Saturday, March 28, 2015

Lunch: After The Rocca Hike!

  About that lunch…. you remember…the one I pined for during the hike up to the Rocca? Of course. It was the only thing that kept me climbing up that damn tower.

  Well, we found a sweet little trattoria in the very nearby village of Castiglione d'Orcia. This town had actual stores that were open, and a few bar/caffe places. We saw people driving around, etc…so we found parking and headed up into this very pretty town.
  They have a castle tower that is being restored, so we'll have to watch the progress over the next few years...

Castiglione d'Orcia.

  We came across this sweet looking spot, and could here pots and pans banging around in the kitchen, so we decided to give it a try. 
  I was hungry, don't you know..

Trattoria Il Cassero.

  As seems to often be the case, because it's March, we were the only diners. The nice folks, a husband and wife team, I'm assuming, took good care of us. We were seated in a small room which had some interesting artwork as well as a fireplace. I was happy.

I thought this was pretty cool..

I've never met a fire I couldn't resist "poking".
Plus, what wacky decoration!

  The chef had come out and taken our orders, very helpful, too, and we had our wine, just waiting and enjoying the views...

I'm so ready for some pasta, please…….

  There were some interesting vegetarian options in the "primi" section of the menu, so it was easy to decide what to have. Johnny had me order for him, as well.
  We didn't have an antipasto this time, but each ordered pasta and contorni(side dishes), as well as a cheese plate to share for our "secondo", or main dish, sort of.

   Our pasta came first-

Ravioli with leeks, spinach, and roquefort.
The sauce was so great..a little cinnamon in there, adding a slightly
sweet and exotic note, very well balanced with the roquefort.

Maltagliata, a wide egg noodle, with roasted Romanesco broccoli and olives.
I loved it. The noodles were house made, and so perfectly chewy/silky.
The sauce on this was spicy. Two completely different red sauces.

  The dishes took time, and I'm glad they did. They were so good-you just knew there was someone back there that really cared.
  We ate slowly, switching plates more than once. We chatted a little with the chef, as he would pop out to see how we were doing, and it was all just so relaxing and comfortable.

  Next came our contorni, and another sip of wine...

"Carciofi alla Grappa"
Artichokes simmered in grappa.
Need I say more? Yes, good!

Oven baked vegetables that were the best I've tasted.
Perfectly seasoned, and roasted until just slightly charred in spots.

  Lastly, we enjoyed a wonderful cheese course. Not extensive, there were three cheeses, each aged longer than the next, and the fig marmalade that accompanied was just right.
  The wife makes the marmalade, and I would have loved to bring some home.


  I'll tell you, I especially enjoyed this meal, after hoofing it up that giant Rocca-tower thing, I'll tell you. Every bite was a bite well earned, as well as delicious.

  I would say that if you are in the area, take the time to seek this little place out. We were so happy we found it.
  After coming home, I had looked it up, and the reviews, especially from Italians, were so-so…maybe the meat dishes aren't that great..., I don't know. These pasta dishes were really kind of special, though.
  I say go!
 Climbing the Rocca first? Well, that's up to you….
 In Castiglione d'Orcia-
 Trattorio Il Cassero

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Day Trip: Rocca d'Orcia

  I kid you not, I have wanted to visit Rocca d'Orcia for at least ten years. 
  Every time we drive through the hills and valleys of this stunning area, I've gazed longingly out the window, wondering what the holy heck that big old tower thingy was.
  You can see it from miles and miles away. Especially on the beautiful drive between Montepulciano and  San Quirico d'Orcia. This is the heart of the Val d'Orcia, land of a million calendar photos. You've seen them, I just know you have.

  Anyway, we wanted to visit the nearby Bagon Vignoni, where we had read about a new art space that features contemporary art, so we decided to make a day of it.
  First stop was to see the artwork. Johnny wrote about it on his blog. We both were pleased to have sought this place out. We seem to keep discovering interesting art galleries, etc. in the most unusual places…

  Afterwards, we headed for the Rocca….

Yes, way up there.

Ummm…what were we thinking?

  Actually, the drive wasn't bad at just looked scary from way down below. After a few hairpin turns, we found some parking, and hiked our fannies on up the hill.

I assume this is some type of town crest, since it
was at the front portal into the small town.

  Walking into this small hill town, in March, is like walking back in history. Except for the total lack of inhabitants, that is.
  There was no one around, though I did see a few places that had laundry on the line. For the most part, we were alone. 
  I think most of the residences are holiday rental units, or second homes for owners in Rome or Florence. 
  It was kind of eerie. But so beautiful, at the same time...

It was an overcast day, so this just added to the sombre feeling of the place.

The main piazza.
Just us and a couple of cats.

Unreal, right?

  After "ooooohhhh-ing" and "ahhhhhh-ing" for a good while, just standing and soaking it all in, we began the walk up to the actual Rocca itself.

All I'm thinking is:
"There better be a good lunch after this hike up."

