Saturday, July 17, 2010

Italy Trip Day 16 - Rome

We began our only full day in Rome with breakfast at the Hassler, which is included with the room when you stay at Il Palazzetto. The Hassler is pretty fancy, and the service inattentive, bordering on snobbish, a big change after all the enthusiastic service throughout Umbria and Tuscany, but breakfast itself was fine. The idea was to not walk very much because of Steve's leg injury. We found though, that it was just easier to walk around than to worry about cabs, so we visited the Trevi fountain and the Colosseum on foot. For lunch we went to Enoteca Antica, near our hotel, a small casual place with outdoor seating. We shared a simple lunch of gnocchi with tomato sauce, pizza with prociutto, egg and olives, and a couple of glasses of Vino Nobile.

Then we made the mistake of trying to print out our boarding passes!

We had asked the front desk at the Palazzetto how to get our boarding passes printed, and she said to go to the Hassler's concierge, and he would print them for us. Not so, as all he could do, apparently, was point us to the main desk to ask for a key to the business center. The "business center" turned out to be a closet with two computers and a printer, which, we discovered upon trying to print, was out of black ink! After first calling back down to the front desk, then Steve actually GOING back to the front desk, they told us in their perfect English that a technician would be coming by to resolve the issue. The man they sent, though, spoke no English, and was NOT a technician of any sort we could determine. He spent some considerable time randomly clicking around in Windows, as if to discover the root of our problem, while the print queue (and the printer itself) flashed the answer at him in his own language! Sadly, we didn't know how to say "black ink cartridge" in any way that made sense to him, so we went BACK to the front desk, where THEY were unable to print out our boarding passes, because, on the airline's website, it thought they'd already been printed!!! We walked away with no boarding passes. It was very frustrating, and between the indifferent attitude and the incompetence, we will not stay there again.

(As far as we know, the legendary Hassler Hotel, favored stay for world leaders and movie stars, at the top of the Spanish Stairs since the 1800s, still has no black ink in their printer. Good luck.)

We hung out in the room for the later part of the afternoon before heading out to find La Tavernetta, a restaurant I had read about on Chowhound. It was in a little alley off a piazza not far from the Pantheon, and was very pretty. We sat at one of the outdoor tables and feasted on a starter of different crostini, radicchio risotto, then whole branzino with potatoes for me (picture below), and gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce (pictured above left) and then steak for Steve, our last bottle of Vino Nobile of the trip, and then tiramisu. This was an amazing meal from start to finish, and a great way to end our culinary adventure through Italy.

Italy Trip Day 15 - Hospital, Cetona & Rome

We were sad to leave La Bandita, but we knew it had to happen eventually! We spent the morning packing up, at which point we realized we really needed to buy another piece of luggage to get all the stuff we bought home. We did what we could with what we had, stuffed everything into the car, paid our bill, then decided to take one last look around the property to make sure we had pictures of everything.

It was at my urging that Steve dropped into the drained jacuzzi pool next to the swimming pool, neither of which were open for the season yet. We spotted a little frog at the bottom of it and realized that it wasn't going to survive the heat of the day! So Steve rescued the frog, but on his way back out met with an unfortunate accident! His leg was torn open, a hole slightly smaller than a dime, and pretty bloody!

The good part about taking language lessons is, if you ever end up in an emergency room in Montepulciano, you have a shot at communicating with the doctor! We found our brush with the Italian health care system to be just about as easy as you could imagine, even though nobody spoke ANY English! Getting to the triage station, waiting for the doctor, getting stitches and walking out? One hour. And Steve asked if he could pay, and they said no! Obama-care, eat your heart out!

After our amazingly quick and free trip to the emergency room, we were on our way to Rome. We stopped in Cetona for lunch, since I'd heard that Osteria Vecchia was not to be missed. I'm glad we made time to stop here, as the food was very delicious. We shared another lovely Tuscan crostini platter, then I had the pici with spicy tomato sauce (simple but perfect) and Steve had the tagliatelle with a flavorful meat sauce (picture below). We shared a half bottle of Brunello, as well.

After this tasty pit stop we were back on the road, and then the rain started again, and it was raining much harder than it had at the beginning of our trip. We hit traffic on the ring road outside Rome, so it took us what seemed like forever to get back to the airport. Check-in for the rental car was a breeze though (thanks again to the detailed article on Slow Travel). Once we returned the car, we went down to arrivals to wait for our ride, and since we knew we had at least 1/2 hour, I stayed with the luggage while Steve shopped for first aid stuff at the pharmacy for his injury, and bought us a new piece of luggage for all our extra stuff.

Our car service driver finally arrived, and we were on our way to Rome in rush hour traffic. I was afraid we would miss our reservation at Sangallo, so I called the hotel's concierge, and he was able to push our reservation back a half an hour. We finally arrived at the Hassler Hotel, which is where you have to check in if you stay at their sister property, Il Palazzetto, a small 4-room inn just down the Spanish Steps from the Hassler. Check-in was smooth, and we were shown Room 1, a nice sized room with a view overlooking the Spanish Steps (staircase to the rooms below). The becolumned decor was luxurious, featuring a spacious armoire stuffed with amenities at the foot of the enormous and comfortable bed, big bathtub and separate glass-doored shower.

