One of the coolest things about living in Bagno a Ripoli was that while it was merely a few miles from the city proper of Florence, it was also the northern tip of one of Italy’s most famous wine regions, accessed by one of the country’s most glorious routes. The Chiantigiana highway begins in Bagno a Ripoli, and there was hardly a better month than May to rocket into Chianti country, zipping through the hills and hollows bordered by endless acres of olive groves and grape vines amidst a rolling topography of abundant green.
The first part of the drive was a straight shot past sleepy villages and roadside markets until the sky opened up and dramatic hilltops studded with cypress trees and farmhouses came into view. In the spring, many of the valleys were sown with bright red poppies and assorted wild flowers. The road began a dramatic sequence of dips and dives and hairpin turns. Around a sweeping bend, the road climbed towards the tiny town of Panzano. This was always our first stop. We’d try to get there around 11:00, park somewhere off the postage-stamp square, and walk up a narrow alley to see the world’s most famous butcher.
Dario Cecchini is a legend in Europe. His devotion to meat is so heroic that it has earned him a cameo on Prince Charles’ calendar, regularly appearances on MTV Europe, and visits from the world’s most recognizable food writers and celebrities. Tourists come to Dario’s two-room shop from all over the world, not so much for the meat as for the man and the scene he commands. Broad shouldered and handsome, Dario is a showman, greeting guests who enter with charming smiles while hacking away at meat with a cleaver, often reciting long verses from Dante’s Inferno. On the opposite counter, at all times, at no charge, are prepared meats, including the Tuscan specialty, Porchetta (stuffed pork loin wrapped in pig skin and slow roasted). The friendly staff pours red wine from a fiasco, at all times, at no charge, for anyone who wants to imbibe. The often-crowded shop is alive with toasts to Dario and the revival atmosphere which he inspires. One could easily take a whole meal there, but we often used it as a place for a snack and a moment of Dario’s magic before moving on.
Dario Cecchini at his butcher shop in the heart of Chianti country
While Sophia studied the goldfish in the town square, I’d pop into the Enoteca Baldi for bottles of hard-to-find wines. Panzano was part of the Chianti Classico sub-region of the larger Chianti zone. Chianti Classico wines are universally recognized as the finest of this world-renowned variety. I especially fancied the Chianti Classico Riservas (aged in oak for an additional two years before bottling), and there was no better place to poach the often-limited production than in the enotecas of the area (to tell a Chianti Classico from just a Chianti, look for the black rooster label on the bottle’s neck). After stocking up on some bottles, we would drive a short distance out of Panzano, down a narrow road through a stretch of pines, before turning onto a dirt road. After a mile of slow-going over a bumpy track, past old men foraging the roadside for truffles, wild asparagus and mushrooms, the woods would clear to reveal a rural restaurant stretched across a high ridge.
The Cantinetta di Rignana is an old farmhouse of stone and wood and glass with breathtaking views of the steep hills lined with the Sangiovese grapes for Chainti Classico. The Cantinetta is known for rustic Tuscan cooking, especially the meats roasted in ancient ovens that vent wood smoke from crooked chimneys. When the weather was nice we’d sit at long tables in an wide room with the floor-to-ceiling windows tilted open, the fragrant breeze mingling with the wood smoke, with open bottles of wine made from the vines we were staring over, sharing plates of meats hot from the oven. My favorite dish was the roasted pork ribs, massive slabs of succulence that would bring Fred Flintstone to tears. I’d often accompany these with roasted potatoes skewered with rosemary spears. Oh, and lots of Chianti Classico from the hills of Rignana to wash it all down.
After lunch, we’d often linger around the grounds of the Cantinetta, playing with Sophia on the swing set and jungle gym, lying in the wild grass, exploring the grounds. With the sun still high, we’d climb back into the car and pick a village or two to visit on the way back up the Chiantigiana Highway and its course towards home.
A farmhouse in the vineyards near Panzano