This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Dream of Italy. Updated 2018.
I finish my meal of prosciutto, salami, pecorino, pane e olio. I grab a notebook and pour another glass of Chianti Classico to bring outdoors. It’s a sunny September afternoon and I choose a spot under a wisteria-covered pergola.
I have Villa Pipistrelli all to myself because I have arrived earlier than the rest of our group. Perfection. I become aware of the quiet. No man-made sounds. The silence heightens all my senses. Even the occasional dove calls her mate in sotto voce.
I begin to write, focused by the silence.
A bee buzzes by. The sound is almost shocking, electric. I have to stop and document this glorious interruption.
I linger and watch the valley change muted colors as the sun sets.
I marvel at the surroundings: such places exist only in movies, romantic novels, in dream states after a pleasing Italian dinner.
But Villa Pipistrelli does exist and is in fact named for the bats that inhabited it prior to renovation. In the days to come it will be my base for a variety of Tuscan adventures?
My friend Giovanni Melani takes me from Florence to Montestigliano. South of Siena, the sultry female voice of his GPS purrs “Gira a destra a 200 metri.”
We drive up a hill, and enter what looks like a farm village. There’s a wide courtyard flanked on the north by a large villa, and on the south by an immense stone barn.
“Stop, Giovanni, there’s a sign for an office, and the door is open.”
The courtyard is a vast terrace overlooking a broad valley. Siena sparkles some 10 miles away. The only sounds are the wind and Giovanni saying “Bellissimo.”
In the office, I meet British-born Francesco, the on-site, go-to guy for the Donati family’s Tuscan properties. Francesco explains that we are in the Montestigliano property — a 17th-century farming hamlet that is still an operating farm as well as a hotel. “But now, off to Villa Pipistrelli!”
We continue over a gravel road lined by cypress, oak and sycamore trees deep into forested territory. After a mile we reach a clearing high over a rolling valley and I see two old stone buildings.
We enter the courtyard of the larger building through a carved stone arch. Francesco unlocks the door and we pass through at least three centuries, and a cozy foyer, emerging into a large, modern kitchen. Francesco gives me on a quick tour of the converted farm house. There are five sumptuous bedrooms with en suite baths. A couple of communal areas provide comforting space for lounging and reading.
Double doors open on to the Zen deck with western views overlooking the infinity pool and the distant hills. I cannot imagine a more sublime setting to toast a Tuscan sunset. The grounds are dotted with courtyards, lush gardens, and wreathed pergolas that invite you to play and dine under the sun, shade or stars. Every component embraces the Pipistrelli philosophy of serene engagement with nature.
Royal Golf La Bagnaia
What could be more fun for a 15-year old ragazzo than to play hooky from school and tee it up for 18 spectacular holes at the newest golf course in Italy? I provide the perfect excuse for Giacomo Donati, son of one of the owners, to experience the Royal Golf Club Bagnaia.
Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and opened in 2012, the course plays to a sporty 6,101 meters (6,672 yards) from the back tees with a course rating of 72.1 and a slope rating of 137 from the tips. Despite the recent success of the Italian Molinari brothers on the PGA and European Tours, young Giacomo, a smooth-swinging lefty, says his favorite player is South African Ernie Els.
I had packed a couple of sleeves of Titleist ProV1 golf balls and share them with Giacomo. He beams! But his eyes get even wider when I request him to pilot the golf cart. Italians are eligible for a driver’s license at 18, so he jumps at the opportunity to drive.
The course is challenging, the greens are fast and water hazards feature prominently on five holes.
Neither of us threatens the par of 71. I struggle to an 88, and new player Giacomo finishes at 109. But I doubt that anyone else on the course that day had as many laughs.
At the end of the round, I gave Giacomo my orange, Titleist-branded golf cap. The last time I saw him, he was wearing it.
Prized Cinta Senese Pigs
Daniele Baruffaldi is a man’s man, bald, barrel-chested and strong. He’s as quick to laugh as he is to roar. Daniele is one of only 60 farmers certified to breed and raise the famed cinta Senese pigs. Cinta refers to the white “belt” marking around the shoulders of their black bodies. Senese means from Siena. This noble breed has deep roots. It is identifiable in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 1348 fresco “Effects of Good Government in the Country,” still viewable in Siena’s Palazzo Communale.
The breed nearly became extinct over the last 40 years when Italian farmers imported and crossbred the “large white” pig from the United Kingdom. These hogs grow to maturity quicker and produce leaner meat. “But they don’t have the flavor of cinta Senese,” declared Daniele.
Before long, the global population of pure-bred cinta Senese had been reduced to only two males and 20 females. Then a consortium was formed to save the cinta Senese line. This group brought orderly processes to promote healthy breeding and to safeguard and certify the authenticity of resulting pork products in the marketplace.
After touring the grazing fields, our group enjoyed a simple lunch featuring the pork. Daniele’s wife, Vittoria, prepared six platters of specialties: lardo, guanciale, neck meat, prosciutto from the shoulder, and a couple types of salumi. “Before anyone eats the prosciutto, you must have the lardo and let it melt on your tongue. No lardo, no lunch!” Daniele commanded.
The lardo, thinly-sliced, pure, cured back fat, did melt on my tongue, with a slightly sweet flavor and smooth consistency that I prefer to butter. We all earned the right to continue with the rest of the meal.
