Dinner in Chianti: Dining at Castello di Spaltenna


Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"There are a few perks to being a blogger who blogs mainly about Italy, like receiving invites to dinner at evocative, charming medieval castles in Chianti, such as Il Castello di Spaltenna.

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At the castle entrance.

A little background: Castello di Spaltenna is nestled in some of those iconic rolling Tuscan hills just above the town of Gaiole in Chianti, about 45 minutes north east of Siena. The castle dates back to the year 1000, with the Pieve (church) being the structure’s focal point.

Today the castle and its related structures comprise a luxury resort, complete with a whole host of rooms and apartments decorated in classic Tuscan style. There’s a pool, a vineyard, and new this year is a spa, with an array of treatments such as saunas, massages, Turkish baths for visitors to choose from.

What sets Spaltenna apart from some other resorts in the area is that it’s not a new structure made to look old and authentic, it really is authentic. It’s been carefully restored and kept throughout the centuries, and it’s the perfect spot if you’re looking for a serene Tuscan getaway. You won’t always have wi-fi (the monks didn’t!), and it’s a bit of a challenge to get to if you don’t have a car, but well worth the effort.

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Paradise in Tuscany – Castello di Spaltenna

Castello di Spaltenna also has two restaurants: La Terrazza for breakfast and lunch, and the more formal, Il Pievano for dinner. Both run under the direction of Executive Chef Fabrizio Borraccino, whose leadership, coupled with the hard work of his team, have been garnering a lot of media attention and praise lately. And let me tell you, it’s very well deserved. More about that later.

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We (a group of communications/travel/hospitality professionals) arrived at Spaltenna at dusk, and were immediately welcomed by the hotel’s Director, Alessandro Ercolani, who offered us an aperitivo on the terrace, and who spoke to us about both the history and the future of Spaltenna. We watched the sun set behind the cypress trees before moving over to the stone-walled inner courtyard of Il Pievano to tuck into our candlelight dinner.

Il Pievano Restaurant - luxury & ambiance in Chianti

Il Pievano Restaurant – luxury & ambiance in Chianti

There, we were met by the Maitre D’, Andrea Giubbilei, and his attentive staff. They welcomed us, pulled out our chairs, brought stools for our purses to rest on( something I’ve never been offered in Canada) and hinted that we shouldn’t fill up on the freshly made foccaccia, rustic bread and grissini (breadsticks) that already adorned the table. We were to have a multi-course tasting menu, the Maitre D’ explained as his staff brought the first dishes, and we needed to ensure that we tasted all of the chef’s creations.

[I won't post pictures of everything we ate, just my top dishes. I'll also refrain from over-explaining. The pictures speak for themselves. Words would only diminish...]

Freshly made bread, foccaccia and grissini.

Freshly made bread, foccaccia and grissini. Candlelight.

Quail egg and truffle.

Quail egg and truffle.

Eggplant breaded and with tumeric.

Eggplant breaded and with turmeric.

Chicken liver with red onions.

Chicken liver with red onions and brioche bread.

The best risotto ever made.

The best risotto ever made. Oh, the consistency!

Pici pasta with lampredotto (tripe!).

Pici pasta with peas and lampredotto (tripe!).

Tortelli with duck.

Tortelli pasta filled with duck.

Peach and lemon sorbet dessert. Divine.

Peach and lemon sorbet dessert. Divine.

Raspberry chocolate dessert. Heavenly.

Raspberry chocolate dessert. Heavenly.

The Maitre D’ very kindly explained each of our 13+ courses as we savoured them. He also paired the dishes with locally produced wines, some even from Spaltenna’s own, very limited production. Red wine, white wine, vin santo. It was glorious. By the end of our meal (which I completely finished, thank you very much) I was on a food high, lulled by the serene atmosphere (and the wine), senses heightened by the flavours, colours and textures and smells.

Never had I taken part in such a luxurious dining experience. Ever.

Now, I’m no restaurant critic. I don’t have a ton of experience with “fine dining”. You don’t have to take my word that the food was exquisite and so was the service. But I’ll tell you what really put this dinner over the top for me: Chef Borraccino convinced me. He convinced me.

Not with words, but with flavours and textures and combinations and smells, he had me eating things I would have previously turned down with a sneer and a shudder: shrimp, oysters, chicken liver, tripe, tomato soup and pigeon. Instead, I was asking for more and taking detailed recipe notes.