Another small group of mostly closed up houses...

  Halfway up the hill, I spied the perfect spot to set the camera up on a timer, so we could actually get a picture of the two of us. 
  Plus, we were pretty much huffing and puffing our little hearts out…Good thing we are regular walkers! I don't know how we'd get to some of these places otherwise.

Not there yet, Baby….

I want to be up there, with the birds!
See the ruins of yet another Rocca, way over in the background?

  We made it to the bottom of the Rocca, where there is a small building with a nice docent to sell you tickets to climb on up. It's a great view from this spot, but I was on a mission. I wanted to get to the top of this one!
  Poor Johnny, I truly think he just figures I want to do him in. He's a very good sport.
  He does enjoy a good castle, tower, battleground…..all the historical stuff around this area. Thank god. That's what keeps him hanging in there on these hare-brained ideas of mine.
  Bless his (pounding) heart.

Just. A. Bit. Higher.

Ok. I'm beginning to regret this. 

  You know, I didn't really think about the whole "I'm afraid of heights" part of this foolhardy adventure. Sigh.
  There is a nice lunch after this, right?

  I must say that I am really quite proud of my little old self. I kept right on going, and left that scaredy-cat self behind. Down below, where it was really safe.
  Big old baby.

Up we go to the first level of the Rocca.
Totally worth it for the views, of course.


  When you do arrive to the Rocca, you go inside and there are several displays which talk about the history of the Rocca, and old photos, etc. Johnny loved this part of the adventure.
  It's really well kept, and in all truth, not scary. The steps to the very top, though super steep, are very sturdy, with railings all the way up.
  And I do mean UP.

I'm not scared.

No, really. I'm not scared.
Ok, at this point I did sort of go on hands and knees….


There's the little town, below, and the road we came up
starts way the hell down there.

  I say go. 
  It was totally worth it, especially since there were only two other people there. It wasn't really all that hard to climb, and the views of the Val d'Orcia can't be beat. 
  We spent only about ten minutes at the top, because the day wasn't perfect. I want to go back on a sunny and clear day, to do this again. I can only imagine what these views would be like on a nice day...

  We made our way back down, down, down…which was just as difficult, I gotta say..especially on the knees. The damn knees.

This is one empty little hill town…
But just so gorgeous.

I made it!
Now…where's my lunch?

  We walked around the areas of the town we hadn't seen on the way up…and actually came across a small gallery that was prepping for a photography exhibit that was opening later that evening.
  Go figure. Who would attend? Being a Saturday, maybe quite a few folks staying or living in the area.    We got to see the show, so we were happy.

 We ended up going the mile or so up the way to Castiglione d'Orcia, which was also lovely, and had more activity.
  We had that lunch I was hoping for…which will be another post here in the very near future.

  On our way back home, we stopped for a walk around Pienza, a favorite spot for a late afternoon glass of wine...

Views on the way to Pienza.

View from the walls of Pienza…classic Tuscan.

  I love these day trips. I dream of them all year. It's fun to be the co-pilot along the way, and it seems there is always a sweet spot for a glass of wine somewhere at the end of the day….

Happy Boy.

Happy Girl.

    Can't wait to see what's next on the agenda…as soon as this freaking rain stops, that is!
  In the meantime, I have a good chance to write, so it's a win-win, si?

Here's the place to climb, brave friends:

Rocca d'Orcia

We Lunch Again: Osteria del Gallo nel Pozzo

   Undoubtably, we will always find ourselves enjoying lunch or dinner, or both at Simone and Lorena Gallo's lovely Osteria Il Gallo nel Pozzo, located in the main piazza in Panicale.
  We have enjoyed several meals here over the years, and it's always a pleasure to be in the capable hands of this wonderful couple.

  This week, we opted for lunch. We had been told there was a new chef on staff, along with Lorena, so we needed to check it out. 
  As always, Simone, who is the son of Aldo and Daniele, from Bar Gallo, across the piazza, took care of the front of the house. He is a perfect host, and is always ready to answer questions about the day's menu, or the extensive wine list. 

    Having asked for a simple half carafe (mezzo litre) of the house grechetto, our favorite white wine of the region, and a bottle of water, we settled in to have a look at the menu.

  Simone brought us our beverages, along with a small plate of house made breadsticks, sage biscuits and mayonnaise. Wow…we dove right in!

The breadsticks are so good!
The sage biscuits are tasty, and very crunchy. 

The beautiful color of the home made mayo was incredible.
Tasty, too.

  We arrived rather hungry, having had a long morning walk and just a bit of fruit for breakfast, so this was a nice way to start our meal. 
  We had each ordered the wild asparagus with eggs for our antipasti. It took just long enough for us to get a chance to enjoy the biscuits, etc.

  Normally, we would not order the same dish, but it sounded so good to both of us, and the wild asparagus is only available for a short time, so….
  We were both very happy we ordered this. It was pretty, with the vibrant green and perfectly cooked asparagus…again, the eggs with orange, orange, orange yolks. I never get over this color!
  In comparison with American tastes, or trends, perhaps, these eggs would be too well done. For us, they were the way we like them. I'm just not into a really runny yolk. I like it soft, but set, and this is how they were served.