We threw down our stuff, got changed and ran out to get a cab to Sangallo.

This restaurant had been recommended by a friend of mine, and it was fabulous. Since it was our 5-year anniversary, we decided to be decadent and do the tasting menu with wine pairing. The menu consisted of 8 delicious courses and EXTREMELY generous pours of each paired wine. An amuse-bouche was a small plate of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and eggplant. Next came prawns wrapped in phyllo strings with a fruit sauce, then buffalo carpaccio with truffles, ravioli with asparagus and mozzarella, tagliatelle with porcini sauce, swordfish with chickpeas and potatoes, buffalo steak with artichoke and spinach, and finally for dessert, an excellent tiramisu. Every dish was beautifully prepared and presented, and the service was top notch. We will definitely return. Our only regret was that we actually kept on drinking what they kept on POURING, so we had to stay up for a while after we got back to the hotel so we didn't get the spins! It's been a while since I've been that drunk!

Itay Trip - Day 14 - Montalcino

We spent our last full day in Tuscany in Montalcino, home of the mighty Brunello wine. We toured the high-walled fortress on the edge of town, and tried wines in the tasting room at the bottom of the castle. The wines were really good, but this place is packed with tourists, and we suspected that the wines were overpriced, based on the prices of Brunellos we had seen in the past week (the suspicion was borne out, as the same wines sold much cheaper down the street!). We only bought one bottle here, which seemed to really disappoint the people who worked there (they were a bit pushy trying to get us to buy a case to ship home). We then spent the rest of the morning exploring the town, which was pretty, but maybe not as quaint or picturesque as Montepulciano.

The restaurant for lunch, Osteria Osticcio, was a recommendation of Francesca at La Bandita. As always, Francesca had called ahead to make sure we got one of the best tables, which was along the back wall of the restaurant with picture windows and a magnificent view to the valley below. The restaurant was part of an enoteca (wine shop), so wines by the glass was a very big thing here. We had 5 glasses of different Brunellos between the two of us, and it was tough to pick a favorite! The food also did not disappoint. We started with a cheese and cured meat plate (we never get tired of the pecorino cheeses in Tuscany!), and then we moved on to fresh torn pasta sheets with an asparagus sauce for me, and pici with tomatoes and bacon for Steve (pictured above). We then walked down the hill toward the entrance of town and stopped in at a cute gelato place. After our daily gelato fix, we went back to relax before our last dinner with the other guests at La Bandita (view from pigsty below).

This night, every room was occupied, and everyone decided to stay for dinner, so there were 16 of us again. We sat next to a fun couple from New York, who were probably in their 50s (we are in our mid to late 30s), and at one point they asked our advice about something, describing us as the only other "adults" at the table. I hadn't noticed before, but she was kind of right. The guests at La Bandita had shifted to a younger group by the end of our stay (I'd say most other guests at this point were in their 20s). When we got there, most of the guests were in their late 30s or 40s. It was a little sad to be considered part of the older crowd! Oh well.

Dinner that night was also fantastic! One of the guests who had eaten with us the night Steve and I did the cooking class loved the scallop dish so much that he'd asked David to add it to the menu again so that he could see how it was made. So we started with that dish, which was just as great as the first time, then moved on to clams with pasta (which was good but messy). For the main course we had salmon, which was expertly cooked and delicious, and for dessert, a lemon tart. We opened the brunello we had bought earlier that day for dinner, which was perfect with the meal, if a little young.

Italy Trip Day 13 - Bagni San Filippo & La Foce

Based on a recommendation from Simone, we went to the small sleepy town of Bagni San Filippo, another town with thermal hot springs near Pienza. Locals use it as a little day trip getaway. Wooded trails wind down and around a hillside, crossing and mingling with spring-fed streams that cascade downhill and create pools ideal for wading or lounging in. The water stayed mostly cool, so the heat dissipates at some point, but the tranquility and beauty make it a popular destination (seemingly ONLY for locals, we didn't see any tourists here). The big surprise of the area met us down the hill a ways.

Apparently, the water's calcium and other minerals combine over time to create what can only be described as an astonishing white mountain of mineral-made rock! Water trickles down and over this towering creation while Italians in bathing suits (at left) climb up it a hundred feet in the air to lay out in the sun and relax in its jacuzzi-size pools of collected water. Just an amazing sight.

After a little wading in the spring water, we had lunch at Lo Spugnoni, a rustic bistro in the center of this tiny town. We sat at an outdoor table under a huge umbrella and enjoyed half liter of wine and a massive antipasti of cheese with local honey and liver crostini. Both were excellent. We then moved on to handmade pasta with tomato and sausage, classically simple in that Tuscan way, and onion soup, which was delicious.

After lunch we went to La Foce, an estate near La Bandita made famous by Iris Origio's published diary titled "The War in Val d'Orcia" which chronicled her family's experiences during the end of World War II. The estate is beautiful, and there are garden tours offered to the public every Wednesday. We definitely chose the wrong time to go, as there were probably about 40-50 people in our English speaking group, and probably another 40 Italians in the group that started their tour 5 minutes before us, so it was maybe a bit too crowded to fully enjoy the experience. The best part was that from the estate we realized we could see the very same winding dirt road (strada bianca) we take up to La Bandita, which from this vantage point appears as perfect as a Tuscan oil painting, a zig zag studded with cypress trees, a bright white stripe against the lush green hillside (pictured below). Until this moment, we didn't really have an appreciation for the beauty of our road, we only knew it as a bumpy pain in the butt!

