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!

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