· Ernesto Colnago with the proprietors of Ristorante Castero. Photo: Gruber Images
· Ristorante Castero, Banca della Bistecca. Photo: Gruber Images
· The kitchen in Ristorante Castero. Photo: Caley Fretz | VeloNews.com
· Homemade grappa in the cellar. Photo: Caley Fretz | VeloNews.com
· Welcome to Ristorante Castero. Photo: Caley Fretz | VeloNews.com
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Ristorante Castero, Banca della Bistecca
Location: Lari, Italy
Why:Ernesto Colnago’s favorite steak
Where is Ernesto taking us?
Even Colnago’s marketing director, a jovial tri-lingual German named Herwig, doesn’t seem to know, and it’s making him a bit nervous. He has 20 journalists in tow, stashed in one of those short charter busses that normally hold tourists in this part of the world. We’re all champing for lunch after a morning of riding, staring longingly out the tinted windows as we pass yet another perfectly adequate-looking restaurant. We wind through vineyards, slowly heading south, away from Pisa and into the region that makes Tuscany famous.
Seriously, where is Ernesto taking us?
Hilltop villages dot the landscape, each a tiny stone island sitting atop a vast sea of grapevines, gardens, and orchards that stretches up to Lucca’s mountains to the north and farther than the eye can see to the south. It’s beautiful, really. But we’re hungry, and nothing’s beautiful when you’re hungry.
The bus crunches to a stop next to an abandoned stone building. It’s not an eyesore, rather the sort of crumbling stone structure that is everywhere around here, likely built before the United States became a country. But we have more important things to think about. Where’s the food?
Ernesto jumps out of his car behind the bus and leads us back down the road, left through an old iron gate, and up the drive of Ristorante Castero. Home, Herwig says, to Ernesto’s favorite steak.
In Tuscany, they say, there is no bad food; the cuisine is simple, local, fresh and utterly Italian. After a brief tour of the wine cellar, built around the time of the Coliseum, and another tour of the kitchen, thankfully built more in time with the movie “Gladiators,” we take our seats.
The second half of Castero’s name is “Banca della Bistecca.” Steak bank. The English translation just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but that’s the beauty of Italian, no? Banca della bistecca; to this famished group, the words are exquisite. The sizzling noises coming from the kitchen are doing nothing to help us forget our empty stomachs.
The first course, antipasti, does not disappoint. Prosciutto, sliced from some sort of God pig, it must be, for its perfectly salty fattiness is enough to make one’s eyes roll backwards. Soft, warm bread, too, with local and perfectly fresh olive oil. Cheese, a soft caprino rolled in herbs, and a lightly aged pecorino. Things are off to a good start.
Round 2: a pasta. Lightly flavored, so the olive oil is not lost under herbs and spices. Wonderful.
Round 3: our first meat. Round 4: a second. Both steaks, sourced locally and dry aged in-house, cooked to a perfect medium rare. You want well done? That’ll get you thrown out.
This is not the sort of restaurant you stop at mid-ride. This is an event. We rode for a bit over two hours this morning; now we eat lunch for more than three, slowly working our way through each course.
Two hours in, glass of wine in hand, Ernesto looks up from his favorite steak and smiles off into space. He’s a man of simple tastes. Good food. Good wine. Good company. Ristorante Castero, on this day, has them all.