After our tour of the gardens, we went back to La Bandita to enjoy the patio yet again. We really loved just hanging out here, the views, the breeze, and the occasional sheep bell would relax anyone! Before we knew it, it was time to head down the hill for our last non-La Bandita dinner in Tuscany. Fortunately, as it happens, we saved one of the best for last! Il Rossellino is a tiny restaurant off the main street in Pienza. It has 6 tables, and is run by a cute older couple. The husband speaks more English than the wife, but that isn't saying much, so we got to practice our Italian here. The room is cozy and romantic and for most of our meal there was only one other table occupied.

We had a delicious and gourmet meal of a delicate asparagus souffle to start, wild boar pici for me (one of the best versions of this dish of the whole trip!) and stuffed gnocchi with a truffle cream sauce for Steve (very filling and rich, but tasty, pictured to the right). For our secondi, pork with vin santo sauce for me (one of the absolute best meat dishes of the trip, the sauce was wonderful) and steak for Steve, which was very tender. This all paired very well with a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and the owner/chef/waiter amused us by fastening the cork to the lip of the wine bottle using a strip of the foil! We'd never seen that trick before, and had to take pictures. We're such tourists. We shared a fine chocolate souffle for dessert with a glass of dessert wine.

Italy Trip Day 12 - Cooking Class

We had a lazy morning, then went back to La Porta in Monticchiello for lunch. This time we had the crostini misti (simple, but tasty, and it's amazing how consistently great the liver pate is in Tuscany, we were becoming addicted) and then the same two pastas we had before (I know, we are boring), and another 500ml of house red.

We got back to La Bandita and hung out on our patio until 4pm, when we had scheduled our cooking class with David. He was cooking fish that night, but because there were a big 16 of us for dinner, he had done a lot of the prep before we got there (for which he apologized profusely, normally preferring to allow his students to jump in and help more). He showed us how to filet a flounder and a red mullet (he makes it look SO easy!), then we got to work on making a flourless chocolate cake and chopping some of the veggies for dinner. A race between Steve and David shelling fava beans was over well before it started, Steve never had a chance. David is very funny and charismatic, and the cooking class went by way too fast. (Though David, if you ever read this, we're still waiting for those recipes you said you'd send us!) :-)

After enjoying the meats, cheeses and prosecco, we sat down to what turned out to be my favorite meal at La Bandita. We started with a scallop in the shell on top of creamed leeks (the best dish of the entire trip), a roasted sea truffle (it looked like a clam and was very good, pictured on right), the light and delicious filet of flounder with peas, and red mullet with potatoes, the second best dish of the night. The chocolate cake we made was also very tasty. We drank our second bottle of Gattavecchi with this dinner. After dinner, we hung out again for hours, talking with the other guests. This night we met a couple who live in our town back home in L.A., and we became fast friends. We've hung out with them since returning home, and have another evening on the books. Not sure if we would have had the experience of getting to know our fellow travelers so well if we had been staying at any other place.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Italy Trip Day 11 - S'Antimo & Ciacci Piccolomi Tour

This was a very busy day for us, we had booked ourselves with minutes to spare. Probably shouldn't do that again. We headed off to the S'Antimo abby near Sant'Angelo in Colle to hear the monks do their gregorian chants. It's an impressive and gorgeous structure (pictured left), and the monks' singing is something you just don't get to hear every day! But we barely made it in time, thanks to some unfortunate GPS misdirections (fortunately only happened once or twice)! After the prayer service, we rushed off to lunch at il Leccio, where the service was pleasant but sluggish (everything is cooked to order, so it's not their fault that we happened to be in a hurry), so we had to scarf down our lunch of liver crostini, spaghetti with tomato and pancetta sauce (very, very good) and gnocchi with pomodoro sauce (sweet and rich, but not enough time to enjoy it!), and two glasses of Brunello.

We then rushed to our tasting appointment at Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona, a winery specializing in Brunello. We were a few minutes late, but some others were even later than us, so after about 10 minutes, the guide started the tour without them. The facilities and grounds were beautiful, and much smaller and less commercial than Poggio Antico. The wine tasting was done at a long table, where we got to relax and munch on crackers while trying 4 different wines. The wines were all excellent and reasonably priced, so we bought another case here and had it shipped home (both cases of wine and the box of ceramics from Montepulciano made it back to the US in excellent shape about a week and a half after we returned).

We were pretty frazzled after all the rushing around we did, so after the tasting, we went back to La Bandita and enjoyed some more time on our patio listening to the tranquility and the occasional far-off sheep's bell. Too soon though, it was time for our drive back down the hill to Pienza for our dinner reservation at Da Fiorella, another one of the best restaurants of the trip.

