Sunday, August 23, 2009

An Antinori Affair to Remember

It is a rare Saturday during the height of our busy season at Castello di Casole that I wake up feeling caught enough up on work to spend the day exploring. Thankfully yesterday was one of those Saturdays. As I contemplated my options over a steaming cup of Chai tea, I recalled hearing some clients rave about a special place in Tavarnelle owned by the Antinori family where they were able to order Tignanello and other phenomenal Italian wines by the glass. Tavarnelle is only about 30 minutes from Castello di Casole, so I threw on a sundress, grabbed my handbag and hat, and headed out on a long overdue adventure.

Normally I do everything in my power to avoid having to use my GPS system. I have seen GPS devices almost destroy marriages in this country and I have had my own share of annoying experiences. One day I was driving home on the superhighway from Assisi, when suddenly the woman on my Garmin GPS shouted out “Drive 100 meters and take an immediate U-turn!” Right. I ripped the machine out of the cigarette lighter and almost threw it out the window.

Fortunately I still had the GPS because when I got to Tavarnelle, which is in Chianti, I realized I had no idea where I was going. After driving around aimlessly trying to find signs for Badia di Passignano, I almost gave up and turned around. I had no choice but to turn to the GPS and within ten minutes I was parking the car in this delightful hidden hamlet.

According to the website, there are claims that the monastery of Passignano was completed as early as 395, though the monastery archives date back to the year 891. In 1049 Badia passed into the order of a reformed branch of the Benedictines who specialized in winegrowing and forestry. Over time the order became so powerful that it owned a quarter of Tuscany. Then in 1255 the abbey was attacked, burned and razed to the ground by the Florentines. Big surprise. In the 1500s the abbey was an important center for theological, literary and scientific studies. About 100 monks lived there, and it is reported that Galileo taught mathematics there from 1587-1588. Unfortunately the monastic life was suspended and many monastery treasures were lost in 1810 under Napoleon. Another big surprise.

Antinori purchased the vineyards around Badia in 1987. The abbey is still owned by the monks, although Antinori has the use of the cellars. The abbey was closed when I arrived so I strolled around the grounds and took some photos. Then I decided to seek out Osteria di Passignano, the restaurant and enoteca that Allegra Antinori opened in the late 1990s which sells all of the Antinori wines, plus fine wines from all over Italy.

I didn’t really know what I was doing when I poked my head into the enoteca, so I introduced myself as a real estate agent for Castello di Casole and asked if I could taste a few wines. Within minutes, the manager Marcello was guiding me to an ornately set, white-clothed table. As I took in the beautiful restaurant surrounding me, I knew I was in for a treat. Maurizio, the master sommelier, poured me a glass of sparkling wine and I started to peruse the menu and the hefty leather-bound wine list.

I could have gone for the €60 five-course Tasting Menu or the €100 Tasting Menu accompanied by a glass of wine for each course, but I wasn’t that hungry so I opted for the Mollusk and Sea Water Risotto with Basil and Cherry Tomato Pesto. The waiter started me off with an amuse bouche of octopus soup, its salty, savory broth soaking a paper-thin wafer.

He also brought me a little silver platter of beautifully presented homemade crackers, sesame seed breadsticks, focaccia and breads, a refreshing departure from the saltless, flavorless, often slightly stale bread served in most restaurants in Tuscany.

I literally gasped when the waiter presented me with my risotto surrounded by tiny tender mollusks and drips of dark green pesto. Risotto is one of my favorite dishes and I have ordered it in restaurants at least fifty times in my life. I can honestly say that this is the best risotto I have ever tasted. Nestled in the rice, which was cooked to perfection and lightly seasoned with herbs and cheese, were poached cherry tomatoes that melted in my mouth. With each morsel I took a sip of the 2007 Cervaro delle Sala “Antinori” Maurizio had chosen for me, a creamy blend of Chardonnay and Grecchetto (a white grape from Umbria) with a hint of walnuts which Maurizio informed me was rated by Wine Spectator as one of the finest white wines in all of Italy.

I would have been quite happy to call it quits after the risotto. But the next thing I knew, the waiter brought out a silver basket of homemade biscotti and cookies, and a ceramic ladle cradling three homemade dark and white chocolate truffles, one sprouting a trio of dried sage leaves. I ordered an espresso and opened the massive wine list.

For several years Maurizio has been building this list which is now up to 365 labels including sich greats as Solaia, Gaja, Sassicaia, Ornellaia, the best Brunellos and French Bordeaux, and Stag’s Leap in Napa and Col Solade in Washington State (both of which Antinori is part owner with Chateau St. Michelle). The selection is enough to make a wine connoisseur weep. After noting the €500 for a bottle of ’06 Ornellaia Masseto, I was pleased to hear that Maurizio’s focus now is to bring in more wines in the €20-€50 price range.
As I relucantly got up from the table and said my thank yous to Marcello, Maurizio and the incredible waitstaff, I was reminded that there are times in life when it pays to have no expectations. My lunch at Badia di Passignano on a random summer Saturday was an experience I will never forget.

