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Siena, Italy

A group of Dallas epicures journeys to Siena to attend Ecco La Cucina, a Tuscan culinary school where they would learn how to cook like a real Italian. But first they had to eat like one.
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photography by R.P. Washburne

Siena, Italy

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By any account, San Gusmé is an out-of-the-way Tuscan town. There are no world-class art museums like those in Florence and no grand duomos like the striped marble Cathedral of Siena. There isn’t even a souvenir stand like those that line the street alongside the Tower of Pisa. Then again, we were not normal Tuscan tourists.

Fueled only by the high-octane Chianti we’d tasted that morning, we stumbled around the steep and narrow cobblestone streets that wind through town. We didn’t give a flying organic, locally grown fig about the historic church built in 867 A.D. Like gustatory pilgrims, we were on a mission and had traveled to San Gusmé in search of an epicurean epiphany. We experienced one at an obscure—but jam-packed—family-run restaurant called Sira e Remino.

The worn wooden floors creaked as we snaked through a series of tiny, tiered rooms filled with multigenerational families enjoying a Sunday afternoon feast of Tuscan specialties. Wineglasses clinked, babies cried, and waiters whirled through the crowd holding platters high overhead. Nobody even cast a glance at the clumsy Americans bumping them as we maneuvered to our table. Only then did a hunk call to our guide: “Ciao, Gina!”

“Ciao, ciao, Andrea,” our blond leader said as she motioned us to sit at the long table before us.

Gina Stipo is a chef. Although she was born in the United States, she chucked corporate restaurants a decade ago and has lived outside Siena since 1999. Together with her sister Mary Stipo Potter, a hockey-lovin’ Plano resident, they operate Ecco La Cucina, a cooking school and food tourism program dedicated to Tuscan cuisine and culture. The agri-tourism itinerary we booked included behind-the-scenes tours of Tuscan wineries and saffron and pig farms. And did I mention the wineries? We also toured the grand churches of Siena and dined at a number of small, family-owned restaurants as we learned the story of Siena and the surrounding hills.

Our group of eight had signed up to learn how to cook like an Italian. This being our first full day in Tuscany, Gina felt it more important for us to learn how to eat like an Italian—and drink like one, too.

“Italians have respect for the process of making food,” Gina told us. “They love to spend time together at meals.” And then she lifted her wineglass and toasted, “Brindisi!”

We had already mastered brindisi, a typical Italian toast. Learning it had been our first lesson—and one we repeated over and over during the trip.

We were nothing if not dutiful students.

During the next three hours, the meal we devoured would have brought the ultimate glutton of gastronomic punishment, Anthony “No Reservations” Bourdain, to his bony knees. Once seated, our table was weighted with huge platters. First came an antipasti plate with three varieties of pecorino cheese in various stages of maturation; then a plate of beautiful bruschetta pomodoro arrived. An abundance of pork products followed on the salumi plate: finocchiona (salami spiked with fennel), spicy copocollo (cured shoulder butts), pancetta, and prosciutto.

Next, a procession of primi dishes. Wide, flat, and perfectly textured pappardelle pasta with porcini mushrooms had us vowing to never again step foot in Macaroni Grill. And then our soon-to-be newest food addiction arrived: pici cacio e pepe. Pici is a hand-rolled pasta, similar to but thicker than spaghetti, with a more substantial texture. This labor-intensive pasta is made only in Tuscany. The dish was topped with a spoonful of the water it had cooked in, some shaved pecorino, and cracked black pepper—a simple sauce if there ever was one. Ah, but the tastes were magnificent. The Italians don’t drown their pasta in sauce, allowing both the pasta and the sauce to leave a more memorable taste in your mouth. We slurped up every noodle and nearly licked the last of the sauce off the serving platter. We were completely sated and full.

Then came the main course.

Just as the third straw-covered bottle of vino rosso della casa was passed, Andrea returned to the table with the secondi: bistecca Fiorentina. He set down two massive 4-inch-thick porterhouse steaks that had been grilled over a wood fire with a little salt. Andrea cut into the steaks and revealed the almost raw center.

“If you want steak well done, then you shouldn’t be eating steak in Tuscany,” Gina said. “Welcome to Tuscany. This is how we eat.”

Pass the Wine, Per Favore
Prior to our arrival in San Gusmé, we explored Chianti Classico. This narrow zone of Tuscany runs north to south between Florence and Siena in the central part of the Chianti region. Wine production here began in the 14th century, and the gallo nero (black rooster), the historic symbol of the League of Chianti, has become a powerful marketing tool for the local wines. Even though the wines of Chianti have improved, they are saddled with the image of a cheap basket-bottle holding a candle, set atop a red-checked tablecloth. Chianti wines still struggle for the accolades bestowed on the elegant, high-quality wines produced in the surrounding vineyards of Montepulciano, Montalcino, and Morellino di Scansano.

Just after breakfast, we visited Castello di Meleto, a winery deep in the heart of Chianti Classico. The castle on the property, built in the mid-13th century, belonged to one of the most important families in Chianti, the Ricasoli Firidolfi family, for 800 years. Even though it was only 10 in the morning, our body clocks were ticking on Dallas time. As our guide, Giovanna, poured samples, we sniffed and swirled like pros. And drank like sailors. The “elegant, velvety with a bouquet of spices and wild berry” qualities of the Sangiovese grape, the main grape used in the production of Tuscan wine, went down way too easy. We had much to learn in the upcoming days about pacing ourselves.

The buzz from the wine was great, but the view from the winery’s patio, high above the sun-kissed vineyards of Castello di Meleto, was like a painted postcard. For some of us, this was a first look at a classic Italian countryside: the silhouette of the cylindrical castle tower rested against a backdrop filled with cypress- and juniper-lined rolling hills dotted with grapevines.

Our tranquil moment was brief. “Come on, guys,” said Gina. “We’ve got lots to do.” Like a seasoned tour guide, Gina led us through the castle and recounted the long history of the battles that took place between the people of Florence and Siena. Her tales came alive as we noted antique weapons, furniture, and paintings. Siena and Florence fought for three centuries, each vying to enlarge its respective territory and win the bragging rights to who had the most land, the tallest towers, or the most armed fortresses. Like a medieval version of Dallas versus Houston.

Today the Chianti region, which covers most of central Tuscany and extends past Siena, Florence, and Arezzo, is peaceful. The castles and fortresses still stand, but the only battles you might encounter may be for a parking space at one of the many enotecas (tasting rooms) of the wineries that line the area’s curvy roads.