Ten Things To Do in Venice Off the Beaten Path

Here are ten of my favorite things to do in Venice. My wife and I are big time glass lovers and small time collectors, so if you share that passion be sure to go to Murano and visit the shops mentioned.


Go to Murano and visit Franco Schivon and Murano Collection. These two shops don’t have demonstrations of how to make a horse out of glass. They actually have great pieces of art.

Murano Collection is a joint venture between Carlo Moretti, Vennini and Boro and Tesovier. It offers well selected pieces and is very dramatically lighted. We have shipped many pieces from there to the US with no problems. They handle the VAT refunds shipping and insurance.

Schiavon has a Japanese glass master, Tsuchida Yasuhiko, who makes one of a kind pieces. His work varies from the dramatic to the derivative. He is still young and you can see his development in his art.

These two shops are much different from the multitudes of shops on the island. Get of the vaporetto at La Colonna. Franco Schiavon is on the left along the canal at Fondamenta Vetrai 15, and Murano Collection is across the canal at the first bridge. This area has the best concentration of really nice shops with really collectable art glass, not the schlocky Asian made stuff so common. Beware of your wallet however, not because of pick pockets but because art glass ain’t cheap.

Pricing: Schiavon and Murano collection — if you have to ask you can’t afford it. Museum quality pieces (limited runs of 100 or less signed by the artist) start at over $1000 but there are pieces in the hundreds of dollar range that are still really wonderful. Looking is free.


See the Carpaccio’s at Scuole di San Georgio del Schiavoni. Incredible paintings on the themes of St. George and the dragon and St. Jerome. Stunning!

Pricing: Under $2.00.


Go to Erberia Rialto and visit the art gallery and studio of Nicola Tenderini and buy a water color or oil painting from him. It won’t set you back much and the painting hanging on your wall will recall Venice for years to come. His technique captures the glint of the sun reflecting off the water. Sometimes I am startled by the motion in his paintings as I sit doing something else. Nicola is at Campo Bella Vienna – Erberia S.Polo 216. Monday through Saturday mornings only. By the way, the bar to the left as you face his shop is superb. Great panini and cappuccino. Note that the locals never pay; the son just writes down a cryptic symbol in his notebook.

Pricing: Nicola’s pieces are under $100 right now because he is an undiscovered genius. The bar is super cheap.


Go to Torcello and see the original Cathedral of the Lagoon. There are two amazing churches there. Wonderfully desolate island loaded with cats.

Pricing: Cost of a Vaporetto ride unless you lunch at Cipriani which I have not done yet. That may set you back $100 or more a person. There is another trattoria on Torcello which is more reasonable but I don’t know how good it is. Looks nice.


Wander the back streets of Cannareggio. Once away from the touristy areas around the Rialto you come into quiet neighborhoods where you get a totally different feel of Venice. We found a sunken gondola around one corner. See the ghetto and take the synagogue tour.

Pricing: Wandering the neighborhoods is free; the tour of the Ghetto is 6 euro or so.


Visit the Ca D’Oro. This is a wonderful museum with its own Vaporetto stop. It was not very crowded and was filled with wonderful objects including affreschi that used to be on some of the grand palazzi on the Grand Canal.

Pricing: Huge bargain, free or just a few euro.


Go to Do Mori and eat and drink.

Pricing: Cheap if you drink cheap (maybe $10 – $20 a person for a light meal of cichetti) but there are wines at around $10.00 a glass that retail for $50 to $70 a bottle in the US.


Go to Da Pinto for incredibly fresh fish at very reasonable prices. Drink Doro Princic wines and eat very good cichetti. Do not in any circumstances eat the pasta or pizza but do order the baccal mantecano (salt cod roughly pureed with olive oil and parsley).

Pricing: Da Pinto will run about $45.00 for two antipasti, a platter of grilled fish for 2, a bottle of Doro Princic.


Go to the Pescaria Rialto at 6 in the morning and see the fish market being set up.

Pricing: Free.


Go to Campo S. Zaccaria and visit the gallery of Missiaja, a former architect who now is an artist. He specializes in the Commedia dell’Arte characters and a few Venice scenes. He uses some computer generated techniques along with hand applied color to hand made paper for his limited editions, and he uses more traditional printmaking as well. Achiugetta at Campo SS Giacomo e Fillipo is nearby so you can raise a glass and consume cichetti while you contemplate your purchase.

Pricing: Free if you just look, $10 for a small print or a box of note cards on handmade paper, $300-$400 for medium and small hand painted items, more for larger ones.

Opera – Arena di Verona

I have been to several outdoor opera venues, but none begins to come close to the experience of the opera at the Arena di Verona.


First off is the location itself. The Arena di Verona is not a ruin. It is an intact piece of the Roman era. True it is missing its outer wall except for a small portion. It is missing its decorative marble facade. But there it is, sitting right in the middle of Piazza Bra!  Not only is it a tourist visit destination, but it is home to a superb opera festival every summer. The tickets are easy to buy through their website (www.arena.it) or, even easier, by phone and fax.

Opera is Not Miked

The essential thing about the Arena is that it is outdoor opera that is not miked. This is the bane of outdoor opera. An opera singer singing thru a body mike has to moderate his or her voice to take full advantage of the sound system. Or their mike has to be turned down so low that the folks in the back can’t hear. But the acoustics of the Arena are so superb that no miking is used at all. There are dead spots on the stage (and these vary depending on where you sit). In fact, I would put listening to opera at the Arena on a par with the Met in NY (not quite as precise but louder in the cheap seats than the Met) and better than the old Kennedy Center Opera House acoustically.


Next up is the seating. It comes in three flavors: reserved on the floor, reserved on the side and nosebleed general admission seats on the original Roman seating. The reserved seating on the floor is in two sections and the first is much better than the second, but also a lot more expensive. If it’s a favorite opera with a super cast (e.g. Turandot with Cura and Casole) pop for the good seats. On the other hand, Nabucco seen from above was just fine. You need to get to the GA seats by about 7:30 to get good seats. It helps if you have your 75 year old mother in law and she looks a little tired. The ushers found room for us only five rows up on the second time we went, arriving at about 8:00pm. The first time, we arrived at 8:30 and sat five rows from the top.

The Candles

You have to pick up your candle from a box, unmarked, on the stairs. The tradition is to light the candles as the opera begins. It’s beautiful but we heard many a person cry “Ouch!” as the hot wax hit their fingers.


In the nosebleed section, there are vendors selling Nestle’s ice cream (not gelato), pizze and panini, and drinks:  beer, coca, fanta, tonic or wine. No water. Bring your own.


If it rains before the opera begins, you get a refund. After the first note – tough luck. The rain hit when we were there about a third of the way thru the last act of Aida. You never saw anyone move so fast carrying so much as the harpists and bassists when the rain was hitting their instruments. Licitra’s voice had not even died out and they were already off the stage. And if it does rain, you will get wet trying to get out. Italians don’t do lines well.

The Performance

It will be lovely. This is opera with a tough crowd. They collectively know their stuff. Great singing will be applauded and the crowd will call for a bis for the superb. (A bis is where the singer repeats his aria, or in the case of Nabucco, the chorus repeated “Va Pensero”.) The second singing will be “out of character”, the singer will just stand and sing rather than act out his or her part. Licitra sang a beautiful Celeste Aida but did not get a call for a bis while Cura’s Nessun Dorma did get it. Even though Cura’s singing was not technically perfect, his acting was so superb that it merited a bis and he got it.

Getting There and Parking

Just follow the signs for Centro. It’s best if you are coming in from out of town to use the Verona Nord exit from the A22 and come in from the west. You are on limited access roads almost all the way into town. You will get on a strada marked Montova Verona and take the Verona exit. You will just veer left a couple of times before you hit signage which will direct you in through the Porta Nuova.
Exiting from the A4 and coming north is also pretty easy, but can be very trafficky. Driving south from the Valpolicella into town means having to come through the centro first, difficult but not impossible.
We parked twice in the covered parking lot “Arena” for 12 euro. Another time we parked on the street on the way to the arena lot. The difficulty with the street parking was backing out into the traffic.

Dining Before and After the Opera

We have explored a number of options and dined better than we have in other touristy places like Piazza Rotunda in Roma or in the Piazza del Mercato Centrale in Firenze. Verona is a serious food city! But be warned, there are a lot of places on Piazza Bra that had very insipid looking food at very high prices.

Hotel Rubiani: If you want very good food served on a lovely patio, go to Hotel Rubiani. Its on a side street just off the Piazza. Find Cantina dell’Arena and turn left as you are facing the Arena; it’s straight ahead on the right. We dined well with a nice bottle of Muller Thurgau from the Alto Adige producer St Michael Eppian. Dinner was around 65 euro. We each had a carpaccio antipasto; mine was octopus and Kay’s was pesca spada (swordfish). Our paste were taglioletti all’Ortolana loaded with delicious summer veggies and spaghetti ai gamberetti e zucchini.  Both were great.  Don’t know if it’s open after the opera. It starts serving at 6:00 pm.

Cantina dell’Arena: Right on Piazza Bra, although we ate outdoors on a side street.  Good food, not great, but the wine list is superb. We enjoyed Quintarelli Valpolicella and Bussola Amarone at very good pricing. We dined there twice, once the three of us and once in a group of 16. Both times were a lot of fun and even with the large group they took very good care of us allowing us to order alla carte for a large group. Their pizze are good to very good, but I would stick to the simple items. Best of all was Sfilacci di Cavallo which is a shredded jerky like product made from horse meat served on a bed of arugula. I had an insalata mista di mare which was marred by the inclusion of fake krab but otherwise delicious. A salad of potatoes and octopus was good. Costolette d’Angello was good and the potatoes incredible. The first dinner was $150.00 but that included about $70 in wine. Open before and after the opera.

Enoteca Cangrande: Before or after the opera. What a find! Find Oliva or Olivo on the Piazza Bra and follow the alley way back a short block or two and you will run directly into Cangrande. It looks pretty seedy from the outside but the empty bottles of Dal Forno Romano are a sure tip off. Run by Marco, with a shaved head and pierced eyebrow, this was both entertaining and wonderful. Fabiola is the fabulous South American waitress who gives great service but is no wine expert. Superb wine selection. Best to go to the far back room and just pull the bottle off the shelf. Or better yet, let Marco recommend something for you. Discovered Raimondi Amarone this way. We had a cheese and meat plate one night before the opera with a bottle of superb Amarone (whose producer name I forgot to write down!!!!!).

The highlight was the gorgonzola, vezanna (a mountain veronese cheese somewhere between a good gruyere and parmiggiano in texture) and tomino both fresco and stagionata. The meats featured the best lardo I have ever had. Also a wonderful cooked ham and local veronese prosciutto. We started out with a piece of 100 day old gorg then they brought us 300 day old gorgonzola. Heavenly.

After the opera that night, we returned and had bocconcini which were little rolls of bread, split and topped with an assortment of things: Gorgonzola and mostarda, lardo and mushrooms, cavallo and speck. Marco picked out wines and we were happy. We bought 4 bottles so I don’t really remember the breakdown of food to wine price wise.  They have a limited menu in addition to meats and cheeses. We will return again but in the mid evening to explore this option. Open 5 pm to 1 am.

Other Things to do in Verona

We only spent part of a day wandering the town. But one thing stood out as a superb visit: the Castelvecchio museum. The castle was given a refurbishing by architect Scarpa and it is a stunning space for art. The castle was left mostly intact but the exhibition space was created using simple concrete poured in rough forms, left undecorated. For example, there is a statue of Cangrande on a huge concrete beam suspended in space. You see it twice, once from below and then later from the same level. There are also special exhibitions there and we loved the one we saw.

Southern Tuscany Travel Guide

Montalcino is in the center of one of the most beautiful areas I have ever been to. We love to take half and full day trips from our base of Montalcino. Below are five day trips we have taken. But this only scratches the surface. You can easily travel them on a TCI map of Toscana (Tuscany). They are between half day and a full day. The individual elements are shown below and can be combined variously. The details of the towns and things to see and do are listed after the day trips.

Day Trips From Montalcino

Trip One: San Quirico, Bagno Vignoni, Castiglione d’Orcia
From Montalcino, take Traversa di Monte towards San Quirico. Follow the signs for Torrenieri. Take SS2 south a couple of kilometers to San Quirico. Park in open spaces alongside town walls on left and enter through the main gate.

