Tuscany

A Day in Chianti

IMG_0884When was the last time you did the chicken dance?  They still do them in weddings and  events all over the continent as far as I know.  Legend has it, the first chicken dance was in Florence in the 13th century when Florence seized control of much of Chianti from rival Siena (more on that later).  So in order to give the proper homage to this famous wine region, and unless you’ve been to a Bar Mitzvah lately, start practicing that ancient dance.  You will see that famous black rooster all over Chianti, sometimes proudly presented as larger than life statues.  Wish to visit Chianti on a day trip from wherever (I recommend basing in this town)?  Follow me on this chicken route…

Start your morning with a visit to the Castello di Verrazzano, one of the oldest (over 1000 years) and most respected wineries in Tuscany.  Its educational, but the history, place and location offering some magnificent vistas, is what sets it apart.  Its a great place to visit even if you are not into wine.  The 10 am visit (there’s also a 3 pm) Classic Wine Tour ends with a tasting.  You can also visit the store, have a nice long lunch, or book other experiences.  But we have more to do…

A short drive away is Greve in Chianti.  Visit for one of the most striking squares in Tuscany, which all but disappears on Saturdays when the market takes over.  Its a catch 22 since the market is interesting as well, and you can still visit some of the square stores.  Like the ancient, well respected Antica Macelleria Falorni where you can buy some high quality local salami and where Beef Tartare is treated as fast food.  And if you are from NYC dont forget to take a selfie with homeboy Giovanni da Verrazzano whose statue dominates the square on non market days.

Speaking of Johnny, here’s a little tidbit.  On October 1st, 2018 NY governor Cuomo signed legislation to correct the spelling of the VerrazZano-Narrows Bridge, adding that all important extra Z missing since 1960.  The Z-gate feud between the one Z supporters, and two Z supporters that spanned decades, finally came to an end.. for now.  While Google and all electronic signs reflect the new spelling, none of the old 96 signs reflect the name change. With that said, if you take the tour at Castello di Verrazzano, you can find an ancient barrel that shows ancient spelling with only one Z.  And will New Yorkers ever change the pronunciation (ZZ is “TS”, like Pizza).  The great explorer Verrazzano of course discovered the Bay of NY, before being eaten by Cannibals in the Bahamas.  Thats why we go to Turks and Caicos.

Its almost lunch time, but before that there’s one more stop.  This centers around a man as well, except that this one is very much alive.  Panzano is home to the most famous butcher in Italy, maybe the planet, Dario Cecchini.  Dario is an eighth-generation butcher born and raised in Panzano.  He owns a butcher shop (Antica Macelleria Cecchini), a few restaurants, and is essentially the main attraction in this town based on the number of people and energy that usually surrounds his shops.  He is the only butcher featured on Netflix’s Chef Table.  Dario doesnt speak much English, and my Menu Italian wasnt strong enough to carry a conversation.  You can have your Bistecca alla Fiorentina at Dario’s house.  Or…

IMG_0861Head to Osteria Le Panzanelle, 5 km south of Panzano, with reservations in hand of course.  Its an institution, popular with locals and visitors alike.  Start with the luscious eggplant Involtini and/or green bean flan.  Move on to the fresh, eggy Papardelle with a wild boar ragu that carries some serious depth.  Then your choices are an excellent fried rabbit and chicken, or the very fine, and surprisingly affordable Bistecca.  This place is popular, so it may take some time.  So stay, relax, and.. sigh.. check in with social media.  But take turns.  Dont be that table! 

By now you must be wondering whats the story with this black rooster that you see on every Chianti Classico and all over the region.  The legend of the Gallo Nero came from medieval times when Siena and Florence decided to settle their territory feud once and for all.  Two horseman would leave early in the morning from each city, and when they’ll meet, that spot would serve as the border.  But since the Iphone wasnt invented yet, they used the rooster crow as the signal for the start.  The Florentine starved their black rooster, while the Sienese fed their white rooster plenty, thinking he’ll wake up early and energized.  But it was the black Florentine rooster that woke up too early, starving and crowing, while the white rooster slept well.  That meant an early start for the Florentine horseman who got within 12 km of Siena, essentially seizing control of Chianti.  Hence the symbol.

