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Friday, June 24, 2011

Fork and Gobble It: Tuscan Honeymoon - Colle Alta & Ristorante Arnolfo

Who would have thought a quiet and tranquil village like Colle di Val d'Elsa would be home to a Michelin starred restaurant? When I was booking reservations for this trip, the owner of Montecastelli, Jens Schmidt recommended eating there. He said it would be an amazing experience. I took his advice and booked a lunch reservation with the thought that a meal like this should be eaten at midday to allow us to walk it off the rest of the afternoon. Colle di Val d'Elsa is a quiet place and not at all what you'd think of as a tourist destination. It is bustling like any other small town during the day with businesses, small shops, and restaurants, but beyond that it seems pretty ordinary. There are two parts to the village the hilltop portion referred to as Colle Alta, and the lower part which is Colle Basse. Arnolfo is located in Colle Alta. Our reservation was made for 1pm, so we decided to spend the morning in Colle Alta just exploring.

Colle di Val d'Elsa lies between Siena and Florence. Over the years this location was key because of the constant fighting between the two cities. Colle Alta was clearly a fortified village and is stilled walled in. We got there in late morning and began walking around.

In many ways it was similar to the other villages we had explored that week. There were florists, food stores, clothing shops, wine shops or enotecas, but what was thankfully absent was any sign of fast foods restaurants or chain stores. We checked out a small shop where a woman sold artwork made by her daughter and then walked over to an enoteca that caught my eye. (Don't they all?) Enoteca Il Salotto by all appearances was a serious wine shop. The shelves were full of the wines of the region and other parts of Italy and some international selections which was a rarity in Italian wine shops. The defining feature of this place though was the Enomatics. Our eyes went wide. The very same "Wine Tasting on Demand" machines we have in our Iselin, New Jersey store were right in front of us in this shop. I knew this was a store I needed to spend some time in. Il Salotto is run by Pietro Fratiglioni and his wife Patrizia. He spoke english very well and we were treated to a flight of wines to taste. I told him I was also in the business (ITB) and then the serious wine geekery began. We walked through the shop talking about different wines and their producers and Pietro answered my question about the white wine we'd found earlier in the week, Bianco di Patigliano. We told them of our reservation at Arnolfo and said we'd return after lunch. We walked up to Arnolfo precisely at 1pm. Our punctuality was due more to the fact that we knew lunch was going to last several hours than anything else. We were greeted by Giovanni Trevato and his staff. Giovanni is the sommelier and his brother Gaetano the chef. Together they own and operate Arnolfo. Once seated we were offered glasses of vintage Moet and amuse bouche were placed before each of us. Amuse bouche are complimentary appetizers presented by the chef in appreciation of your patronage. They can range from the simple to the ethereal and these were definitely on the later part of that scale.

Not wanting to turn a fantastic meal into a study in food, I did take pictures but tried to keep the note taking to a minimum. My lovely and patient wife appreciated this immensely. I looked over the wine list deep with older vintages of fantastic Tuscan wines and did what I usually do, took the road less traveled. Since I would be eating through a tasting menu that was mostly meat and game I selected a Syrah from Cortona for myself. Stacey was not up to a full degustation menu. We substituted one of my courses with a lobster risotto that we would share and then she order a sea bass preparation. To match the fish and other lighter courses I selected a Gewurztraminer from Hofstatter, a well respected producer from the Tyrol region of Italy.

Then the food started coming out, amazing food that looked as marvelous as it tasted. While up to now we had been very content with the simple but very satisfying meals we'd been served or prepared, this was a clear statement that Italian chefs were capable of serving haute cuisine equal to that of any other region in the world.

Seven courses, and three and a half hours later we finished. The Gewurztraminer was gone and there was half of the Syrah left, which we took with us. Once again, our senses were shaken in a most delightful way. Gaetano was at the top of his game in the kitchen as was his brother in the dining room and my only question was "Why did they have two stars from the Guide Michelin and not three?"

We waddled out of the restaurant and made our way back to Enoteca Il Salotto. We talked about our lunch and the wines we drank and suddenly Pietro's eyes lit up. The Syrah, D'Alessandro "Il Bosco" 2001 is as I said from Cortona. Pietro told us that was the same village where an American writer had bought and restored an old farmhouse and then wrote a book about the experience. Yes, it was Frances Mayes and "Under the Tuscan Sun."

He strode over to the shelf and pulled a bottle down. Another Cortonese Syrah made by Antinori called... Bramsole, the name of Francis Mayes property. We bought that bottle and several others and after multiple thank yous and good byes we headed back to Montecastelli.

Friday would be our last full day at Montecastelli and we were looking forward to the farmer's market that comes to Colle Basse on Fridays and a meal cooked with new friends at the villa.

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