Back on the SS2 and follow signs for Bagno Vignoni.
Back to the SS2 south and follow signs for Castiglione d’Orcia and Rocca d’Orcia. From there continue on thru Monte Amiata and Castelnuovo dell’Abate and circle back to Montalcino.

Trip Two: Castelnuovo dell’Abate to Sant’Angelo in Colle
From the traffic circle above Montalcino, take the road to Castelnuovo dell‘ Abate. There is a white road at the entrance to St Antimo. Follow this road to Sant’Angelo in Colle. Do not take the sharp right down to St Antimo unless this is your destination.

You can come back to Montalcino, making this a short route, or you can continue on to pick up Trip Four’s route. If you chose to go back to Montalcino, take the road out of Sant’Angelo in Colle and turn north on the paved road.

Trip Three: Buonconvento and Murlo
From Montalcino head down to the traffic circle at the gas station. Turn left to Buonconvento. Park outside the town and wander its old center.

From Buonconvento, follow the signs to Murlo and Lupompesi (they might also indicate Casciano). From Lupompesi follow the signs to Casciano to see the ruined castle/tower at Crevole.
Either double back or do this trip in reverse after a trip to San Galgano or on the way to San Galgano.

Trip Four: San Galgano and Monte Antico
This trip can be broken up into two or more trips. It is not an efficient drive anywhere, but a grand ramble that has some amazing sights. I have done it both directions, but I think that a long day winding up at La Campanga in Monte Antico or a long day winding up at Bosco della Spina in Lupompesi or even Il Poggiolo, Duccio or Da Mario in Buonconvento both have their charms.

Clockwise: From Montalcino, take the road marked Grosetto. Follow it down past Sant’Angelo in Colle. You can detour to see Castello di Banfi or Camigliano (wonderful village with a great Brunello producer). If going to Camigliano, take the turning off towards Tavernelle and follow the white road. In any case, you wind up going south past San’Angelo Scalo and cross the Orcia river. The road ends at a “T” with the road towards Paganico. Take the right turn towards Paganico. The turn off towards Monte Antico is well signed if you chose to stop there. I do not know if La Campagna is open for lunch (or if they do the Pizzone at lunch).

To go on to San Galgano, continue to the 223, go north for a short bit and follow the signs towards Roccastrada and Monticiano. This is a long, windy route that will take you thru beautiful country. You will be in for a treat in sunflower season on this road (summer). At Monticiano you go northwest; I believe the signs are for Frosini and San Galgano.

You will come to a fairly large crossing with a middle of nowhere gas station just past it. Turn left here for San Galgano and follow the signs. There is the main abbey and then a small church above. There is an okay wine bar by the church.

To get back to Montalcino, take the road back to Monticiano and then take the road that cuts back to the 223. It is indicated S. Lorenzo a Merse. It is a beautiful and very windy drive. There is a turn off to Tocchi worth following. From the 223 go north and follow the signs for Murlo and then back to Buonconvento. You could stop at Murlo for pizza, Lupompesi for Bosco della Spina or Buonconvento for I Poggioli, Duccio (Fiorentina) or Da Mario (very cheap good eats).

Counterclockwise: Head to Buonconvento, then to Murlo across to the SS223. South to the cutoff for Monticiano/San Galgano. From San Galgano, double back to Monticiano and head down thru Roccastrada, Paganico and Monte Antico. You should be able to fill your day and have dinner at La Campagna. The drive from Monte Antico back to Montalcino is about an hour or so.

Trip Five: Monte Oliveto, Sant’Anna and Trequanda
From Montalcino, take Traversa di Monte to SS2 north. Follow the signs to Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The turnoff is in Buonconvento.

After visiting Monte Oliveto, continue on to Trequanda. From Trequanda follow the signs for Montisi and then Castelmuzio (white road route) or Madonino to Castelmuzio (paved all the way). From Castelmuzio, take the road towards Pienza and Sant’Anna is to the right.

An evening stroll in Pienza is a nice addition or continue on to San Quirico and dinner at All’Antico Forno.

Sights Close to Montalcino

This abbey is the most famous sight in the immediate surrounding of Montalcino. It is just outside the village of Castelnuovo dell’Abate, about a 15 minute or so drive from Montalcino. To get there, go to Montalcino. At the traffic circle at the top of Montalcino and follow the sign for St Antimo.

The abbey dates from before the year 1000 but what we see today is more modern. Still it is over 900 years old. It is amazing for its simplicity, setting and lack of ostentation. I find it a powerful place. You can go and hear the services with the Gregorian chanting, but we visited it many a time before ever hearing them. You can hike there from Montalcino and take a bus back from Castelnuovo.

Read more about Sant’Antimo.

Castelnuovo dell’Abate
The town itself is on a little hill and the streets are surprisingly steep. There is a large bar at the entrance to town and Bassomundo is a well know restaurant there of which I have heard mixed things. You are in the midst of some great wineries: Ciacci Piccolomini is the easiest to find and to arrange a visit to. If you go, say hi to Jenna. Their wines are very friendly and approachable for those who are not knowledgeable about Brunello due to the ripeness imparted by their vineyard sites.

Sant’Angelo in Colle
If you are at St Antimo, it is a short drive on a white road to Sant’Angelo in Colle andIl Pozzo, a rustic restaurant that serves superb Fiorentina from Chianina beef. It is worth a detour. Heck, its worth a trip from Siena or even farther! Have the Pinci al Ragu di Cinghiale and Fiorentina and you will be happy. Stuffed and in a stupor but definitely happy.

The village of Sant’Angelo is a delight: simple with a circular layout. It is worth wandering about. It is strikingly lit for nighttime wandering so you can walk before or after dinner. Since some of the streets are pretty steep, so you may not want to challenge gravity after dinner at Il Pozzo. The steep streets offer a treat during the day. You take a side street and all of a sudden you are staring out to a beautiful vista framed in by the walls and narrow path of a street. Great photo opportunities abound!

South of Sant’Angelo in Colle
The road from Montalcino to Sant’Angelo continues on farther south through beautiful vineyards and countryside. This is the home to some pretty large Brunello makers and this district is more of a monoculture than some parts of the area. The grounds ofArgiano and the Castello di Argiano are pretty amazing. Its worth a detour and a short walk. You can only go to the winery by appointment.

Both Banfi and Camigliano are a little ways off the main road. Banfi is down in this area and there are often events held there like the Winter Jazz Fest. Banfi has a restaurant and a museum and incredibly beautiful grounds. I am not a fan of their wines and as such cannot talk about either dining there or tasting there. Camigliano is a wonderful winery making very good wines right now. It is located in the village of the same name and the restaurant there is supposed to be very nice. I think its pretty easy to set up tours or tasting at the winery.

The last town on this bit of road is Sant’Angelo in Scalo. There is reputed to be a good butcher shop there specializing in Chianina beef. If you have an apartment, it’s a good stop for supplies for dinner. You can continue all the way to the end of the road as you cross the Orcia river, you have come to the end of the Brunello zone.

From Sant’Angelo in Scalo, go across the river is the road to Paganico and Mt Amiata. East along this main road is Monte Antico and La Campagna. Monte Antico is a tiny hamlet in the middle of vineyards only accessible by a long and winding road. It offers great views around. I think there is a castle there and you have views of Camigliano and Banfi. This is an out of the way restaurant that has superb (by reputation only, we didn’t have one) Pizzone or large pizzas. If you have two or three NFL linebackers with you (or a teenager or two) you can probably finish one. They are seriously huge and look great. They also make incredible tortelli with potatoes and a topping. I had one a version of the latter with nettles that were very yummy. The wine list is outstanding.

San Galgano
If you go all the way to the Grosetto road (223) and head north a little, you will come to the cutoff for San Galgano. To me, this is a must see, but it is at least an hour or more driving. San Galgano was a major abbey that was abandoned in the 1400s during the wars between Firenze and Siena. The roof was sold for its lead content to make ammunition. Today, what is left is a crumbling shell of the building. It is stark and very moving. There are still functioning portions of the monastery where there is a monastic community. There is an alter and lighting in the abbey so I am sure they have some services there and some events as well.

But I love it for its haunting beauty. It is crumbling and in need of at least stabilization. Since we have been coming there (eight years ago at time of writing) we have seen some of the rose window and some decorative elements disappear from visit to visit. I think it best around sunset. Its very much worth the drive.

After San Galgano itself, you need to hike up the hill (or drive) to the small round church above. The church itself is open to the public but the rest of the buildings are private property. Not only is the view grand, but the church itself is a masterpiece. The dome is banded in black and off white stone and there are Ambrogio Lorenzettifreschi and sinopie (the drawings used to transfer the design to the wall in the making of a fresco) in a small chapel off to the side. Be sure to feed the light box to illuminate them. There is also a wine bar which we did not love especially. The salumi was passable and the wine fairly ordinary. But the setting is nice and the folk friendly.

On the direct road from San Galgano to the 223 you will pass a turn off for Tocchi. I love following the one way road and seeing the medieval buildings in use today. There was a restaurant there, very plain and simple. We passed it by and thought that it either would be incredible or not good at all. I found out later than many considered it incredible. It has closed due to illness or a death in the family. Today it has reopened as Beppi or something like that. It looks larger and not as simple. I know nothing about it but I do want to eat there one time.

Sights Southeast of Montalcino

Taking the Traversa del Monte from Montalcino towards San Quirico leads you on another set of adventures with a totally different geography. Here you don’t have the gently rolling vast seas of grapes as you do to the southwest. The landscape is hillier with more small towns and dramatic vistas.

Torrenieri is a tiny town, reputed to have a good pizzeria. It is a kilometer or two north on the frontage road from where the Traversa meets the SS2. It has a wonderful old church that is seldom open but worth seeing. There is also a winery,Abbadia di Ardegna, with god awful wines, some of the worst I have ever tasted. But it also has a museum of sorts, giving the history of the “torre nero” that gave the town its name as well as a history of peasant farming in the 1930s. Tasting the wine and buying a bottle of the rosso (buying it, mind you, not drinking it!) is a small price to pay to see the tour.

San Quirico d’Orcia
Heading south on the SS2, follow the signs to San Quirico d’Orcia. San Quirico is a lovely town. You drive over the horseshoe shaped old bridge and follow the road and the town will be on your left. Park along the walls and enter through the main gate. There is a garden off the piazza just inside the gate and the main road of the town runs perpendicular to your entry path. Some people like to base in San Quirico rather than Montalcino. It is smaller, quieter and less wine and wine tourist oriented. It has a well regarded hotel, Palazzo dei Capitani. Another advantage is that it is relatively flat and has great access to the SS2.

San Quirico has two churches, one newer with lion porches (basically straight ahead through the gate) and one older one to the far end of the town (through the main gates and to the right). It also has a great restaurant, All’Antico Forno, a very nice bakery and a superb cheese store. The cheese store is beyond the old church and it fabulous. It specializes in family made pecorino. The shop is owned by the youngest son of a sheep raising family. He was tired of shoveling sheep sh*t and he learned to make cheese. It is really quite good, especially the spiced pecorino sott’olio.

Bagno Vignoni
Continuing south of the SS2 from San Quirico, you see a cutoff for Bagno Vignoni (you can also go through the new section of San Quirico and venture up the white road, but I would recommend the simple approach to Bagno Vignoni and take the white road back to San Quirico.

Bagno Vignoni is a gem. There are two spas. The public baths date from Roman times (I think the current version is due to a Medici restoration and a modern reconstruction of the water system). There is a great bar called Il Barino which features live jazz.

By the parking lots, there is a set of ditches that carry the hot water to the edge of the cliff over the Orcia River. These ditches lead to a wonderful historic exhibit. There are two large holding basins and a set of baths there, recently rediscovered. When you have a water source with a large elevation like you do at Bagno Vignoni, you have the chance of having water mills and wealth. The problem at Bagno Vignoni was the rate of the water flow. It was enough to make for really nice hot springs but not enough for the mills. So the holding basins. They were constructed to hold a days worth of water. When full, the exits would be opened and the water volume was enough to run four mills, located down the cliff face. These mills have been excavated and there is loads of signage. The walk down is invigorating and beautiful. The walk up is exhausting, but will enable you to walk off a dinner at Il Pozzo easily. If you do this hike, come early in the day for both the rising morning mists and the lesser heat of an early morning climb back you the cliffs. There are a couple of restaurants in Bagno Vignoni but we have not dined at any of them.

