See below for an update to our Chianti blog. Florence has been moved to its own post!
Chianti Part I
We took advantage of a Ryan’s three day work weekend to explore the Chianti region followed by two nights in Florence. I had visited Siena, San Gimignano, and Florence back in 2008 and had fond memories of both destinations.
We arrived in San Gimignano late morning, just in time for all of the tour buses to start pouring into the city walls. We searched for parking for about twenty minutes (a sure sign we should have left earlier). We took JoJo with us on the weekend trip so he was eager to run around after the two hour drive. The city was somehow different than what I had remembered. Although not much had likely changed, my memory was limited to only one of the piazzas where we dined for lunch. Thus, San Gimignano appeared much larger than I remembered, and much more crowded. We meandered around the piazzas and narrow roads along this Unesco World Heritage Site. Montelpulciano in that it did not seem like an authentic Tuscan working town, but rather a museum inside ancient walls, perfectly preserved for centuries. Although we were unable to visit any actual museums during this visit, we did return a month later for a dinner party hosted by Galleria Continua, the oldest gallery in San Gimignano, through a connection at Ryan’s work.
We did have an excellent lunch, however, at a restaurant called La Mangiatoia, where we dined on tagliatelle with truffles, tagliatelle with ragu, and a wild boar roast.
We made a short stop in Siena as well, which was even more packed with tourists, and in my opinion much less charming than my first impression seven years ago. Our change in opinion is probably a result of us viewing ourselves as “locals” and thus having less tolerance for tourists. I would relate to trying to avoid shopping on Michigan Avenue in Chicago on a Saturday afternoon in July. Nonetheless, the architecture of Siena is worth a visit alone, and I would still recommend it for a first-time traveler’s to Italy.
We had reserved dinner at a one star Michelin Restaurant called La Bottega del 30 in the small village of Castelnuovo Berandenga. We booked a one night stay in a dog friendly accommodation. The inn was very difficult to find, especially because our GPS could not even direct us to correct location. We finally discovered it a mile down a gravel trail off of the main road. The inn had originally been an old church from hundreds of years ago. The owner converted into her home with three apartments on the first floor and one from the horse stable. The building was so old that the doors in the owner’s apartment could only fit a person who was 5’5 or less. The apartments themselves were humble and clean, and thus perfect for us to feel comfortable with a puppy.
Now, we were very excited to have our first Michelin Star dinner in Tuscany, especially because we were very much in love with the region’s food and the restaurant independently had wonderful reviews from guests. It was about twenty minutes from the Inn, and the GPS began taking us down a unkempt dirt side road in the middle of the night. I was legitimately scared that the car was going to get stuck and we would be in the middle of the woods with no cell phone service. We ended up in the loading zone of a winery, which we then figured out was probably an old road trucks used to take to transport wine bottles back and forth. Thankfully, we did make it to our reservation on time and found ourselves in a little stone home. There was nothing that could give away that this was a Michelin Star restaurant, except for the fact that the service was impeccable from the minute we walked in, and the chef personally came out to greet us and tell us what she would be cooking tonight in Italian (there was no menu). There were pictures on the wall of the chef’s family dating back through the centuries, adding to the feeling that we were guests in someone’s home. Our amuse bouche was a sweet potato-like puree with a nut filled bread. It was warm, comforting, and unlike any dish we had tasted in Italy. It was followed by an eggplant rollatini- my first in Italy- and it was absolutely divine. Ryan even agreed, and he doesn’t even like eggplant. The pasta course was one giant ravioli filled with egg in the middle. It was creamy, yet light, and reminded us of an American egg dish you would be served at a trendy brunch spot in Chicago. The two mains were a tender pork loin with cabbage and quail with cauliflower puree, both cooked to perfection. The dessert was a sampling of four of the chef’s specialties; a flourless chocolate cake, a mint crème Brule, a pistachio pastry, and caramelized walnuts. The pistachio and walnut desserts were exploding with flavor. Despite the many courses, the small portions did not leave us in a “food coma” like so many tastings menus often do. Overall, we were very happy with La Bottega del 30 and would consider it one of our best meals in Italy to date.
Chianti Part II
Our second trip to the Chianti region took place when our friends, Dave and Karen, were visiting us. This was Day 2 of their Italian adventure, and they would be seeing a very different landscape compared to the coast of Cinque Terre we had visited the previous day.
We discovered a “1 Day in Chianti” blog post online that helped determine our itinerary for the day. Our goal was to venture to areas Ryan and I had not been to, and end in San Gimignano. The first experience of the day was a wine tasting at Castello di Querceto in Greve in Chianti. The first thing we noticed were the giant peacocks on top of the buildings. They were magnificent- dressed in a variety of colors- and apparently were wild! I couldn’t believe it. We were the only reservations for the day, so we were pleasantly welcomed by the host who gave a thorough history of the vineyard’s history and their specialties in red they produced. Each of us had a choice of four glasses. Although I had opted for two whites (my usual choice), my favorite were the reds in this situation, which illustrated how well they were executed.
We savored our wines for an hour before heading off to our special lunch at Solociccia in Panzano. I had read about Solociccia as a must-go dining destination that serves a farm to table lunch using all parts of the cow. The butcher’s shop across the street (owned by the same family), was packed with tourists. We were seated in a modern-style restaurant with a table of 12 people from all around the world. Then the meat started coming out. The antipasti consisted of fresh raw vegetables and bread with the most amazing salt mixture and olive oil. Then we received a spicy ragu on toast which tasted like an elevated sloppy joe, “rosemary up-the-bum,” – the most tender piece of meat delicately seasoned with rosemary, and traditional garbanzo beans as a side. The heavier meat courses (yes, heavier!) were a beef roast, boiled beef and vegetable salad (my favorite, which tasted like the best brisket I ever had), and a combination of braised meats. The dessert consisted of olive oil cake- just in case we didn’t get enough food. Everything was excellent and the beef was of top quality while emanating the flavor of the region. My only criticism is that the family style dining made the experience a little impersonal, as we were handed plates by the servers blindly as if we were at a cafeteria. We would have preferred to have a private dining experience, but the exceptional food clearly made the day.
Following lunch, we made a brief stop in Montefioralle, a beautifully preserved Tuscan village where we enjoyed spectacular view, followed by the charming Castellina in Chianti, which boasted an underground medieval walkway. Neither of the towns had anything to do, per say, but were enjoyable stops to appreciate the heritage of the region.
By the time we reached San Gimignano, it was starting to get dark. Since the last time we visited, the piazza was filled with holiday lights. We did a brief walking tour using the map from the tourist center before settling down for a hot drink in the piazza. Unfortunately it was too late to see any museums but Karen and Dave were able to get a glimpse of the magical city!