Driving in Italy requires a fearless attitude and a great degree of skill. Fortunately, we have connected with a gladiator of the highway, Simone Baldanzi, of Chianti Drivers. Through rainstorms that flooded the roads, along hairpin curves around cliffs, he remains cheerful, informative and cooperative. And as a bonus, his car radio is equipped with WiFi.
We arrive at the Relais Il Falconiere, a 17th century residence, in time for an aperitivo in the glass-walled gazebo lounge, and behold the iconic Italian presence: the handsome man, sipping an espresso and reading the morning paper. This naturally beautiful estate, between Umbria and Tuscany in the village of Cortona, has been in the Baracchi family since 1860, and is now in the hands of Riccardo and Silvia (the executive chef) Baracchi. The Baracchi Wines made from the Sangiovese grape, Ardito, Astori and Smeriglio, have been honoured by the Wine Spectator. The iconic man in the lounge is Riccardo Baracchi, who joins us for lunch in his Michelin-starred dining room.
Caprese salad blossoms on the plate like an exotic flower; a land/sea marriage of grilled scallops with prosciutto, with above/below ground partners of dried figs and potatoes with a quirky tobacco scent; a blue glass tray of inspired mini-desserts from a pastry chef of magical skill. Time to slow down a bit or I won’t make it through the day. We could go mountain biking, golfing, play tennis, or take a “horse-walking tour,” but that’s not on my agenda today. I would like to go to my luxe suite in an ancient stone building and nap the rest of the afternoon, but I have appointments at the glorious Thesan Etruscan Spa. It is a short ride to Cortona to Locando del Molino, which, if one trusts the menu, has been around since 1523, in one form or another. It houses a wonderful cooking school, a small inn and a restaurant overseen by the talented Silvia Baracchi. On the menu, the old and the new: Traditional black cabbage soup with poached egg has a kick; rich and richer sweet and sour venison, and a favourite dish of many, the Mac Molino—burger and fries. Fontodi is located in the Conco d’Oro, the golden shell in the heart of Chianti Classico in the Tuscan Hills. On a tour of this certified organic estate with owner Giovanni Manetti, president of the Chianti Wine Consorzio, he shares his pride of the new facility he has built, and of the symbolic live oak in the courtyard.
Fontodi has belonged to the family only since 1968. They are not, however, new to the area, where for centuries they were in the business of manufacturing the famous terracotta roof tiles. They have taken the word “diversify” to heart. Besides the average production of around 300,000 bottles a year of Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva, Colli Toscano Centrale IGT Pinot Nero, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, Chianti Classico Vin Santo, they produce about 10,000 bottles of Fontodi olive oil made with olives picked and processed the same day. They also raise the beautiful white Chianina cattle and what is an estate without chickens. Giovanni practices the type of agriculture inspired by the principles of respect for nature and sustainability.
Lunch at the restaurant of Dario Cecchini in Panzano-in-Chianti, is worth the trip, even if it is out of your way. The butcher shop is on the ground floor, and here is where they offer antipasto, breads with lardo, olive oil, cheeses, charcuterie and a welcome glass of wine. The door to the aging room is open to show sides of beef, and Dario the butcher/showman/chef is amenable to photographs. Dario is dressed top to toe in red, except for a sparkling white apron. His wife Kim is a California girl who came to Italy years ago to study the language, and the rest is history. Dining drama begins on the second floor at a communal table. Not an empty chair in the place. Swiss tourists have brought a half-dozen bottles of wine, which they plan to consume with lunch. Bottles of olive oils and wine, loaves of Tuscan bread and a market garden of raw vegetables are on the table; a generosity of Chianti sushi (steak tartare) is offered.
But the main event is what we are all watching and waiting for. Steak Fiorentina, porterhouse cuts from the eight-foot high Chianina cattle, slowly sizzle on huge open wood-burning barbecue ovens. At the moment of truth, Dario rings a huge dinner bell and, with white towel wrapped hands, grasps two steaks, raises his arms and shouts out: “to Beef or not to Beef.” Applause. The triumph of the cow. Steaks are carved and we are invited to consume as much as we desire, which we do with zeal.
The road to the Ruffino Poggio Casciano Estate winds up and up, through the hills outside Florence. Ruffino was the first Italian wine to cross the ocean in 1913, and in fact, during prohibition in the U.S., it was sold in pharmacies as a reliever of stress. Stone walls lead us into a massive courtyard, to a low slung, modern building. Inside, we are surrounded by history. Full length portraits of the family and a collection of black-and white etchings line the walls. Francesco Sorelli and Edoardo Tomo, join us for lunch in the handsome dining room.
The Sangiovese is the grape of the region, and drinking wine is natural to the populace. “Ruffino wines are not for prayers or special occasions,” they say, “it is part of the life.” Their philosophy is that wine is to be drunk with food, friends and family. Over pumpkin soup, zucchini quiche and filet of beef, we enjoy a sampling of Ruffino wines and discuss the fruits of the land. French wine, they say, is associated with nobles and the church, whereas in Italy, wine is about the farmers. It is the industry that has created romance and mystery around wine. Ruffino considers elegance, balance and drinkability to be the most important characteristics in their wines. On the drive to Montemasso, the hilltop estate overlooking Florence, we stop to photograph the lush green, red and gold fields. Montemasso is the family home, and is a living museum of their 150-year-old history. From the terrace, we watch the red sun set behind the Tuscan hills, just as generations have before us. And there is Florence, illuminated.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.