The restaurant itself is very casual, as is the food and its presentation, but the dishes we ordered were outstanding, and the service from the two brothers who owned the restaurant was warm and friendly. One brother recommended a local wine, a blend, that was very good and reasonably priced. We ordered the pici with meat sauce (excellent, pictured above), ravioli with butter sauce (also excellent), sliced beef (very tender, and crucially not too dry), and thinly sliced pork with a mustard cream sauce (just delicious). We ended with a vanilla panna cotta with strawberries, which was just perfect (pictured on the right). This is definitely a place we would go back to on our next trip to Tuscany.

Italy Trip Day 10 - San Querico d'Orcia & Bagno Vignoni

After our first breakfast at La Bandita (croissant, very good granola, sheep milk yogurt, fruit and fresh squeezed OJ), we headed down the bumpy road to San Querico d'Orcia, a small town between Pienza and Montalcino. We visited a very pretty garden and park, and explored the side streets before heading out to our next stop, Bagno Vignoni (pictured left). This town has ancient hot springs where locals used to come and bathe, including St. Catherine of Siena, the co-patron saint of Italy. We had lunch here at a little rustic place called Il Loggiato, on a side street off the main square. We sat at one of the four outdoor tables, and enjoyed a simple lunch of bruschetta with tomatoes and basil, polenta with sausage and pecorino, beef carpaccio with gorgonzola fondue, and cinta senese (roast pork, the winner of the meal), and a carafe of house red.

We then went back to Pienza and picked up some items to make dinner in our kitchen at the Pigsty. We bought fresh pappardelle pasta and a couple of jars of local wild boar sauce, stopped for some gelato (I haven't mentioned it before, but this was pretty much a daily treat for us), and went back to La Bandita to enjoy the rest of the afternoon on our patio reading. We had a pre-dinner snack (pictured right) consisting of the three different pecorino cheeses we had bought from the surly cheese shopkeeper, honey, salami and pears. Very tasty. For dinner we made the pasta and sauce we had bought in Pienza (the sauce was great, so we bought more the next day to take home with us), and a bottle of the Gattavecchi wine we carried with us from Montepulciano. We finished with biscotti and dessert wine, which was supplied free of charge from Francesca, one of La Bandita's diligent managers.

I should take a minute to sing the praises of the staff at La Bandita. They really make this place special. Francesca and Simone are a couple, and usually work different shifts, but are often in charge of making sure everything runs smoothly. Francesca was a master planner also. I gave her a list of the restaurants I wanted to try and the activities we were interested in, and in about an hour she came back with a written itinerary for the next five days, complete with reservations for every meal, a winery tour, and suggestions of other places to go that we hadn't known about. We loved her! Paula and Paulo work either with Simone or Francesca, or by themselves sometimes, and were always offering to assist us with something. Paula saw my husband go toward the little room with the washing machine with a bag of clothes, and she rushed up and took the bag from him. A short while later she returned with our clean clothes in a bag expertly folded. Now that's service!

Italy Trip Day 9 - Pienza and La Bandita

We bid goodbye to Cinzia at La Locanda di San Francesco after a late breakfast, and departed for Pienza. We had heard that Pienza had more cheese tasting shops than wine tasting places, so we were eager to taste some of the local varieties of pecorino. We picked a place based on our guidebook that turned out to be the wrong choice. The woman who ran the shop was gruff, rude and obviously didn't want to give us samples (oddly, even though we asked her if we could taste some in Italian, she replied by saying that the shop had hundreds of varieties, and it would be impossible to taste them all)!

Eventually she warmed up, and the cheeses she gave us (which had been set aside for this purpose, so I don't know why she acted as if we were asking for something out of the ordinary) were quite good, so even though we didn't like her, we bought three different types of pecorino. We also bought some local wild boar salami and some honey at a nearby shop, since I knew we would have a kitchen at our next inn, La Bandita, and I wanted to have some snacks handy.

We snagged a table outside at the garden-esque Latte di Luna for lunch (shown on left, under the umbrellas), and took in the beautiful sunny day, the rain and clouds at this point a thing of the past. We ordered the crostini of the house (three toasted pieces of bread with different toppings, delicious), the gnocchi with meat ragu for me (very good) and the pici with cingiale ragu for Steve (even better), and our now traditional 500ml carafe of red wine.

(After lunch we were strolling through town and saw a wedding party on the street. We thought, how great, a traditional Italian wedding! Then the bride spoke, and she was unmistakably American.)

La Bandita is not the easiest place to find. As we found out, there are two windy, hillside access roads that you can take to get there, one to the east that takes you up a bumpy, difficult-but-doable unpaved road, and one to the west which takes you on a was-that-the-muffler-scraping, less-doable unpaved road. We only did the western road once, and it was brutal. (I'm surprised the underside of our Ford Fiesta rental survived it.)

Whichever way you make it there, you will not be disappointed by La Bandita. The property sits astride a hill in a nature preserve, surrounded by lush green hills, complete with flocks of grazing sheep. It is truly breathtaking being up there looking out over the hills and valleys below. The property itself is beautifully designed. The grounds are lovely, and the main house and "Pigsty" suite, where we stayed, are designed to look like an ancient farm house, yet extremely modern on the inside. I think there are 8 rooms total, including the separate suite where we stayed, called the Pigsty because that's exactly what it was before this owner's renovations!