From Bagno Vignoni you can take the white road up to Vignoni and then follow around to Castello Ripa d’Orcia, a wonderful site that is home to a hotel and restaurant of mixed repute. We have just wandered the grounds outside the gates and taken lots of photos. Vignoni is a lovely confection, now used as weekend and vacation homes mostly. The scenery is breathtaking! If you do this drive, you can take the white road back to San Quirico and get a free roller coaster ride. Nothing like a 14 degree drop on a white road!!!

The alternative is to drive back to the SS2 south and follow around in the direction of Monte Amiata thru Castiglione d’Orcia, a drive that is long, winding, castle filled and breathtakingly beautiful. Before hitting Castiglione d’Orcia itself, there is a turnoff forRocca d’Orcia. This is a must do stop, if only for another strenuous exercise opportunity. You will be humbled by all the 90 year old geezers in black sweaters and hats on a hot summer day, smoking cigarette after cigarette who will whiz past you saying “buongiorno” as you are sucking swamp water on your way up. At the top, you will be rewarded with a pretty bland modern sculpture garden, a fortress and some of the best views you will ever see in Tuscany. Its incredible! There is a small entry fee. The rocca itself is well signed and you can learn a little of life in feudal times.

Further along the road is Castiglione d’Orcia, a little town with a castle undergoing what seems to be a fairly large restoration. The town always seems packed with people but we have yet to explore it. From Castiglione d’Orcia you continue towards Monte Amiata and can then turn northwest towards Castelnuovo dell’Abate, St Antimo and Montalcino.

Sights Northwest of Montalcino – Murlo and environs

From Montalcino, take the road down to Buonconvento and then follow the SS2. Some people think of Buonconvento as the cutoff for Montalcino or a railway stop. Whizzing past it, it is easy to ignore. It is set on a plane in a semi-industrial zone. But it has a lovely centro and is worth exploring.

You can park at either end of the Centro but I find the North side easier. Walk to the main gate at that end and you are in the pedestrian Centro which is all of three or four blocks long. There is a Museo dell’Arte Sacre which is definitely worth going to see. In addition, there is a church with some modern touches. But I just love to wander up and back more than anything else.

For dining choices, Da Mario is loads of fun. It is dirt cheap and good. Not great mind you, but good. Most of the diners will be in their usual seats eating their usual orders that no one need to hear them recite. It’s that kind of place. But for a new comer, they will hand you a long menu and then point out the four or five choices from each section that they are offering that day.

Duccio is a Slow Food recommended place, a lot more fussy and formal. Good food, very good Bistecca Fiorentina, nice wine list. I Poggioli in the new section of town is also good and lower priced than Duccio. Very traditional and a bit on the heavy side. They have fish on the menu and as specials which makes for a nice change in Montalcino. The new town of Buonconvento is fairly non descript and lacking in good wine bars etc.

From Buonconvento, there are several routes, all well signed, leading you to Murlo and all routes have their delights. Murlo is a tiny village, very precious with a gorgeous church and spectacular Etruscan museum. Murlo’s claim to fame is that a functional copper casting furnace was found there. Great insight into Etruscan metalwork was gained. The Museo also shows off discoveries like houses and their decorations. The Museo is spread out in two buildings on two floors. It is a fabulous museum and always worth visiting. The signage and information varies from complete with in depth background to almost non existent.

There is a pizzeria/restaurant in the village but I have never eaten there. It comes highly recommended. Murlo is a great stop at dusk as the village is on the hill and surrounded by excellent scenery.

Heading out of Murlo you come first to Vescovado di Murlo, a suburban feeling housing enclave and then the little turnoff that is Lupompesi. Lupompesi is home to Bosco della Spina which is my favorite restaurant in the area. Its food is quite seasonal and offers very modern renditions (in terms of plating and lightness) of classic Southern Tuscan cuisine. It is also truly beautiful as well. Great wine list.

If you follow the road past Lupompesi you will come to the ruined castle of Crevole. It is stunning. Go at night so you see it light up and, well frankly, a little spooky. I would love to see someone make a film there, or maybe stage a production of Luccia di Lammamoor. Its that creepy but beautiful. You cannot get to the castle itself as it is on private property, but there are parking areas and some trails that allow you to get closer.

Sights Northeast of Montalcino

Monte Oliveto Maggiore
From Montalcino, go north on the SS2 until you find the turnoff for Monte Oliveto. It is a few kilometers up the road and well worth a stop. Monte Oliveto is a major abbey still in use today. It is Franciscan today, with a business in old book restoration as well as a restaurant and grounds. They also have rooms for a retreat.

You can spend half a day here easily. Walking the grounds, take in a service with Gregorian chants and then the highlight: the Fresco Cycle by Signorelli and Il Sodoma. The Fresco cycle is on the walls of the cloister. You may run into a tour group or you may be blissfully alone with this masterpiece. I personally am a big fan of Il Sodoma and think him one of the masters of the early Renaissance. His name, translates to the Sodomite and his interest in the male form is quite evident. All the women are basically the same, with nondistinctive figures. The men, however, are all unique and with precise figures (often displayed with hands on hips and bottoms thrust out). Not to be sacrilegious, but his flagellation of Christ presents a quite hunky Christ in a very erotic pose tied to the cross and showing the signs of his scourging. Every muscle and bead of sweat and drop of blood is shown in detail.

Il Sodoma didn’t really understand perspective and its fun to see every mistaken panel with Escher-ian impossibilities of space. Animals show up as often as pretty young boys. Perhaps the best part of the whole is the use of grotesques and the tromp l’oiel panels that frame each scene. Also there is a lot of satire such as the fact that there is a scene where the abbot of the monastery is represented as a devil being thrown in a well. He is shown with donkey’s ears. He made the mistake of disputing a payment to Il Sodoma and was thus immortalized.

Monte Oliveto Travel Guide: More information about the abbey and descriptions of the frescoes.

Sant’Anna in Camprena
From Monte Oliveto, your choices are myriad. I would suggest continuing to Sant’Anna in Camprena. You need to go via Castelmuzio and Montisi. Castelmuzio is a nice stop in and of itself. The old town is elliptical in shape with great views. There is a new town which we did not explore. The church is very nice and, if you can find the caretaker, there is also a little Museo. The bar in town was pretty dreary. There are all sorts of places to sit so that might be the best idea of all. Here you will find another fresco cycle by a much younger Il Sodoma.

We love Trequanda for its simple beauty, its location and its restaurant Conte Matto. Davide is a superb host, the food quite fine and devoted to local and traditional ingredients. The salumi is strongly flavored and made from Cinta Sinese, the local, rare and wonderful pork. The wine list is immense and superb. We dined there on a snowy day and spent three hours watching out the window as the hillside became increasingly white. There is also a fantastic bakery in town.

The church is wonderful for its facade and two freschi inside, one of which is attributed to Il Sodoma (and seems like it could be) and another attributed to him that looks nothing like any of his work. If you dine at Conte Matto, be sure to visit the bakery before or after and pick up some pastries for your next morning’s breakfast. If you are looking for the makings of a picnic, when you turn to drive up to the town itself, there is a huge butcher shop that specializes in the areas finest treats: Cinta Sinese pork products and Chianina Beef. The shop was closed when we went by but I bet you could put together a wonderful picnic at the bakery in town and the prepared and cured meats section of the butcher shop.

Beyond Trequanda is some fine outlet shopping including Liba shirt makers. It’s a great bargain as they make shirts you find at Barneys in NYC for over $100 and even $200 a shirt and you get them at Liba for 45 Euro each. The quality is incredible. Next door is a leather outlet but we did not find anything we could both afford and liked.

There are also signs for roman ruins and churches that you could spend hours following. They will drive you crazy but you will also get some glimpses of pretty amazing stuff. We found a Roman era something or other – bath, sewer, nympheum, who knows! I don’t! But it was amazing, free and deserted!

Also in this neck of the woods is Pienza. We loved strolling it for its renaissance perfection of layout. The Duomo was wrapped iron scaffolding when we visited and a lot of renovation is needed to keep the major attractions from falling off the hill. The main street has about 20 cheese shops most of which are selling the same Coop-made cheeses. I felt like it was a cheese-y Disneyland yet others love it.

This ends my introduction to the surroundings of Montalcino. It is neither balanced or complete. I have nothing about Montepulciano, Montefollonico, San Giovanni d’Asso etc. Some of these are still on my to do list and others just didn’t fit in. It just goes to show that in over 5 week-long visits, staying in Montalcino, we have only begun to explore the surroundings!

Montalcino Travel Guide

montalcinoGetting to Montalcino

Montalcino is atop a hill south of Siena, off of the SS2, about a 45 minute drive. Approaching from the north, take a turnoff from the SS2 just south of Buonconvento. Take the road up to the Traversa di Monti.

From the south or east, you arrive via San Quirico d’Orcia or Grosetto. From Grosetto cut off at Paganico and then follow the signs. You will pass by Sant’Angelo in Scalo on your way. This approach takes you through some pretty huge vineyards. From San Quirico, head towards Torrenieri and then take the Traversa di Monte up the hill to Montalcino.

Parking in Montalcino

In any case, go to the traffic circle at the top of the hill and then look for parking. If you are arriving for the first time, I suggest parking outside the walls in either the new lot or the old lot. Once you have the lay of the land, try the free spaces or metered across from or behind the Fortezza.

From Buonconvento or San Quirico, you will arrive at a new traffic circle with lavender light posts and a new gas station. The caffe at the gas station has surprisingly good caffe and decent, really cheap food.

If you are coming from either Buonconvento or San Quirico, you will pass the Porta Cerbaia. (I don’t recommend going in the Porta Cerbaia the first few times you come to town. It is very convenient, but tight.) Pass the town (with the walls on your right) until you come to a traffic circle with a large mosaic. The mosaic was done by a famous artist who is the owner of Castello di Romitorio winery. The mosaic is considered either a great piece of public art (the city government’s view), a billboard for Castello di Romitorio or a public eyesore. I have threatened to knock it down many a time but Kay says I shouldn’t. Most of my winery owner friends would like it if I did so. This is the most important crossroad in the area as it leads to St Antimo, San Angelo or Buonconvento/San Quirico.

The new lot is to the right and the older lot is down the hill. If you go into the town, there is a pay lot across from the Fortezza. The drive to this lot continues and more pay parking is available by the soccer field behind the Fortezza. But locals and those in the know always try for the spaces on the unpaved area beyond the second lot. They are free and surprisingly available. In any case, park and enter the town by the Fortezza. There is a large bronze map which will help you get oriented. From there, walk down make for the Piazza di Popolo first. The Piazza is the hub of Montalcino and most of my descriptions are written as walks starting from the Piazza di Popolo.

The Town of Montalcino

Montalcino is a walled city that rose to fame in the wars between Siena and Florence (Firenze). The Sienese republic abandoned their town and retreated to Montalcino. Firenze attacked and the city was under siege. The Firenzens won the seige and instead of destrying the town physically, they suppressed it economically. Montalcino was an unimportant backwater until after the Risorgimento and the founding of the modern tradition of Brunello wine by the Biondi Santi Family in the 1880s. The result is that the many practices that other regions have had to over come (such as blending of inferior grapes as in Chianti) were never a part of the tradition of Brunello. On the other hand, the tradition of Brunello is very new and as such, even today 100 years later there are many schools of thought on making the wine.

The heart of Montalcino is the Piazza del Popolo. It is at the base of the clock tower. You cannot miss it. There are two logge which are used for public events or just sitting and enjoying life.

Heading downhill from Piazza del Popolo is Via Mazzini, a pedestrianized street with many little shops. At the bottom of the street is Piazza Cavour with a little parking and then a main parking lot behind the municipal building.

Heading up from Piazza del Popolo, you have two choices, up a steep incline to the Piazza Garibaldi or along a level street, Via Matteotti, home to a number of my favorite shops and favorite places to hang out and drink and eat in Montalcino. From Garibaldi, you can go up a steep hill to another piazza complete with 1600s fortress and parking, Piazzalle Fortezza.