IMG_9875After lunch, your options are to head to the nearby hamlet of Volpaia, and/or perhaps skipping the next destination, but I suggest not.  Castello di Brolio is yet another stunner.  You can participate in more activities and tours, a la Castello di Verrazzano.  But for the purpose of this post, we’ll just pay the entrance fee, walk around the castle, enjoy the views, and read about the history.  This one feels more subdued and isolated, adding about an hour of travel time overall.  You are entitled to a glass of red on your way out, but then you have more driving to do and its getting late.  Safety 6th is the motto of Eating With Ziggy Tours.

Our last stop is the ancient Castellina in Chianti, arguably the most picturesque village in the region.  You can visit and climb the all important Rocca, and see the unique underground tunnel that is essentially a street today with wine shops.  Wine and food is the theme in Castellina.  Like the Montalcino of the north.  A great place to just hang and people watch.  End this journey at Gelateria di Castellina.  Not a personal endorsement, but… Gelato + Tuscany = Safe Bet.

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Piccola Trattoria Guastini – Meal Of The Year

Eating With Ziggy

Guastini - Caprese

August 21st, 2019 Update

Allora, so which is my favorite restaurant in Tuscany? A question I get asked often.  Its actually easier for me to answer this than naming my favorite NY restaurant these days.  The answer is Piccola Trattoria Guastini in the little hamlet I call Torrita di Siena, because thats what its called.  The post I’m bumping is also to announce a location change.  Emanuela and Davide Guastini moved the restaurant from close to home in Valiano to the other side of the Autostrada, 12 km north of Montepulciano.

The title refers to the meal we had here in 2013.  But this one was not too shabby either.  New location, same family, new atmospheric terrace with some of the best views in town.  Although Davide seemed to age a little so I dont know if I can wait another 6 years to visit this gem.  His wife Emanueala…

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10 Scenic Spots in Tuscany

italy-2013-1310Tuscany is a wildly misunderstood region.  You hear about it.  You read about it.  You finally decide to go.  But unless you plan carefully, you may just miss it.  Its large, very diverse, and it includes some of the most photogenic corners in Europe.  But finding these corners requires time, patience, and a Fiat.

Fattoria Poggio Alloro (San Gimignano) – Even if you remove the San Gimignano towers from the horizon, this would have been on the list.  Its a bustling working farm that welcomes visitors to shop, and stay for a meal  on their terrace overlooking this..

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Castello di Brolio (Chianti) – Its a castle that is a bit out of the way, but very much worth the drive.  Fair entrance fee, easy to park, and splendid views of the estate from the castle.  Drinks are on them!  Seriously you get a free glass with your ticket

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Siena to Asciano Drive– The Crete Senesi is more of a feast for the eyes than the camera due to its depth.  Its like gentle rolling hills meets a desert meets Mars.  As a result dont be surprised to see people stop in the middle of the road, like in a zoo.  You will want to do the same.

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Agriturismo Baccoleno (Crete Senesi) – You park by the gate, and walk on the path to the left until you see it.  Thats the view you saw on paintings in every art gallery you’ve visited so far.  Although the cypresses by the gate are photogenic on their own.

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Capanna Winery (Montalcino) – Just outside Brunello Disney Montalcino is one of the Brunello founding fathers.  Its worth checking it out just for the views from the back of the farm, but the farm itself is striking.

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Cugusi Silvana (Montepulciano) – And you thought there wont be any mention of food in this post.  Oh how silly you must feel right now.  This is a Pecorino producer that sets you up with a picnic basket, and some of the best cheese and salumi in the area.  All to be enjoyed in their picnic facilities just outside the store.  Glorious views of Montepulciano and the country side is a major bonus.  Nice alternative to the picturesque but super popular Podere Il Casale.

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Genna Borborini Maria Eva (San Quirico d’Orcia) – One of the Gladiator locations.  This farm is a bit overlooked when compared to the other hits on Via Cipressi (Montalcino to Pienza).  You park at these coordinates, 43°03’55.8″N 11°36’43.6″E and view the villa from the gate, while humming the Gladiator theme song.

