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Far removed from the hustle and bustle of nearby Sienna, Petroio is tiny Tuscan town perched on a hill. It has a butcher, a baker, and a cash machine that doesn’t work. It has a church, a school, and a clinic with a doctor who comes once a week. There, in a sandstone fortress, Palazzo Brandano manages to blend 4-star service with the coziness of village life.
By Joann Biondi
There are no busloads of tourists clutching copies of Under the Tuscan Sun. There are no stylish leather boutiques, wine tour operators, or ceramic shops screaming for attention. It is an Old World working village that is so authentic it’s almost surreal—a medieval knight on horseback could come charging through the town and not look out of place.
It does, however, have a one of the finest hotels in the region with a restaurant that has impressed local Tuscans who know the difference between a fine meal and a mediocre one and are not shy about pointing that out. Since it opened last spring, Palazzo Brandano has made a name for itself as a great place to come home to after a day of touring more intense Tuscan towns full of cafes and crowds. And it is quickly putting tiny Petroio on the Traveling-through-Tuscany map.
Housed in a sandstone fortress and named after a 16th century prophet, Palazzo Brandano is a Tuscan retreat that manages to blend 4-star service with the coziness of village life. It is comfortable yet sophisticated, rustic yet genteel. Its lobby is like an inviting salon in an Italian family’s home where savvy world travelers and local carpenters mingle as one.
Elegant frescoes painted by a village artist adorn the walls and suggest a dignity from a bygone era. Out back is a beautiful patio with a panoramic view of olive groves and cypress trees and the hilltop towns of Pienza and Montalcino off in the distance.
With 12 guest quarters that range from comfortable rooms to sprawling suites and one-bedroom apartments, the accommodations have a traditional Tuscan décor with terracotta floors, massive wooden beams, marble tubs, and plush down comforters. They also have flat screen TV’s that carry Fox News and high-speed internet hook-ups that seem out of place in this serene rural setting.
Its multi-lingual staff—from Italy, Germany, Senegal, Romania and Egypt—has a big heart that makes everyone who stops in—farmers, lawyers, professors, plumbers, priests, high-powered executives—feel as if they have been adopted into a big extended family. When owners Karim and Miriam Hwaidak began work on the hotel two years ago, they knew they had a delicate balance to deal with. Coming into a sleepy town that has seen very little commerce, they were careful not to alienate the 400 people who live here, nor disrupt the peaceful ambiance that makes the village so unique. And yet, they managed to bring a vibrant new energy to the town that has been welcomed with open arms by local residents.
Even Rodolfo Morviducci, a terracotta artisan who was born and raised in Petroio, regularly stops in to chat with the guests. Referred to as the “memory of the village,” Morviducci is a vigorous man of 82 who knows everyone in Petroio as well as the story that is their life. “Petroio is a wonderful place,” said Morviducci. “We all know each other and we all look after each other. Life here is good.” When not working on his terracotta sculptures and flower pots, Morviducci volunteers as a guide at the Museo della Terracotta next door to Palazzo Brandano. Although it’s not listed in most Tuscany guidebooks and therefore gets very few tourists, the museum has a surprisingly modern interior that features terracotta artifacts that explain the history of the centuries-old art form and how important it has been to the region.
Presiding over Brandano’s restaurant is Nicola Sgarbi, a handsome young chef who was born in nearby Umbria. Although he is professionally trained with impressive credentials to prove it, Sgarbi is quick to admit that his work here is a challenge.
“Restaurants in Tuscany have a lot of pressure on them,” he said. “It’s not because of the tourists who come; it’s because of the locals. Italians know food and they compare what they get in a restaurant to the ultimate standard—what their grandmothers made at home. That’s a standard that is not easy to live up to because most grandmothers in Italy are very good cooks.”
Tuscans, like most Italians, have an intimate relationship with their food. They want to know where it was grown or raised or produced, and many will make a preliminary trip to Palazzo Brandano to take a look at the menu. They ask questions about the food, many questions. They want to know exactly how it is going to be prepared and they want to meet the man who is going to do that preparation. They then listen intently to what they are told, and only if they are satisfied with the answers will they come back to sit down for a meal.
But along with this demanding criterion, there is also a great sense of community when it comes to food, at least in a small village like Petroio there is. If someone in the town happens to shoot a pheasant on a morning hunt, he will drop it off—feathers and all—at the hotel and it will wind up on the menu the next evening. If a farmer kills a pig, the fresh pork will be shared by all. And if a village grandmother bakes her signature chocolate walnut cake, she will have her granddaughter bring half of that cake to Palazzo Brandano so that the staff can have a taste.
“Tuscan cooking is very simple; there are no secrets,” said Sgarbi. “But even Italians from Rome think that it’s fantastico. There is a great respect for the ingredients here, and even if we only use a few, they must be the freshest and the best we can get.” But there’s something else, according to Sgarbi, that makes the food here special. “Tuscans are happy people who love to laugh,” he said. “And you can taste the laughter in the food.”
Sgarbi spends much of his time seeking out the perfect ingredients at farmers markets and other outlets for local goods. At least once a week he visits Stefano Coveri at his dairy to purchase Pecorino cheese both soft and aged. Coveri not only makes the cheese on site, he also raises the sheep that produce the milk that is turned into cheese. Sgarbi regularly checks in with the “truffle man” of Petroio, who as can be imagined is a very important man to know. And for his cold-press virgin olive oil, he pays a visit to Franco Bardi. Known throughout the world for his robust, award-winning Olio Bardi, Signore Bardi lives on the outskirts of Petroio and his olive groves and factory are open to the public for tours. Recently, he was the talk of the town, but not for something he is happy about. His factory was the scene of a rare occurrence in Petroio, and an Only-in-Italy crime—thieves broke in and made away with a giant vat of oil. Nothing else was taken.
Once his ingredients are assembled, Sgarbi gets to work. Some of the Tuscan dishes he regularly serves are salads of marinated artichokes with aged Pecorino cheese, and red chicory topped with poached eggs. There are main courses of stuffed rabbit with roasted apples, roasted duck with cocoa beans and cannellini, and char-grilled Chianina beefsteak. And the pastas, oh the pastas—ricotta and gorgonzola ravioli with red pepper sauce, pigeon tortellini with grass pea puree, chocolate fettuccini with white truffles, and of course strisce e ceci, those wide noodles with chick peas that are one of Tuscany’s most favorite dishes.
Whether it’s a pasta first course or a roasted meat main dish, all of the food served at Palazzo Brandano tastes like it was prepared with lots of love and lots of laughter by an Italian grandmother who knows what she’s doing. Not a grandmother who wears baggy black dresses and sensible shoes. No, a grandmother like Sophia Loren who can pose for the Pirelli calendar at the age of 72 and look like a testament to a lifetime of eating healthy Tuscan food.
(Depending on the size of the room, rates at Palazzo Brandano range from $300 to $400 per night double occupancy with breakfast included. For information, call 39-057-766-5169 or visit: www.palazzobrandano.com)
Joann Biondi is a journalist and the author of Miami Beach Memories: A Nostalgic Chronicle of Days Gone By. She is working on her next book.