Piazza del Popolo

A few highlights here include Bar alle Logge and Fiaschetteria Italiana, two of the best bars in Montalcino. Bar alle Logge is on V Matteotti and draws a little hipper and younger crowd. We only go to Fiaschetteria when Logge is closed. Both have superb espresso and cappuccino.

Bar alle Logge has a wider wine selection in terms of having a nice selection of non Montalcino wines. It is a great wine bar. In the early evening, it will be crowded with people stopping in after work. Many of them will be drinking cocktails instead of wine. They put out a great spread of food at the cocktail hour. You can also sit down outdoors, paying a lot more for your drinks, and get served. They will make up a plate of snacks for you. They also have a short menu of food, good for a mid afternoon snack or a rainy day sit. We are in Bar alle Logge three or four times a day when we stay in Montalcino.

Osticcio is just up the street from Bar alle Logge. It is a superb, serious wine shop and enoteca with food. You can have a nice tasting of Brunello along with incredible meats and cheeses. The view from the tables in the back is stupendous. They close early so its really a lunch or mid afternoon kind of place.

The nameless meat shop is on the opposite side of the street from Bar alle Logge and Osticcio. It is a super meat shop where everything is cut to order. Specialties include lamb and pork. Stefano, the late owner, was a regular at Bar alle Logge after his shop closed. We heard he died in a motorcycle accident but the shop lives on with his spirit hovering over the pandemonium!

The vegetable shop, up a little farther, is a great place. The original couple who ran it have retired, but it is still the best place to buy veggies in town. The other main choice is the Coop (supermarket)!

Lambardi is a great bakery. I think Via Matteoti changes names by the time you reach Lambardi.

Also along this same block are Giglio and Il Re di Macchia. I now prefer the food at Giglio but both are pretty fantastic. They both offer traditional foods raised up a bit, with attention paid to the raw ingredients. Both have great wine choices available. Il Re di Macchia is a little more straightforward in its cooking, Giglio is a little more refined. We have had great pinci al ragu di cinghiale, a nice rabbit salad and superb pork at Il Re de Macchia (plus very good wines by the glass). Giglio has really good desserts (my chef ate four by himself at one dinner) and the food is more refined. I recall really liking a stuffed pasta there. If we are in town a week, we would probably eat at both one time each.

In the other direction from the Piazza del Popolo, heading downhill on Via Mazzini, isPierangelini, our favorite in-town wine shop. They are really friendly and have a good selection.

Further down the street is a favorite restaurant, Taverna del Grappolo Blu. It is a superb place to eat. The food is good and plentiful and flavorful. The owner is active in the historical pageants of Montalcino. The wine list is okay with some smaller wineries represented. I always have a good time there.

Also down this street are some of Montalcino’s best art shops. Just a few of my favorites include MontalcinoArte, owned by Simone Pinori. He is a great artist in his own right, using a load of different techniques in oil to great effect. We have an olive oil grove that pays homage to Van Gogh in style, as well as some pointillist paintings. He also represents a fabulous quilt maker, Lydia Barilla from Cortona. She makes museum quality art. We have two of her works in our restaurant and they command incredible attention.

Another great art store is Angolo di Terracotta. They have two outlets but we prefer this one.

Also on this stretch of Via Mazzini is a butcher shop that specializes in Chianina beef for Fiorentina and in Cinta Sinese. However, the butcher is not as popular with my Montalcinese friends so I always feel a little like a traitor going in there. But I do.Montalcino 412 is a new store with great picnic supplies. You can also find superb cottons and linens and nice olive wood stuff in this area as well.

Piazza Cavour

At the bottom of V Mazzini is a little garden with benches and a fountain: Piazza Cavour. There are always people just hanging out there. I love to sit for a while and just drink in the scene. Off to the side is a municipal building with some displays of art in its courtyard and incredible views. Note that there is a parking lot behind this building that often has spaces when the other lots are full (like on market day). Al Giardino restaurant is on the square. While we have heard good things about it, our meal there was pretty bad. Maybe an off night.

Piazza Garibaldi

When you are sitting in Piazza Garibaldi, there are two roads that head uphill besides Via Mazzini. Both are worth walking. The one to the right skirts the edge of town and has some grassy bits off to the right. It leads to Madonna del Soccoroso and from there back to the Fortezza.

Back at Piazza del Popolo, you can go up a little pedestrian alleyway to Piazza Garibaldi. The Popolo will be to your left. Piazza Garibaldi has several wine shops but I rarely buy from them. There is a new restaurant (Le Potazzine?) which we have yet to try. Our favorite stop off Garibaldi is Perche No?, the gelato shop. WONDERFUL!

Off of the Piazza are some steep stairs that head towards the art gallery of the church. It is located in a restored building. The collection is very nice, with a lot of impressive pieces (especially the small crucifix by Giambologna, a few pieces by one or both of the Lorenzetti’s. But more noteworthy than any individual piece is the museum itself. It was restored so well. As you go thru it, you get peeks into later rooms that tease your eye. The scale of it is human and the art well spaced out and placed.

Piazzale Fortezza

Piazzale Fortezza is home to our favorite enoteca, Enoteca Fortezza in the Fortezza itself. There are multiple reasons to visit. First off is the wine tasting available. They always have a bunch of wines available. There is a Cruvinet machine with six or so super premium wines (at high prices) as well as a dozen or more wines on the counter.

Angelina is one of the managers and she is wonderful. She is also the font of all knowledge when it comes to restaurants. I never go out to dinner without consulting her. Allesandro is also a manager and he is always busy with packing wines to ship or with organizing tastings. In addition to the great wines, they also make plates of cheese and meats to go along with your tasting. There are tables inside or out for your use.

Several times a year, the Fortezza is home to various festivals. The most famous of which is the Festa del Tondo in October. But I have also been there in April when there was a fundraiser for the local soccer team which was a great excuse for eating outdoors. You can also explore the Fortezza which is a treat in itself. For a small fee you can climb up to the ramparts for perhaps the best view of the Val d’Orcia around! The second floor often had art on exhibit as well.

Outside the Fortezza are several wine shops, the best of which is Enoteca Franciwith the same owners as the Fortezza. There are a couple of restaurants of note,Porta al Cassero and Sciame. Porta al Cassero is an old fashioned place with large portions of heavy and good food. Sometimes the food is a little lax and sometimes its pretty good. In any case, it is very traditional and cheap. I love the tongue with salsa verde. I have not tried Sciame, but other folk I trust love it.

Santuario della Madonno del Soccoroso

From the Fortezza you can walk down in the direction of a larger park and a shopping area. The Coop (supermarket) and the lavanderia (laundry) are in this area. So is the Poste (Post Office). Following along the walls you get to Santuario della Madonno del Soccoroso and more incredible views. From here you can continue back down to Piazza Cavour.

The Duomo is also in the area. There are some steps you can take to get to it (at least there were but the last time I looked there was construction connected with the building of a new parking lot). The Duomo has incredible artifacts from long ago, including an alter that is probably 1000 years old. But overall the Duomo is not especially wonderful.

Last but not least is the wine shop Bruno Dalmazio below the Porta Cerbaia on the road to San Quirico, the Traversa del Monte. They have a great selection of the wines from Montalcino and the rest of Toscana, Umbria and then parts south. They also have two computer terminals which you can use free of charge. The folks there are very nice, the selection very large and well thought out, the pricing fair. They have those self service wine dispensing machines but they have never been working when I have been to the shop. Maybe someday! They also have a great selection of big bottles.

Off the Beaten Path – Ten Things To Do in Florence

I am purposely not giving phone numbers and exact addresses. Our approach is to wander and discover. This is a list of some of our favorite discoveries in Florence (Firenze).

Perugino frescoes

Baptism of the Neophites ~ Brancacci ChapelSee the Perugino frescoes (freschi) at Santa Maria Dei Pazzi. This is only open from 17:00 – 19:00. You enter the church and look for the main chapel on the right. There is a little desk where we paid 4000 lire (now probably 3 Euro or so) to an elderly couple who spoke no English, only Italian and French. They were of the “if we shout loudly at you, you will understand a language you don’t really speak school.” Follow the signs down and through the crypt to a tiny chapel. The Freschi have never been restored or retouched. They are simple and beautiful. Filled with the soft, rich pinks, blues and lavenders characteristic of Perugino. It was a very intense experience.

Capella Brancacci in Santa Maria della Carmine

Il Carmine & Brancacci Chapel

Massaccio, Masolino and Lippi are the creators of one of the great fresco cycles in this small chapel. You will have to wait in line as they only let groups of 20 visitors in for a limited time to view these superb frescoes. You sign up for a timed tour and you can go grab a caffe if necessary. They might have a reservation system in place by now.

The Amazing Expulsion from the Garden by Massaccio

Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden is a highlight. The frescoes were recently restored by a Japanese company removing the many alterations that had been added over the years to cover up some of the nakedness in the original frescoes. Michelangelo used to study these works as part of his inspiration. The church had a fire and these frescoes survived unharmed. Not exactly unknown, but not a lot of people make the walk “Oltr’Arno” or across the Arno to see this wonderful chapel. The rest of the church is a baroque confection.

Tripe sandwiches from a tripe seller

New York has its hot dog carts, Washington DC is home to the half smoked from red and white sidewalk booths, and some of the best Mexican treats in Los Angeles are sold in carts street-side. But none compare to the wonders offered in Firenze. Located in many piazze across Firenze are the tripe carts. You have several choices: hot or cold, stuffed or regular, and salsa verde or nocon sale (salty beyond my comprehension) or non con sale (saltier than most things you will ever put in your mouth but properly so). My choices are frio (cold), ripeino (stuffed or with the center of the bread removed so there is room for more tripe) and con salsa e poco sale (with green salsa and with just a little salt). Heaven for about $3.00!!!

Museo del Opera delle Santa Maria di Fiori

The museum of the Duomo. Again, not unknown but much less visited than many other spots. Located behind the Duomo, this is the repository of many works from the Duomo. There are sculpture aplenty including Michelangelo’s other Pieta and many Donatello. You can also see the original bas reliefs from the Campanile. The Museo underwent a spectacular renovation recently and now hosts special exhibits as well as its permanent collection. The curation of the permanent exhibits is superb with detailed explanations in English and Italian. Some of my favorites were the tools used to actually construct the dome.


One of our favorite occupations in Firenze is to shop. And one of our favorite places to shop is at Capecchi. If you are on Piazza Santa Croce with your back to the church, there are three streets leading directly away from the Piazza. The left most street is Borgo de Greci. At 13r is the shop. Jessica is the daughter and Piero is the father. They hand carve and color leather. The stuff is striking and memorable. We have assorted wallets, photo albums, purses, book marks and even wall hangings all made out of leather. I must admit that the wallets don’t hold up as well as regular leather as the carving weakened the leather. But I view that as an excuse to return to Firenze regularly to get a new wallet.

Museo del’Opificio di Pietra Dure

An amazing museum. If you are unlucky there might be 10 to 15 people in there with you. Pietre Dure is the art of making pictures from semi precious stones that was the favorite of the deMedici. This museum has so much incredible art to see that it is a little overwhelming, but for 2 Euro or so, it is one of the great bargains of all time!

Lunch at Mario, Casalingha or Nerbonne

dado of marioMario is just behind the Mercato Centrale up the small street from the more famous Za-Za. Casalingha is on the Sottoporteggio to the left of Santo Spirito (as you come out the door) and Nerbonne is in the Mercato Centrale itself.

Some restaurants that have a large tourist base are transformed by the tourists and lose their edge. Others are untouched and will teach tourists about the wonders of simple, working folk’s food. This trio is of the latter class. You will be having lunch with folk from painters (the kind who paint walls not artists who paint freschi and portraiture etc), professors, students, lawyers and the occasional countess dressed in furs and the family jewels. The food is old fashioned, heavy and absolutely delicious.

  • Mario is the place of Bistecca Fiorentina as well as the daily menu. You need to have two meals there to fully enjoy it offerings.
  • Casalingha is controlled pandemonium with a huge daily changing menu.
  • Nerbonne is a cafeteria set up with the ordering done at the prepared food section. But make sure to order a sandwich (lampredotto bagnato is my choice- it’s a special kind of tripe but the boiled beef is also really great) and take the ticket they give you to the sandwich making end of things.

