Exploring Umbria With the Locals, From Wine to Cashmere

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>A visit to central Italy leads to beautiful driving, dancing, museumgoing, and lots of samples of Brunello di Montalcino

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The sun shines on a vineyard in the Val d'Orcia close to the Tuscan town of Montalcino in central Italy. Max Rossi/Reuters


I've got a yearly appointment in Montalcino, for the Brunello di Montalcino Wine Consortium's annual wine tasting, Benvenuto Brunello, and the Leccio d'Oro awards for the best Italian wine selection, focusing on Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino, in the restaurant, osteria (casual dining), and enoteca (wine shop or wine bar) categories. I'm on the jury. The 2011 winners were Ristorante Romano in Viareggio, Enoteca La Mia Cantina in Padova, and Nostrana in Portland, Oregon, owned by my friends chef Cathy Whims and David West.

They were excited about the award and met me in Montalcino. We tasted Brunello—loved the Mastrojanni, Maroneto, La Fortuna, and Castello Romitorio and attended award festivities in the adorable Teatro degli Astrusi, followed by the cementing of a commemorative tile celebrating the 2010 Brunello vintage (five stars, the highest rating) and many, many official photos of the winners. We skipped the buffet lunch, found time for a visit to Sant'Antimo, then drove on one of the loveliest roads in Tuscany, to Osteria La Porta in Monticchiello, the balcony of the Val d'Orcia. We dined on a terrace overlooking the countryside, pure Tuscan rustic food, including the ever-present pici (beautifully done), chickpea and farro soup, grilled meats, roast pork liver, and best of all, fried eggs with black truffles. The wine list was wonderful, well-priced—we drank Talenti's Rosso di Montalcino.

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We arrived at Solomeo at dusk. Donatella, the owner of Mandoleto, a comfortable agriturismo, met us in the piazza and led us to her farm-inn outside town. We had time to unpack and then head back to town for a concert at Teatro Cucinelli, created, like almost everything in Solomeo, by Brunello Cucinelli, philosopher-prince of the cashmere industry. Ushers and ticket takers were clad in his grey cashmere; busts of five-star philosophers in niches between oak columns ringed the back of the room along with the Cucinelli crest (griffin and tower) in stone. The concert, by the Quartetto di Roma, was wonderful (Brunello and his wife sat in the front row), and after the concert everyone adjourned to the library for tozzetti (dry almond cookies) and Vin Santo.

I love a monothematic museum, so I simply had to visit the Museum of Trasimeno Lake Fishing, with displays of traditional fishing methods of the past, nets, traps, boats, motors, lake fish in tanks. We saw a sign for the Mancianti olive oil mill and wanted to visit but it was closed. Time for lunch—lake fish, of course, at Osteria Rosso di Sera—well-priced wine list, simple cooking, a serious cookie selection for dessert, an adorable shop with quality products. We retired to our agriturismo until our next meal.

Cathy remembered a place that specialized in torta al testo, a local flatbread cooked on stone disks, and we tracked down Faliero—hotel, trattoria, ballroom, soccer field, swimming pool. The trattoria was packed with diners of all ages. I asked a native to explain the ordering procedure. Take a number and while you're waiting examine the hand-written menu, then when your number is called head to the counter (wade through dozens of impatient Italians), order, and then pay and pick up your numbered meal at another counter. Beverages are at yet another counter—no number required. The flatbreads are cooked on stone disks heated in a huge fireplace—then stuffed with greens, cheese, sausage, salumi, or eggplant, sliced into wedges. The ballroom bustles on the weekends with live music—an accordion is part of the combo. Couples in sparkly outfits doing liscio, tango, and the mazurka glide around the floor—you can tell they've been practicing.

We had a special tour of the Brunello Cucinelli factory. A ceramic sign outside the front door with a Galileo quote—"Behind every problem there's an opportunity"—set the tone. Clearly Brunello found his. He defines his philosophy as humanistic, a form of ethical capitalism where profit isn't the highest goal. He makes spectacular (and expensive) cashmere, but his village, somewhat over-restored, no stone out of place, seemed decidedly cult-like with its happy cashmere-clad workers and inspirational plaques. We shopped. And then went back to Mandoleto to meet Vito, ready for the next part of our adventure.

Rosso di Sera (no website)
Via Fratelli Papini 79
San Feliciano-Magione (Perugia)
Tel. +39.075.8476277; Cell +39.392.5234622
Email: rossodisera96@hotmail.com
Closed Tuesdays

Next: Montefalco, wine tastings, cashmere and lace, virtual and actual museum, trattoria dinners, winery lunch, Benozzo Gozzoli, and black truffles.

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Faith Willinger is a chef, author, and born-again Italian. She moved to Italy in 1973 and has spent over 30 years searching for the best food from the Alps to Sicily. More

Faith Heller Willinger is a born-again Italian. She moved to Italy in 1973 and was seduced by Italian regional cooking. Faith has spent more than 30 years searching for the best food and wine, as well as the world beyond the table from the Alps to Sicily. She has no regrets about mileage or calories. Faith was awarded the prestigious San Pellegrino award for outstanding work as an ambassador of Italian cooking. She lives full-time in Florence with her Tuscan husband, Massimo. Her son Max lives in Milan. She's the author of the bestselling (9th printing) guidebook Eating in Italy, the cookbook Red, White & Greens, and the narrative recipe book Adventures of an Italian Food Lover. Faith teaches in her kitchen in Florence on Wednesdays, supplied with freshly picked produce from her favorite farmers. Check out her web site at www.faithwillinger.com.
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