Next time I will be taking a tour of the cellars with Maurizio which normally occur Monday – Saturday at 3:30PM and require a reservation. If you are planning a trip to Tuscany and you love food and wine, lunch or dinner at Osteria di Passignano should be on your itinerary somewhere, somehow. Call Marcello at +39 055 8071278 and let him know I sent you.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Meet My Friend Barbara

I come in contact with a lot of people through my job selling luxury villas at Castello di Casole, which is, incidentally, the best job I have ever had in my life. Almost inevitably during the course of a tour with clients or a conversation with an owner or guest at the estate, the question comes up, “So Jennifer, what is it like living in Italy?”

During my first few months here, I found myself replying with remarks like “Oh, I love my little medieval hilltop town and waking up to the sound of horses neighing and church bells ringing.” Nowadays my responses are more like “I am having the time of my life. But what has really made the difference for me are my friends Anna Lisa, Barbara and Giuseppe, and my new friend Daniela in Florence."

I have moved around quite a bit in my life. I have lived in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Connecticut, Virginia, Washington DC, New York, California, Colorado, and now Italy. In every place, it hasn’t been the house or the school or the job or the scenery that have made it home, it has been my friends. And it is my friends who are making Italy home for me now.

I introduced you to Barbara in a previous blog. Since I wrote that piece, we have become very close. Her story is fascinating. Barbara grew up in an Amish community in Pennsylvania and was one of nine children. She spent most of her childhood helping the family out on the farm, cooking, cleaning, churning butter, and working two jobs in high school so she could put herself through college. She became quite a successful career woman in her twenties, had a beautiful daughter, and got married to Gary. She ended up leaving Gary after after falling madly in love with Tom, who after they became engaged, proceeded to have a heart attack and die while she was in Italy with friends.
Shell-shocked and feeling the need to make big changes in her life, she walked away from a lucrative job in Orlando, several properties in Florida, mani/pedis and Iron Man competitions, and became a first mate on a sailboat in the Carribbean for three months. Then she fulfilled a lifelong dream and came over to Italy for a summer where she met Giuseppe who she now lives with, along with his parents, at their winery called i Selvatici in Chianti.

I recently finished reading a draft of Barbara’s memoirs, which I couldn't put down, and which she is 100% focused on publishing right now. Her story is meant to inspire other women who feel trapped and too afraid to leave their unfulfulled lives for a chance at real happiness. She is sexy and spirited and her enthusiasm for life is boundless. Barbara is a big believer in visualization and often talks about her upcoming book tour and her appearance on Oprah when the book is published. She is constantly reminding me of how important it is to stay positive, and that what we say and think is what we attract in our lives. For these reasons and more, I adore her.

In the short time we have known each other, we have had some really fun experiences together. One afternoon following her language class in Florence, we met for lunch at a wonderful little enoteca called Le Volpe e l'Uva in a tiny piazza near Pitti Palace that my friend Anna Lisa had recommended where the owner Giancarlo brought us glasses of the most delicious Sicilian white wines to accompany our Caprese salads with the sweetest cherry tomatoes ever. Then she took me to a vintage clothing shop where we played dress-up and giggled like schoolgirls.

Afterwards, we huffed and puffed our way up to Piazza Michelangelo and into the San Miniato church with its exquisite Renaissance chapel adorned by a plush ceiling of glazed terra-cotta panels by Luca della Robia. We spent some time taking in the views of our favorite city in the world spread out below us, then chatted over spritzes at the Roberto Cavalli café before she caught the train home to Montevarchi.
I cherish my times with Barbara, and whenever I say goodbye to her, I feel a little sad that I won’t see her again for awhile. I hope her book hits the top of the New York Times bestseller list. When it does, I'll be front and center in that audience on Oprah...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Finding Sanctuary at the Sea

Okay, I’m back. I took a little break from blogging because we have been selling like crazy at Castello di Casole and I haven’t had many opportunities to get out and explore. Plus, I was starting to feel pressure to always write about everything I was doing and I found that it was taking away from the experiences a bit. But lately quite a few people have asked me why haven’t been blogging and I realized that I have kind of missed it. So here I am sitting at the computer once again sharing a story with you.

I have found that people who visit the Tuscan countryside are not always aware that the coast is so close and it doesn’t necessarily occur to them to make the hour and a half drive to the Tyrrhenian Sea. If they do, they often head to swanky Forte dei Marmi, or to the Cinque Terre to do the famous hike to the five villages, both of which are terribly crowded during July and August, dreadfully so on weekends.

