Ah, Tuscany. The place romantic dreams are made of. Sweet visions of holding hands and sipping Sangiovese. Or, more accurately for us, devouring pasta and gnawing on bistecca fiorentina bones.
Tuscany is full of picturesque hill towns to savor. On our drive from Rome we stopped in Orvieto (which is actually in Umbria), a quaint one for sure. Meandering around these quiet streets you would never expect to turn the corner and discover the incredibly intricate and beautiful Duomo that’s tucked into the town’s piazza. The colors on this façade are just stunning. Not to mention the optical illusion created by its construction, making it appear even larger than it is. I was very impressed with this church, more so even than St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. To be fair, it’s much less crowded (practically empty even), and they were playing the most beautiful music while we were inside, which made it easier for me to experience the grandiose feelings that such buildings can elicit.
On the way out of Tuscany headed for Bologna, we took the scenic route, which allowed us to see a few more of these adorable old towns. We poked around Castellina and Greve, where we were able to sample lots of Chiantis. Not bad, but our verdict is that the Montepulciano terroir wins.
And we feel we can opine sufficiently on the quality of Montepulciano wines because the idyllic town we decided to settle down in for our five nights of Tuscan relaxation was none other than Montepulciano. It’s a looker, this one, sitting up atop a big ole’ hill. And it sure tastes good. We had many lovely meals here, tons of impressive house Montepulciano Rossos and Vino Nobiles, and loads of those (cheap!) Tuscan truffles. Our villa was situated on its own separate, smaller hill, just at the base of the town hill. This afforded us some pretty nice views of the San Biagio church and that beautiful Tuscan landscape.
We celebrated Alan’s birthday while in Montepulciano, and we spoiled him a bit. Kenny and I walked down to the local supermarket in the morning to pick up preparations for a special breakfast. The birthday boy was craving an American style brunch, so Kenny cooked him up a good ole’ egg, bacon and potato special, with a bit of an Italian twist. We used fresh buffalo mozzarella and some crazy pancetta. And we whipped up our take on a Tuscan mimosa: blood orange and prosecco, with a little umbrella on the side. Because nothing makes a party like drink umbrellas. We feasted on the spread outside, under the Tuscan sun. A great start to the day.
We explored the town more fully all afternoon. It’s situated atop a rather steep hill, and full of the classic Italian narrow roads and alleyways. We perused the tempting selections of Italian leather shoes and handbags, snacked on some café and dolcetti on Caffé Poliziano’s terrace (phenomenal views), and stopped in a few wine shops and cellars for some tastings of Montepulciano’s legendary Sangiovese wines.
In the evening of A’s day, we celebrated with some of the Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition Scotch whisky we’d bought him as an early birthday gift in Scotland, and I surprised him with a water dropper so he can appropriately open up the aromas and flavors. (It sounds like a weird and lame gift, but trust me, this made him very happy. If only you could see how excited he’s gotten about Scotch since our visit to Scotland!) We also surprised him with a smoky whisky cake I purchased on the sly in Scotland, which we filled with candles to serenade him with the birthday song.
Then we went up to dinner for the grand finale: bistecca fiorentina at Montepulciano’s most famous restaurant, Osteria Acquacheta. What an experience. It’s certainly not white tablecloths and snooty waiters. It’s family style seating, where Giulio, the chef and head of the house chops the steaks within view, comes over to show it to you before cooking, and then brings it back in all its sizzling beauty. (Bonus, they put it back on the grill for a few minutes mid-meal as it was starting to turn cold!) In true Italian family style, you are given only one glass, which you use for both water and wine. And our steak, oh, our steak. We were given a hunk of meat that weighed in at just under 2kg. For those of you not familiar with the metric system, that’s about 4.25 POUNDS of beef! Most impressive, though, is that I only ate one bite (was much too rare for me, plus I was all about the pasta we ordered on the “side”) and the two boys devoured all. of. it. Along with the meat, we had pici (a local pasta) al ragu, divine. So good I ordered my own serving after eating half of the first one. Perhaps the most shocking part of this meal, the whole thing cost €109 (for that hunka hunka steak, 2 pastas, liver pate, a truffle covered melty cheese, salad, 2 desserts, 1.5 liters of wine, 2 grappas (and when Alan spilled his, Giulio poured another gratis for Alan, Kenny and the guy sitting next to us). A steal for sure. And you can’t buy the good company. Check out this awesome Italian woman sitting next to Kenny who really enjoyed gnawing her bones as well. Awesome way to celebrate my husband and travel buddy extraordinaire.