The Pigsty (seen below) is a great way to go if you can get it. We stayed in this amazing suite for 6 nights. It boasts a kitchen/living area with a little fridge, cooktop, table for four, and a couch, a bedroom with a beautiful canopy type bed, and a massive bathroom with a large open blue shower with a rain shower head and a bathtub that fits two comfortably. The bath products are very nice, and full-size, which came in handy since we were staying so long. The fridge was stocked with sodas, water and wine, all of which (except for the wine) was complimentary! The suite also has its own private patio facing west for sunsets, with a table and 4 chairs and a little outdoor couch and coffee table. We spent a lot of time on that patio enjoying the view and the sounds of the bells worn by the sheep grazing nearby. The sheep are so cute!

The main house has 5 bedrooms on the top floor, a couple of bedrooms on the bottom floor, and a spacious living room with sofas, chairs, a public laptop, stereo with record collection, and even an iPad to play with. The huge kitchen is presided over by David, exclusively the chef for La Bandita, a fine wisecracking Scot. David has some serious skills. He makes dinner every night (except on Mondays) for those guests who don't want to venture down the hill at night to nearby towns for dinner. David's dinners are amazing, multi-course extravaganzas, which you can have with wine that has been hand-selected by John, the owner of La Bandita. Everything is on the honor system here, which means that if you take a bottle of wine from their collection, you just write it down on the pad of paper near the kitchen and the price gets added to your bill at the end. All of the wine is marked with little stickers displaying the price. John has a great collection, and keeps the prices reasonable, especially for the quality of wines he offers.

The first night at La Bandita, we decided to eat there, which was a perfect choice. The dinner experience starts at around 7:30, when David puts out some cured meat, delicious pecorino, honey and veggies, and Francesca or Paula starts serving prosecco. This lasts until around sunset, and then we all take our seats at a long table in the main room (I hear they have dinners mostly outside in the summer, but because of all the rain, it was still a little cool at night during our stay there). There were 10 others at dinner that night, and we became fast friends with those around us. I think because it feels like you are staying at a friend's house instead of an inn, people are more friendly. Almost everyone introduced themselves as soon as they saw us, and we ended up chatting with everyone throughout the day and during the meals.

Dinner the first night consisted of zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta cheese (very tasty), pappardelle with white ragu (I think it had rabbit meat; delicious), bistecca alla Fiorentina (similar preparation to Osteria delle Acquachetta, and equally as good), and roasted peaches for dessert. We had a brunello from John's collection which was very good, and a bargain at 50 euro. Dinner itself was 40 per person, and was added to the bill at the end of our stay, just like the wine.

After finishing dinner, we stayed and talked to the other guests well into the night, and eventually went back to our slice of heaven to sleep. Now, it turns out we were very lucky that we booked the Pigsty suite, not only because it was so beautiful and private, but because there were two couples staying at the inn for our first 4 nights that had small children, and I heard from the other guests that the babies' cries could be heard in the early morning from the other rooms. Since we were in our own separate structure, we didn't hear anything at all.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Italy Trip Day 8 - Montepulciano

We gave our car a break, and stayed in Montepulciano all day. In the morning we did a ton of shopping. One of the places we stopped at was a ceramics shop called Creazioni d'Arte. This place just looked like a quaint little storefront from the outside, but those who wander into the back stairwell discover a whole other world! One flight of stairs leads to a dirt-walled cave, with another, far wider set of stairs below, which goes down and down, like Alice in Wonderland, room after cavernous room, all filled with ceramics for sale! Turns out, the owner had recently excavated all of this, stairs and rooms dating back to the pre-Roman (Etruscan) period, and decided to use the caves to expand his shop! It was a very cool experience. And the pottery was some of the prettiest we had seen. We bought a ton here, and had it all shipped home. After that we visited and visited the winery tasting room of Gattavecchi, which also boasted low ceiling caves under ground. The wines were very good, and we bought two bottles to drink during the rest of our trip.

By this time we were very hungry and stopped in at a place that seemed full of people every time we walked by, Osteria del Conte. Since it had finally stopped raining, we were able to sit at one of the few outdoor table and people watch. We had the house antipasti plate, which consisted of different crostini, cured meats and cheese (one of our favorite antipasti plates of the trip), I then had the tagliatelle with cingiale sauce and Steve had the pici with meat ragu. Both pastas were simple but flavorful, seemingly a trademark of Tuscan food. We washed it down with another 500ml carafe of house wine.

After lunch, we did more shopping, and again walked all the way down the hill and back again (we definitely worked off some of that lunch!). Since this was our last full day in Montepulciano, we wanted to make sure we'd peeked into all the churches and seen all the important buildings. Once back up the hill, we headed for the wine bar at La Locanda again, and enjoyed our last Montepulciano sunset.

We had a late dinner reservation (9:15, even though we booked a month ahead... popular joint!) at the famous Osteria della Acquachetta. It was written up recently in the New York Times, and it definitely doesn't hurt for customers. The place was hopping when we arrived, and we were led to the end of one of the two 30-foot common tables, covered with butcher paper. (Steve and I sat across from each other, but we were close enough to the couple next to us that we could have eaten off their plates by barely moving our arms!).