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Cipressi di San Quirico d’Orcia (San Quirico d’Orcia) – Aka Cypresses Valdorcia or Circle of Cypresses.  Its not just about a bunch cypresses bunched together in the middle of nowhere, but the entire most scenic middle of nowhere surrounding that middle of nowhere.  Makes sense?  Just go, and look around at both sides of the road.

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Chapel Vitaleta (San Quirico d’Orcia) – The most photogenic little chapel in the world is a very easy drive and a short hike.  But do it in the afternoon when the light is in your favor.  Enjoy it while humming the Gladiator theme song because you cant get it out of your head at this point.  Dont leave any luggage or anything important in the car

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Le Foce (Chianciano Terme) – This is the classic zigzaging cypresses that is part of the Le Foce estate.  But in order to see it, you need to take a tour of the estate.  Otherwise its close to impossible to find a good view (we tried, and tried again.  Gladiator humming just made it worse)

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L’oste di Borgo – A Slow Jewel in Colle di Val d’Elsa

L’oste di Borgo - TartareI get cranky when a meal doesnt go my way back at home.  I tend to get very quiet, and everyone at the table usually knows it at some point no matter how hard I try to hide it.  But when it happens on vacation, its closer to a clinical depression.  After months of preparations, somehow I picked a place that just served me cardboard flavored crostini.  I start to doubt my research abilities and sometimes even change plans to maximize probabilities.  On my last trip, midpoint, I cancelled all remaining hotel dining, even though I read nothing but good things about them.

Thankfully the bad meals were few and far between.  The only quibble was that some of the really good ones were very early in their respective legs.  So when we came across similar dishes in the region we were often disappointed.  Such was the case with L’oste di Borgo in the picture perfect Tuscan town of Colle di Val d’Elsa.  Our first meal in Tuscany this time set the bar maybe a little too high.

Finding L’oste di Borgo is easy.  Enter the main gate (Porta Nuova) and walk until you see the first evidence of life conversing with other life.  The young couple that took over the space not too long ago runs the place like a well-oiled machine.  If you are in a rush, this place is probably not for you.  Its “Slow Food” in every sense.  From the wait, to the explanation of the 0 km ingredients (or 5 to be exact), and the enjoyment.  When things taste this good, three hour meals are pure joy.  When its not, its pure Tortura.

L’oste di Borgo - Appetizer mix

The mixed appetizer platter is nothing short of a triumph, especially once you compare it to other places.  Fresh, local, peppery Salami, silky Prosciuto, Crostini with liver and lardo, fruits, various spreads and more.  Impeccable attention to raw material.  Then comes an expertly prepared, Piemonte style, hand chopped Beef Tartare.  Not the prized Chianina but who cares when it tastes so good.  There was also a fine chicken, and Tagliata, but get the Tartare.

The Pici Cacio e Pepe was another big hit, and most likely best I ever had.  We enthusiastically ordered three more of this during this trip and they never got quite as peppery or creamy.  But the most interesting dish was the Paccheri coated with a Scamerita ragu.  Thats a white ragu of the back of the pork neck.  Only in Italy we experience such flavor from such little meat.  And only in Italy you can wash it all down with a nice dry red litter for the price of a NY glass.  One of our new favorites in Tuscany.     

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This is Colle di Val d’Elsa

IMG_9318What is the perfect base?  Its not rocket science.  Put your destination stars on the map, and pick something in the middle.  The only decision is whether it will be a city, a town, village, or something in the countryside like a villa or Agriturismo.  You’ll find many advantages and disadvantages with all options.  Thats why mixing it up a little works for many.

Colle di Val d’Elsa is a town in central Tuscany, or “North” Tuscany when you look at it from the tourist or wine vantage point, with Val d’Orcia in the south and Chianti in the north.  Its perched on a hill on top of River Elsa and the Esla Valley, hence the name which took us a good three days to pronounce.  Its smack in between the “The Kings of the North”, Siena and San Gimignano.  That makes Chianti well within reach, and Florence less than an hour by car.