It has been blisteringly hot in Tuscany this summer and I had been craving the beach for the past month but I really haven’t wanted to go alone. So a few weeks ago when I was invited by my new friend David, whom I met at a concert in Lucca, to join him for a day at the sea, I jumped at the opportunity. We agreed to meet in Cecina which is about an hour and 15 minute drive from Castello di Casole on the backroads through Volterra. (The highways are to be avoided at all costs on the weekend). I dropped my car off in a parking lot and hopped on the back of David’s motorcycle and we zoomed off to Castiglioncello just 20 kilometers south of Livorno.

Castiglioncello is a sweet little seaside town lined with cute shops selling bathing suits and resortwear. It has the feel of an island cove, sheltered by cliffs and hills that plunge right down to the sea. Back in its heyday Sophia Loren, Federico Fellini and other famous Italians had summer homes in Castligloncello but it eventually became out of fashion and the celebs moved on, and some of their homes are now hotels and restaurants.

After a light lunch in on a terrace in the main piazza we strolled down a shop-lined street to a steep set of stairs leading down to the beach. Below us were a few small, lively resorts with rows of lounge chairs and colorful umbrellas which we bypassed in favor of a quieter stretch of beach (which is made up of small pebbles, not sand). It being a Saturday, I was pleasantly surprised to find no throngs of sun-worshipping tourists, just locals out frolicking in the sea. The crystal clear water was bright blue, refreshingly cool and not too salty.

After a swim and a short rest in the sun, we got back on the motorcycle and drove north to Montenero, a hilltop town overlooking Livorno and the site for a famous pilgrimage site called the Santuario di Montenero. Legend has it that sometime around 1345 a crippled shepherd discovered at the foot of the hill a painting of the Virgin Mary which had been miraculously transported there from an island off the coast. The shepherd had a vision and was driven to carry the image up to the top of the hill. When he arrived at the top he was cured of his illness.
Since then people from all over Italy and other parts of the world have flocked to a little chapel erected there that was later replaced by the famous sanctuary dedicated to Our Lady of Grace.

Aside from my experience arriving in London on the day of Lady Di’s funeral, this is the biggest shrine I have ever laid eyes on. Room after room is filled with paintings and drawings depicting scenes of people being saved or healed, letters dating back to the 1700s, articles of clothing, medals and other relics that have been offered up as thanks to the Virgin Mary. I could have spent hours reading the stories of the tragedies and struggles these thousands of people faced and how they were saved or healed by the Virgin.

David is from Livorno and he wanted to show me around, so we drove through the city and past the US Naval Academy to the harbor where his friend keeps a boat they will be sailing in a big race around the Amalfi Coast in a few weeks. On the way he explained that Livorno was bombed by the Germans in WWII and unfortunately most of the beautiful, old buildings were destroyed so it is not as visually appealing as other Tuscan cities. Apparently there is a section of town near the harbor with canals much like Venice that we didn’t have time to check out, but hopefully I will get there on a return trip.

That evening we enjoyed an apertivo at Dai Dai, a fun little bar overlooking the cove of Castiglioncello. I ordered “spritz”- a bright orange, refreshing blend of Aperol, white wine and sparkling water. Then we headed downhill to a restaurant owned by a friend of David’s that sits on a pier in a small harbor. As the sun was setting to our right in dazzling pink , the moon shimmering over the harbor was rising to our left-a truly magical setting.

The meal was one of the best I have had in Tuscany. We started with a glass of Prosecco and a small plate of raw crostini al mare- a single shrimp and a single scampi (which is a slightly larger shrimp) a bright red incredibly flavorful mussel, a clam and a slice of sardine with a touch of olive oil and sea salt. The next course was my favorite- black squid ink pasta with mussels and clams swimming in a light broth that tasted like it came right out of the sea. I savored every bite and it paired perfectly with a light, crisp white wine from Friuli in northern Italy. Next up was a tender, perfectly cooked white fish with lightly steamed vegetables. The grande finale- a fluffy Ricotta mousse with perfectly ripe strawberries. (Unfortunately I forgot to pick up a card from the restaurant and David is off sailing for two weeks so I can’t give you the name. I am sure if you ask for the restaurant on the pier owned by Alberto’s family, someone will know what you are talking about…)

It was a long drive back to Casole d’Elsa, and when I arrived home I fell into bed with a big smile on my face. I must at admit that spending the day with a 6’3” extremely attractive Italian man might have had an impact on the rather positive light in which I had perceived my surroundings. Nonetheless, Castiglioncello is a delightful little town to visit on a hot summer day and the Sanctuary at Montenero, I must say, is a must-see.