All are dirt cheap unless you go for Bistecca at the first two. None have great wines but you can get a good glass of Brunello or Chianti at Mario.

Wander from the Palazzo Pitti to Santo Spirito and enjoy the artists shops

Florence is still home to artisan shops of all kinds. In the neighborhood from the Pitti to Santo Spirito are hundreds of shops where you can see the traditional crafts being still performed today. You can see Pietre Dure being made (“paintings” made from semi precious stones). There are so many different kinds of art being made. Much of it is expensive but it costs nothing to stop and watch. But even the expensive stuff seems much more reasonably priced when you see the labor that goes into it.

Caffe e Paste at Bar Agostino

On Via S Agostino, nearby Santo Spirito, go to Bar Agostino. They will be gruff and if you are not from the immediate two blocks surrounding the place, you are totally unimportant. Until your second visit, when you will be recognized as somewhat akin to a human. If you go back a third time, you will be family. The caffe is hot, bitter and spectacular. Cappucci are superb. The pastries insanely good. At 4pm or so, they make fresh donuts.

Buy a leather coat from a street stall around San Lorenzo

This isn’t off the beaten path, but it is a tradition worth pursuing! I love my coat from San Lorenzo. Its long and warm and is burnishing into a well worn treasure. It cost me less than $200 and would sell for two to three times as much in the US. I bargained it down from $400 and I’m sure that I might have gotten a better deal if I could curse in Farsi as the sellers were Iranian Jews who have lived in Firenze for almost 22 years having fled from the revolution. Not only do I have a coat, but I have the memories of those I bought it from.

Buy a picnic or a light dinner at Baroni in the Mercato Centrale

Just hand them your credit card and kiss your good credit rating goodbye. You wantprosciutto? How about Prosciutto di San Daniele, Parma or Cinta Sinese (get the latter). Or Jamon Iberico Belota? Or any of a dozen sausages and cured meats made from Cinta Sinese (the heritage pig of Siena) or the Iberico pigs of Spain. All a bargain at 80 Euro a kilo for the prosciutti and 40 Euro for the sausages. Or some homemadesopressatta (head cheese). Or maybe 20 or 30 amazing cheeses including “Frog’s Skin” from Montalcino. Get them to recommend a bottle of something good and unusual like Le Cupole from Trinorio or a bottle of Radikon Ribolla Gialla. If you do go, please say hello to a lot of my money well spent there. I think I am personally responsible for sending one of the kids to Harvard!

Vino Sfuzo

Find a good bottle shop and drink a Montalcino Rosso Sfuzo for 3.50 Euro a bottle. We found one great one around the corner from Residenza Il Carmine on Via Serragli on the left as you go south, away from the bridge. Its around the corner from Bar S. Agostino.

Lunch or Dinner at I Giovanni on Via del Moro

Owned by one of the sons of the family if I Lantini, this is a modern restaurant serving updates of very traditional Tuscan classics made from impeccable ingredients. The tagliata from Chianina beef served with a classic salsa verde was a lesson in simplicity. They also have some incredible seafood. It’s the kind of place where young and starving hipsters take their parents when their parents are buying. Figure on around 100 Euro if you drink a nice bottle, more of you drink high on the hog. See if they have Coal Ila single malt scotch for your after dinner drink. Taste like iodine and dirty ashtray …. YUM!

Okay, so maybe it’s more than 10 things! Have a great time in Florence!

North and Northeast

This is a not at all comprehensive tour through some of my favorite wine areas: Trentino, Alto Adige and Friuli Giulla Venezia. I am going to highlight areas based on specific wines that I love and the wineries that make them.

These three regions are probably more influenced by their neighborhoods to the north and east as by the rest of Italy. The food is very different and the languages are different. Alto Adige and Trentino together are called the Sud Tyrol and have a semi autonomous status legally in Italy. German is just as common as Italian in many areas. This is mountainous country so the food is rich in game and mushrooms, and lots of lard is used. Friuli Giulia Venezia has some of the same influences and foods, but adds flavors from the former Yugoslavian republics on its borders. Friuli also had a lot of Venetian influence in the past so its food uses more of the spices traded by Venezia. Friuli also has access to the Adriatic so it has a lot of seafood in its cooking. Fred Plotkin recently wrote a book on Friuli and its cooking. In both of these areas the names of many of the wineries do not sound Italian.

Aside from the cultural factors, there is also a different philosophy about wine making. In most Italian wine making zones, the DOC is given to a specific place name and there is a range of grapes that can be used to make the wine. The DOC is both a geographic guarantee and a recipe for the winemaking. For example in Chianti, the allowable grapes include the Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Malavsia, Trebbiano, Colorino. For Chianti Classico, the base wine must be at least 70% Sangiovese and no more than 90%, yet 10% can be any grape of the winemaker’s choice. Thus a wine COULD be 100% Sangiovese (although then it would most likely be called a Vino di Tavola “Super Tuscan” as those wines sell for more than Chianti), or it could be as little as 70% Sangiovese and have as much as 10% white grapes and could have Merlot or cabernet or syrah added. In fact it could have pinot noir! So seeing Chianti on the label does not specify the grape. In Friuli and the Sud Tyrol, the grape reigns supreme. Having said that, some of the best wines in these regions are actually blends. Jermann and Walter Filiputti both have blended wines that are amongst the most costly and sought after wines of the region: Vintage Tunina and Poesis respectively.

The other major difference in these areas lies in the scale of production. Most estates are small to tiny. It is not unusual for a winery to be 3000 or 5000 cases. Just to put that in perspective, Robert Mondavi may make 100,000 cases or more of Napa Valley Cabernet, 15,000 of his reserve and 10,000,000 cases of wine in total per year. Beringer makes 250,000 cases of its cabernet. The small scale of these areas leads to another difference, the quality of some of their cooperatives. The small growers may opt for selling their grapes to a coop and leaving the technical winemaking and marketing headaches to others. Some of these coops are simply superb. Some are truly awful. Many are just huge wine factories that churn the stuff out like so many gallons of gasoline (Santa Margherita and Cavit come to mind). So one of the main challenges comes in finding your favorite winery. One of my favorites is Doro Princic. This family owned winery makes only 3,000 cases in a good year and less in a poor one. Maybe 400 to 500 make it to the US. The result is a multitude of producers. Few regions are better suited to experimentation than these three.

The Grapes

In both the Sud Tyrol and Friuli, the most famous grape is the Pinot Grigio. This may or may not be the same grape as the Pinot Gris of Alsace. It is related to the Tocai Friulano. It has a tendency to produce large crops and tends towards insipidity. It never was traditionally the most famous or most widely planted grape in the area. But in the 1970’s, Santa Margherita introduced the wine to the US market and made their pinot grigio the number one selling Italian wine asked for by name in the US. In fact its success in the US drove the Italian wine drinking market and made pinot grigio the leader there as well. How unfortunate! The native grapes that used to dominate the area are now the lesser known grapes and a wonderful tradition has been cast aside in favor of mediocrity much as the corner burger shop has been replaced by those purveyors of bad taste, Mickey D’s, BK and all those other pushers of sameness. Pinot Grigio can on occasion arise to the heights of greatness, yet most often is just a vinous, innocuous, mostly forgettable experience. So many restaurants actually admit as much when the waiters say we have XYZ Vineyards chardonnay and a pinot grigio by the glass. I can tell some of you will be disappointed that I am not telling you how I really feel. I must admit that I enjoy so much doing my little bit to get people to drink the unusual and the traditional. But I am a lone salmon swimming upstream against the evil torrents of blandness, sameness and brand name.

Tocai Friulano – This is my favorite grape widely grown in Friuli. It is akin to the tokay-pinot gris of Alsace and has nothing to do with the tokay of Hungary (which yields one of the great sweet wines made anywhere). Tocai has the character and terroir that pinot grigio often lacks. There is a legal dispute going on in the EU over the use of Tocai Friulano and Tokay and at last I heard the Friulani were losing. One move was to rename the grape Furlan, which is also the name of the Friulian dialect. Tocai Friulano are rich and oily, yet dry and crisp. They stand up to surprisingly stout foods such as tomato sauces, salumi, stew made with game, roast birds of any kind.

The high quality and uniqueness of the Tocai is attested to by the following. My favorite seafood restaurant in Roma, La Rosetta, is owned by Sicilians. I became a valued customer the first time I visited because I was familiar with Sicilian cooking from my time in the Italian restaurant business in Los Angeles where the chef owner of the restaurant I worked for had a deep love of Sicilian foods. However, when it came time to pick a wine, I went for a Friulian white. I almost apologized to the waiter saying that as nice as Sicilian white are (a little white lie) I preferred the whites from Friuli. He leaned over and whispered into my ear, “That’s okay, I do too”. Next, Massimo the owner came over and told me his favorite whites were Tocai as well. In fact he had more Tocai on his list than Sicilian whites of all kinds!

Tocai is almost too flavorful. Many a winery is now making a blended wine with the Tocai as its base. Filiputti’s Poesis is a wine in this category- tocai, ribolla gialla, chardonnay, sauvignon and pinot bianco all go into it.

Ribolla Gialla – A native grape to the Friuli area (or at least ancient heritage). It is another spicy grape, more aromatic and bright than the tocai. It is also a very good food wine. This is a wine that has a fresh citrus fruit component yet is also earthy. I wish that RG was more widely available in the US and that more people knew about it.

Gewrztraminer or Traminer – Tramin is a town in Germany. Gewrz is German for spicy. Thus the name of this grape is spicy one from Tramin. I absolutely love gewrztraminer, especially when made dry like that are typically in Alsace, and Trentino Alto Adige. These are wines of great intensity and richness, so much so that you may think they are off dry or slightly sweet, but they are usually quite dry to a slight bit off dry. This means that have wonderful flavors to stand up to flavorful foods and the acidity to refresh your palate. When my wife and I dine in NYC at our favorite restaurant there, Esca, we almost always have one of the three or 4 gewrztraminers they offer on their list. The wait staff all rush over when we do so because these are their favorite wines and yet almost no one orders them. Again, I am a salmon…

Riesling Renano – Another Sud Tyrol specialty. This is again a dry wine that is not my favorite but that’s just my opinion. Riesling is a grape that I prefer sweet so I love German Riesling but not Alsatian or Italian versions.

Malavasia – I am only familiar with Malavasia from Friuli but there may be some grown in the Sud Tyrol. This is another aromatic wine with a rich broad mouthfeel. I love them but they are very hard to come by even over there. If you do see one try it!

You may note that I have not mentioned red grapes so far. That’s because I don’t really drink reds from Friuli or Trentino Alto Adige. The predominant grape in Friuli is merlot and it is very often made in a lighter, high acid low oak style. I have really never seen many reds from Trentino and alto Adige but I know that they are popular. One red I do like from the northeast is Teroldigo, And there are many Veneto reds I like such as Vennegazzu by L. Gasparin. This latter wine is from the area north of Treviso and is cabernet based. Look for the simply incredible Capo di State “black label” instead of the fine “white label” regular. Maculan also makes cabernet based reds in Breganze, but I am not a big fan. Teroldigo is a high acid big fruit low tannin red, but I am not exactly sure of where it comes from. I do like Teroldigo when I find it on a wine list, although I have never bought a bottle to bring home.

For the producers, the star rating is purely arbitrary and not statistically reliable. It is a measure of how much my mouth watered when thinking about the wines from them that I have enjoyed. Its on a scale of 1 to 3 stars so you can tell how I really feel about Ca’ Terlano! I would love to visit both of these regions and do some serious tasting but the problem with that is the heavy use of lard in the food and my dietary restrictions. I would only do a trip there if I had an apartment and could cook for myself.

Producers – Trentino Alto Adige

I will treat the Sud Tyrol as a single unit. To distinguish the two would require me to actually consult a reference book and that would be too much like work! Besides, the winery differences far outweigh the geographic ones (leave it to me to have a philosophical reason behind my laziness!).

***Ca’ Terlano – My favorite winery in the area. They make simple blends, vineyard designated wines and then their top of the line bottling. These latter are amongst the greatest white wines I have ever tasted. They go by proprietary names such as ****!!!Quarz (sauvignon) and ****!!!!Lunare (gewrztraminer). I have only seen these wines in Venezia (at Fiaschetteria Toscana and the wine shop next door to Achiugette) and in California (imported by Diamond Wine Merchant).