But what makes Colle even more unique is the town itself, and the lack of those pesky tourists.  Its not in the destination level of Lucca, Pisa, or Siena as its lacking the monuments and attractions.  But as a base, it offers just enough.  Colle has a picturesque old town (Colle Alta), a new town surrounding a beautiful square, and another “town” which is sort of something in between the old and the new.  The old town sits on top of the new town.  In fact the only modern structure you’ll see in the old town is the elevator connecting it to the new town below.  It looks and functions like a time machine.  I’m slightly influenced by a dark German series I’m watching now on Netflix called well, Dark.  Everything looks like a time machine to me these days.

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But lack of tourists can sometimes feel that, lacking, if you dont find a thriving local life.  Thats not a problem with Colle.  Plenty of bakeries, restaurants, markets, atmospheric squares and even a glass museum.  Colle di Val d’Elsa produces 15% of the world’s crystal, and roughly 95% of Italy’s production.  Its the birthplace of the famous artist Arnolfo di Cambio.  One of the most famous restaurants in Tuscany, and the only Michelin star establishment in Colle, took his name.

Stay – Palazzo San Lorenzo.  A former hospital turned into a serviceable, modern hotel.  Easy to get in and out with a car.  Ample parking within 5 minute walk outside the only gate remaining.  Comfortable huge rooms, decent breakfast, with a restaurant and spa.

Eat – L’oste di Borgo.  A  young couple running what looks like one of the more popular restaurants in town.   More to come on this gem very soon

See – The mentioned glass museum, old town and the palazzos lining the main road on top, the new town at night, and more vistas than you can count.  Well, on two hands at least.

 

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Val d’Orcia – Blame it on Her Juice

IMG_0943One of the joys of road tripping in Italy’s countryside for us is listening to the local radio.  While we try to catch some Italian tunes that match the mood, we often find catchy American songs that we either never get at our local stations for some reason, or  they sound a little different (ie explicit to us).  It started years ago when we discovered that Bruno Mars actually wanted to be a Billionaire “So fuckin bad”.  Who knew?

And so during each trip there’s a point where a particular song emerges as the theme song of the trip.  Unlike the previous clear winner (LP – Lost on You) in Sicily, this one required some growing.  But by the time we got to our last leg in Umbria, we were all going “Gotta blame it on the Goose (the Grey kind), Gotta blame it on my juice, baby”, until we almost ran into a ditch when I (driver) got carried away a little.

Driving the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany can be dangerous.  Its shockingly beautiful.  The colors change seasonally, but the gentle rolling hills are fixed and unlike anywhere else in the world.  Driving between Pienza and San Quirico especially feels like a National Park, Cypress-Land if you will.  Baby Fiats stopping in the middle of the road, wedding shoots, drones flying everywhere.  For the landscape freaks, there’s plenty of “Juice”.  Pictures below taken with iphone, shaking hands, and deteriorating eyesight.  Heck, you can see the difference from 6 years ago.  I just dont feel like carrying the big boy camera with me anymore.  Click on any of the pictures to enlarge

 

 

 

 

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Top 10 Things We Ate in Tuscany

Il Pozzo RavioliI’m off to the Island I like to call Providenciales in Turks and Caicos, but meanwhile here is something to chew on…

Pollo al Burro in Sostanza (Florence) – Call it chicken with butter, butter with Chicken, doenst really matter.  Two generous breasts are cooked over coal before pan fried with eggs and one stick of butter.  Thats still 2 sticks less than the similarly celebrated BBQ Shrimp at Mr B’s in New Orleans, but rich nonetheless.  The result is tender and addictive goodness.  With the massive Sostanza Bistecca Fiorentina side by side, for the first time ever my fork was reaching for the bird over a well cooked medium rare steak.  Long live pollo!Sostanza Chicken

Pappa al Pomodoro at Da Ruggero (Florence).  Love on first bite.  My first Pappa al Pomodoro of the trip might as well have been my last.  The waiter reassure me that this is one of best Pappas in town, so who am I to argue.  Who knew tomatoes and stale bread can taste so good.  And I could have easily included some of Ruggero’s killer pastas (with a nice kick) here as well.

