My father had this theory about how to choose where to eat when visiting a popular tourist destination. “Avoid the first couple of restaurants you see when you enter the town, they will likely be the most expensive and the least desirable in terms of food and ambiance” he would instruct me. “In fact,” he continued “you should keep walking until the crowds thin out, bypassing all the tourist traps and hopefully ending up at a local spot.” With this in mind, I purposely choose a place in the middle of town for our lunch in Montepulciano; far away from all the wine shops displaying “Free Tasting” and “Free International Shipping” signs in English. And past the annoying shopkeepers near the entrance who tried to lure us into their stores for so-called bargains. And because I wanted to experience local wines with our lunch, I chose an enoteca (a wine shop that also serves food), rather than a traditional restaurant. After all, we were in Montepulciano, one of the most famous wine towns in not just Tuscany, but in all of Italy. And what could be better than pairing these great wines with regional dishes? After a bit of research, I chose the Entoteca Dolce Vita, which has a great reputation for serving excellent local specialties. There’s an old axiom of travel that says: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” For today, that has been modified a bit: ”When in Montepulciano, do as the Poliziani do.” (Poliziani is what the residents of Montepulciano are called.)
After parking the car, we entered the town through the medieval Porta al Prato, an impressive-looking gate that lead us into the “Pearl of the 1500’s,” a nickname given Mopntepulciano because of its abundance of art and architecture from the Renaissance. It was a bit of a hike up the hill toward the enoteca (Montepulciano is after all a hilltop village), but we were in no hurry and had the entire morning to meander our way through the streets of the town. We passed the Marzocco Column (which displayed a Florentine lion symbolizing the authority over the town by Florence since the 16th century), the 17th century Palazzo Bucelli (with its facade embellished with Etruscan and Roman urns) and the Torre di Pulcinella (a medieval clock tower dating back to the 1520’s which is topped by the Neaplitan figure of Pulcinella) before stopping at Sant’Agostino, a 15th Century church. After a leisurely late-morning cappuccino at a nearby cafe, we headed to the Piazza Grande and a quick look at the Duomo. By then it was time for the main event, lunch at Enoteca Dolce Vita.
Cristian, the managing director of the enoteca, explained that the building where the wine shop is housed dates back to the 13th century and is built directly into the tufo (volcanic rock). In past times this place was a monastery (in fact the ancient walls have been incorporated into the walls of the wine shop), a market and a bar. “It’s so nice,” Crisitan elaborated “when older people come to visit the wine shop and they start telling stories about how they used to play cards at the old bar on the site. It gives the place an added sense of history.” The wine shop dates back to 1995 and became a restaurant in 2005. Which was a logical development as the idea of tasting wine and matching it with great food is something that is ingrained in the Italian way of life. “In the beginning,” Cristian explained “we served simple food such as cheeses and cured meats; now with the passage of the years and experience, we have developed the passion to create more refined dishes to be enjoyed with good wine. Our philosophy is that life is too short to drink bad wine. We like to gift to our clients small pleasurable moments.”
There are two wine vaults in the enoteca, one in brick and the other in tufo, which allow for a constant temperature and humidity to be maintained naturally year round. The shop has a vast selection of wines, with over 3,000 bottles on display: From the elegant whites of Trentino Alto Adige to the iconic Italian red wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, to the Chiantis and Super Tuscans of Tuscany. And above all, there is Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. After discussion with our server, we decided to start with a Chardonay from Tuscany, the Il Marzocco from Avignonesi.
For my starter, I went with the Ribolitta, a hearty Tuscan bean, bread & vegetable soup. This was accompanied by a hearty Rosso di Montepulciano, the 2015 Boscarelli. This was followed by a hamburger, a seemingly bizarre choice for an American who wants to eat local. But this was not just any hamburger, but an Italian take on an American classic made from Chianina beef, a local breed of cattle prized for its taste and used in famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina. This was enjoyed with another local wine, the 2013 Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. We topped off our meal with “La 5”, a golden ale from nearby Birrirfico L’Olmaia, a small batch farmhouse brewery that has been serving the area since 2004.
On our way down Via Di Voltaia Nel Corso and back to the car, a member of my party asked if we had time for one more stop, some gelato from Gelateria il Capriccio. Perche no? We were enjoying our day in Montepulciano like Poliziani, not like harried tourists on a coach tour who were being quickly shuttled from one Tuscan hilltop village to another. There were no scheduled afternoon stops at Montalcino or San Gimiginano for us. Our plan was to spend the entire day relaxing in Montepulciano, savoring all that the town had to offer: Great food and wine, beautiful churches, picturesque vistas, historic monuments and architectural marvels. And of course, we were doing all of this at a leisurely pace. Ma certo! Of course, there was time for a late afternoon gelato before heading back to our villa in Umbria. Not only, as Cristian pointed out, was life is too short to drink bad wine, but it was also too short to skip an afternoon treat!