Friday, July 11, 2008

This Way to the Best Meal Ever (A Very Long Italian Story, Part Ten)

I remember that the day I am about to write about is a Tuesday, so, if my calculations are correct, we still have over a week to go. As we are now relaying part ten, two things have already or are about to occur. The first, that this is the longest "Very Long" story I have told (there have been two others), and, after this installment, I can no longer count the number of the part in Italian (eleven is tricky, for me).

On this fine Tuesday, we headed north, first to a nearby former abbey, known as Sant'Anna in Camprena. Only a few kilometers from our vacation house, this abbey was a location for the film The English Patient. This explains why there are pictures of Ralph Fiennes eating in the restaurant where we had dinner in Pienza. The main attraction of the 14th century abbey, however, which is currently very nice-looking B&B, is a small room off the courtyard that contains five-hundred-year-old frescoes by Il Sodoma. The grounds are attractive, as well, and the proprietors of the inn are kind enough to allow visitors to wander the grounds during posted hours.

From Sant'Anna, we drove further north, visiting the very small town of Castelmuzio and then proceeding through the area known as Le Crete to another abbey at Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The skies were a bit gray as we arrived at the abbey, but the rain had held off. Unfortunately, the abbey was on siesta until 3pm, so we headed further north to the town of Asciano.

The drive from Castelmuzio north to Asciano was excellent, the hills revealing spectacular vistas. The only disappointment was the lack of sunshine, which would have made for some beautiful pics. Asciano, itself, however, was not so excellent. We wandered around for a while to kill time, and grabbed some pizza and foccacia for lunch, but the town was, compared to other central Tuscany towns, not very attractive.

Back at the abbey, we entered the grounds over a drawbridge (no longer drawable, it appeared, but still pretty cool), and then had a nice tree-shaded walk to the abbey proper. Within the walls, a small chapel captured our interest, along with a double column of large ants making their way down the trunk of a tree, over about twenty feet of ground, and up the front wall of the chapel, where they disappeared over the edge and onto the roof. Ant prayer services?

The abbey itself was fantastic, its courtyard decorated with more Il Sodoma frescoes of the life of Saint Benedict. While we were there, something like a fire alarm was going off, but, the sexton seemed to be telling everyone that it was just a false alarm, and nobody else seemed too concerned, so, we just made our way through the courtyard. Inside the church, we were treated to another set of monks that were doing their prayers in the manner of Gregorian chant. That was unexpected, and, perhaps due to a different scent of incense, or the ostentatiously baroque architecture of the church, I had nowhere near the same sort of experience here as I had at Sant'Antimo.

We headed back to the pad to get ready for dinner at Poggio Antico, where we had made reservations a few days before. As we sat down to eat, the skies opened up. We sat near a window, watching the rain come down, robbed of the evening view that, according to the maitre d' stretched, on clear days, to the sea. At the restaurant, we noticed that the whole evening, no one else entered the restaurant. We were the only diners. This night, Italy was playing someone for the chance to get to the quarterfinals of the European Cup. Our waiter claimed that that was keeping people home. After further experiences with soccer in Italy, I came to believe him.

At any rate, we enjoyed the attention of the entire restaurant, as we enjoyed what turned out to be, perhaps, the best meal we had ever had. We started off with an excellent Rosso di Montalcino (2006), and were treated to some excellent homemade breads. I greatly enjoyed my primi, a tagliatelle with vegetables, but the high point of the meal, for me, was a dish called peposo, a heavily peppered stew, really, served, in a more modern twist, over pureed potatoes and cream. It was spectacular. Monkey had some excellent dishes, too, a three meat ravioli in brasata and gnochetti with lamb.

The attentions of the wait staff were a nice treat, too, and the maitre d' was such a personable fellow. We spent a good portion of the evening joking and talking with him (mostly in English, of course). Monkey was especially excited, as we left that evening (after the rains, and two hours later), to meet the chef, who was sitting at the front of the restaurant, since, I guess, he only had the two of us to cook for, and we were done.

At the house, we turned on our tiny TV (the first time since we'd arrived in Italy) to see the outcome of the soccer match (il calcio, the Italians call it). Italy had won, and they were going to play in the quarterfinals. That would be Sunday night. We'd be in Rome by then. But first, we were off to Siena in the morning, and a rendezvous that evening with some old friends from CoMo, believe it or not.

1 comment:

La Fashionista said...

That meal sounds amazing!!!

We were in Italia the weeks before they won the World Cup in 2006. On one night in particular, I remember eating dinner and all throughout the town everyone was watching the Italy-Ghana match. Everyone went crazy at the win! It was intense.

It speaks to the chef's talent and presence that he prepared such an exquisite meal when soccer was happening at the same time.