***Institute di San Michele – Superb gewrztraminer. Again, there are blends and then there are vineyard designates. Very delicate of body but very intense flavors. Simply superb wines. I was introduced to them at La Rosetta in Roma and I have seen them in NYC at Esca. Amazing producer.

***Hoffstadter – I have had these wines at Esca in NYC so I know they make it over here. The importer is either Vias or Vinifera so they are nationally distributed. They will make several designations of a particular grape. A little fuller in body and less aromatic than the San Michele.

***Maso Furli – I have only had this wine (their traminer) at Fisachetteria Toscana. in Venezia and it is one of the most stunning whites I have ever tastes. I have seen the blend wine on a list from an enoteca in Firenze but I have not seen their reserve wines.

**Pojer e Sandre – Very nice whites in a more rustic style. They make some lesser know grapes like Muller Thurgau.

*Kris by Franz Haas – Widely available and very good bargain. Cost plus usually has them as does Whole Foods so they are available in a lot of markets.

*Lageder – Probably the most famous winemaker in the area, and a very good one. Very precise wines, very clean if a little bit soulless. I would not hesitate to buy anything by Lageder if there were no other Sud Tyrol wines to try, but I almost always would try something else to further my education. The house style predominates in my opinion.

Producers – Friuli

***Ronco Del Gnemiz – Incredibly rich and spicy wines. I love their Tocai and their chardonnay. I have not tasted their wines since 1997 vintage and have not seen them in DC since I moved out here.

**Doro Princic – Tiny little producer who is right on the border. You actually leave Italy when you drive through some of his vineyards. Lovely wines with a little more delicacy than the Gnemiz.

**Jermann – The first heavy hitter winery from Friuli to make it big in the US. They go back in history to when the area was a part of Yugoslavia. Wonderful rich wine, very pricey, very good.

***Pra di Pradis – From the owners of Castelcosa (see below). This is their reserve wine. Big rich wines of substance. Very racy wines. I love them, hard to find.

**Castelcosa – Very easy to find. This is a blended wine, the blend being across the zones of production. They are very recognizable by their bright mustard or goldenrod label which at first appears to be put on the bottle crooked. It’s a great marketing ploy as their wines are instantly recognized.

***Walter Filliputti – The first famous winemaker from the area. He has consulted with many of the top wineries at one time or another. His eponymous winery is now making great wines. Try Poesis!

***Abbazia di Rosazzo – Not sure if they are still in business, their label got hung up in legal battles. Wines were originally made by Filliputti.

**Piuatti – Very nice producer of wines with distinct flavors. Not my absolute favorite but I would have no problem drinking their wines if one of my more favorite wines was not available.

**Zamo e Zamo (aka Vigne di Zamo) – Very nice. Another Filliputi influenced property. They make some old vines bottlings. Really good property.

*Livio and Marco Felluga – 2 wineries owned by different branches of the same family. Not my favorite, very commonly available.

**Vie di Romans – I have only had their wines once or twice and I was very impressed. If you are at Esca in NYC, the wines are available there and are worth a try.

**Borgo Tiglio – Very small producer of high quality. Very hard to find. They make “regular” and cru vineyard designated wines. The designated wines are a major step up.

***G. Dorigo – Haven’t seen them recently but these are huge bodied and full flavored wines that justify their high price. One of the great producers.

Impressions of Brunello

Great wines are grown, not made. The job of the winemaker is to translate what nature gives them and not screw it up. Our visit to the vineyards of Brunello was far too short (and this piece may be far too long). But my understanding of the wines made in this very special spot was greatly enhanced. Just spending two days here showed me so much and yet, Andrea Costanti is still learning after spending 22 years making wine in Montalcino. Our visit reinforced that Brunello is, for me, one of the greatest red wines there is. Along with mountain grown cabs from Napa, Santa Cruz and Sonoma county, the Brunelli from the mountainous portions of Montalcino are my favorites.

The wines of Brunello di Montalcino are at once simple to understand and very complex. The DOC Brunello di Montalcino allows for the making of three wines: Rosso di Montalcino, Brunello di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. All three must be made completely of the Brunello clones of the Sangiovese grape. Brunello must spend three years in wood and are released January 5 years after the harvest year (1998 is just being released in January 2003). Brunello Riserva must spend an extra year in wood and is released 6 years after harvest (the 1997 Riservas will begin to be released in January 2003. Rosso has no specific aging requirements. The complications have two sources: the geological complexity of the region and the emergence of “Super Tuscan” vini di Tavola and IGT. These latter are the myriad wines being made by Montalcino producers with assorted grapes (mostly combining Sangiovese with Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet) and more modern techniques resulting in wines of a more international style. It is the complexity added by the vast variations in soils, weather, exposures and the experience of families who have been part of the wine making traditions for hundreds of years that will be addressed, however briefly, here.

Modern Brunello is a recent phenomenon. Biondi Santi produced the first famous Brunello just over 100 years ago. These are huge, strikingly tannic wines that take decades to age out. They are fabulously expensive as well. In the 1960’s, many traditional Montalcino families led by the Costanti’s began to modernize the style of winemaking, converting their families’ private winemaking into commercial ventures. Today there are over 150 wineries in the Consorzio di Brunello di Montalcino, the organization that regulates and defines what Brunello is. There has been one major revision of the DOC law in the recent past and another is being discussed. The movement is towards less wood aging and earlier releases of the wines. I hope this process is not taken too far so we don’t lose what makes Brunello so special.

Our visit began on a foggy Monday leaving from the Tuscan Maremma. We drove north from Manciano through Saturnia, Arcidosso, around Monte Amiata and entered Montalcino from the south. The valley formed between Monte Amiata and the hill of Montalcino itself is the Val d’Orcia. The Orcia river is a conduit to the cool and moist sea air of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The two hills make for a funnel, or venturi, which speeds up the air flow coming along the Orcia. Once past the town of Montalcino the region opens up to a sloping hillside, adding another variant to the equation of Brunello. It is this unique combination of geological features which give the precise balance of heat and coolness, of moderating sea influences and of a combination of soils that make Brunello what it is. There are at least 4 major sub regions in Brunello: the Val d’Orcia itself, the hills around Castelnuovo dell’Abate, the shoulder of the hill of Montalcino and the slopes to the north. Each has a characteristic soil and weather pattern which accounts for much variation in Brunello. Then within each area there are variations. The Consorzio di Vini di Brunello di Montalcino writes of 24 distinct micro climates in the area.

The southwestern end of the Val d’Orcia is dominated by Banfi. The Banfi estate is thousands of hectares, much of it originally owned by Argiano. You drive northeast for over 1/2 a hour with Banfi signs your constant companion. I think the Banfi estate has its own area code. This is where Brunello di Montalcino is a mono culture, nothing but grapes. It is only when you pass Banfi that you return to the mixture of farms, vineyards, olive groves and woods that is so common to Toscana.

The southern portion of Brunello is all rolling hillsides. The estates tend to be larger. As we moved north towards Argiano and Sant’Angelo in Colle the land got much wilder and more hilly, the estates smaller. Argiano is on a little bluff. It is 200 hectares with a villa overlooking Castello di Argiano (privately owned and not possible to visit). Argiano is a modern winery with loads of stainless steel and tile in the cantina (fermentation and bottling facility). The cellar however, is a different story altogether. It is dirt floored and filled with small oak barrels and the botti where the wine spends its final resting time after blending and before bottling.

The Brunello and Riserva are a blend selected on a barrel by barrel basis. The lots of Rosso and Brunello are separated early on. The Rosso is blended and bottled at about a year of aging. The rest of the barrels are set aside for potential use in the Brunello or Riserva. The most concentrated barrels wind up getting more aging time and go into the Riserva. The rest are examined for use in the “regular” Brunello. Many a barrel originally intended for Brunello does not make the make the final blends, well after the rosso from that vintage has been bottled. I suspect that a lot of the Brunello that is not selected for the final blend will be sold to other wineries. Anywhere from about 30% to 70% of the vintage will be made into Brunello in any given year, depending on quality. In 1997, 70% of the wine harvested wound up as Brunello. In 2002 only about 30% will.

The district running east and south from Sant’Angelo in Colle and starting just to the north of that town produces some of the greatest wines in the region. This is a side valley with conditions very different than the surrounding area. The wind comes up from the ocean along the Orcia river valley. As this valley narrows considerably at Montalcino, the wind speeds up. This makes for slower ripening and higher acid levels in grapes grown in this area. In great vintages, where the grapes achieve full ripeness, this area really shines. Wines from this area may have a very different vintage character than the rest of Brunello. Many of my favorite wines come from this zone including Agostini Pieri, Lisini, Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona, Uccelleira. These wines tend to be big and spicy.

The Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona wines are made in Castelnuovo dell’Abate, near Sant’Antimo. The grapes come from very hilly vineyards located a little to the south of there. The cantina, where the grapes are crushed fermented and bottled, is located in the vineyard, while the barrels and botti for cellar aging are in the Palazzo. The Bianchetti family inherited the property from the d’Aragona family when the last Count and Countess (or was it the last Duke and Duchess) died without children. It was a surprise that the family left the winery to their property manager, Signor Bianchetti, and not to the church, as they had so many a Pope in their background. Bianchetti maintained the winery name as Piccolomini d’Aragona and put his name in tiny type on the label. It was Bianchetti’s dream to enter commercial winemaking. In just 17 years, his wines are now amongst the most sought after wines of Brunello.

The wines are aged mostly in botti: large oak ovals of varying size, from a few hundred liters to maybe 4000 liters. By transferring the wines often from one type of botti to another (differing sizes and ages of oak), they are able to get a lot of complexity on the wines without a lot of oak flavor. We tried the 1998 and it was superb, especially considering the poor reputation of that vintage. We also tried the 2001 Rosso and it was incredible for a rosso. This bodes well for the vintage at Piccolomini. Their super Tuscan is Ateo and it was nice. Half sangiovese and half a cabernet merlot blend. We had a delightful time with Jena, who is the girlfriend of the Bianchetti son, and handles sales for the winery. I hope to see her in New York at a major Brunello tasting on November 18. We did not get to try their Syrah, named Fabius after the builder of the Palazzo.

After tasting at Piccolomini, Jena took us to visit her neighbor Andrea at Uccelleira. There was a small mishap involving our rented car, a wall, and seeing the sky from an interesting perspective. Well, I am not sure that the wall was actually involved because Tabby (the name our intrepid VW Golf got early on in the trip) came through without any rearrangement of her sheet metal. There was a loud noise and Tabby’s front end leapt up several feet off the ground… Leave it to say that some plastic parts fell off the car somewhere between Ciacci and Uccelleira (a drive of less than a mile) that did not seem to affect Tabby. I have always maintained that cars in Italy have too many parts and that losing a few is a good thing. Luckily we were renting from Europcar through Auto Europe. They didn’t say a thing when we said farewell to Tabby in Firenze.

Uccelleira is a tiny producer which makes 1100 cases a year. We met Andrea, the owner and his parents. Dad was on a ladder checking the olive trees. Mom was out checking into what Son and Dad were doing. Andrea, the son, was in a dirty pair of auto racing related blue and greasy black overalls. Jena has visited the winery before and tasted wines out of the barrel before. At Vinitaly she does the spiel for Uccelleira in English as Andrea can’t speak a word.

Andrea first took us to look at his vines. He only has two hectares at the winery (about five acres). He was telling us how each row differed and how there were upper and lower parts of each row that usually went to Brunello or Rosso. I think he names each vine. He farms about six hectares in total at various levels of elevation in the Castelnuove dell’Abate area. In Napa this sized holding would yield about 2500 to 5000 cases of wine, here it yields 1100. This is a reason Brunello is so expensive.

We tasted in order: Rosso 2002, Brunello 2002, Brunello 2002 Riserva (he separates Riserva portions from regular early on, but will not always bottle it separately. In 2002 he will not make Riserva), 2001 Brunello, 2001 Riserva from Botti, 2001 Riserva from Barriques blended with a bit of the botti batches, 2001 from Barriques only, 2000 Brunello, 2000 Brunello Riserva (which is destined to be blended back into the 2000), 1999 Brunello, 1999 Riserva (which will probably be bottled separately) and 1998 Brunello out of the bottle. Please note that this represented twelve different wines at Uccelleira (and eighteen total for the day!). I have done a lot of barrel tasting in my day but this was one of the most intense experiences of my wine life. I felt for Kay who was having sinus problems. Jena was amazed by the tasting. When we got to La Chiusa that night we had to brush our teeth; they were black.