Da Ruggero

Cecina at Da Felice (Lucca).  Oldest Pizza in town, and the most popular with locals.  We sampled some great pizzas, one with salami, and another one with prosciutto that blended oh so nicely with the rest of the ingredients.  But I came for the Cecina, thin pancake like or crepe if you will, made of chickpea flour.  Delicious!  Add a little bit of seasoning, Delicious-er!

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Charcuterie Board at L’Incontro (Volterra).  Holy smokes this was good.  Leave it to local Annie Adair from Tuscan Tours to take us to this treasured local bar.  A feast for all senses that included great Salami, Prosciutto and all sorts of Pecorino cheeses (not seen below).  But the highlight was a first-rate Porchetta they just happened to have prepared that day.  Highly recommend having lunch here when in town.

Charcuterie Board at L'Incontro

Pecorino at Podere Il Casale (Near Pienza).  Like eating cheese for the first time.  The views did not hurt, but the smells and flavors from the Sheep’s milk cheese like the grape aged or walnut leaves age was nothing like we ever had.  And did I mention the views?  Oh yes, looks like I did

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Ricotta and Spinach Ravioli at Il Pozzo (San Angelo in Colle). (Top Picture).  Magical dish in another magical setting in stunning San Angelo in Colle.  Watch the monks sing nearby at Sant’Antimo abbey before having this beauty with butter and sage.  This is a typical Tuscan dish you can have anywhere, but it was especially memorable here, as was the marvelous Pici.  Or Pinci as they call it in nearby Montalcino, a town too proud (of their Brunello) to simply call it like everyone else. 😉

Bruschetta at Gattavecchi (Montepulciano).  Carnival in my belly!  Fantastic Salsa Verde with melted cheese, savory liver pâté (best of the trip – Lilian the Brazilian cook makes it with wine and fruit), all kinds of great concoctions in a cup including potatoes-onion-bell pepper thingy (foodie technical term), and my fave, white beans spread with bread and veggies – ribolita.  Heavenly stuff at this heavenly city.

Gattavecchi - Bruschetta

Insalata Lagumi at Da Roberto (Montisi).  Simple, beautiful, and highly palatable.  One man show Roberto lets the ingredients do the talking.  5 different beans with pecorino, tomatoes, sunflower seeds, carrots, stem of garlic, olive oil.  All work together like a beautiful symphony, showcasing Roberto’s true passion.  The wrong place to ask “Whats good here” in this Slow Food Ambassador’s place.

Da Roberto - Insalata lagumi

Polenta with Porcini at La Tellina (Siena).  On a Porcini filled trip this was most memorable.  Grilled to perfection Polenta with these delicate, great textured Porcini, a nice app before the great seafood arrives.  All prepared with a lot of love from the family that runs this picture perfect trattoria.

La Tellina - Poricini

Ravioli with pigeon from Guastini (Valiano).  This was a tough pick since everything in this meal of the trip was so good.  I could have easily inserted the glorious fennel crusted duck, or the divine Tagliata, or the sinful fried rabbit I suppose.  But these pigeon stuffed Ravioli with 2 succulent pieces did the trick and more.  No wonder this place was full with locals

Guastini - Ravioli

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Lazy Post – Postcard Perfect Tuscany

No idea where this is

No idea where this is

For the photographers out there looking for those perfect Tuscan shots, here are some important tips on where to find them.  Grab a pen and pencil (in case… you know… the pencil breaks)

1)  Drive all over Tuscany, especially the Val d’Orcia area

Hmmm, I swear I thought I had more tips, but I’m drawing a blank.  I think this might be it – just drive around with your eyes open.  Surely it would be challenging to drive with your eyes closed, but I’ve seen it done in Florida (and got the metal plate in my leg to prove it).  But the truth is the entire Tuscany region is one giant postcard, and Val d’Orcia is perhaps as picture perfect as it comes.  Simply going from point A to point B anywhere in that area will produce more unique landscapes, quite different than the drive you took to get to point A.

