October 6, 2008 - Casperia to Denver

It's hard enough for vacations to end, but for me after spending three weeks in Italy, totally immersed in the food, the wine, the language and the culture, I was downright sick about leaving.

We left La Torretta really early to battle the Monday morning traffic on the A1 into Rome, made our way to the airport around the ring road, and managed to survive the gaggle checking in at the new terminal in Rome for flights to the US and Israel (interesting combo, don't you think?).

Many hours, a couple of flights, and a few movies later we were delivered safely home, filled with memories and stories that we will never forget. Until next time, ciao!

October 5, 2008 - Casperia

I slept in until 9:30 on our last day in Italy, but then was anxious to walk around and capture some photos of the town before leaving.
I especially like this view of Casperia from the back road that exits town - it really highlights the true beauty and ancient feel of the hill towns of Umbria and Tuscany.
The arches on either end of the town lead to the shallow 175 steps from the larger "new" town below up to the door of La Torretta in the walled old town.
We met up with the Ungers and RC by Friend's Cafe in the piazza and had a diet coke before grabbing Karen to head out to our planned Sunday lunch at Gusto al' Borgo, a fairly new agritourismo and restaurant about 1/2 mile outside of town.
The restaurant had just a few tables like this one set up outside the small building that also hosts cooking classes, and we settled in for what we could tell was going to be a special day.
That's "the toaster" (aka our van) in the background with the view from our table to the rolling Sabina countryside beyond. Could you pick a better view for a 3 hour lunch in the country?
The proprietor of Gusto al' Borgo explained that everything is grown locally, and he was especially proud of his olive oil which we all agreed was outstanding.
One of the best parts of the experience was watching the dalmatian puppies romp and play all around the tables while we ate. At one point there was a loud crash and all the puppies gathered to lick the ground - the site where the entire dish of grated Parmigiano Reggiano had fallen. Can you blame them?!
We began lunch with an antipasto of risotto in grape leaves, a gnocchi type dumpling with marinara sauce, spiced pumpkin, and polenta smothered with prosciutto and mushrooms.
The pasta course started with ravioli stuffed with pumpkin and cheese...
...which was then followed by papardelle with Bolognese sauce. You have to love any meal that offers not one, but TWO pasta courses. Pasta dishes in Italy are simple, not smothered in sauce, and so flavorful thanks to the use of local ingredients.
For the secondi, we were served these artichoke pancakes to accompany the short ribs of maiale (pork).
I actually lowered myself to gnawing on the bones because they were so delicious!
You can tell the owner loves his puppies, and we delighted in watching them (and petting and holding them!) throughout our meal.
For dessert we managed to polish off the cannoli stuffed with ricotta and drizzled with chocolate, and throughout the meal we enjoyed the very good house made red wine. After sipping the owner's house made plum grappa (again offered as a token of friendship), we waved the white flag of surrender, and headed back to La Torretta in the late afternoon, early enough for me to capture this incredible shot of the roof tiles.
We had three hours to kill before our next planned activity, and that means either you sleep or keep going. I decided to side with Greg and RC and met them at the cafe for a prosecco before showering to wake myself up for the evening.
Maureen had arranged for us to have an olive oil and wine tasting evening with Johnny Madge, a displaced Brit who has lived in Italy for 25 or more years. He's passionate about food, olive oil, and wine, and we joined some of Maureen's other guests for our final evening with him.
He took us through courses of local specialty foods like the fresh ricotta drizzled with olive oil (all right, drowning in it)...
...bresaola swimming in olive oil, small spinach and ricotta stuffed bites, prosicutto, and more. It was a fun way to spend our last night and we were all a bit sad about the trip ending.
Back at La Torretta, we gathered in the sitting room for one last nightcap (ok actually a bottle of Prosecco) with the group before hitting the sack to get up for our early flight the next day.