Our dinner party with Chef Borraccino, after the meal.

Our dinner party with Chef Borraccino, after the meal.

At the conclusion of the meal, Chef Borraccino came out to greet us and speak with us a bit about his professional background and his vision for what a dining experience should be. What struck me most of all was his passion. It was after midnight. He had worked all day, literally slaving away over a hot stove, preparing an inviting array of dishes for us and the other patrons. After all that, his eyes still sparkled as he spoke about his food, as he delighted in our delight at his cooking.

After an experience like that, the Frazzled Chef in me wants to hang up her apron.

If you’re interested in having a similarly delightful experience (and you are), then check out Castello di Spaltenna’s website here.

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Now for the thanks, first in English, then in Italian.

[I'd like to extend my thanks, first and foremost to Sonia Corsi, who organized my evening at Castello di Spaltenna, to the Director, Alessandro Ercolani, for so graciously hosting us for the evening, to the Maitre D', Andrea Giubbilei, for his welcoming and informative presence, and to the rest of the team, especially Donato La Torre, the second-in-command in the kitchen. Last but not least, I'd like to thank Executive Chef Fabrizio Borraccino. Your work is spectacular, and the passion with which you do it is inspiring.]

[Vorrei ringraziare in primis Sonia Corsi, che ha organizzato la mia bellissima serata presso il Castello di Spaltenna. Grazie anche al Direttore, Alessandro Ercolani, per la graziosa accoglienza. Grazie anche al Maitre, Andrea Giubbilei, per l'impeccabile informativa sui piatti e mille grazie anche al resto dello staff, soprattuto a Donato La Torre, il braccio destro dello chef. In fine, grazie di cuore allo Chef, Fabrizio Borraccino. Il tuo lavoro è spettacolare, e la passione con cui lo fai m’ispira.]

A Peek at Puglia


For years Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"now, I’ve wanted to visit the region of Puglia. Geographically speaking, we’re talking about the heel of the Italian boot. Now that I’m back from a fairly relaxing 9 days down there, I’m writing to share my experience with all of you.

My impressions of Puglia:

Tourism in Puglia is not nearly as developed as it is in other parts of Italy. For my travel buddy and I, this meant that we encountered no lines, no wait times (except for trains), hardly any pesky tour groups, hardly any pesky English speakers (we both speak Italian), and lots of peaceful moments. For that, it was blissful.

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On the other hand, if you’re used to being shunted around on pre-organized tours from monument to church to museum to historic site, Puglia may not be the ideal place for you. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my 9 days down there. And we moved around, despite the very interesting (read: horrible) rail system. But if you’re not a lover of seafood and the seaside, it’s maybe best that you stick to the central and northern parts of the country.

The coastline and sea are beautiful, the people are friendly and helpful and the food is delicious. Would I go back to Puglia? Absolutely. Would I necessarily spend 9 days there again? Maybe not.

Practical notes:

  •  You can get around by train, but for us (two fairly seasoned Italy travellers), all the routes we took were a pain in the butt. On the roads, traffic seemed very light, so renting a car in Puglia is probably quite doable and desirable. Distances aren’t long, but three train switches in 40 kilometres makes even a quick jaunt to the seaside a daunting day-long task. Also, some trains don’t run on Sundays. At all. And when two lousy train engineers on the Maglie – Otranto route decided to fare sciopero on a Saturday (translation: strike meaning: extra day off) we ended up riding a bus with every sweaty, loud high school kid in the area:

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  • If you don’t do seafood, stay away. Seriously. I eat very little fish or seafood, apart from canned tuna and fresh Canadian salmon, but this trip introduced my tummy to some excellent new varieties of sea creatures. If you’re not willing to try, stay home. We encountered many restaurants that serve only seafood dishes. Kiss your spaghetti bolognese goodbye and opt for a plate of spigola (sea bass) or orata (sea bream).
  • If you’re looking to be occupied all the time, bring a book. Or a small child. I don’t want to say that there aren’t many things to do, but…there aren’t many things to do, depending on your interests. Our “city tour” of Lecce was a 2-hour jaunt from church to church. The guide was informative, but… Yes, the strolling, the eating, the beaching, the travelling all takes time, but when the entire region shuts down from 1 – 5 pm for the “pausa” or “siesta”, you’ve got nothing to do but bake on the beach or take a snooze yourself. (We did both.)