Once you get to the northern slopes of Montalcino, the weather again changes. There is little fog, less rain and the wind, while strong is less strong than on the southern exposure. Costanti is in this area. His wines are superb. Andrea is the second of the “modern” Costanti’s to run the winery. The family dates back to the 1500 but the winemaking professionally only began in the 1960’s. This is Andrea’s 22nd vintage in charge. He is a quiet man, very elegant, subtle with a sly sense of humor, just like his wines. We hit it off with him immediately and have been invited back in July to spend a week or so at the Villa. The guest apartment has a huge fireplace in the kitchen with a grill in it, a stove, full cooking equipment. I am sure that there is a bathroom and bedroom as Kay assures me, but all I can remember is the kitchen.

We tasted 2002 Rosso, Brunello and Ardigno (cabernet merlot blend. Then we moved into the villa to taste 2001 Rosso, 1998 Brunello, 1997 Riserva and 2000 Ardigno. The Rosso was extremely good. I can’t wait for its release in February. His 2001 is a great vintage. His 1999 is a very good one. In other areas of Brunello, the 1999’s may be better than the 2001’s. All depends on the particular spot the grapes came from. The 1998 was okay, but not as good as those of Uccelleira and Ciacci. The 1997 Riserva was a true wine moment. Its hard to explain how a wine can be so good. Its like explaining sex to a virgin (or gelato to someone raised on Baskin and Robbins). You can describe it all you want, but experiencing it is the only way to fully grasp how good it actually is.

I commented to Andrea on how different his wine was to those of his near neighbor, Val di Cava. Less than a mile apart, the wines differ so much. Andrea explained that Montalcino used to be an island surrounded by sea. Eons ago it rose to form the modern hill of Montalcino. Andrea’s property is on a portion of the original island. The rock is volcanic. Val di Cava is on the original sea bed, a heavier sedimentary rock formation. Both formations have weathered into soil that supports their vineyards, but of a different texture and components. Costanti is rocky and gravel soils, Val di Cava is heavy with clay. One is not better or worse, just different. Also Val di Cava is at the top of the fog line. In normal times, in the middle of the day, Val di Cava can be fog shrouded while it is clear at Costanti. Costanti is on the shoulder of the ridge containing Montalcino and the winds are very strong there. Val di Cava is on a more open hillside and the wind is more diffuse. The result is wines that are a world apart. Val di Cava is huge, ripe and lush. Costanti is velvety and smooth. Another near neighbor to Costanti, Canalecchio di Sopra, which is in the direction of Val di Cava, is also very rich and lush. It is in the sedimentary soils, between Costanti and Val di Cava. The winery is closer to Costanti than to Val di Cava yet the soils and exposure more similar to Val di Cava. The grapes yielded are like those of Val di Cava.

We spent the rest of our day back in Montalcino buying up a few of the wines produced in the area. I highly recommend Enoteca Pierangioli, which participated in the tax free program. I received a 12% rebate on the VAT on the wines. Drogheria Franci, just across from the Enoteca has a great selection and offers superb wine advice. If you tell them the name of a few Brunellos you like they will steer you to others in a similar style. Prices are not as high as some but a little higher than Pierangioli. The Enoteca Fortezza is a fabulous place to shop as well.

A word on pricing in Montalcino. When the wines come out, they are all priced the same at all the shops and at the winery. But as the wine sells it gets marked up. Ciacci Piccolomini has basically sold out in Montalcino and is now going for 90 euro a bottle when you can find it. We managed to find some in Saturnia for “only” 52 euro. But Val di Cava was available for about 42 euro in Pitigliano, Saturnia and in Montalcino. Lisini ranged from 35 euro to about 42 euro. We bought it for 35 euro at Pierangioli. It was 37 euro in the fine wine shop Terre di Siena in Monteriggioni and 39 at the Enoteca Fortezza and Franci.

Now for a short and personal list of favorites:

Costanti – My absolute favorite. It was the first great Brunello I was exposed to. Now that I have met Andrea, it is even more of a favorite. The wines are silky and elegant. They are big but not in a showy way at all. They need time in the glass to open up not because they are so tannic but because they are so multifaceted. Costanti’s riserva’s are so good it’s hard to explain. Its not that they are so much more tannic or big but just a more magnified example than the regular bottling.

Agostini Pieri – I have rarely seen this wine outside of Montalcino and never in the US. It is simply incredible. In a lesser year like 1995 it is very high quality. Their riserva is thick and tannic and loaded with spice. I wish I could have found a bottle of the ’95 riserva for less than 95 euro. I would have bought it (it was only 130 euro at La Chiusa where wine is well marked up, I expected it to be 50 or 60 at retail!).

Le Chiuse – A superb small winery that I just recently discovered. I would put it up there with Agostino Pieri as one of my most favorite wineries after Costanti. The wife/owner is a member of the Biondi Santi family and inherited about 18 acres of grapes from the family. She and her husband have been farming the land for almost 18 vintages. They have been planting new vines all along so their vineyard has a wide range of ages of vines. But actually by Brunello standards, 18 year old vines are quite old. These are serious wines, brash, full, spicy, made in a style that is suited for long aging. The older vines add such complexity and fruit to the wines that they are also delicious young. They are imported by Fredrick Wildman so they should be available widely (geographically speaking at least as the total production is fairly small) starting this spring.

Lisini – A huge and spicy wine in an older style. If you like late picked Zinfandel, Amarone or Sagrantino di Montefalco and are looking to get into Brunello, this may do the trick.

Ciacci Piccolomini – I have only had their wines in lesser vintages: 1998 and 1996. In both vintages the wines are concentrated, full, spicy and just plain yummy. I will sit on my 1997’s for a long while before opening them. I can’t wait for their 1999 and 2001 vintages, and for the ’97 riserva.

Uccellereia – I have only tried the ’98 out of bottle but I am sold on this tiny producer after spending the day with Andrea. What loving care goes into each bottle. His 1997 Riserva will be a “must have” bottle for me.

Val di Cava – A huge wine that stops just short of being over the top. High in alcohol, ripe, lush, huge in every way. This is a Wagner opera in a bottle. In fact its Die Walkure in liquid form.

Silvio Nardi – A wine I discovered on this trip. I had never heard of it before. It was super cheap, only 27 euro or so a bottle and it was superb! Not as spicy as Lisini, not as big as Val di Cava, it was a great value and a fun wine. I wound up with 4 bottles each of Costanti ’97, Val di Cava and Nardi. The Nardi was not as good as either of the two others, but it was 30-40% cheaper.

Il Poggione – A lovely wine: spicy big, a little old fashioned, not unlike Lisini but a lot cheaper over there, again about 27 euro. I used to drink this wine in the old days and did not like it but it was recommended by the owner of Terre di Siena which is the wine shop in Monteriggioni. I have trusted him in the past and this was no different. I wish I had bought some more to take home but we did not drink this till our last day in Firenze. We could not find a bottle of the ’97 in Firenze while every shop had it in the Montalcino and Pitigliano areas.

Argiano – This is the biggest producer of the wineries I really love. They make about 10,000 cases of wine in a year, maybe a little more in good years and less in lesser years. Not as huge in style as Val di Cava, not as elegant as Costanti and not as spicy as Lisini, it combines all those features in a superbly pleasant style. Easy to find and usually well priced. I have 3 bottles of the ’97 in my cellar (as well as 3 of the ’95). For some reason, it is very cheap in the US. Argiano is available for 40 to 50 a bottle here and was 39 euro in Italy.

Pertimali – Superb in a very rich and lush style. Almost over the top. Their 1998, an off vintage, is as good as most wineries’ 1997’s. They make absolutely outstanding Rosso. I have never had one of their great vintage Brunello and I can’t wait to try one. Very expensive, even harder to find.

Castelgioncondo – Frescobaldi’s Brunello. Good but not as good as some of the little guys mentioned here and often more expensive. I would not hesitate to buy it on a wine list where it might be the only Brunello available. Much more to my liking than Banfi or other widely found Brunelli.


I was just reorganizing my Italian wine collection in the cellar last night and was salivating over my small but growing Amarone collection when I read Joe’s reference to Amarone on the Slow Travel message board. This got me to thinking about the wine. For those of you who are not familiar with Amarone, here is a little bit about them.

Amarone is a style of wine made in the Valpolicella DOC in the Veneto. Amarone is a shorthand version of the actual DOC (the legal name of the wine) of the wine which is Reciotto di Valpolicella. Without the word Amarone attached, it is actually a sweet wine. If it is a Reciotto di Valpolicella Amarone, it is anywhere from just off dry to bone dry, high in alcohol with an intense flavor. If you have never had one, think of late harvest Zinfandel (especially from Ridge) or anything from Turley, Deloach or other 14%+ alcohol Zinfandels.

The name Amarone probably comes from Vaio Amaron, the name of the vineyard originally owned by Serego Alighieri, a member of Dante Alighieri’s family. The growing region is near Verona: to the north and to the east. Valpolicella has many famous towns, including Negrar, north of Verona, and Illasi to the southeast. Both areas have top wine producers.

Amarone are made from the “orecchiette” or “ears” of the cluster. If you look at a bunch of grapes, it typically has arrowhead shape (pointing down). There is a main stem running vertically and then two main branches running horizontally (angles downward somewhat) at the top of the bunch. In the best wines, these two side branches are cut off as the grapes attached are the most exposed to the sun and have the most caramelization going on in the ripening process, The grapes are laid out on straw mats in trays and dried, then crushed and the wine is made. The result of this drying process is raisining of the grapes and the resultant rich, intense, jammy flavor. Sometime there is such a concentration of sugars in the wine that you cannot get it to ferment out totally dry because there is just too much alcohol. Some wines are deliberately left quite sweet and these will not carry the Amarone designation. And amazingly enough, these are the same grapes that go into Valpolicella. But the grapes that are destined for an Amarone are the best sections of the vineyards typically from older vines. It is quite incredible how Amarone has become one of Italy’s best red wines due to advances in winemaking techniques that still honor tradition while making the wines more stable. The labor and time involved help to explain why any Amarone worth its straw mats cost over $50.00

If you like Amarone, but can’t take the price tag or want to drink them more often than the budget allows, look for Ripasso. This is a technique that only the frugal Italians could have thought up. When you are finished making an Amarone, you have skins that are just loaded with sugar and flavor. By adding the skins to normal Valpolicella, the alcohol in the already fermented wine will leach out the sugars and the wine will begin to re-ferment (this process is similar to the governo in Chianti). You get a wine with a lot of the character of Amarone at a much lower price. After the skins are used to make the Ripasso, they will be sold to a grappa distillery for yet another bit of income.

As it was for many areas of Italy, 1997 was an insanely great year for Amarone. It may be the best ever. 1995 was outstanding but will be overshadowed by 1997, 1993 is good but a little light (and more ready to drink). If you can find any 1990s left they are superb. I like my Amarone about 12 to 20 years old. I drank a bottle of Zenato Riserva Sergio Zenato 1988 recently and it was superb. I am trying to resist opening a bottle of the same from the 1990 vintage for at least 5 more years.

My favorite producers include Allegrini, Masi (especially the Vaio Amaron), Zenato Riserva Sergio Zenato, Tomassi. I have never had the guts to buy a bottle of their Amarone, but I bet that Dal Forno Romano is the best Amarone there is (and at $350 a bottle for the 1996 if you can find it in DC it should be). The reason I can say this is that I have had their Valpolicella and it is better then almost any Amarone I have ever had (it sells for about $80.00 here in DC). Roberto, from Fiaschetteria Toscana, our favorite waiter in the world, turned us on to the Dal Forno Romano and he was embarrassed to do so as the Valpolicella was about $65.00 in the restaurant. After we finished the bottle, he was very apologetic and said that if we ever wanted to taste the best red wine ever, we needed to come back and try their Amarone. He said “I am sorry to tell you, boss, that it is L440,000 (about $200.00 at the time).” The whole time he was telling me this he kept an eye on my wife who was twitching visibly seeing me lust for the bottle… Lucky for me we will be back to Venice one of these days. I just hope my wife lets me hold my credit card.