October 4, 2008 - Siena to Casperia by way of Orvieto

As we met at 10am to depart from Siena, we were greeted with cold, dreary, rainy weather. At least we were mostly driving on this day, and we made our way from Tuscany to the town of Orvieto in Umbria by noon. As we wandered into the piazza, we found a local food market underway, but it was so cold we just scurried into the cathedral to warm up.
The cathedral in Orvieto was built as a monument to honor the miracolo del sangue, or miracle of the blood, that happened in this tiny town. The facade of the church impressed not only because of its sheer size, but because of the plethora of tiny mosaics that cover it.
We quickly finished our mini-tour and headed straight to a ristorante on the main street in town for lunch. Nothing warms the soul like soup on a cold day, and the creamy chickpea soup drizzled with some EVOO hit the spot.
We followed the soup with various pasta dishes, and washed it down with the local Orvieto Classico white wine.
After lunch we grabbed an espresso pick-me-up at the bar down the street, shopped a little, admired the numerous stuffed wild boars in town, then headed out.
Coming down the hillside from Orvieto provides a great view of the rolling hills and farmland below, and we hit the highway and made it into Casperia, a walled hill town in the Sabina hills where my friends the Schedas live in a restored palazzo, La Torretta.
Maureen had arranged for her daughter Jenny to host a cooking class, and we got there just in time to begin cooking at 4pm, starting with making homemade linguine using the chitara to cut the pasta.
Next on the lesson was making salad bowls out of Parmigiano Reggiano, and Greg seemed to excel at this!
We wandered down to the bar in town for a view of the sunset from the small piazza that overlooks the lower town (only 200 people live in the walled upper town)...
...and then headed back to La Torretta where Jenny and her assistant had finished making dinner for us. We started with a radicchio salad with pears served in the Parmigiano bowls we had made, followed by the pasta we had made with yellow pepper Gorgonzola sauce - I had learned this dish while on a cooking trip in Italy a few years ago and it's a favorite of mine.
Next came veal saltimbocca, Greg's favorite Italian meat dish of all time, paired with some braised greens and drizzled with a light pan sauce made from white wine.
The left over pasta we had made was formed into nests to dry, and would be used for another meal.
Dessert was tiramisu, which we managed to fit in before heading out for the evening. A new addition to Casperia since I last visited La Torretta is a small night club called fittingly The Lounge that features live music, and it was a perfect way to celebrate Lee's birthday. Everyone in town shows up, in an effort to support each other and keep the town vibrant.

October 3, 2008 - Chianti Touring in Tuscany

Our next day began with an early pickup from our Chianti wine guide, Guido Bandinelli. He arrived at our hotel in Siena at 9am in his shiny black Mercedes van and whisked us away to our first stop, the famous hill town of San Gimignano in Tuscany, passing glorious vineyards and olive trees along the way.
San Gimignano is tiny, but unmistakable thanks to the multiple towers dotting the town.
We climbed the main tower to capture photos from above, and gasped at the beauty of the landscape surrounding us...
...including the quaint piazza of the town below...
...and the church bell tower to the east.
After descending the tower, we shopped a bit for linens and ceramics, then met up with Guido to depart for our first stop on our wine tasting tour in Chianti.
Pietro Beconcini is run by Leonardo Beconcini, the son of the late Pietro, and his wife Eva. It's a small family operation and we toured the winery where we saw grapes drying from the recent harvest...
...and vineyard workers completing the harvest.
These enormous bottles line the driveway of the property, and are used by the family to store wine for the household.
After wandering around for a bit, we settled into the tasting room with Leonardo and Eva to taste their wines along with the incredibly tasty extra virgin olive oil.
I love tasting in this environment - the passion of the producer shows through, and the intimacy of the setting enhances the experience. After our tasting, we were invited in to the Beconcini's home for a family style lunch prepared by the matriarch of the house, Eva's mother, whom we never saw during the meal as she was firmly entrenched in the kitchen.
Lunch began with a simple pasta dressed in homemade marinara sauce...
...and was followed by the meats, a platter of salami, sopressata, a wonderful truffled sausage crostini and homemade head cheese (tastes better than it sounds or looks!).
Nearly stuffed at this point, we endured and continued on to enjoy various aged Pecorino cheeses that we slathered with onion and tomato jam, and then finished our meal with homemade almond biscotti which we dipped in the Beconcini's own Vin Santo wine.
We placed our orders for wine and olive oil (which thankfully we received intact a couple of weeks later), offered our thanks, and left for the Chianti Classico area and a second winery.
Casa Emma is another small winery off the beaten path in the Chianti Classico area nestled between Florence and Siena in Tuscany.
They were readying themselves for the Sangiovese harvest, and we joined the guide in the small tasting room to sample the Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva, and their Super Tuscan, made from 70% Sangiovese, 25% Gamay, and 5% Merlot (I think).
Tasted out and tired, we returned to Siena, bid our farewells to Guido, and rallied to head into town to a small tratoria recommended as a favorite of locals by the hotel. We experienced the classic initial reluctance to serve us and we were offered a small table in the back but told we would need to eat and be out within an hour. Frustrated and tired, we didn't have it in us to argue, so seated ourselves and began ordering.
Well, after we had ordered multiple bottles of wine and not only the typical salad and pasta courses, but an enormous bisteca fiorentina, the woman running the place decided we were OK and seated her 9pm reservation at another table and let us hang out.
She even brought us the bottle of house-made grappa (barely drinkable in my book) as a gracious way to thank us for our business.
We only needed a sip of it to convince us to retire to the back patio of our hotel for a bottle of prosecco accompanied by music from Rob's iPod.