From Florence to Lucca to seeing Volterra through the eyes of Annie Adair, to Siena, Pienza and the rest of the gems in the South, here are some of the best shots we took

Florence - Santa Croce

Florence – Santa Croce

Podere Il Casale

Podere Il Casale near Pienza

Siena

Siena

From Avignonesi to Valiano

From Avignonesi to Valiano

Near Monticchiello

Near Monticchiello

La Foce

La Foce

Siena to Asciano

Siena to Asciano

lucca san michele in foro

lucca san michele in foro

Villa Grazianella

Villa Grazianella

Volterra

Volterra

Pienza to Montepulciano

San Quirico to Pienza (very close to San Quirico)

Pisa

Pisa

San Quirico

San Quirico

Near San Quirico

Near San Quirico

Montepulciano

From Montepulciano

Montalcino

From Montalcino

La Vitaleta (famous chapel by San Quirico)

La Vitaleta (famous chapel by San Quirico)

From Avignonesi to Valiano

From Avignonesi to Valiano

From Abbey of Sant’Antimo

From Abbey of Sant’Antimo

Bagno Vignoni

Bagno Vignoni

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Florence – City of Eugene

Today the plan was to write one of those “lazy posts” on the Italian City of David.  Its where I spend some time picking the best pictures of some place I visited recently and just throw them in here with minimal word content.  But it just feels weird to do that today due to some circumstances.

When people mention the subject of Trip Advisor, the immediate thing that comes to mind to most people is Reviews.  Mainly reviews of Restaurants, Hotels,  and Attractions.  But very few know about Trip Advisor’s other powerful arm, the Forum.  You can spend a month in some city or country’s TA forum and gain a wealth of information.  Information that is absent from your guidebook.  The forum to me is internet’s best travel tool.  All this, thanks to regular forum participants that spend their spare time helping tourists with the various questions they have.  They are some of their city’s greatest ambassadors.  One of those ambassadors was Eugene Martinez who tragically passed away a few days ago.  I never actually met Eugene but we came very close when I was there in June.  Eugene was a tremendous help in making our Florence stay as memorable as it was.  From my interactions with him and from what I heard he was kind, caring, funny, and passionate about the city of Florence and Tuscany.  He will be sorely missed.

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Podere Il Casale – So This is What Cheese Tastes Like!

Italy - 2013 9743 months later I’m starting to forget details about the trip.  But I’m not forgetting feelings.  I remember having that “How can I prolong this moment, I don’t want to leave, I’m such an idiot for scheduling more things than I should” feeling more than once, all in Tuscany.  And while sitting outside in Podere Il Casale on that perfect day, trying to decide whether I prefer the grape aged Pecorino or the one aged with walnut leaves, only to be interrupted by that stunning view, that feeling took over again.

Nestled smack in the middle between Pienza and Monticchiello, Podere Il Casale, an organic farm producing sheep’s (pecorino) and goat cheese that was unlike anything we ever tasted.  It was like eating cheese for the very first time.  Sandra and Ulisse run the farm since 1991.  Sandra gave us an overview of the place (much bigger than it seems at first) and cheese making process, while showing us the facilities and Ricotta making in action.  The 5 minute old Ricotta was easily the most satisfying ever.  But I couldn’t get enough of that Pecorino, especially the aged stuff.

Podere Il Casale is more than just a cheese producer.  Its a full service Agriturismo, attracting lodgers, campers, farm students and volunteers.  2 meals a day including a wood oven pizza expert hanging around in the premises (how can I get a pizza expert hang around my premises, all I have is a crazy neighbor and her dog), cooking classes, and various educational programs are offered.  They also produce wine, olive oil, pasta, honey, and even some prosciutto. All that in an absolute jaw dropping setting, making other pigs and sheep extremely jealous.  The cliché “Pictures don’t do this Justice” has probably been invented in South Tuscany, somewhere near here

Sandra and Ulisse also recently received a grant by the Italian government that allows them to open operations oversees.  As long as they sell and promote Tuscan based products, the gov’t will help sponsor the operations.  First stop, NYC, slated to open in a few months.  I will post details here as soon as I get them

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