Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town. The following interview was originally published in my Italy guide.
Today I’m happy to introduce you to Pamela Sheldon Johns, an author and agriturismo/cooking school owner here to tell us all about Montepulciano – a Medieval hill town known for its pork, honey, and pici pasta.
First, tell us about you.
I am originally from California, where I catered, cooked, and ran cooking schools for a number of years. I commuted between the US and Italy, teaching workshops and writing cookbooks from 1992 until, in 2001, my family moved to our farm in Montepulciano, Poggio Etrusco. Luckily the things I do for work are also what I do for fun: gardening/farming, cooking, and hospitality.
If someone is visiting Montepulciano for the first time, what do you recommend they see or do?
Just walking along the main road, there is a lot to take in, such as noble palazzi with Renaissance architecture and even one with Etruscan urns built into the wall. Don’t miss the many little alleys and piazzas in Montepulciano, all worth exploring. There are great little food shops specializing in local products, cantinas to visit and taste the Vino Nobile of Montepulciano, and some amazing artisans (copper, mosaic, painting). The churches are also plentiful and San Biagio, at the bottom of the town, designed by architect Sangallo the Elder, is worth the walk to see.
What neighborhoods or parts of town are best to stay in?
Some people like to stay in the town and some like to be just outside in the countryside. Inside the town, any area is pleasant. Outside, there are agriturismos of all levels ready to accommodate you.
Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should everyone make sure to visit?
Montepulciano is the perfect hub to see many great hill towns, artisans, and cultural/historic places. Within a one-hour drive, you can visit Pienza, Montalcino, Siena, Cortona, and lots of tiny villages. Florence is only 1.5 hours away, as are Assisi and some of the Umbrian villages.
Tell us about the local dishes. What should people try here?
This part of southern Tuscany has deep roots in cucina povera, the simple rustic cooking that dates back to harder times. Today’s dishes are richer, because we have more abundance, but are still much appreciated. Here are a few you should try:
Pici, the fresh hand-rolled pasta served with a spicy tomato garlic sauce called aglione; ribollita, a seasonal vegetable soup layered with bread; tagliata, sliced grilled beef (usually from the chianina breed); and panzanella, a summer bread salad with tomatoes, cucumber, and onion.
In the fall, game is prevalent and you won’t want to miss cinghiale (wild boar) and fabulous fresh porcini mushrooms.
What are your top three favorite bars and restaurants?
La Porta in Monticchiello (located at Via del Piano 1), La Grotta in Montepulciano (at Via San Biagio 15), and Latte di Luna in Pienza (located at Via San Carlo 2).
Is there anything tourists do that locals find rude or strange? What can we do to better fit in with the culture?
By now, the Italians are used to the cultural differences of tourists. It is always respectful to learn a few words in Italian, especially grazie (thank you).
What is the best way to meet locals and make friends?
There are a couple of fun bars. One is the Caffe Poliziano (located at Via Voltaia Nel Corso 27), a beautiful place to have a glass of wine and meet some people. Others have live music and aperitivi to offer…the best thing is to check with the tourist office when you arrive to see what is going on.
Why should people make sure to visit Montepulciano?
Montepulciano is considered a pearl of the Renaissance and is very well-known for wine. The DOCG wine is Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and is made from a Sangiovese clone called Prugnolo Gentile. It is heavenly with the local pecorino (cheese made with sheep’s milk) and the typical dishes of the area.
What is the best place to go take beautiful photos of the city?
There are photo ops in every direction! This is the classic Tuscan landscape of farmhouses, olive groves, vineyards, and cypress trees. One special place that you might like to visit is the estate of La Foce (which is only open to the public on Wednesday afternoons), just outside of the nearby town of Chianciano Terme. From the garden terrace, you can see the classic cypress-lined road that shows up on so many postcards and calendars.
Anything else you want us to know?
The area is also known for its thermal waters and there are a number of spas around. Some of my favorites are in Bagno Vignoni and Chianciano Terme. Again, the tourist office will be of great help organizing a spa day if you want one.