Light. Large windows. Old photos, almost all B&W. Brick bar. Benedetta Origo and her daughter Katia seem to have chosen a minimalist style for La Foce, the new restaurant of the historic Valdorcia estate. The one, so we know what we're talking about, with the famed winding cypress-lined road immortalized in all the guides to Tuscany, of the monumental formal gardens, and of the "Incontri in Terra di Siena" Festival (the program for 2012), a refined event that brings the world's most prestigious performers of chamber music to the Sienese hills. Thinking it over, however, the style is more warm and homey; it will inevitably bring back memories of the past to those who have lived in the country.
The restaurant is indeed located in a former rural dopolavoro, or social club where farmers met after work, a structure Benedetta's parents, Antonio and Iris Origo built for the tenant farmers within the framework of an illuminated design that, during the 20s and 30s, led the couple to transform a remote property into a model estate, surrounded by an extraordinary series of gardens designed by the English architect Cecil Pinsent, the man also behind the I Tatti, Florentine villa of Bernard Brenson. And where, during the war, refugees and the families of prisoners of war were welcomed, as Iris says in her narrative, "Guerra in Valdorcia"
Wars are no longer fought with cannons, but with economies, and though there are no longer bombs agriculture still suffers. And is saved, for now, by turism and the beautiful landscapes that attract visitors.
Hence the owner's decision to open a restaurant, which also provides an outlet for the estate's olive oil and the produce from the vegetable patch.
The challenge wasn't as easy as one might have thought.
Tuscany has hundreds of restaurants with traditional menus, including many specialized in "peasant food." Rhetoric lurks around the corner. And the quality of the ingredients is more of a starting point than the end-all for a top-notch restaurant whose prices reflect its position (the average cost is 50 Euros plus wines).
Another courageous decision, to put everything in the hands of a single chef like Paolo Anelli, a cook who has done many things in Rome /from Os Club to Gusto, from L'Antico Arco to the Michelin-starred Il Convivio di Troiani, with Chef Angelo Troiani), who here is called to measure himself with a clientele awaiting discovery whose expectations are not yet known.
Finally, our gastronomic experience was quite positive, thanks to a series of absolutely authentic flavorsand a manu that deftly weaves well known and loved dishes with some less orthodox ideas.
Very good, for example, the Crunchy Handkerchief of Pasta brick (how pasta brick is made) with fava beans, chicory, and leek cream, which is delicate and not overpowering. Good, though less original (at least for my tuscan palaye) is the chickpea zuppa with potatoes, crostini, and marjoram-laced olive oil. Excellent are the tagliolini with asparagus carbonara, and the close, a crumble with green apples, honey and vanilla sauce was also nice. Excellent, of course, the olive oil, cold cuts, and home-made bread.
I've saved the dish I liked the most and was perplexed the most by for last: crunchy meatballs from boiled beef, with green sauce and polenta crostini. Excellent, but that didn't convince me for philosophical reasons: meatballs of this sort, made from flavorful meats that are very lean and very dry, are the "logical" opposite of a dish based on leftovers such as meatballs, which generally employ trimmings and fat. And then there were fegatelli, absolutely traditional Tuscan fegatelli. Of which I can only say one thing: the best I've ever had (and this from someone who generally doesn't like liver). The one problem? They weren't on the menu.
The wine list has about a hundred wines, a mixture of renowned anmes and local treasures, with a clear Tuscan predominance in the reds, and as an aside craft beers from Cauilier.
Last thing: There's a path from the restaurant to the gardens of the villa, which can be visited upon request. If you're already there, it would be foolish not to see them.
NO STAR goes to wines that are correctly made but nothing to get excited about.
ONE STAR goes to wines that are good. TWO STARS go to wines that are very good to excellent. THREE STARS and a POINT SCORE (90-100) go to wines that are superb to extraordinary. And I will give pairing suggestions, which I consider much more important than the scores.