The long narrow corridor-like restaurant ends in a set of steps that leads to the kitchen through an open archway. In the center of that arch, at the top of the steps, sits the spotlighted king of this particular castle: the butcher's block, with a torso-like slab of cow meat, from which all orders are summarily chopped by the ponytailed owner/manager, wielding a machete-like cleaver. The pounding of his weapon can be heard by all above the din of conversation as more meat falls every few minutes, and it draws the tourists and their cameras to the back of the room like paparazzi. The beef and its executioner is the star of this show.

The menu informed us that there were a couple of other things we should know about the restaurant. First, unless you order a bottle of wine, you get only one glass per person, which you then have to use for both water and wine (Steve and I used one of our glasses for water, one for the house wine, and just shared). Second, the meat is cut to order, priced by the kilo, and only served rare.

We had heard from several places and the New York Times that the specialty of the house is the Fiorentina, a massive porterhouse steak. It's what they're known for, it's excellent, so we decided to go for it. The waitress, a tattooed Italian gal who spoke very little English, signaled by repeating "Fiorentina" several times and motioning with her hands that she thought it might be too much steak for two simple American tourists. The owner/executioner walked over, he spoke NO English, but seemingly tried to warn us, the Fiorentina is molto, molto grande. We were undeterred.

We also ordered liver crostini and a simple starter salad of arugula, pecorino and pears. The star is the meat, though, the rest is formality.

Once the cleaver has fallen, your piece is deftly scooped up and hustled over on butcher paper for inspection. The Executioner scrawls a few figures in front of you on your table. This is the weight, times a certain set amount, and therefore the price of your order. Ours was 1.7 kilos, or for the Americans, about 4 pounds! Even our Italian neighbors at the table rolled their eyes at the Americans' folly. But we were in for the ride now, no turning back, so we nodded our assent, muttered something in Italian, we think, and the steak goes back to the kitchen for preparation.

Quicker than you would think possible with that size piece of meat, the steak is sizzling on your table, cooked to rare salty perfection, beautifully browned on top and bottom, a bit more red than pink inside. Our Italian neighbors snapped a picture. The waitress seemed to smirk. The gauntlet had been thrown, and Steve knew he had to finish the steak. (Seemingly, most couples didn't get the Fiorentina, only bigger parties. But we were involved now, no turning back!) The seasoning was perfect, the flavor was excellent, and the meat never seemed to get too cold. Rare meat has never tasted this good, surely.

Carrie couldn't eat much more than the filet, but Steve, in bold defense of our American reputation, devoured nearly the whole thing. Seemingly walking out a bit taller than when he came in, his pride protected, he did mention feeling a touch bloated and exhausted later that night. Gee, I wonder why!

Italy Trip Day 7 - Poggio Antico Tour

We got up early and after breakfast headed to Poggio Antico winery outside Montalcino, a 45-minute drive. This was our first experience with Brunello of the trip, and it turns out we picked well, as Poggio Antico's brunellos are always highly rated. We took a tour with about 8 other people, and were shown their beautiful grounds and state of the art wine-making facilities. It did feel a little more modern and corporate here than Avignonesi, but we enjoyed the informative tour and the incredible wines we tried. We shipped home a case of mostly brunellos (and I was later very pleased to see that two of the bottles I bought had been written up in the latest Wine Spectator as highly recommended, at 96 points)! I have to wait a while before drinking it, but I'm sure it will be worth it!

I really wanted to have lunch at the winery's restaurant, but it was closed for remodeling, so the winery recommended we dine at a nearby restaurant called Boccon di Vino. They had made reservations for us, and it turns out that they had an arrangement with the restaurant to showcase certain dishes with Poggio Antico wines, I think as a way to make up for the fact that the winery's own restaurant was closed. The views from the restaurant were stunning, and I wished it had been warmer so that we could have sat outside. Still too windy and overcast to be pleasant. The food was as wonderful as the view. We had a bottle of Poggio Antico brunello riserva, 2003 (incredible), shared two antipasti (a delicious chicken liver crostini, shown on the top left above) and an amazing crispy bread shell with bacon and cheese), then I had the gnocchi with cheese and truffle sauce (shown to the right) and Steve had a luscious papardelle with chianina sauce. (Chianina showed up a lot on menus in Tuscany. We found out later it is a breed of cow that is huge and white. Very tasty.)

After lunch, we went back to Montepulciano and did some more "exploring". We'd brought our brand-new iPad on the trip, and we thought that wi-fi would be plentiful, but we were sorely mistaken! Wi-fi is something of a rare delicacy in Italy, as it turns out, thanks to some onerous anti-terrorism laws restricting public access to networks! And 3G (cellular data) works well, but once your iPad 3G account runs dry, you must have internet access via wi-fi in order to add more! Suffice it to say, we found wi-fi in a computer store, and persuaded them to let us use it! (THEN, of course, after walking all over town and setting up a new 3G account, we found out that Locanda di San Francesco DOES have wi-fi. But they don't advertise it, you have to ask...)

After our adventure, we had our now-traditional drink at the wine bar at sunset then got ready for dinner. We had heard a lot about the restaurant, Le Logge del Vignola, and it did not disappoint. This place was special, from the decor, to the service and food; I'd definitely recommend this place for a birthday, anniversary, or romantic date night. We had the tasting menu with wine pairings here, which consisted of a deliciously smooth liver pate that was almost too beautiful to cut into, paired with a late harvest white, a cannoli with wonderful rich cingiale sauce paired with a Rosso di Montalcino, a very tender and tasty lamb chop with zucchini tart paired with a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and a chocolate cigar filled with mousse, with a side of cotton candy and a glass of rum (picture above). This meal was probably one of the most expensive of our trip, but well worth it!

