Running a little late, again--but I can’t remember why—we decided to stick close to home
on this Sunday daytrip. L’Osterie d’Italia served up the perfect spot: Hosteria la Vecchia
Ro’ta. Who would have thought that just 15 minutes from Castiglion Fiorentino, in the
little town of Marciano della Chiana, which we pass by every single time we take the A-1
autostrada to Florence or Rome, is an absolutely incredible (you’ll hear a lot more of that
word later) culinary experience?!
Marciano della Chiana is 22 km south of Arezzo and due east of Castiglion Fiorentino. Its
architectural skyline claim to fame is a crenellated Renaissance square tower, under
restoration, of course. The owner is, and I don’t use this horribly overused word lightly,
passionate about his menu. All of his recipes he painstakingly culled by taking oral
histories of the farmers in the rural Valdichiana where he grew up. His vivid memory of
his grandmother’s kitchen is the raison d’etre of his cuisine: la cucina povera. As a child
in post-WWII Italy, when people literally scavenged in the woods for edibles, he is keenly
aware of how absolutely nothing is overdone by the poor when it comes to the table.
They didn’t have the luxury of being lavish. Food was precious, hard to come by, and
simple. The word “presentation” simply wasn’t in their culinary vocabulary.
When we arrived in Marciano della Chiana, we parked just outside the walls and entered
what seemed to be a likely candidate for the main street through an arched portal. As
luck would have it, we were in the very street we were looking for. We found the
restaurant easily and—more importantly—quickly. It was almost 2 p.m. and we were
starved! No sooner through the front door (which was wide open, because it was a balmy
spring day) than we were greeted with a big smile and a “Buon giorno!” from the owner
and sole waiter, Massimo Giovannini, a chubby, mischievous man with black curls right
out of a Caravaggio and horn rimmed glasses. He waved us to a corner table and we
settled in for the next few hours.
The wine list had extensive listings of local wines, with color copies of the labels, no less,
and we were soon unable to choose among quite a few terrific-sounding, relatively
inexpensive (by both US and Italian standards) wines. We asked for Massimo’s help in
navigating the choices. He recommended the 1997 Plenum Secondus, a 50/50 blend of
Dievole’s sangiovese from Chianti and a barbera from Asti. Massimo told us that each
producer had picked the other’s grapes for the vintage. Pretty playful! The wine, we
divined from the label, was a sort of super Tuscan, but not from the usual grapes. We
gave him the thumbs up and Massimo brought out a bottle. He decanted the wine into a
lovely decanter, poured a bit, and left us to marvel at what a great wine it was. Within
moments he was back with lardo and zucchero (unsmoked bacon fat and sugar) on thick
slices of unsalted Tuscan bread. Incredible, I thought, but Steve thought it was weird.
Undaunted, we decided to plunge into the menu. Like the wine list, everything appealed.
Although we were pretty hungry, we didn’t want to overdo it, but everything was so
intriguing. How to cope? As a compromise, we decided to share every single course on
the menu—maybe even the cheese course, which consisted of a selection of local
cheeses served with fruit mustards and local honey. (Are you getting the picture here?)
No problem for the owner, by the way. He was thrilled that we were going to sample
something from all of his plates, and he was more than willing to get involved in our
To kick things off, we went with the antipasto toscano della casa—tripe stewed in tomato
sauce (don’t wince—it’s fabulous!), prosciutto, bocconcini (little balls) of mozzarella di
bufala, a salad of farro (Italian barley), crostino di fegatino (chicken liver pate on toasted
rustic bread), melanzane sott’olio (eggplant preserved in olive oil), and uova umbriacco
(drunken eggs--hard boiled egg cured in red wine with minced, cooked onion.) Yumbo in
a major way—and totally hand-crafted.
All of the pasta dishes sounded so good, we really couldn’t choose, so we followed
Massimo’s suggestion and ordered the “tris,” a selection of 3 pastas. Let’s see, there
was (1) the strozzapreti (priest-stranglers, much like gnudi, a sort of spinach and ricotta
gnocchi) sauced with butter, borage and truffles; (2) the pici (fat spaghetti) made with a
blend of chestnut flour (remember the scavenging for food in the woods?) and farina,
served alla carbonara (lightly cooked egg and smoked guancio di maiale (pig cheek—no
wincing!!); and (3) pezzi della nonna--pappardelle like grandma used to make it with
sliced fresh pear, pecorino fresco (sheep cheese), and pepperoncini. Massimo served
us each of the pastas individually, one after the other. And each one was better than the
As our main course, we had the filetto pepe verde (filet mignon served with cream and
green pepper corns). It was cooked perfectly, flavorful, tender, juicy—well, incredible.
Couldn’t pass up the side dishes, and we enjoyed the oven-roasted potatoes seasoned
with dried anise flowers and the red onions cooked under ashes. Massimo, warming to
his subject matter, explained that before the farmers (as in men, women, and children)
went into their fields in the morning, they tucked some onions under the embers of their
ever-present cooking fires. When they came in from a hard morning’s work, lunch was
As most of the other customers had by this time finished their meals and left the
restaurant, Massimo was now free to tell us all about his restaurant, his love for food, how
he regards his mission as the preservation of rural Tuscan food traditions, and how he
got his recipes. This is real Slow Food stuff here.
Back to the essence of the experience: food. For dessert, which arrived at almost 5 p.m.,
we had zuppa d’inglese with complementary vin santo. Again, redolent of the
homemade. Massimo decided the best way to explain that the poor wasted nothing was
by example. He brought over a large glass jar of what looked like small pickles. And they
were: whole miniature watermelon and honeydew, little bitty things that had started to
grow too late in the season and would never get enough sun or heat to mature and
ripen. But they were edible just the same and therefore not to be wasted. So they were
picked and pickled in oil. By Massimo, based on his grandmother’s recipe.
Not content to leave it there, Massimo then brought out a large white bowl of mela
cotogna marmellata for us to taste with our espresso. He explained that the quince puree
is pure fructose and a cane sugar substitute, and that the rural poor also used the quince
to scent their houses. Massimo was absolutely delighted to share these cultural jewels
with us, two American transplanted city folk, connected to him for an afternoon by a
shared appreciation of the table. He told us about the April 1st dinner he will serve at the
restaurant—all freshwater fish. And just in case we didn’t believe that fish was part of the
traditional Valdichiana diet, he brought over to our table a framed print of a map of the
Valdichiana by Leonardo (no, I’m not kidding—I’ve seen this map several times before)
showing the many streams and rivers that flowed into or out of Lago Trasimeno, many of
which were dewatered by the draining of the swamp around the lake many years ago.
Lunch was so incredible, that we’re considering making a reservation for that fish dinner.
Buon viaggio and buon appetito!