While I savored some alone time at the villa the next day, Alan and Kenny paid a visit to the nearby town of Pienza. It happened to be the Fiera del Cacio, a celebration largely centered around pecorino cheese. There were award ceremonies and flag waiving parades, but naturally their focus was eye-boning the meats and cheeses and sampling a large selection. Lucky for me, they came home with a fantastic assortment (sopressata, lonza and coppa, and pecorino con tartufo, sheep’s milk blue, and two other award winning pecorinos) for our lunch the next day.
These fantastic meats and cheeses were thoroughly enjoyed, over many occasions. I also have to mention that the tomatoes here are positively delectable!
We didn’t just enjoy the fruits of everyone else’s labor, however. We tried our own hand at making some of this fine food. Our cooking class was a smashing success, if I do say so myself. We made a pecorino soufflé, followed by hand-rolled pici pasta with a pomodoro sauce for primi piatti, a pancetta wrapped herbed pork tenderloin for secondi piatti, and a pear and apricot tart for dessert. We’re still talking about how good our pici was!
Montepulciano had a couple cute animals, too. One night when we were up in town, we checked out the little church on the main piazza. I’m thinking I acquired some good karma, because I helped the church keeper lead a cat out of the church once he saw me sitting on the floor and petting it. Then I sat outside of the church with my cat.
Also, we stumbled upon these adorable little puppies in the park on the way up! OK, sorry I’ll stop talking about the animals and get back to the food and wine.
This being Tuscany, we of course did some proper wine tasting. We tasted at a few rooms in the town of Montepulciano and we also went out to two vineyards for wine tours and tasting. Dei was probably the fanciest wine cellar I’ve ever seen. The entire place is made of travertine marble. So all the aging casks are lined up in a beautifully done room of marble, the hallways are made of marble, the rooms housing the big vats and the bottling and labeling machine, all marble. I can’t help but wonder if the cost of all that marble is factored into the price you pay for the wines, but they do make a few nice ones. We really enjoyed the ‘08 Bossona Nobile Riserva and the Sancta Catharina ’09 Super Tuscan, and decided to buy a bottle of the latter. I’m maybe a broken recording of my dad, but really feeling the blends lately. Later in the day we checked out Avignonesi. While their more traditional Montepulcianos and Super Tuscan were lovely (and we got to sample a freshly fallen from the vine Sangiovese grape that was quite tasty), we were really wowed by their Vin Santo. This sweeter dessert wine made from dried grapes is done in a super special way here at Avignonesi. I won’t get into the details, but it’s aged extra long, and they call it liquid gold for good reason. We ponied up extra to taste the vin santo, and it was (per my tasting notes) “AMAZE BALLS.” Tastes kind of like maple syrup and burnt caramel, and it is so thick! We were given permission to stick our fingers in the glass and lick them to get the rest of that amazing pseudo-liquid. And so we did.
On the drive from Tuscany to Bologna we stopped in Florence. While most people would stay at least a few days, we had only a couple of hours in the city of Firenze. For this reason, we really only saw the tiniest bit of it, and what we did see was perhaps the most touristy bits. I’m generally not a fan of the most touristy bits of cities, and so it would be unfair for me to really pass judgment. With that said, we weren’t wowed with what we saw. It felt much more overridden with tourists than Rome did, but again, we also saw some much less touristy parts of Rome.
Anyhow, the Duomo is really pretty. I couldn’t go inside because my shorts were too skanky and my attempts to fashion a raincoat around my knees were futile, but from the pictures the boys took, I’m maintaining that it’s most impressive on the outside.
Mercato Centrale was a fun place to walk around. They have tons of vendors selling meat, cheeses, pasta, pizza, beer and wine, etc. Even an entire mozzarella section. The Italiano usual. Though it had a strong hipster vibe, oddly. I started thinking that it felt very Eataly-esque just as I noticed there actually is an Eataly inside.
We walked the main pedestrian way down through Piazza della Signoria (nice statues, fountains, souvenirs, tourists, yada yada yada) and onto Ponte Vecchio. This is basically a partly covered bridge lined with jewelry stores and absolutely laden with tourists trying to get their photographs. I had to make Alan and Kenny bend over the bridge to get a shot without any other people in it.
Also, driving in Firenze is heinous. I highly recommend not doing that. There is loads of traffic, the signs are weirdly confusing, and there are lots of restricted zones where you aren’t meant to drive unless you are a resident or something. I’m pretty sure they are monitored by camera and also that we will be seeing lots of unexpected charges when the rental car company catches wind of our transgressions. Whoopsie.
Tuscany is perhaps Italy’s most iconic region, with Florence the heavy-hitting Renaissance city and countless smaller cities and hill towns. It was difficult picking just one place to stay. We settled on Montepulciano based on some personal recs, ample wine and relative convenience to some other hill towns. We also considered places like Lucca, Siena, San Gimignano, Montalcino, etc. Not to mention various towns in Umbria.
