A Tuscan trio

Sangiacomo at Brolio

Hospitality lessons from three Tuscan wineries and three chefs. Above, Franco Sangiacomo, a Tuscan returnee from DC, now at Francesco Ricasoli's Osteria di Brolio.

Italy has developed an almost innate ability for hospitality over many centuries. As millions made their way to Rome to see the Vatican and the Pope, at first on horseback or on foot, so many Italians have honed their skills at hotelkeeping as well as for keeping travellers well-fed and well-watered.

Many of those travellers will have passed through Tuscany to the north. This brought many in the food and wine worlds together to care for them, creating a hospitable synergy not often found elsewhere.

So our visit to two major wine producers in Montalcino on a Tuesday initially presented their owners with a dilemma: where to take us for lunch and dinner on the one day of the week when their best local restaurants are closed? The answer in both cases was straightforward: bring the restaurant, the chefs and front-of-house person into the winery to cook for us all.

While Jancis was busy tasting at Giodo, the brand-new winery set up by Carlo Ferrini, the team from the nearby Trattoria Il Pozzo in Sant’Angelo in Colle was setting up in Giodo’s spanking new kitchen which is part of where they now receive visitors. There was not the same view over the Montalcino countryside as from the restaurant; their celebrated, ever-smiling, cook (‘not chef’, as she had resolutely described herself back in 2018) Paula Binarelli was not present. We were to be served by an all-male team.

Simione from Il Pozzo

But there was definite continuity, first in the shape of our waiter Simeone, who remembered our visit to the restaurant in 2018, and second, importantly, in the quality of the cooking. We began traditionally, with chicken-liver bruschetta, and moved on to two pasta courses: tortellini stuffed with ricotta and pinci, a local handmade pasta, with a sauce described as a ‘white beef meat sauce’ made from veal. We finished with a cheese that was new to us: Malga, made from the milk of cows that have grazed in the Lessini mountain range north of Verona, an area that particularly fascinates Ferrini, who kept slicing away. This cheese was a real eye-opener: fresh, semi-hard and irresistibly sweet on the finish.

Carlo Ferrini and cheese

Giampiero Bertolini, the CEO of Biondi-Santi, faced the same issue when we descended on this property later that afternoon. How could he feed us on a day when all the local restaurants are closed? He also called in a local chef.

Silene chef

Step forward Roberto Rossi, chef-proprietor of the Michelin-starred Il Silene who, with an assistant, cooked and served us. Rossi is a proponent of a non-sweet panettone, which had kept the kitchen busy during lockdown; here he served it as a first course, topped with anchovies in a parsley pesto and the first of the season’s peaches poached alongside.

panettone and anchovy from Il Silene

Then with the 2016 and 2010 Brunellos came a rich dish of taglierini with ham and green asparagus – the richness because Rossi makes his pasta using the yolks of duck eggs.

Silene main course

With the 1997 and 1998 La Storica late-release Brunellos, Rossi served a piece of beef brisket cooked for a long time at a low temperature, which played second fiddle to the more colourful vegetables on the side: a deep green courgette complete with flower, an asparagus stalk, a bright red carrot and a few deep green peas. These meals provoked the same response in me: an urge to return to Il Pozzo and Il Silene the next time we are in Tuscany.

Francesco Ricasoli of Castello di Brolio did not face the same challenge as our hosts at Giodo and Biondi-Santi as we visited him at lunchtime on a Wednesday, when all the local restaurants seem to be open, including his own Osteria di Brolio. But a morning with him was also to prove a lesson in hospitality.

It began with a swarm of cyclists coming to rest at the Agribar Eroica Caffè opposite the winery. This used to be a cafe and drinking spot for the local elderly, as Ricasoli explained, until the famous Tuscan Eroica bike ride began to increase the number of visitors to the area. Ricasoli saw its potential and undertook its transformation. The cafe is pure 1950s Italian traditional in terms of what it offers but there is also a cycle mounted on the wall, cycling posters behind the bar, an old telephone kiosk in the corner, and smiling young people behind and in front of the bar. Nowadays the Eroica Caffè is a busy social stopping place for everyone on two wheels or even on two legs.

Brolio's Eroica caffe

A few hundred metres away in woods is the Osteria di Brolio, which Ricasoli has also transformed, although here he must share the credit with Franco Sangiacomo. Sangiacomo’s business card describes him as Food & Beverage Director although even this title does not really cover his roles and responsibilities. While at the Osteria I saw Sangiacomo taking food orders, laughing with a group of women at their table, opening bottles of wine, explaining the menu, and finally helping the waiters carry plates of food to one large table.

How did Ricasoli and Sangiacomo come to end up in this obviously happy working relationship, I wondered? Emails to both subsequently provided the answers.

First of all came Sangiacomo’s resumé. This begins in 1987 when he enrolled in the School for the Culinary Arts and Hotel Management in Siena, followed by 20 years in various kitchens in northern Italy before he arrived as executive chef at Osteria di Brolio in 2008. Here he worked until 2015 when he decided to broaden his horizons and took the head chef position at Cafe Milano in Washington DC, cooking for the likes of Barack Obama. 

Ricasoli picks up the story. ‘Franco started our restaurant business many years ago, worked here many seasons, and for this reason we know each other well. One day Franco wanted to try a new challenge in the US and sadly (for me) he accepted a good working proposal in Washington DC.

‘In late February 2020 I was touring the US east coast for our typical wine presentation and I ended up in Washington DC where I did a winemaker dinner at Cafe Milano when Franco was the head executive chef there. I proposed to him that he should come back to help me in Brolio ... Then COVID-19 arrived and it took one more year for Franco to come to Brolio.’

A stone path leads to Castello di Brolio's Osteria Brolio in the woods
Osteria di Brolio

Sangiacomo explained: ‘While I cherished my time in the US and the experiences it brought, I did feel a sense of longing for my family. It was as if a piece of my heart remained anchored here, beckoning me to return. Francesco’s offer played a significant part in my decision-making process, of course. His friendship and support complemented my aspirations and added to the overall allure of embracing my roots once again.’

Sangiacomo has written a lovely menu for the busy Osteria. The main, large-format menu begins with a tasting menu and wine pairing for €70 before the traditional breakdown into antipasti, first courses, main courses and desserts. This is accompanied by a shorter ‘specials’ menu which lists a further three antipasti, two more pasta dishes and two meat courses.

I chose the homemade pappardelle with a ragu made from rabbit, guinea fowl and chicken (€18) and then could not decide. Sangiacomo told me to order the pigeon served with cherries and a millet-flour flatbread (€26). I tend to avoid pigeon as too often it is served too rare but I fell in with his suggestion.

pigeon leg at Brolio

The pasta dish was hearty but extremely well sauced and came topped with a sweet grilled onion. The pigeon was even better: the breast meat red but not overly so, and cleverly offset by slightly sour cherries. But even better was the leg meat which had been deboned and stuffed inside two flatbreads as shown above – an extremely clever solution to the challenge of how to serve the legs. I finished with a bowl of strawberries, some lemon ice cream and a macchiato.

Two excellent lunches and one excellent dinner. Three good reasons to celebrate Italian hospitality.

Trattoria Il Pozzo Piazza Castello, Sant’Angelo in Colle, 53024 Montalcino, Italy; tel: +39 0577 844015

Il Silene Località Pescina, 58038 Seggiano, Italy; tel: +39 0564 950805

Osteria di Brolio Località Madonna a Brolio, 53013 Gaiole in Chianti, Italy; tel: +39 0577 730290