”), which means punch in Italian.
Ponce alla Livornese is a sweet, anise-flavoured coffee beverage. To make, you put a bit of sugar and sassolito (anise-flavoured liqueur) in a glass, then pull a shot of espresso into it. Top it with a lemon rind and serve. Ponce is served in short thick glasses with a deepset bottom – so you can hold the bottom of the glass and drink, while it is still steaming hot. Some recipes might call for rum, or cognac, or a mix of the two, or a mix of one or the other with sassolito. It’s kind of up to the establishment.
After we finished our ponce, we bid adieu to our new friends and left. I paid – a whopping €50. Before we left, though, the staff offered us some grappa. We each tasted a small glass of the amber-coloured liqueur known as grappa riserva. Grappa is made from the leftover winemaking ingredients. If bottled immediately after making, it’s clear. Riserva is just aged grappa.
So, the next time you find yourself in Livorno, hungry or hangry, head for La Barrocciaia! They’re open Tuesday to Saturday, 11am-2:30pm and 6-11pm, and then Sunday 6-11pm, closed Mondays! They serve handmade panini as well as charcuterie plates and a full menu.
Where to find La Barrocciaia || Piazza Felice Cavallotti, 13, Livorno, LI