In addition to picking a town/area, we struggled with whether we should stay at an agriturismo and, if not, should we stay in an old town area or just outside where we’d get more space and perhaps better views but sacrifice some walkability.
Transportation: We drove from Rome to Montepulciano, stopping in Orvieto for a few hours (where we drove up to the old town and parked right across from the funicular for a few Euros). It was easy getting out of Rome after picking up our rental car from Hertz on Via Sardegna. The A1 highway is fast, though tolls are pretty steep. I think we paid >€10 (which we later learned is small change for Italian tolls).
Our accommodation in Montepulciano was walking distance to the old town (see below), and it is easy to walk around the town if you don’t mind steep hills. There are probably some buses/shuttles between various hill towns in Tuscany, but having a car makes it much easier. It seems you can usually find a parking lot for ~€1.50/hr. Note that many towns do not allow cars within the historic center, so pay attention to signs.
We departed in our rental car headed for Bologna. We drove the scenic SR222 between Siena and Florence, taking in some of the classic Chianti views. In Florence, we parked underground at the main station. This is nice in the sense that you can walk from here to the major sights. The negative is that traffic was awful, and driving around here is confusing because there are lots of restricted roads. For this reason, most would suggest parking outside the city and taking public transport into the center. The drive from Florence to Bologna on the highway was quite scenic, if not the easiest driving. There are tons of large trucks, the road is pretty windy and hilly, and there are endless tunnels with fairly narrow lanes.
Accommodation: We stayed in the Sangallo 2BR apartment at Montorio, at the bottom of the hill on the western side of Montepulciano and very near the Madonna di San Biagio. Montorio represented a compromise in that we had a spacious apartment, some views, free parking, etc. but we could still walk to town. The catch being that the walk is 15 minutes up a steep hill. The WiFi was poor and the mosquitoes were a hindrance, but otherwise I’m a fan. Stefania is friendly and helpful, there is a free washing machine (and a dryer, which is a rarity, though it costs €2), the apartment is spacious and nicely decorated, and the location is convenient to many things.
Food and Drinks: Abundant consumption continued, as expected. My birthday dinner at Osteria dell’Acquacheta was quite an experience. This legendary steak spot does two family style seatings nightly, at 7:15 and then 9:15. We waited nearly an hour since we arrived early and were seated around 9:45, but I had the best seat in the house at the head of a table with a dead-on view of Giulio hacking away at the T-bone with his cleaver. He cut us a piece just under 2kg (it was 68 oz.!), brought it over raw for our approval, and our beef came back soon seared and rare. The steak was very good, perhaps great considering it was not drenched in butter and probably is grass-fed beef. We ate so much more than just steak, and the meal overall was extraordinarily good value. We had nearly 2kg of steak; a melted pecorino covered in shaved truffles; salad; liver pate; two pici with meat ragu; two desserts; water; two grappas; and 1.5 liters of red wine…for €109, all in. The steak alone, certainly with tax and tip, would have cost more in your typical nice US steakhouse. The pasta was amazing, they reheated the pieces of steak we hadn’t eaten late in the meal, and when I accidentally spilled my grappa Giulio poured another gratis for me, Kenny and our table-mate. At one point, Jenni told the girl across from her that she was so full she wanted to take her (own) pants off. Everyone leaves Acquacheta smiling.
Less of an event but other meals we enjoyed include Osteria del Conte, Osteria del Borgo and Pizzeria Linda. Many recommended La Grotta (by San Biagio church) for a nice meal.
Kenny and I spent an afternoon in Pienza that coincided with the annual Fiera del Cacio (cheese festival). I’m not sure if this is always the case (Pienza is famous for pecorino), but the tiny old town was loaded with stands selling and offering free tastes of cheeses and cured meats, plus porchetta everywhere. The soppressata here is loosely combined and so much better than at home. Coppa, lonza, truffle cheese…mmm.
Lunch in Orvieto at Trattoria La Grotta was quite good. Antica Macelleria Falorni is an impressive butcher/cured meat shop in Greve.
Activities: One day we hit a couple wineries. We visited Dei (~3km from Montepulciano, €10 tour and tasting), stopped for a quick look at Cortona (which seemed like quite a thriving hill town) and then visited Avignonesi (€15 tour and tasting, which included some pricy bottles, plus €10 extra to taste both Vin Santo varieties).
Our cooking class at Villa Poggiano (owned by the same family that owns Montorio and ~2km away) was a feast that included two bottles of wine, it was only the three of us, and it cost €90 each.
I won’t attempt to cover Florence in any detail here, except to mention that you can enter the Duomo for free but it costs to climb the dome itself, and you cannot enter if wearing short shorts or I think a tank-top. I believe you can reserve in advance to visit the Uffizi Gallery and avoid some of the wait.
September 5-10, 2014 (Friday-Wednesday)