My father had this theory about 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 dining spot.” With that 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 who hover in the street in front of the entrance of their shop, trying to lure unsuspecting tourists into their store with a so-called bargain, only to do the old bait-and-switch once they’re inside. 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, not just Tuscany, but in all of Italy. And what could be better than pairing the great wines of Tuscany with regional dishes? With that in mind, I chose the Entoteca La Dolce Vita, not simply because the name means the Good Life in Italian, but I had looked at various travel review sites and the enoteca 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.) In Italy, enjoying the pleasures of life is something that comes naturally. And Tuscany is no exception. Cristian, the managing director of Enoteca La Dolce Vita, proudly brags that Poliziani have taken that practice to a higher level. He explains: “To behave as a Poliziano means to discover special places and don’t just stop at the most crowded or the most popular spots. It is well worth the effort to walk far inside the town and discover those unknown places that most tourists don’t see.” So that is exactly what we planned to do.
After parking the car just outside the main gate, we entered the town through the medieval Porta al Prato, an impressive-looking gate that leads us into the “Pearl of the 1500’s,” a nickname given Montepulciano because of its abundance of art and architecture from the Renaissance. It was a bit of a hike up to the enoteca (Montepulciano is after all a hilltop village), but we were in no hurry and we had the entire morning to meander our way slowly through the streets of the town. We passed the Marzocco Column (which displayed a Florentine lion symbolizing the authority over the town by Florence in 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 hunched Neapolitan figure of Pulcinella) before stopping at Sant’Agostino, a 15th Century church named after the patron saint of Montepulicano. After a leisurely late-morning cappuccino at a nearby cafe, we headed to the Piazza Grande for a visit to the massive Duomo, where we admired the 15th Century Assumption of the Virgin triptych painted by Taddeo di Bartolo. By then it was time for the main event, lunch at Enoteca La Dolce Vita.
Cristan 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 years past, this place was a monastery (in fact the ancient walls of the monastery have been incorporated into the walls of the wine shop), a market and a bar. “It’s so nice, when older people come to visit the wine shop and they start telling stories about how they played cards at the old bar that existed on this site. I think it gives the place an added sense of history.” The wine shop was established in 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 engrained in the Italian way of life. “In the beginning,” Cristian explained “we served simple food such as local cheeses and cured meats; now with the passage of the years and experience, we have developed a passion to create more refined dishes that can be enjoyed with good wine. Our philosophy is that life is too short to drink bad wine. We like to gift to our client’s small pleasurable moments.”
There are two wine vaults in the entoeca, one in brick and the other in tufo, both 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 regional Chiantis and Super Tuscans of Tuscany. And above all, there is Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the locally produced Sangiovese-based premium wine that has achieved world-wide renown. After discussion with our server, we decided to start with a Tuscan Chardonay from Avignonesi Il Marzocco, while we perused the menu. Avignonesi is located near the village of Valiano, about eight miles from Lago Trasimeno and about equidistant between Montepulciano and Cortona..
For my starter, I went with the Ribolitta, a hearty Tuscan bean, bread and vegetable soup. This was accompanied by an equally 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 the 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. The beer was straw-colored with aromas of chamomile and a fair amount of carbonation. After a malty start, there were strong flavors of citrus. All in all, a very pleasant way to end our meal.
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 tourists on a coach tour who were quickly hopping from one Tuscan hilltop village to another. There were no scheduled afternoon stops at Montalcino and 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 and historic monuments and architectural marvels, which we were all doing 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 is life too short to drink bad wine, but Life is also too short to skip an afternoon treat. After all, that’s what a Poliziano (and my father) would have done!