Making Ravioli in Stigliano
One morning, we took a short trip to Stigliano where two older women from the village were to instruct us in the art of making ravioli. Group members began combining ingredients, and our enthusiasm was evident even as beaten eggs leaked from collapsing flour walls. With the help of our mentors, everyone finished their dough. The balls were kneaded together, then rolled, cut, stuffed, trimmed and transformed into ravioli.
The site was La Bottega di Stigliano, a combination retail shop–specializing in locally produced agricultural products–and restaurant. The building was a former casa del popolo, a people’s house where in olden times farm workers would meet to sell products. The casa also served as a social center. It was, in a sense, a one-stop shop where people could fill their baskets with food and make social connections.
A gentleman from the local agricultural cooperative told us that the pressures of modern Italian society now force Italians to fill their baskets via one-stop shopping at supermarkets. His organization is trying to reinvigorate the notion of the old casa del popolo concept. “We’re trying to put the past into the present,” he concluded.
We climbed upstairs to share a rollicking lunch featuring our ravioli and a flavorful wealth of other locally raised produce.
The Donati Family
Our hosts for this week of Tuscan adventures are the Donati family.
“It’s simple. We want our guests to feel like part of the family,” said Luisa Donati, mother of Giacomo and marketing manager for the family’s Pipistrelli, Montestigliano and the Palazzo Donati (see sidebar) properties.
To feel like part of this family would be an honor. Signore Giancarlo Donati, the patriarch who’s in his 80s, is a talented business man with a big personality. Sixty-some years ago, he bought a small plane and learned to fly. On one of his first flights he shocked the citizens of Mercatello by bombing the town with ripe peaches.
Virginia, the eldest child, is an architect, fearless singer and animated dancer.
Massimo is the farmer who manages the olive oil production, as well as the family’s efforts in sustainable energy from BioGas methane transfer. He’s also the leader in solar energy capture on the properties.
Damiano is the family accountant.
Marta provides administrative support for the business.
Together, the family has integrated its dream of sustainability, tourism and a unique Tuscan experience into a business model that revolves around its agriturismo. (An agriturismo is an Italian government designation for an operating farm that rents lodging and provides food from its own production.)
The Big Cena
Once a week, guests from the Pipistrelli and Montestigliano properties are invited to a dinner hosted by the Donati family in the expansive top floor of the old granary. The meal is prepared by Anna, the talented young Polish chef, who has been with the family for nearly a decade.
I mingled with some of the guests who were staying at the Montestigliano property. Many of them told me that they had been visiting for decades with friends and relatives (some multi-generational) in tow.
The experience was more than a meal. It was a joyful celebration of friends, family and food. All five Donati siblings were in attendance and mixed with the guests. After dessert Damiano grabbed the karaoke microphone and kicked off an hour of singing and dancing.
I can’t speak for all the guests, but after my sojourn at Villa Pipistrelli I feel like part of the Donati family and even honorary Tuscan.
Where to Stay
Loc. Montestigliano Fraz. Brenna
(39) 0577 342189
Rates: See website for updated rates.
A total of 14 guests can be accommodated in the two buildings — seven spacious bedrooms, each with its own distinctive style and luxurious en-suite bathroom. Check with Francesco about booking hiking, tennis, hot air ballooning and other additional activities. Although arrangements can be made for arrival and departure transfers from and to Siena, the Donati family recommends that visitors rent a car upon arrival in Italy.
Montestigliano Srl Soc Agricola
Loc. Montestigliano Fraz. Brenna
(39) 0577 342189
Rates: Weekly lodging, with daily breakfast, at this agriturismo start at €980 per week, depending on the season and number of guests.
Where to Eat
La Bottega di Stigliano
Piazza di Stigliano, 62
(39) 0577 345624
Food shop is open Tuesday through Saturday, 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Osteria is open for dinner Wednesday to Sunday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Piazza Il Campo, 27
(39) 0577 274733
Ideal spot for a meal on Siena’s Piazza del Campo. Two courses with wine runs €35 per person.
What to Do
Play golf at:
Royal Golf La Bagnaia
(39) 0577 81 3000
Villa Pipistrelli guests receive a discount on greens fees (regularly €90 to €110 for 18 holes) at this stunning Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed course.
Buy wine at:
Enoteca di Piazza
Piazza Garibaldi, 2-3-4
(39) 0577 848104
Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
More than 100 Tuscan producers are represented. Staff is knowledgeable, the largest selection of Brunellos I’ve ever seen available for tasting and purchase. Tasting prices deducted from purchase amounts.
Learn about Cinta Senese hogs at:
Azienda Agricola Baruffaldi Daniele Allevatore di Cinta Senese
Strada Grotti Bagnaia, 1470
(39) 0577 377228
Cost is €25 per person, with a €150 minimum for a tour, so come with a group of at least six to save money. Daniele does not speak English, but his son does.
Walter Sanders lived and worked in Florence for five years, where he had the good fortune to meet and marry travel/food writer Sharon Sanders. They celebrate their inner Italians at www.simpleitaly.com.When not exploring Italy, Walter directs a brand consultancy, Sanders Brand Solutions: www.smartbrander.com.