_After a busy fall season it was finally time for a personal trip to celebrate Tim’s 40th Birthday. Such occasions require wonderful friends, fantastic food, plenty of wine, and of course a fabulous backdrop. Tuscany fit the bill perfectly.
We spent a few days in Florence at the Continentale, which despite inconsistent service was a good place to stay. The roof top terrace is a must as it is a fantastic escape from the tourist-ridden streets below and a beautiful view at sunset. Our private guide Olivia gave us the low-down on the city, its history, and a few hidden gems amid the many touristy places. The standout restaurant was by far SBJ. With its excellent food, pleasant service, and comfortable atmosphere you are all but guaranteed to enjoy SBJ. After a few days of major sites and enough gelato to get us through the week we headed down to our villa.
During the drive down we stopped in the tiny yet charming walled city of Monteriggioni for some of the best pasta at Il Poggo. We were gently reminded that Italians do not put cheese on the pasta (it’s already mixed in) and it was by far some of the best we had the entire trip. After some more gelato, more winding roads, and a few wrong turns we finally arrived at the villa.
_Villa d’Orcia is a beautiful place owned by interior designer Ilaria Miani who has a lovely shop online and in Rome. It is a lovely eight-bedroom villa that has been painstakingly restored into what can only be described as true Tuscan chic. The villa gently sits atop a hill with sweeping views from every vantage point. Each room is distinct, comfortable and well thought out. One of my favorite things about the villa is the cook! Marcella is a fantastic cook and extremely loving. She’s the kind of Italian grandmother you dream of having. Once everyone was settled into their room we had a great night full of Marcella’s delicious food, local wines, and stories of everyone’s adventures in Florence and Rome. After dinner we spotted the beautiful local foxes that came to investigate what smelled so good.
The next day (Oct 16) was Tim’s birthday and everyone headed out to explore the nearby towns. A small group of us ended up in Pienza, which I thought was the perfect combination of small stores, churches, and lovely restaurants. Consider stopping by Officine 904 for their beautiful leather bags. After strolling around and popping in and out of shops we ended up having lunch at La Terrazza del Chiostro located in the heart of the city within a 15th century convent showcasing a beautiful view of the Orcia valley. The excellent food by Chef Michele Armenio was the perfect afternoon treat. Everyone opted for a lighter lunch because of the evening festivities.
The black tie birthday bash started on the lawn at 5:30PM with cocktails and a few formal rounds of table tennis. Shortly after the final match the sommelier presented us with glasses of Cà del Bosco Cuvè Prestige and the amazing Chef Jeff Thickman brought out mouthwatering Bresaola pouches with robbiola, toasted pine nuts and arugula. Then delicious smoked salmon fagottini of his own invention. Followed by beautiful Bignè al formaggio small, warm cream puffs with a melted cheese filling inside
After a few heart-felt words from Tim and several rounds of congratulations and cheers we moved inside. Once seated the feast began with Primi of Risotto al Finocchio (vegetarian fennel risotto) known to us as heaven on earth and one of the best risottos I have ever had the pleasure of eating. This was followed by Il Tortellone Medicea, a beautifully presented pasta filled with ricotta, herbs, and a soft cooked egg yolk hidden inside the pasta and finished with a sage butter sauce. Next was the impressively presented Pasticcio alla Napoletana and crepe-lined timbale stuffed with penne in a tomato sauce with eggplant and mozzarella. These primi’s were paired with Vernaccia di San Gimignano Panizzi 2009 and a Rosso di Montalcino 2006.
Our Secondo was a hearty dish of Cinghaile in Agrodolce (wild boar in thick fruit sauce) served with Polenta. This was paired with beautiful Brunello di Monatalcino 2001. The Dolce was a fantastic Lemon Semifreddo with ginger crust and some chocolates paired with Moscadello di Montalcino passito – Capanna. As everyone retired to sit by the fire in the living room we soon discovered that the foxes were back again and wanting to join in the celebrations. Smelling all of Chef Jeffrey’s beautiful food seemed to convince them that our group was well worth getting to know.
