A few years ago I was at a holiday party, decked out in one of my favorite suits - a bespoke tailored pin stripe affair from Mark Powell of London, England and unfortunately it caught fire. I was sitting a little too close to a candle and the super 120 wool ignited in fairly spectacular fashion, at least according to the man that extinguished the blaze that left a good sized hole on the back of my jacket.
Despite the tragic circumstance, at least from my wardrobes perspective, it was a fortuitous meeting for me. It turns out that my savior - Francesco - owns the Palazzo Ravizza, one of the oldest and finest hotels in Siena, Italy.
Siena is a city that I have had a long love affair with since visiting several times as a child. One of my most vivid memories is of watching the Palio - the chaotic bareback horse race that circles the central Piazza del Campo and that dates back to medieval times. But I have other memories - eating plates of spaghetti in cavernous brick cellars, munching on crisp slices of street pizza while walking in the shadow of the Duomo. And the gelato, oh the gelato!
The view from The Palazzo Ravizza
I was eager to return to Siena, and after having made such a good connection I made sure to visit when traveling through Tuscany back in 2009. The Palazzo Ravizza turned out to be even more idyllic than I imagined, and Francesco a gracious host. We stayed up late in to the night drinking grapa, talking about the history of Siena and, most importantly, about food.
My first meal in Siena was a casual late dinner affair at Enoteca I Terzi, named because it lies at the intersection of the three "terzi," or districts that divide the ancient city - Terzo di San Martino, Terzo di Camollia, Terzo di Città. I feasted on prosciutto and local cheeses while quaffing a bottle of Ruffino. The thick home made spaghetti was pleasant, but the lamb ragu lacked a bit in the way of depth of flavor. Speaking to Francesco later in the day he lamented the fact that while adept at producing wonderful pork and beef the Sienese were not so expert with lamb.
Enoteca I Terzi, Via dei Termini 7, 53100 SIENA.
While locals content themselves with a cappuccino and a coronet (croissant every where else in the world) for breakfast I wanted something a bit more substantial, especially after all the grapa I had consumed and held out for a slice of the street pizza. I wasn't expecting much after having eaten pizza in Naples the previous day, but I was actually surprised how much I enjoyed it. Admittedly, my pleasure was comprised of two parts nostalgia and one part taste, but it seems to confirm the notion that even bad pizza is pretty good. And the pizza was hardly bad - a crisp crust with a generous smearing of tomato sauce dotted with mozzarella. It was a world away from the deluge of cheese that we expect in America, but it achieved a synergy of its own, highlighting the tomatoes themselves.
Da Divo is literally cut out of the volcanic bed rock that Siena is built upon. One can imagine resistance fighters hiding out during the war in the caverns that lie down the irregular stairs leading from the restaurants entrance, past the kitchen and the bricked walls of the upper dining room. The caves date back to Etruscan times. Once you descend in to the lower reaches of the restaurant you will find remarkably intimate surroundings, although the acoustics take a little getting used to.
The menu promises, and largely delivers, seasonally driven Tuscan cuisine, although I was perhaps looking for something a tad more rustic. The recipes seem to have visual touches meant to impress Michelin inspectors more than they meant to be reflective of local cooking. But the fussy presentation aside, I had no qualms about the quail, served perfectly rare, salted with pancetta and drizzled in a sticky balsamic reduction, nor the scallops laced with citrus whose tender flesh was complimented nicely by crispy onions
The risotto was served with a flourish - poured in to a large wheel of Parmesan, the piping hot rice softening the walls and allowing the server to carve out swaths of cheese the way the Etruscans carved the rock to form the grotto in which I dined. The result was a wonderfully salty, creamy risotto.
The gnocchi came encased in a crisp pastry shell as tall as the wall of Siena.
Da Divo provided an intimate dining experience, the service was effusive and the food mostly delicious.
Da Divo Via Franciosa 25-29, Siena, Italy Tel: 0577-284 381
La Taverna di San Giuseppe
I was most looking forward to trying the famed Bistecca alla Fiorentina, named after Siena's principal rival Florence but served throughout the region. Francesco recommended La Taverna di San Giuseppe located a short stroll from his hotel. It did not disappoint.
The waiter brought out the cut that I would be served for my inspection, a custom that I wish more steakhouses in the states would employ. The beef is from grass fed Chianina, pasture raised steer. The animals are lean in terms of inter muscular fat, quite unlike the corn fed steaks served in America. To compensate for this the beef is dry aged for long periods of time to insure tenderness. In the case of the steak I ate, the waiter claimed 50 days.
I can believe it, despite lacking the marbling that is so prized in the states (the beef here was exceptionally lean) it was very tender. While it did not have the crust that a fattier, corn fed steak might exhibit, it was cooked rare and there was a pleasing textural contrast between the interior and exterior.
Located in the bucolic town of Grieve in Chiante, Macelleria Falorn has been around since 1729. While they specialize in wild boar, they also stock a bounty of local meats and cheeses.
Pizzeria di Nonno Mede
The view from Pizzeria di Nonno Mede
Francesco is a proponent, as am I, of Neapolitan style pizza with its airy, puffy crust and moist center. He warned me that I wouldn't be impressed with the local pizza in Siena because it was closer to the Roman model with a crisp, dry crust. But I found it really rather good. For the record I didn't mind the Roman stuff either but my pizza heart does admittedly lie in Naples.
The pizza was certainly not as airy as a Naples pie but it was not as vanishingly thin as a Roman pie either, it was somewhere between the two. It had some crunch to be sure but also some suppleness. The sauce was mild and sweet, the cheese mild and milky. The generous slices of local salami added a salty punch along with a pleasing gaminess. Not earth shaking pizza but quite respectable and the view from the outdoor seating is wonderful.
Pizzeria di Nonno Mede Camporegio 21 Town Centre near Piazza San Domenico, Siena.
La Taverna di Vagliagli
On my way out of Siena and on the way to discover the joys of Umbrian porchetta, I stopped off for another steak at La Taverna di Vagliagli. Located atop one of the rolling hills that surrounds Siena, Vagliagli itself is surrounded by vineyards.
La Taverna is famous for their steak - a large, dry aged Floretine cut from further back on the steer that the t-bone I enjoyed from La Taverna di San Giuseppe. It would be considered a porterhouse in the US.
The steak came served with grilled potatoes and deep fried scallions.
Cooked rare as requested the beef had a herbaceous, soapy flavor with a distinct dry aged tang. The beef was tender and succulent.
I greatly enjoyed my time in Siena and look forward to returning. Things worked out pretty well for my suit as well. I took it to Alice Zotta who expertly rewove the fabric so that it looks as good as new.