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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5 Italian Food Faux Pas (And How To Avoid Them)


Dinner Disasters

If I haven’t made it abundantly clear in my other posts on food, Italians are pretty particular about what they eat. And when they eat it. And what they eat it with, and what they drink it with, and how it’s prepared, the season, the ingredients, the temperature outside, the alignment of the stars…

You get the picture.

Recently I’ve run into a few people who have commented on the general unwillingness of Italians to compromise on anything food-related, even when it comes to getting business from turisti. I’ve written about this phenomenon before and some of the reasons behind it (click here and here to take a look) but I thought I might quickly run down a list of Italian Food Faux Pas (And How To Avoid Them) to make your mealtimes in Italy run smoothly.

Now, pay close attention. Note that these faux pas are not in any specific order. They’re all probably equally heinous mistakes to make where the average Italian is concerned. I’ll explain the reasoning behind them (where I can) to keep you from being baffled further by the food-loving Italiani and to try to help you keep your tourist status under the radar.

Le Regole (The Rules)

1. Niente cappuccino after 10:30am. None. Whatsoever. Never. Don’t bother to order one. Especially if it’s hot out. Why? All the Italians I’ve met practically classify milk (the cappuccino topper) as a meal on its own, almost as filling as eating a solid food. Milk is a breakfast thing and needs to be consumed before 10:30 so as not to badly interact with other foods in your stomach, which brings me to the next point…

2. No latte (milk) with a meal. Milk is not a drink that accompanies anything other than cookies or coffee. Breakfast is the best time to drink it, then don’t think about it again until the next morning. It doesn’t go with pasta or steak or pizza or risotto or a panino – that’s what wine was invented for. (Obviously.) Milk just does not get consumed at lunchtime or aperitivo time or dinner time. All this relates nicely to the next rule…

3. No latte (milk) or formaggio (cheese) with any species of pesce (fish) or pasta containing fish. One summer in Siena, my  60-something-year-old landlady Tina moved faster than I’ve ever seen her move just to swat the cheese container out of my hand before I had the chance to ruin my penne con tonno (penne with tuna in tomato sauce) with a sprinkle of Parmigiano grattugiato (grated Parmesan). “Sarah!” she all but barked. “Non si mangia il pesce con il formaggio. Non si mangia!” she admonished. (Sarah! You don’t eat fish with cheese. You don’t eat it!) I learned my lesson and have never done it since.

4. Dinner isn’t served before 7pm. (And even if you manage to stave off your hunger until that late hour, it’s only the tourists who eat at 7). Get used to eating later, especially in the summertime. In Siena, we sat down to dinner anywhere between 8:00 – 9:30pm. Now, note that I didn’t say that’s when we started eating, because we probably had an aperitivo beforehand, sometime around 7:00 – 8:00 pm. (My housemate Alex once remarked that he could set his watch by my leaving the apartment for aperitivo. I left around 7. Every evening.) Seriously though, restaurants don’t serve cena (dinner) before 7pm. One of the best restaurants in Siena takes reservations for 2 dinner seatings: at 7pm to eat with the tourists, they told me, or 9pm to eat with the locals! Bump up your other mealtimes accordingly.

5. Walking and eating is vietato (forbidden). So is walking and drinking. Unless it’s a gelato, or a drink drink, which are perfectly acceptable to enjoy during a passeggiata. A piece of pizza, however, is not. You’ll get strange looks if you walk down the street and eat pizza. Believe me, I’ve done it, but only once. (I’m a quick learner). You can stand and eat pizza, sure. But just don’t move, and for heaven’s sake don’t scarf it down. Italians think it’s unhealthy to eat quickly or anywhere that’s not a table or bar counter. My coworker once told me that the reason for her (practically non-existant) belly was that she ate sandwiches quickly while at work. Fa ingrassare, sai. (It makes you fat, you know!)

So there they are, laid out for all to read and hopefully internalize before a trip to Italy. Why are these little, trivial things so important? Well, remember the phrase “When in Rome, do as the Romans”? It’s like this: wherever I go, I try to fit in as much as I can, out of respect and interest of the host culture. People respond better to me that way, and I don’t come across like the ugly tourist, demanding that everything be the same as I left it at home. If all I want is for everything to be like it is at home, then why travel?