Italy Trip Day 6 - Avignonesi Winery Tour & Montepulciano

The rain was back again after our one-day sun visitation, but we were excited to get up and start our day, since after breakfast we were headed to our first winery tour. Breakfast at the Locanda was a lot like the breakfast at Capricci di Merion, cereal, fruit, pastries, etc. There was a good selection, and it filled us up until lunch. The winery we visited this day is called Avignonesi, a producer of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, on the way to Cortona. The grounds and caverns of the winery were beautiful, and the tour friendly and informative, but the best part of the day was lunch, served at a "Common Table" (a long table where everyone sits together).

I've posted a picture of the full menu above (which you can click on to make it bigger); our favorites were the pasta and the pork (picture of pasta at right). The wines they paired with each course (and which they kept on generously pouring, until we had to slow down our drinking!) were quite good as well. Much more than a token add-on after the tour, lunch was a high point of the day, a truly memorable meal!

At the end, we paired up with a young couple next to us to try both types of the vin santo dessert wine. This is some serious wine. It ages for 10 years in small oak barrels after the grapes are dried on mats for about 6 months. The result is something that resembles thick maple syrup in viscosity, with a very sweet, port-like taste. Avignonesi is known for their vin santo, they make a white and a red variety, and they sell for about €200 (!), with the white being slightly cheaper than the red. Apparently, their vin santo is always rated one of the top three dessert wines in the world. A small pour costs 25 euro for the white, 30 euro for the red. Both were fantastic, and I'm glad we were able to have that experience.

After taking a nap (all that wine made us sleepy!) and watching the sunset from the wine bar again, we went to a very casual place in town that was recommended by Cinzia called Trattoria Cagnano. This is a very big, very cheap and very crowded restaurant, with good-but-not-great examples of all the Tuscan favorites. Tonight we were sharing the restaurant with what appeared to be an American college orchestra on tour, so drunk 20-year-olds bounded all over the place. Lively, and never dull, though perhaps not the most authentic Montepulciano experience! We again had cinghiale (wild boar), this time cooked in Vino Nobile sauce over polenta (good, but not great), and a pizza with prosciutto and mushrooms (also pretty good, both pictured above). We shared another bottle of local Vino Nobile with dinner, and had tiramisu for dessert.

Italy Trip Day 5 - Monticchiello & Montepulciano

After our last breakfast at I Capricci di Merion, the sun finally came out and we toured the grounds taking pictures. We then packed up and said goodbye to the great staff. We would definitely stay here in the future, and recommend it as a good base for exploring northern Umbria.

Our next stop was the very small hill town of Monticchiello, near Montepulciano. We had about 1/2 hour to kill before our lunch reservations at La Porta, so we spent it exploring the one-horse town. The view from this area is magnificent, and to us it probably seemed even more beautiful than normal as the sun was holding on, and it was a lovely warm day. Plus, since it had been raining for about two weeks by this point, all the rolling hills in the valley below were covered in bright green grasses. It was stunning (picture of the view above). We showed up at lunch, and before we got out the words "we have a reservation" (in Italian, since we had been studying Italian for 9 months before the trip, and we, well Steve really, was very keen on using his Italian whenever he could), the hostess/owner said, in English, "yes, you are from La Locanda di San Francesco". This was true, as the owner of the inn we were staying at next had made that reservation, but it was funny that they picked up on who we were (and where we were staying!) just on sight. We were immediately shown a very nice table on the terrace overlooking that great valley view. The menu was simple, but had so many delicious sounding dishes, it was difficult to chose. We ended up picking the cured meats and cheese platter, then I had the pici with wild hare sauce and Steve had a pasta with beef and almond sauce, which he loved. We washed this down with a 500ml carafe of house red, proud of ourselves that we actually drank less than a whole bottle for lunch!

Our home for the next 4 nights was the hill town of Montepulciano. One of the things that drew me to La Locanda di San Francesco was that it was actually inside the walled city, and that you could drive your car right up to the inn. This proved to be both a good and a bad thing. It was good that we were able to get so close to the inn with the car, as we had a lot of luggage, but it was bad (at first) since it was a little confusing figuring out how to enter the town and navigate the narrow crowded streets. But once we did it the first one or two times, it was pretty easy. Watch out for pedestrians!

As soon as we pulled up to the Piazza di San Francesco, Luca came running out to greet us and help carry our luggage up to our room. I really can't say enough about Luca and Cinzia, the owners of the locanda. They were so helpful both before we arrived with making at least 5 different reservations for lunches and dinners, and once we arrived with suggestions on things to do, maps, etc. Plus the inn itself and the wine bar they run in the same building were beautiful and in such an amazing location (picture above right). I would stay here again in a heartbeat. We were lucky enough to snag Room 4, with stunning views out the bathroom window facing west over the piazza and valley below (picture of our view above left), and to the east, with some rooftops and more green hills beyond. The room itself was designed perfectly, with a beautiful king bed, armchair, armoire and desk with an internet-connected all-in-one computer. A wooden spiral staircase led up to a tiny reading room with a daybed and a sitting chair by a window overlooking the eastern view. The highlight of the room, after our showerless bathroom in Tuoro, was the massively large bathroom here. The glass-walled shower sported a state-of-the-art rainshower head, and the counter was ten feet long with two huge sinks, with an ancient-looking brick arch overhead. I love that bathroom.

