Friday, July 16, 2010

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.

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