Osteria delle Erbe host, passionate storyteller and avid traveler
Chianciano Terme, image by Comune Chianciano Terme
Tell me your story…
I come from a small town near Val d’Orcia, Chianciano Terme. That’s where my story begins, where my parents owned a hotel in which I grew up. It was a great opportunity for me as it taught me to be outgoing and how to entertain customers, I also learned a lot about Italy as a whole… some thirty years ago Chianciano was a small Las Vegas.
From all those conversations I developed a big desire to travel, to get to know places, so settling down in Val d’Orcia was a big compromise. On one hand it is a fantastic place, a place where you can still live in contact with nature, where seasons still mark the rhythm, where quality of life has nothing to do with a frenzy of social activities, but with real quality of the air, of the food, the water, the countryside. So the compromise was that by living here I was still able to travel. The restaurant business allows me the opportunity of working in the summer and to travel during winter, through which I learned a lot and always bring home the knowledge with me.
Crete Senesi, image by Paolo Barcucci
You’ve travelled a lot, all over the world, what do you think that Val d’Orcia has which you haven’t found elsewhere?
The food, obviously! And the wine too… and the landscape, which still remains for me a small paradise. There are two things that have always prompted me to come back home: the first one is the partition between seasons, I need the changing of seasons, I notice it is something that always generated emotions in me. Not just seeing the change occur but smelling it, feeling it on my skin and in the wind. The second is the network of personal connections, which is probably the most important element. We live in a small reality which occupies a dispersed territory, like one large dispersed town that connects many small villages, in which we create deep connections. There is obviously another face to this coin, that in a minute everyone knows what you’re up to – but on the other hand you have friendships that date back 30 years with people you can trust and open your heart to.
Tuscan hills, image by Edward Riddell
Why should someone visit Val d’Orcia?
First of all because it will surprise you, then, if you’re seeking to learn about the roots of humanity and what being a human really entails, Val d’Orcia offers the right size from which to see these things, this is the main reason why one should visit.
Secondly because eating and drinking well are things that one should always do! Especially foreigners who might not have a deep tradition in good food and wine being readily available. The whole world is rapidly advancing in this respect, but us Italians have a different relationship with food – it isn’t just a matter of answering to a physical need, it is culture and tradition. Tasting history is not something that you can do everyday or everywhere, but you can do it in Val d’Orcia.
Alessio and Giovanni, Osteria delle Erbe
Do you think that the tourists should get to know the locals?
Yes, definitely! I don’t think that there is a better way to absorb the essentiality of a place you visit. I always try and show guests what I am, rather than showing my work, and it applies to the experience that one can have here [at l’Osteria delle Erbe], which goes beyond eating and drinking. One thing is eating well and pairing the right wine to the food, another thing is eating well, pairing the right wine and adding the company of someone that loves it. When I was working for John, [Voigtmann, at La Bandita] as we chatted I told him “look, John, I want to sit down with the clients when I take their order”. John looked at me puzzled but let me go for it. I began noticing that it worked well in breaking the ice, people listened with different ears, sharing the passion for the life I had chosen and sharing their story. A lot of enthusiasm gets across and … even a dish of overcooked pici becomes delicious!
Machu Picchu, one of Alessio's many destinations
Hand sliced Tuscan prosciutto
Traveling is often considered the most important element for understanding what others do better, or differently, to then learn how to improve oneself…
Open-mindedness is the most important concept for me, the only way to travel and absorb the surrounding reality. Elements that you’ll need later on will cling to you, and when you go back home you find ideas and concepts that you didn’t know you had absorbed. Traveling is vital for us that work in the field. On top of that, when I tell people my stories it’s my travel anecdotes that stick with them the most.
There is one thing that I realized after being in the restaurant business for fifteen years. We’re very lucky in Italy to have excellent products and wine, so at the end of the day eating and drinking well has almost become standard. So what really makes the difference is the restaurant’s atmosphere. It’s such a delicate, indefinable concept that you only learn to create after years of experience, of having seen thousands of restaurants and taking elements from each.
When you feel at ease in a restaurant it feels as if the place is an extension of your being. That’s when an atmosphere has really been created, when you feel like the small candle on the table is nicest in the world, and the little thing you’re eating is the best you can eat. Let’s sit at the table, talk about ourselves, let’s open-up, let the wine give us the chance to warm up inside and really open up our minds.
Tables at sunset at Osteria delle Erbe
Nowadays everything is linked to the experience, if the experience you are living in that moment provides you with something new and unexpected, you remember it forever…
Precisely. If you walk out of my restaurant with a tiny bit of nostalgia, then I’ve succeeded. Because you’ll come back again and again. Eating is like sleeping, the most pristing activity we do, so it affects a very intimate part of our being, which brings out, willingly or not, one’s nature. [At Buca Vecchia, Osteria delle Erbe] we wanted to introduce a blind night, with every light off. You close your eyes too, you taste and you eat, music adapts to each course, maybe even different aromas are dispersed in the air. All senses get used, excluding the one everyone is constantly using. The idea is to awaken this sensibility in all the people that feel asleep.