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  • We weren’t able to find too many reasonably priced organized tours to join, like wine tasting tours, olive oil tasting tours, etc. There were a few little things, but knowing how much you’d pay in Tuscany for a similar service, I couldn’t bear to part with 150E for a 4-hour cooking class.

Highlights of the trip:

Visiting the trulli houses of Alberobello and the Grotte di Castellana:

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A wonderful birthday dinner of spigola in the main piazza of Monopoli.

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Taking a dip in the beautiful Ionian sea at Gallipoli.

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Taking a dip in the spectacularly turquoise Adriatic sea at Otranto.

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Riding in the back of an Ape Calessino, then having to get out and push (yes push!) when it got stuck in the sand.

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The food. The wine. Da leccarsi i baffi! (Mouthwatering!)

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Practical Italy: Managing Expectations


Dinner DisastersI’ve noticed that people come to Italy with high hopes and wrong hopes. I should know, I was one of them. I told you about it here.

How can hopes be wrong? They’re personal! You disagree.

Ok, let’s call them unrealistic hopes. Unrealistic expectations. That better? Good.

Ricominciamo da capo. Let’s start over.

People sometimes come to Italy with unrealistic expectations and are sometimes sorely disappointed when the Italy of their dreams isn’t quite the Italy of their reality. Starry-eyed travellers thinking that vintage red Vespa is everyone’s principal form of transportation here and that they’ll be the only ones trying to throw coins in the Trevi fountain at 10pm on a Saturday.

I hate to break it to you, but no.

Not all of Italy looks like Tuscany, you won’t magically learn Italian in two weeks and you’ll probably never escape the hordes of other tourists at major sites.

But how will I know this if it’s all new to me? You ask. How can I be realistic if I have no idea what to expect?

Here are some pointers:

Do. Some. Research. Use your Google machine. Talk with other people who have been to Italy. It’s no big secret what Italy is like. People have been there before you and they’ll probably be happy to tell you about it.

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Really though, it’s not even so much your expectations that will determine whether your time in Italy is magnifico or orribile, it’s your attitude towards things when your expectations aren’t met.

Scenario: You order a pizza in Italy and it doesn’t have globs of gooey processed cheese all over it like at home. You like globs of gooey processed cheese and were really craving those cheesy, gooey globs after your long day of sightseeing. You look at your practically naked (cheese-wise) pizza and you have two options:

1. Complain, turn your nose up, whine and be a general nuisance to your travel companions and anyone within 50 feet of you. Snivel, pout and ask God why he just can’t make the Italians do things like you do back home. Especially the pizza! Refuse to eat it. Fantasize about that cardboard, cheese-laden pizza from home. Go hungry in Italy.

2. Cut your pizza, stick it in your mouth. Chew. Repeat. Enjoy it for what it is: different from the pizza you’re used to at home, but probably marvellous in it’s own right. 

Now, which do you think will make you feel happier?

If you chose answer #1, just stop reading here. You’re a lost cause. If you chose answer #2, bravo!

Take it from me: you need to start off your trip to Italy with the general expectation that “everything will be different. But even that little maxim needs an “and I’m OK with that” chaser.

Add in a touch of “and if things aren’t as I expect, I will be open and flexible about it” and really you can’t go wrong. Control-freakishness does not lead to happiness. Not just in Italy, but anywhere. Mi raccomando! 

If you honestly think you can’t stomach that, then stay home per piacere, and leave the Italy-enjoying to the rest of us. Really. The milk here doesn’t taste the same. McDonald’s doesn’t taste the same. Coca Cola doesn’t even taste the same. Brands are different. Systems are different. Chaos is the prevailing form of organization. Customs are different. Ideas are different. Traditions are different.

But that’s why you wanted to come to Italy in the first place, isn’t it?

So when your shower suddenly turns icily cold after 15 minutes and you’re used to 40-minute showers at home, steel yourself against the frigid water (or turn it off quickly) and think “this is what I came here for”.

I’m not talking about the cold shower; don’t be too literal on me. I’m talking about difference. That’s what you came here for. To see how other people live. To see how other people, in my humble opinion, live pretty well.