A few days later Tim was greeted with a surprise gift from our dear friends Paulette, Howell & Fred. A hot air balloon ride! Although it was an early morning filled with some uncertainty we had a great time. The ride was incredibly smooth and the views were incredible. Our landing was even more impressive and we were greeted with Prosecco and some other treats. Thanks to the entire Virgin team for a great day and to Paulette for spearheading the memorable gift.
After the balloon ride we dashed off to Montalcino for a wine tasting before heading over to Poggio Antico for a delicious lunch and then walking around the town of Montalcino. A worthwhile visit was the Enoteca La Fortezza. The wine shop has a fantastic selection of local wines and just about everything was available to taste.
October is truffle season so we packed our bags and went truffle hunting. Rolando and his trusty dog were a great deal of fun and while we only managed to hunt down a few smaller truffles we did enjoy learning about the process and having a beautiful hike through the hills. Of course we also enjoyed going back to his farm to see his other dogs and then off to test a truffle heaven of shop.
Cantina la Frasca in Cetona was divine with its wine, cheese, meats, and truffle treats! My favorite purchase – truffle butter (butter with slices of truffle it is perfect for putting on pasta or toast). This year the truffles in Tuscany were not as frequent due to the warmer weather and lack of rain.
Montepulciano is another charming town and very well known for beautiful wines. We had a great visit to Dei winery, which also produces a fantastic olive oil in very limited quantities - I couldn’t resist buying some of their olive oil. After Dei we went into town and had a great lunch at Le Logge del Vignola which was wonderful. There was also a great little shop that caught our entire groups attention - Fatamorgana.
Horseback riding through the Tuscan countryside was a real treat. The views were incredible and the horses at Il Poggio were all in very good shape. Enrica our hostess asked all the right questions to make sure our group was safe and comfortable. Our experience felt genuine and not like other trail rides where you know the horses travel the same route every single day.
Our last night at the villa was spent looking back at all the fun we had at the villa and in the surrounding area. To thank us for our visit Mother Nature put on yet another beautiful sunset and Marcella put out yet another fantastic meal.
Once we were all packed up and said our goodbyes to the villa we decided to stop off at the Prada outlet on the way back to Florence. It was relatively easy to get to and enormous. If you are a Prada fan it is certainly worth a visit. HOWEVER, I made the crucial mistake of getting in line behind one Chinese woman that suddenly turned into 12 people with about a million tickets and after waiting about 35 minutes I gave up. We grabbed something to eat nearby and were treated to two entertaining signs (see slideshow) that made us all laugh. I still wonder what a luxury lap dance includes.
Once back in Florence we visited the Gucci Museo. Early in the week they had a laser show on the building that was extremely understated compared to Ralph Lauren’s 3D show in New York and London last year and certainly compared to the Bolshi opening in Moscow. The Gucci Museo, which is nicely done, yet somehow lacking real substance. The gift shop seems like a massively missed opportunity with only a handful of Gucci items. That said it is worth a visit and should take you about 25minutes to see everything. The staff is incredibly friendly should you have any questions. They also have little cards that tell you about each room in Italian, English, and French. Unfortunately they were out of most of the English cards after only a few weeks of being open but I imagine they are working on that. There is a little coffee/wine bar that is worth a visit if you are in the area and want a break or simply a chance to skim through their iPads.
One interesting shop in Florence worth visiting is Santa Maria Novella. The pharmacy is the oldest in Italy and possibly the world but no matter how old it is or how grand the rooms are the products are still popular. From smelling salts, to lotions, and even nine different types of honey it is worth a visit. By the end of our visit we all left with wonderful memories, a few treats, and I certainly managed to leave with a few extra pounds from all the delicious food. It was worth every pound and I already look forward to my next visit. Don’t you?