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Visit to a 14th-century Tuscan farmhouse is a feast for the senses

Email|Print| Text size + By Glenn Rifkin
Globe Correspondent / November 19, 2003

PIENZA, Italy -- In the courtyard of Cretaiole, the 14th-century farmhouse where we were staying, Isabella Moricciani deftly rolled a slice of dough into pici, a local pasta that looks like thick spaghetti. It was pici night in early October at the Moriccianis' picturesque "agriturismo," set on a hill above the pastoral Orcia Valley in Tuscany.

Gathered around Isabella were my wife, Janie, an accomplished cook, and a half-dozen other guests, all eager to learn some of the secrets of this region's unique cuisine. Cretaiole, which refers to the "crete senesi" or clay mounds that characterize this part of Tuscany, is just a few kilometers outside Pienza, a marvelous Renaissance city that many travelers consider among the most beautiful settings in all of Tuscany.

We checked into Cretaiole for eight days with no itinerary other than to get in our rental car every day and explore the countless medieval villages that dot the region. Just a few kilometers away were Montepulciano, known for its ruby red Vino Nobile, and Montalcino, with its famed Brunello wine. Siena is just a 45-minute drive to the north. We envisioned a slow week of mouthwatering cuisine, breathtaking scenery, and sweet, welcoming people. We were not disappointed. Tuscany in the early autumn casts a spell similar to Martha's Vineyard, Napa Valley, or southern France. After a day or two, you are immersed and enthralled and cannot imagine ever leaving.

We didn't have to travel far to reap the best moments of the trip. The Moricciani family are farmers who live in Pienza and decided to renovate one of the myriad ancient sandstone farmhouses that are perched on nearly every hilltop. The agriturismo, or country farmhouse, has become a popular lodging alternative for Americans as well as European travelers over the past decade.

Cretaiole was the first agriturismo in the area, and it is divided into six apartments, which can each accommodate up to six people. Though completely redone with modern plumbing, kitchenettes, and amenities, the farmhouse retains its rustic beauty and unique architectural features from the 1300s. It also has the added mystique of sitting on land once inhabited by the Etruscans, the admired but enigmatic ancients who populated this part of Italy before the Romans.

The farmhouse is surrounded by majestic cypress trees, flourishing olive trees, and a movie-backdrop view of Pienza, and the family takes great pride in presenting a fulfilling agriturismo experience. After an evening of olive oil tasting, Isabella and her mother-in-law, Liliana, offered a lesson in the time-honed art of pici (pronounced "peachy"). Using the most basic ingredients -- flour, eggs, water, and a touch of homemade olive oil -- they demonstrated the process. One must roll the dough carefully with the right palm while stretching it into long strands with the left hand.

All the guests got a chance to participate, and we ended up creating a huge mound of pici, which became the centerpiece of a feast under the stars. The pici was cooked for five minutes and served with Liliana's delectable ragu. Isabella's husband, Carlo, barbecued succulent pork and sausage from their farm, and Carlo's father, Luciano, proudly served their homemade wine, followed by their homemade Vin Santo dessert wine, and followed yet again by their homemade grappa. Fortunately, we didn't have to drive home.

A special feature of each evening's meal was the fresh pecorino, a rich sheep's cheese indigenous to Pienza. And it is Pienza that became the focal point of our visit. Each morning, we drove the winding road through the valley into town for a cappuccino and croissant. The landscape in this part of Tuscany is stunning; in one direction is a patchwork of rolling green farmlands, in another the grayish-brown arid hills that resemble a lunar surface. Off in the distance is Mount Amiata, at 5,700 feet the highest mountain in southern Tuscany.

The Tuscans love nothing so much as morning conversation over an espresso and freshly baked pastry. You simply cannot find cappuccino like this in the United States. It's not just the rich coffee and cream that set it apart, but the setting: a tiny cafe in the town's square, directly across from the 15th-century Renaissance cathedral, or "duomo." With little prodding, you might just sit there all day, taking in the view, feeling the charm and lure of an ancient village that now has an Internet cafe but retains the timelessness of this unique part of Italy.

One of the few true Renaissance towns in the area, Pienza is named for its most famous son, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, a poet and statesman, who became Pope Pius II in 1458. Originally named Corsignano, the town was renamed to honor Pius II after his death. Not long after his elevation to pope, Pius II commissioned Florentine architect Bernardo Rossellino to lay out the ideal town. Thus Pienza, particularly its main square, is among the earliest examples of urban planning, with a cohesion of style that helps define its beauty. Though small, Pienza offers several excellent restaurants, each serving its own version of pici, and an array of shops featuring countless local versions of fresh and aged pecorino.

Isabella Moricciani, who speaks four languages and knows the area around Pienza intimately, sent us to wonderful towns and incredible local eateries. On our last night in Tuscany, she arranged for us to eat at a 14th-century abbey just outside Pienza. Currently being renovated into an agriturismo, this magnificent old monastery was the setting for several scenes in the film "The English Patient." We dined in one of the austere rooms under an ancient family tree of Pope Pius II that covered nearly an entire wall. To say we felt awe is to understate it. The homemade meal was the perfect endpoint to a trip of culinary and sensory delight. The first course was, of course, pici.

Glenn Rifkin is a freelance writer and author who lives in Acton.

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