Day 1 – Saturday, April 7, 2012
My son and I arrived at Poggio Etrusco, the Agriturismo belonging to Pamela Sheldon Johns and her husband, artist Johnny Johns in Montepulciano in Tuscany. We spent the early afternoon settling in and relaxing. An old farmstead dating from the late 1600’s, the place has character and, even better, fragrant wisteria just outside our door. My son took a liking to the dogs and cats of the place, in particular, a white shepherd named “Bella” who loves to play fetch with a chewed through soccer ball. The weather was mostly cloudy with pockets of rain, but that didn’t stop my son and Bella.
Our overnight flight from JFK to Fiumicino outside of room went off uneventfully, though I must say that American Airlines provided the most bare bones and uncomfortable trans-Atlantic flight I have ever experienced. I paid an extra $49pp for my son and I to sit in “preferred” seats toward the front of the plane. The only thing that $49 bought was a slightly better location. I wouldn’t do it again and I am very glad that I didn’t purchase the $500pp “upgrade” to Business Class. While the seats had a bit more room, they were not “lie flat” seats and didn’t even have significantly more storage. Speaking of storage, the overhead bins were barely large enough to fit regular carry-ons. I had to take apart my LowePro camera bag to get it in there. The airline was also very strict about adhering to the one carry on per person limit. Despite everything and with the assistance of a little diphenhydramine, my son & I made it through the night. The seats were cramped and had minimal recline, but we managed.
Once we arrived at the airport, we collected our luggage and our rental car, a nice Alfa Romeo sedan, and drove the two plus hours to Poggio Etrusco. We stopped along the way at a small “Autogrill” for a caffe and a couple of pannini, neither of which were notable.
The rainy afternoon lightened up as my son and I went for a walk along the country road by Poggio Etrusco. We saw olive groves with colorful lichens creating beautiful patterns on the trunks and branches and fields with wet horses lounging and feigning interest in our passing by. From there we went back to the agriturismo to head into Montepulciano and the beautiful old church of San Biagio, which I remembered from a trip in 1998.
By the time we arrived at the church, the clouds were gone and we were left with a brilliant late afternoon sun. The church was magnificently photogenic as I played with the Canon D5 Mark III and the wide angle lenses that I had rented. After spending time at the church outside and in, my son & I hiked up to the hill town of Montepulciano for a look around. There was plenty of fine photographic materiel as we slowly circle back down and around to the church.
My wife and I had had lunch with friends at La Grotta back in 1998. I remembered that meal as one of the culinary highlights from that trip. The restaurant is located literally across the road from the beautiful San Biagio.
My son and I were joined at La Grotta by Pamela and Johnny as they celebrated their anniversary with us. The restaurant setting was simple and elegant. We had a nice 4-top in the back of the main dining room, which was the best table in the house.
My son started with the pecorino souffle, an ethereally light delight served over chiffonaded basil. I had the crouton with tripe. The tripe was tender, creamy and cut to resemble tagliatelle. Offset, by the crisp crouton, this was a lovely intro course.
The pastas were equally divine. My son had the maltagliatte with tomatoes, garlic and spinach, while I had the picci with guinea fowl and dried prunes, served with the guinea fowl chopped into bolognese type chunks. The pasta reminded me a little bit of Carlo Mirarchi’s squab at Roberta’s. These pasta dishes were real winners epitomizing the essence of classic Italian cooking.
Unfortunately the secondi were not quite as successful. My son’s entrecote was prepared perfectly and was quite flavorful, but his artichoke salad had surprisingly little flavor, while its hard, raw texture failed to appetize despite its having been sliced quite thinly. My milk-infused baked rabbit was tasty, but extrememly bony as rabbit can be. The endives were charred and bitter as endives can be.
The evening ended on a positive note with riccotta and pistachio gelati, our first of the trip. Though not quite as wonderful as I had remembered from 1998, La Grotta was still quite enjoyable and would be worth a visit just for its location.
Quite exhausted, we drove back to Poggio Etrusco for a very good night’s sleep.