Sant'Antimo, image by Edward Riddell
If you had only two days to visit Val d’Orcia, which would be the five sights that you wouldn’t miss?
I wouldn’t miss the beauty of Monte Amiata, a splendid mountain, of which we haven’t yet fully understood the potential and are not adequately promoting. Then the natural baths in Bagni San Filippo are something that shouldn’t be missed because they are a gift of nature.
The forest La Faggeta, near Pietra Porciana is a true marvel. On top of that it’s full of history because during WWII it’s where the partisans were hiding. Then the temple of San Biagio, a fascinating place linked to my youth as it was the place we conveyed whenever we skipped school. The Abbey of Sant’Antimo is one of the most mystical places I’ve ever been to – and I’ve been to Machu Picchu and the Egyptian pyramids – the abbey has something so special. The fifth place to visit would be Marcellina in Montepulciano, to eat a plate of pici.
Marcellina is a lady who makes pici before our eyes, we would sometimes even wait forty minutes so that she could make some extra portions if we showed up in more. You wait patiently in her living room, on her fake leather sofa with the tv on, until she finishes making them and serves you. It used to be open to the public, you would walk below the courthouse, take a right and find an opaque glass door, knock on it and Marcellina would open for you.
Do you have a favourite place, in which you find peace?
La Grotta del Bruco, the Centipede Cave. It is one of the places where partisans were hiding during the Nazi occupation, from which they would plane their raids. It sits between Val d’Orcia and Val di Chiana and is a fantastic place full of energy where I usually stand still and meditate. On one side of the cave is a hole from which you can see La Faggeta forest, a wonderful sea of green, and on the opposite side, in the distance is Monte Amiata. Different winds pass through the cave and the air is never still.
Poggio di Sotto, Montalcino
Tuscan meat, dry aging
Fall in Tuscany
Your favorite enogastronomic product?
[Laughs] Brunello di Montalcino! Too easy! Do you mean food? I miss meat a lot during my travels because its quality here you can only dream of elsewhere. That’s actually not completely true, I’ve found delicious meat in some god forsaken places, like on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua. The problem is that not many people know how to process it, it just isn’t part of their cultural background. Here in Italy there is a tradition in maturing meat and cutting it. I was a sailor in one part of my life and when I was at sea for a long time meat is one of the foods I missed the most. So I would call Giulio, the owner of Acqua Cheta who I’ve known for thirty years, a month before my return from sea, letting him know what day I would be back so that he could prepare the meat, 1.8kgs of steak to mature slowly, at 8 degrees celsius. Once I got back, I had a perfectly matured steak waiting for me.
What about your favorite season?
Autumn, without any doubt! For a million reasons… from the intensity of colours – which is something that always strikes me – and because it connects me to my childhood experiences. Autumn was when my parents would close the hotel season and family time would begin, we would go back to living at home. Another reason why I love autumn, which is a typical motherly attitude, is preparing for winter. Buying all the provisions, preparing the house, piling up the firewood… Then different scents fill the air, currents change, the thin air bringing new fragrances, especially the perfume of wine fermenting! It’s a melancholic time but at the same time so warm and soft that you don’t feel sad.
Is there a perfume that represents Val d’Orcia to you the most?
Are you familiar with the scent of milk, the one that comes from May’s wheat fields? There is this milky scent in the air towards the end of May which comes from freshly cut wheat. It’s a sign that summer is around the corner.
La Buca Vecchia
Baby piglet at La Buca Vecchia
Osteria delle Erbe
Let’s talk about Buca Vecchia…
La Buca Vecchia is an incredible place which was created in the 60’s by Giovanni’s grandfather who came here from Sardinia and decided to buy himself this stretch of land. He moved to Tuscany with his sheep and children – as most people did at the time – with so much love for the land and a strong will to work. Something which I always think about is what he said to his children: “I bought this land so that from now on we will produce food, and you’ll sell it to people that pass through that road” [the road which connects Montepulciano to Pienza]. He had an incredible foresight. They began producing cheese following the Sardinian tradition – for their own use mainly – and now their cheese is sold all around the world. We’re now thinking of offering a selection of home-made cheeses regularly here at La Buca.
Osteria delle Erbe is the restaurant within La Buca Vecchia and a project that originates from Giovanni and Caterina. Giovanni has dreamt about creating a tasting room for years, and Caterina has always been a forager, collecting spontaneous herbs all over, so they decided to put their two passions together. It is now a place that makes everyone happy and will continue to be more than a restaurant: a place where someone can have a multitude of experiences. Out back we have a crescent-shaped lawn with round tables in it, some of them made by artists and others with mirrors on them, to give nature a chance to be an artist herself! Guests can enjoy an aperitivo overlooking the sunset and soaking in the atmosphere before moving indoors to have their meal.