Piemonte Wines

Again, the reorganization of my Italian wine collection has spurred me on. A little over 2500 words on a favorite wine production area.

The whole area of Piemonte would be too large a topic for a single page. So I will concentrate on the best know fine wine area and that is the area surrounding Alba, home to Barolo and Barbaresco and white truffles. This is an area that is rich in game and wild mushrooms. Given this heritage, the wines are huge and rich. They are among the biggest in all of Italy. I would say that most people would put Barolo and Barbaresco, along with Amarone and Brunello, at the top of any list of great red wines of Italy.

The Grapes

Nebbiolo is the most famous grape here. It is the grape of Barolo and Barbaresco as well as being bottled under its own name or in combination with Dolcetto or Barbera in proprietary blends. It may have actually been related to Pinot Noir! Since Nebbiolo are some of the most rich and tannic grapes around, this is a surprising thought. Nebbiolo can have a deep violet flavor and a spicy aroma. It can also be over made into hard as nails wines. The name Nebbiolo probably comes from nebbia or fog. The vineyards are often shrouded in fog in the mornings or afternoons while there is full sun in the middle of the day to promote ripeness.

Barbera is an earthy grape that can result in wines ranging from seductive and elegant to earthy and rustic. There is no particular style in Barbera, a point which can either be a joy to behold or a real pain in the neck. Barbera’s can now cost as much as a Barolo or Barbaresco or be a real value prices wine.

Dolcetto is perhaps my favorite “fun” wine in all of Italy. Made carelessly, they are insipid and fruity. But made with care, they are simply superb. They are loaded with fruit but have the power of all the red grapes of the area. Some can be highly acidic which actually makes them a good match with rich game based stews.

Gavi – A very nice white that is made in a Chardonnay model typically – big, rich, broad on the palate, okay.

Cortese di Gavi – The grape of Gavi, usually wines thus labeled are fresher and sprightlier than Gavi or Gavi di Gavi.

Arneis – A native grape to the area that almost went extinct. It has been propagated more widely in recent years but is still not too common. Crisp and lively, my favorite Piemonte white.

Moscato – Used to make a fun extremely aromatic yet very low in alcohol crackling dessert wine. One of my true guilty pleasures. My favorite way to end a meal in Italy.


Barolo and Barbaresco

In general, these two areas produce wines that are similar in structure: Big, spicy, earthy, tannic and needing age to show their full promise. They also are famous for having relatively few great vintages in a given decade (thankfully the 90’s are a major exception). Barolo has to be aged 4 years before release so 1997 is the current vintage. Barbaresco is aged a year less and you are seeing more and more 1998’s on the market. There are riserva and riserva speciale designations which are becoming less and less common because the move now is to less aging. We are now in an embarrassment of riches since 1996, 1997 and 1999 are all superb vintages. I have not tasted any 1998 Barbaresco’s yet so I cannot assess them, and the 1999’s are still in cask or are bottled but not released. The aging period called for in the DOC speaks to barrel, cask or bottle aging. Nowadays the move is on to age the wines along a more Bordeaux like regime-two years in barrique (60 gallon or so French oak barrels). I am not a fan of too much new oak- the vanillin it contains makes the wines more drinkable when young but takes away from the character of the grape as the wine ages. I prefer aging wines in either old oak or in larger sized barrels.

There are several large vineyards where ownership has been split up so that now there are many owners of these vineyards. Some of the best known in Barolo are Brunate, La Serra, Canubbi, Bussia etc. Many producers will have a vineyard designation on their wines and may produce several examples. I myself love wines of Bussia, Brunate, La Serra and Canubbi so I will try other producers wines when I see these vineyards.

I do not like my Barolo and Barbaresco too aged, but with all the modern advances in winemaking we will just have to wait and see. I usually buy 2 bottles of a given wine with the idea of opening one in about 5 to 7 years after release (10 years for a Barolo from vintage date and maybe 8 for a Barbaresco) and then judging what to do with the second by how well the first has done.

1996 is one of the greatest vintages ever in Barolo and Barbaresco in my opinion. The wines are classically styled with loads of both fruit and tannin. These are serious wines that will benefit from 5 or so year in a good cellar. I am especially impressed with Barbaresco’s from 1996. This vintage is still available fairly widely. The 1997’s have overshadowed the 1996’s but there are serious wines to buy and cellar. If you want to drink today or in the near future, buy 1997’s.

1997 is a controversial vintage because the Nebbiolo got so ripe in that year. I have tasted some simply outstanding wines. True they are not classically styled but they are yummy! I personally am buying my favorite producers in pairs so I have a little of both vintages. I have not had many Barbaresco’s from ’97 but have had several Barolo’s and have enjoyed them immensely. Great producers who grow all their own grapes have done well in 1997. Producers who also make a fruit oriented style in most years also have done better then those who make really big wines typically.

Barbera’s can be released relatively young. There are several areas where you will find Barberas made – Barbera di Alba and Dogliani are two of the most common. There used to be consistent differences between the two regions but now I would have to say house style is more important. 1997 is a superb vintage for Barbera as the grape is wonderful in years when it is fully ripe or even a bit overripe. 1997 is an overripe year.

Dolcetto is the everyday wine of folk in Piemonte, yet it is not too well respected here. They can be very big and rich. 1997 again is a superb vintage. 1999 and 2000’s are available and I am impressed with both vintages so far.

Food Matches

Nebbiolo is milder and smoother than Barolo and Barbaresco. Still it is a big wine and should go with grilled meats and game birds. It can also go with pasta sauced with red wine containing sauces.

Dolcetto is a wonderful wine to accompany a wide range of flavors. Its superb with almost any pasta except one with fish sauce. While I do subscribe to the red wine with fish theory, that does not include the red wines of Piemonte – they are just too tannic and will be too bitter with fish. I also love Dolcetto with a platter of salumi. Again, some are higher in acidity so they might go better with stews and rich dishes. I love Dolcetto with my pasta course, especially if the sauce is mushroom based, Bolognese or truffles. Dolcetto will also go with a range of meats from a simple grilled or roast chicken to veal to heavy stews. For this reason it is a great restaurant wine where people will be having a wide variety of different dishes.

Barbera is a rough and ready wine that will go perfectly with rich stews like stracotto. In fact, I like to use a little of the wine I am going to drink in the stew. The wine won’t be hurt by several hours of air time if it is a big one.

Barolo and Barbaresco are serious wines (and seriously expensive!). they need to be well thought out in terms of food choices. This is the wine for grilled or stewed game, especially cinghiale, cervo (venison) and ostrich. I love it with quail if the little birds have been marinated. I would also love it with a fiorentina or any other big thick chunk of steak. Lastly, there is no better wine for a cheese course. You can go wild and try all sorts of wonderfully pungent (OK stinky) cheeses and the wine will hold up easily. I love it with parmigiano reggiano, especially when splashed with a little aceto balsamico vecchio (25 years old or more).

Arneis and Gavi are for the obvious choices, fish and chicken as well as lighter pasta sauces and veggie dishes. I really don’t go out of my way to drink whites from Piemonte, far preferring Trentino or Friuli whites.

Moscato d’Asti is a perfect wine for sipping with some fruit for a hot summer day pick me up or to go before the dessert. Although it is sweet, it will not hold up to an ooey gooey dessert as it is very low in alcohol. It will be very nice with a bit of plain, not too sweet cake.


Most producers make several DOC’s in this region. For example, Gaja makes Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto and a couple of blends and single vineyard wines. He also makes Cabernet and Chardonnay, but these are just missed opportunities to have more Nebbiolo planted. This practice makes for a way to organize your thoughts on the reds of Piemonte. Most producers, at least the smaller ones, have a distinct house style. When I like one wine from a producer a lot, there is a great chance that I also like their other wines. So I tend to stick with a lesser variety of producers that I really love. Lastly, my education into Piemonte reds came largely from the importers Neil and Maria Empson, so his wines are over represented in my favorites. I will go from producer to producer and not grape by grape in giving my favorites.

Marcarini – My favorite producer. Manuel Manchetti and his wife are some of the nicest people I have ever met in the wine business. In the late 1800’s, her family was the first to use a single vineyard designation on a Barolo with the Brunate vineyard. The house style is to emphasize fruit characteristics. They have superb sites in Barolo in La Serra and Brunate. They also make the best Dolcetto I have ever had, the extremely hard to find Boschi di Berry. This vineyard has the oldest vines in all of Italy, being over 140 years old and planted pre phyloxera. This wine is stunning when you can find it. Their “regular” Dolcetto called Fontanezza is quite fine but nothing as extraordinary as the BdiB. Their Moscato is a picture of freshness and fun, my favorite.

Ca’ Rome – A newer producer. I believe the family was in the wine business before coming into the winemaking trade. They produced what is my single favorite red from Piemonte- their Barbaresco Maria di Brun. They only export Barolo and Barbaresco to the US as far as I know. They make a DOCG Barbaresco every vintage. In exceptional vintages, the best barrels are selected to form the Maria di Brun. It is named after, I believe, the grandmother of the current winemaking generation. They have two Barolo’s: Rapet and Vigna Ceretta. All their wines are stunning in my opinion. My second favorite producer after Marcarini.

Luigi Einaudi – Here is a more rustic style that has been freshened up over time. The wines are true to their rustic style yet well made and modern in a rustic way. They make Barbera, Dolcetto and Barolo, having several bottlings from each area. They make my other favorite Dolcetto bottling (second only to Boschi di Berry) called Vigna Tecc. Luigi Einaudi was the first president of the Italian republic as well as mayor of Alba, and his grandchildren are now involved with the winery. They really do an outstanding job!

Podere Cola – From the family that made A Prunotto such a great wine estate comes this newer property. They have Barolo, Barbaresco as well as Bricco del Drago which is a wonderful blend of 85% Dolcetto with 15% of either Barbera or Nebbiolo (I think it’s the latter, I am too senile to remember and the cellar is 2 stories down!). I love both their Barolo Bussia and their Barbaresco Tenuta Roncaglia.

Tenuta Caretta – A more rustic style, great Barolo from the Canubbi site. A great bargain.

Aldo Conterno – A more traditional style of wine, very big.

Gaja – The most famous name in the area but I think the wines are far too expensive for their quality. There has also developed a sameness to the wines, a house style that overrides the differences between the grapes and the vineyards they come from. I once heard Angelo Gaja say that the name Gaja is in large type and the name Barbaresco in small type because what is important in that the wine is from Gaja. I feel he has been hoisted on his own petard by this philosophy. House styles are important but I also want a wine to taste of where it comes from.

Bruno Giacosa – One of my favorite producers but sadly one I can not really afford. His wines are very pricey for what they are. Even though they may be among the best from that area.

Ceretto – Another of the big three most famous producers (and among the highest priced). Not as painful as Giacosa or Gaja but still you pay more for his wines of a given quality than you will with lesser names. Makes a wonderful Arneis Blange and Moscato, both in a crackling style. The Moscato is not as good as and is more expensive than Marcarini’s, but is widely poured by the glass both in Italy and at fine Italian eateries here.

G Mascarello – The first Barolo I ever tasted. His single vineyard bottling “Mon Privato” is superb. Huge wines with a rough edge. I love them.

Produttori del Barbaresco – A cooperative that bottles a huge array from various vineyards. While they are not my favorite producers, it can be a real eye opening experience to get together with a bunch of Barbaresco buffs and taste thru a range of various vineyards. You will not believe the range of flavors from grapes grown in a very small geographic area. All of Barbaresco is much smaller than the Napa Valley. It’s more in line with the Stag’s Leap District or Carneros in size.

Giacomo Bologna – One of the great Barbera producers. Giacomo made the first “Super Barberas” to really take hold, leading to a range of very high end Barberas. His wines have always delivered the goods but I have not tasted any for several vintages (’93 or ’95 were the last I tasted). I look forward to trying a ’97 to see if they have maintained their standards. These Barberas are just as expensive as a good Barolo or Barbaresco, and just as good!

R Voerzio – A very famous wine geek name, fairly hard to find and a little on the high end of things. Wonderful wines.

Moccagatta – Incredible Barbaresco from Bric Balin and Bassarin. Superb wines in a more modern style. Very spicy wines. Worth the money. They also make great Barbera and Dolcetto if you can find them.