A taste of Tuscany

An Italian villa insists on food that's authentic and local.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Feast: For a recent wedding, chef Giuseppe Scarpellini featured the best of fresh Tuscan food, including a roast pig.
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    Feast: For a recent wedding, chef Giuseppe Scarpellini featured the best of fresh Tuscan food, including a roast pig.
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When Giovanna Grado decided to oversee the restoration of the abandoned 16th-century villa her family acquired years ago in Tuscany, her first thought was, "This is a nightmare!" But there was one aspect of the final objective – to make it an attractive destination for tourists – that was definite in her plans: "The food had to be authentic."

So along with period-accurate furnishings, traditional gardens, and renovations that had to conform to the property's status as a national monument, Ms. Grado insisted that, "We serve only traditional meals using local ingredients." To accomplish this, she tracked down Giuseppe Scarpellini, who, as a young man, had been to culinary arts schools during the winters and trained in hotel restaurants in the summers, but wanted to settle where his family still lives. And she engaged him to be resident chef at the Buonvisi Estate.

"It was my grandmother who showed me how to cook the first time," the shy Mr. Scarpellini observed as he navigated his way around the imposing wooden island at the center of the large kitchen at the back of the villa.

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When the 18-room site hosted its first wedding party this spring, he chose some dishes that were inspired by his grandmother's influence: grilled eggplant spread appetizer, ravioli with ricotta cheese and potato filling (see recipes at left) a main course centered around porchetta (roast pig), and a rich, creamy molded dessert with fruit sauce.

The Tuscan hills were favored locations for rich Italians seeking summer villas because they featured abundant sunshine, ample rainfall, and gentle slopes that created a natural irrigation system to support kitchen gardens. Centuries ago, there were more than 400 summer retreats sprinkled across the hillsides, where the wealthiest families could escape the heat and smells of urban areas.

Now, only a handful remain intact. But the countryside still reflects the region's agricultural heritage, with acres of grape arbors, olive groves, lemon trees, and caper vines of the region's small farms visible in all directions. "You have so many fresh things growing here," explains Scarpellini. "In the end of spring and [in] the summertime, we have ... tomatoes, green beans, lima beans, carrots, and all the greens for insalata [salad]. And there are some others from the garden – the zucchini, the peppers, the eggplant, the melon – where you use the food, but you also use the blossoms, which you can eat. And they add a fresh look to the dish, too. In the early spring, like April, I also like to use the artichokes, the asparagus, and the pears." Fall and early winter also have their specialties, he adds, mentioning porcini mushrooms and broccoli as his favorites.

For those who pick sites like Buonvisi as a home base while they enjoy the rich history and eye-filling sights of Tuscany, the food choices extend past any villa's dining room, of course.

If Florence is on the Tuscany tour itinerary, for example, a satisfying caprese salad will tide you over at midday, with its array of fresh tomato and mozzarella slices, basil, and olive oil.

At a time when news stories are alerting vacationers that many chefs in some of Rome's more prestigious restaurant and hotel kitchens are not native-born, Grado points with pride to her villa's local chef and the cuisine he prepares for her guests. "Italians take their food very, very seriously. I want anyone who comes here to get the real experience when they sit down at my table."

Eggplant Appetizer

1 medium eggplant
1 fresh garlic clove
Sprig of fresh Italian parsley
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
Olive oil
Italian bread
Cut off ends of eggplant and discard. Cut the rest into 3/4-inch slices. Grill the slices for 1 to 2 minutes on each side, then mince.

Finely chop garlic and parsley, place in a bowl and add eggplant, a dash of salt and pepper, 1 teaspoon vinegar, and enough olive oil to create the consistency of a spread. Serve with slices of toasted Italian bread. May be made a day ahead. Serves 6 to 8.
Ravioli

3 to 4 medium white potatoes
2 cups ricotta cheese
Sprig of fresh thyme, stems removed
Salt and pepper
7 eggs
6 cups flour
Water
1 tablespoon oil
1 or 2 egg yolks, beaten
Peel, boil, and mash potatoes. In a large bowl, blend ricotta, finely minced thyme, and dashes of salt and pepper. Add 1 beaten egg to bind the mixture together.

Sprinkle a handful of flour on the counter, then put flour in a mound on the counter, adding 6 eggs, one at a time, kneading them into the flour. Slowly add a dash of salt and 1 or 2 tablespoons of water after each egg, until all eggs are kneaded into the flour to create a workable dough.

Spread out the dough, pulling it at the outer edges to stretch it, repeating the kneading and pulling out and kneading until it feels pliable. Let it rest for half an hour. Start to boil a large pot of water to which has been added 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon oil.

Roll out the dough into two large rectangles of the same size. On one rectangle, place a spoonful of potato/ricotta mixture about 6 inches from the upper left corner, and repeat the process every 6 inches. Then start again until you have created rows of filling on the dough. Cover with the second rectangle of dough, then cut into squares, using a sharp paring knife or a pizza cutter. Brush the edges of the squares with the beaten egg yolks and crimp them together with your fingers or the tines of a fork. When water is boiling, carefully add the ravioli squares. Cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from water with a slotted spoon. Giuseppe Scarpellini serves this with Pecorino sauce.

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