After unloading our luggage we went to explore the town. We were right next to Piazza Grande (see picture to right), where they filmed some scenes from the second Twilight movie, New Moon. I think that explained the increase in teenagers and young college kids we saw during our stay, not to mention the many t-shirts and baseball caps for sale, all bearing some kind of homemade Twilight-inspired artwork! We spent several hours walking through the town, then down the hill and back up, scouting out the restaurants we already had reservations for in the coming days, and looking at shops to start on gift ideas for the folks back home. Montepulciano is loaded with gift shops! By the time we got back to the inn, we were out on our feet, and very excited to relax at the wine bar. We were offered complimentary glasses of wine and snacks as a welcome gift from Cinzia and Luca, which we enjoyed while watching the sunset.

We then got ready for dinner, and drove the short distance down the hill to La Grotta, a true standout among our many restaurant experiences, and the first tasting menu of the trip. The menu consisted of an eggplant torte with bacon (delicious), liver crostini (the first of many, many liver crostini of the trip), tomato bread soup (amazing, picture to left), pigeon ravioli (also wonderful), beef filet (perfectly cooked, but by this time, we were perfectly stuffed!), and a trio of dessert (I honestly can't remember what they were, but I remember they were good). We also enjoyed our first bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Italy Trip Day 4 - Truffle Hunt & Assisi

This was a day we had been looking forward to for a long time. It was truffle hunt day! We had pre-arranged to meet our truffle hunting guides at 10am in Citerna, a small town about 45 minutes north or Tuoro. Two people showed up, the owner of the truffle company, and an English speaking guide. We followed them in our car to a nearby wooded area, where we met two truffle hunters and their dogs. As soon as the dogs were let off their leashes, they were off. The one found a truffle right away, with our party of 6 right behind her.

The truffle hunter endowed me with the bisaccia, the traditional truffle bag, so each time we found a truffle, it was my job to brush off the dirt and put it in the bag. Each time a truffle was found, the hunter pulled the dog back with one hand (they get VERY excited!), and after scraping some dirt and leaves away, gives us his long hoe-like tool, which we use to pry the truffle gently out of the ground. We did this to the tune of about 7 or 8 truffles, ranging in size from a large grape to a plum or golf ball, all black. It was a very cool experience, and I'm glad we had the English speaking guide, as no on else spoke English in that group (in fact, at one point, they asked in Italian if we were French!).

After we said goodbye to the hunters and dogs, we went back to Citerna for a very informational walking tour of the city, focusing on some newly-excavated Roman and Etruscan wells (the name Citerna means "cistern"). We all stopped for a leisurely cappuccino half way through our city tour, hanging out with our guide and her boss. The view from the cafe we stopped at is on the left.

After the tour, we went to the owner's truffle workshop, which was about 15 minutes away by car. We met the owner's wife, who was our cooking instructor for the day. We got samples of cheese with truffle honey and prosecco while we visited a little truffle museum adjacent to their workshop (who knew there were so many different kinds of truffles!), then we got down to the business of cooking. The owner's wife is a great cook, and we learned several new techniques that day. We made crostini with different truffles as topping (black, white, dried, fresh, etc.), along with a parmesan truffle flan on top of baby greens (shown below).

We also made frascarelli pasta by drizzling egg yolk over flour and sifting the flour through a sieve. The resultant lumps, dropped in boiling water, cooked in about a minute! We tossed this pasta with a sauce of truffles, butter and asparagus. This was served along side baked truffle polenta with a truffle cream sauce. For the main course we made chicken roulade, which was stuffed with cheese, truffles and prociutto. This was served with truffle mashed potatoes and a balsamic drizzle. We also made a very simple sweet cake (the only thing we made that didn't have truffles) which was also very tasty. We ate the whole meal with the owner, the owner's wife and the guide, and had a very pleasant meal. I had heard that if other people want to do this activity on the same day as you, they combine groups, but it was just my husband and me that day, so that was really a special experience. Steve and I agree that this was probably our favorite thing we did on the whole trip.

After we bought tons of the company's truffle products, we said our goodbyes and drove to Assisi. We went straight to the Basilica di San Francesco, and spent some serious time looking at the art and architecture. It was beautiful there. We left Assisi in the late afternoon and went to Cortona again for dinner. This time we went to Osteria il Teatro.

The restaurant itself is very rustic and casual, but the service was fantastic and the food was even better than that. I started with the pici (traditional Tuscan handmade pasta noodles made with flour and water) with beef sauce, and moved on to lamb shank with a mushroom sauce, Steve had the stuffed gnocchi with cream sauce and chicken in a brown sauce, and we shared a chocolate Charlotte for dessert (picture to the left). With this feast, we drank a bottle of syrah from a local winery, La Braccesca.