What we didn't know, and were told afterwards by Lorena, was that she and Simone had foraged for the asparagus
the day before, just down the hill. Nice!

  As you can see, we liked this dish very much.

This is what the tasteless, saltless regional bread is for.
Wiping up the sauces...

  For our "primi", or pasta course, I chose a dish that I can never resist on any Umbrian menu. 
  That is, any pasta served with a ceci (chickpea) and rosemary cream sauce. The sauce here wasn't too creamy, which meant it was a nice, light version. The tastes of the ceci and rosemary just came through so well. It was served with house made, and of course very fresh, tagliatelli cooked "al dente".
  Oh, heavenly plate of goodness.

I'm pretty certain that I have yet to meet the pasta dish
I don't love, here in Umbria. I'll let you know, if I do.

  There were a couple of other vegetarian friendly pastas on the menu, as well as a special, but Johnny was into trying the red onion soup. These red onions (cipolla di Cannara) are a specialty from the area around nearby Cannara. They are often served "wood fire" roasted in their skins, but here they really shined in this soup.
  The onions were sliced and just short of melting. The soup was thick, from the broth-soaked bread slices at the bottom of the bowl. There was a layer of toasted pecorino, I think, on the top. Much like a French onion soup, but the bread is on the bottom. 

  My Mom makes something sort of like this, with layers of onion and cabbage, cheese, old bread and broth…baked until all bubbly and succulent.
  These sweet red onions are just made for a soup like this. The broth was amazing.
  If I had a complaint, it would be about the vessel it was served in…it was hard to get the last melty, baked on bits of cheesy, oniony bread. 
  Somehow we did it. If we were at home, we would have stuck our fingers in there, real good. Flavor sensation. We talked about going back just to enjoy this soup again. 

Rich and oozy.

  We could totally have stopped there, and probably should have, but we were really hungry when we ordered. Good thing Simone stopped us from ordering two of this last dish, below. We shared one, which was a good call on Simone's part.
  Roasted artichoke served in a creamy parmesan sauce. 
  Another rather rich dish, but shared between us, it was a good last plate.

We'd dug in before I took this shot.
It was all toasted on top...

I was happy that the artichoke had been roasted, as it added a nice depth of flavor
that worked off the richness of the sauce.

  Sitting back, finishing the last sips of wine, we were very happy, indeed. We had seen some pals in the piazza at Bar Gallo, so decided against dessert. We wanted to go chat for a bit. 
  In retrospect, there was no way I could have eaten any "dolci" after this perfect lunch, anyway…

  But, I must admit, when we were brought these tiny bits of delightfulness, below, I was pretty stoked.
  Palate cleansing slices of strawberry in a blood orange gelatin. Wow. Super light, not too sweet, and just tart enough to do the job. This is a fantastic combination, and in the diminutive jars, a very nice end of meal presentation.


  I only wish I had gotten the name of the new chef…he came out to chat briefly a couple of times, so I certainly had the chance. Ah, well…next time. Because there will be a next time-

  Grazie a tutti!
  Bravissimi, Amici!

  If you have not yet tried Osteria del Gallo nel Pozzo, or it's been a while, I recommend you stop by soon.

Friday, March 20, 2015

A Shock At Chiesa San Niccolo

  This may be an odd thing to write about here, but it was just such a sad scene…

  We had come to Cortona for art supplies, as well as a visit to the charming Church of San Niccolo.   We both wanted to see the dual sided Signorelli painting inside the little church, and just enjoy the loveliness of this special place on a nice day.

  Having hiked up, up, up, to get there, we came across a disastrous scene...

Wow…this was serious.

  We were aware there had been major winds that tore through Central Italy a few weeks ago, but hadn't actually seen any of the damage.
  We saw some here.
  There were several very old, very large Italian Cypress trees down…some just snapped off.
  It was pretty disturbing to see…a real disaster.

  We made certain it was safe, and climbed under the massive trunks to see the sign on the fence. It just gave the normal hours of operation, though…nothing about the destructive scene all around us.

We scooted under these huge trunks...

  There were even more trees down inside the fence, though we couldn't go in. I took some shots through the fence posts. These are such old trees…

The church, from what we could see, was undamaged, thankfully.

More damage from the upper terraced garden.

Looking back to the street from the front gate.
So sad!

  We decided to walk up above, just to see if there was any damage to the church we could see from there.
No, it seems, but we really don't know what all happened here...

Trees just snapped in half.
Can you imagine? We heard there were 80 mile an hour winds…
No thanks.

Just amazing.

  I hope all goes well, and the church can repair the damages and replant the trees, but it will be years, I'm afraid.

  Just goes to show us all…the weather is going through some major changes. And it's not all sunshine and rainbows in Bella Italia...