Posts Tagged With: tuscany

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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Italia – Getting Organized

TuscanyI spent the last couple of days day dreaming categorizing all the Italian posts, filing them in the proper locations.  On the left side you can now see the five categories under Italy…

Florence

Rome

Tuscany

Emilia-Romagna

Piedmont

Venice, the lakes, and other parts are not there because I dont have enough blog posts on them (at the moment the count is about 0).  Here are all the tips you need on Venice:  The greatest museum in the world:  Rialto market.  The greatest bite post the greatest museum in the world:  Antiche Carampane.  That is it.  Once I come back, I will start writing on Venice and the rest of them.

But I must say, out of the 290 posts published so far since I started this blog, the Italy posts are by far my favorite.  Sure its nice to write about my home town, my adapted home town, and even New Orleans once in a while which produced the most viewed post on EWZ (571 shares on Facebook alone).  But the Italy posts, while not much in the way of generating traffic for some reason, are the reason why it took me two days to do this.  A lot of staring and day dreaming.  Italy is the reason I have a hard time getting overly excited about our trip next month to Prague, Salzburg, Vienna.  It spoiled me forever

Gattavecchi

Gattavecchi crew in Montepulciano

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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!

Lucca - Cecina

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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Lazy Post – Siena in Pictures

Italy - 2013 1477Top 5 reasons for a lazy post today…

5)  Last minute kids dentist appointment.  Meaning, I remembered in the last minute that I have to take the kids to the dentist

4)  I had to take out the dishes from the dishwasher.  Note:  I’m only allowed to take them out, not put them in.  Mrs Ziggy doesnt like the method I use to put them in.

3)  I had to help the kids with their homework.  By help I mean take their new phones away from them

2)  I would like to watch the MLB playoffs, please, for a change

1)  I’m lazy

The 2 scenic shots below are from the stunning drive from Siena to Asciano.  Enjoy!

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Piccola Trattoria Guastini – Meal Of The Year

Guastini - CapreseThe “Saving the best for last” cliché doesn’t quite make sense to me in this context.  How do you know its the best if you haven’t done it yet.  Surely it can turn out merely “pretty good”, or perhaps one of the earlier meals rises to the occasion.  With that said, I cant help but anticipate and suspect whether I’m leaving the best for last sometimes.  Piccola Trattoria Guastini, our last meal in Tuscany was not only the best meal in Tuscany, it was the best meal of the entire 12 day trip which included about 20 pretty good ones.

GuastiniEmanuela and Davide Guastini run this popular spot in the tiny village of Valiano not too far from Montepulciano.  Sunflower galore on the way there from the Cortona direction. Gorgeous terrace overlooking the area I can only describe as “the other side of A1” which doesn’t sound as sexy as the real name I keep forgetting (Val di Chiana).  Everything was working that night – the sublime food, the wine, the mood, the comfort, the gracious hosts, and the one ingredient missing from just about every other place we visited, locals.  Guastini - Crostini

Started with, what else, more amazing crostini this time with chicken liver and caramelized onions – sweet and savory.  Followed that with an ultra fresh Caprese salad.  Cant get much better than this.  Tortelli with ricotta were topped with fresh tomatoes and basil, almost resulted in a family feud (I won simply by staring).  One particular stunner was the ravioli stuffed with pigeon with 2 succulent pieces to boot.  Our first pigeon of the trip resulted in a messy moment of silence.Guastini - Ravioli Guastini - Tortelli

More deliciousness followed in the form of fried rabbit which we couldnt get enough of.  Glorious duck encrusted with fennel, one of those dishes you know will be good as soon as it arrives.  My nose and sense of smell were working overtime that night.

Guastini - rabbit Guastini - Duck

I had a long talk with Davide about food and after voicing my slight disappointment with the Bisteccas in Florence and the region, he comes back minutes later with a full plate of Tagliata, sliced Chianina beef perfectly cooked with olive oil.  This was absolutely delicious.  Who knew that the best steak of the trip would be the free one.  Great desserts here as well.  Panna Cotta with chocolate sauce, ricotta mousse with honey and hazelnuts (seems like a specialty here in the region) and a fine tiramisu. Guastini - Chianina

It was packed with locals which was not surprising considering the restaurant was suggested by a restaurant owner in Montepulciano.  Reservations are a must.  If you want a quick meal, this is certainty not the place.  Like Da Roberto and many of the other places we visited, Guastini oozes Slow Food freshness.  A meal you need to experience at least once on vacation.  Guastini is why I come to ItalyGuastini - Pana Cotta

Guastini patio

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