An American Family in Tuscany

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Dream of Italy. Updated 2018. 

If you were to create the ideal life in Italy, where would you live and how would you spend your time? Perhaps you would buy a small Tuscan farm to call home. It would be a place where you could enjoy your family and host treasured guests, as well as indulge your passions for food, writing and art.

For American cookbook author Pamela Sheldon Johns, this imagined life in Italy is actually a good description of her current daily life, a dream that was years in the making. She first visited Italy in 1983, but since 1992, she had been traveling to Italy from her home in Santa Barbara, California, for six to eight weeks each year teaching cooking workshops. Once her daughter, Alaia, was born, Johns would bring her along for these extended stays. It was when her child was approaching school age that Johns felt she needed to decide either to curtail her cooking workshops or move to Italy full-time.

Her husband, Johnny Johns, was up for the adventure of making a new life in Italy. Early in 2001, Johns thought she found the perfect house on the real estate website of a friend in Montepulciano. This property offered six bedrooms, six bathrooms and breathtaking views of one of her favorite towns, Monticchiello. Johns had already been renting large properties to host her culinary workshops and she and her husband thought it made sense to build equity in their own place to host these classes. Johns flew over to see the place.

“The views were amazing but it just needed so much work,” explains Johns, proving that not everyone wants the challenge of renovations a la Frances Mayes and Under The Tuscan Sun.

Disappointed, Johns asked the real estate agent if he had any other places to show her and he brought her to Poggio Etrusco, a 17th-century villa on 15 acres that was once a mezzadria property under a local noble family. (Mezzadria was the Italian sharecropping system particularly popular in Tuscany in which a wealthy landowner provided land for the peasants to cultivate in return for half the crop yield. The system was abolished in Italy in 1956.) Poggio was in great shape, came completely furnished and was move-in ready. Johns was sold.

“Within three months we had all of our belongings (all of those ceramic platters that I carefully carried to the U.S. over 15 years of travel, now returned back to their homeland) delivered in a container and we became instant farmers and innkeepers!”

Bed and Breakfast

Poggio Etrusco offers a country escape with easy access to some of Tuscany‘s most interesting towns. While sitting on the patio looking over the tops of the olive trees, you can take in the views of the nearby town of Chianciano Terme. The small town of S. Albino is within walking distance just up the road. The bed and breakfast is just 15 minutes from Montepulciano, Pienza and Monticchiello, and within a half-hour of Montalcino and Cortona.

The villa offers three private apartments and a double room for guests. Each apartment has a kitchen and living area with a fireplace. Johns and her husband take pride in running a B&B with American standards. They imported comfortable American mattresses, are generous with the heat when it gets cold and provide ample help to guests who need touring advice.

Europeans are also frequent guests at Poggio Etrusco. In fact, Johns and her husband take pride in the fact that so many Italians choose to visit. “The Italians love our place because we have tried to keep it original and traditional (even though we do now offer wireless Internet). Many of them are young people coming out from city life and are reminded of their grandparents’ farms,” Pamela explains.

Poggio really feels like the family home that it is. You will see a child’s toys on the grounds and the Johns’ friendly dogs will be there to greet you. Pamela maintains a kitchen garden and encourages guests to pick fresh, seasonal produce to cook in their apartments. She makes homemade jams and preserves from the plum, fig, apricot, peach and cherry trees and serves them at breakfast.

Culinary Adventures

While running a bed and breakfast might seem like enough work, Pamela Johns also continues her culinary career — teaching and writing. Her 15th cookbook, focusing on appetizers, will be released shortly. Johns’ books tend to be devoted to one Italian food at a time; there’s one focusing on risotto, another explores Neapolitan pizza and there’s even a book on balsamic vinegar.

Johns has achieved her dream of turning Poggio Etrusco into a cooking school named Food Artisans, giving hands-on lessons in her kitchen and dining with students at her long wood dining room table. She utilizes fresh, organic ingredients from neighboring farms in all of her dishes. Her multiday programs include visits to local markets, cheese, wine and olive oil producers and unique restaurants. Her workshops have been so popular that she’s taken the show on the road, so to speak, running culinary tours in other regions of Italy. Food Artisans was named one of Italy’s top cooking schools by Food & Wine magazine in 2007.

Now Johns and her family are getting into the food production business themselves, albeit slowly. Using the bounty of the more than 1,000 olive trees on their property, they’re making their own organic olive oil called Pace da Poggio Etrusco. Johns has incorporated the oil production into her cooking workshops, organizing two weeks in November when guests can join the harvest.

Artistic Inspiration

Johns’ husband, Johnny, has also found creative inspiration in Tuscan life. At his small studio at Poggio Etrusco, Johns uses acrylics to paint colorful and whimsical scenes on large swaths of cotton canvas. His Circo Pazzo (crazy circus) series was inspired by the traveling circus that passes through Montepulciano. Johns’ pieces feature monkeys and elephants, his imaginings of what promotional circus posters of the past may have looked like.

Like his wife, this American painter also has a fascination with Italian food and wine. Designing and painting olive oil and wine labels, Johns’ efforts is his tiny corner of Tuscany are gaining worldwide exposure. He just sold a painting of his interpretation of the Wizard of Oz to Warner Brothers for the company to use in an anniversary promotion of the movie.

While Johns’ original canvases sell for $1,500 or more, he’s now selling his prints on greeting cards, aprons and t-shirts available on his website.

Italian Family Life

The youngest Johns, Alaia, is also thriving in Tuscany. According to her mother, the youngster has excelled in the Italian school system.

“She just finished 5th grade. In elementary school the children have the same teacher for all five years, which is great if you have a good teacher… Our teacher was stunning. The education is quite didactic with a lot of memorization, recitation, and lots of writing in composition books. She participates in dance, singing, and theatre after school,” says Johns, who only speaks English at home, so her daughter is completely bilingual. She claims that she might be the only mother who lets her child watch the Disney Channel for extended periods, as long as it is in English.

“Having a school-age child has really helped us understand the culture more as well. We have been able to meet more people and participate in more local activities,” she adds.

When the Johns family first arrived in Italy, they felt as if they had stepped back in time. Pamela Johns laments that time seems to be catching up to Italy.

“We’ve seen summer entertainment go from cinema sotto le stelle, a projector showing movies on the side of a building, to a year-round multisala with nine theaters. By the same token, I am utterly dependent on the Internet for our work and personal things,” she explains.

Still, Johns couldn’t be happier with her family’s decision to move to Italy: ‘There are still so many wonderful things about living here, not the least of which is the excellent food!’

Poggio Etrusco
Via del Pelago, 11
Loc. Fontecornino (Montepulciano)
(39) 347 4716006
Rates: All rooms and apartments have a two-night minimum stay and include breakfast. See website for latest pricing.

Food Artisans
One-day cooking classes at Poggio Etrusco require a minimum two participants and generally run from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The fee includes lesson, recipes in English, lunch and wine. There are also multi-day workshops at the bed and breakfast to experience the olive harvest. Johns also offers a variety of workshops in Campania, Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna and Sicily.