here is magic and mystery on the Monte Amiata, an extinct volcano in southern Tuscany. This lonely peak above the Val D’Orcia is not fashionable or homogenized for tourists, particularly in winter. It’s more like a wild child that won’t be tamed.
On a frosty evening I drove part way up the slope to stay in one of the six rooms above Roberto Rossi’s acclaimed restaurant, Il Silene, in the village of Pescina. It was already dark at 6 p.m. when I got there.
I was greeted by the soft smell of apples on a wooden bench in the entryway. I opened the second door into the reception area and found a lively fire crackling in the corner fireplace with empty chairs casually arranged in front of it. Roberto was at work at his desk.
“E-hh, buonasera, Signora!” Roberto said as he stood up to his full six-foot plus height. He smiled broadly, his blue eyes twinkling below a mass of curly dark hair and embraced me, kissing each cheek, with the happy spontaneity of a Labrador puppy.
“It’s good to be back,” I said as I put my suitcase down. “Leave your bags right there, sit down by the fire and let me pour you something you probably haven’t tried before.” Roberto said as he ushered me toward the chairs by the fireplace.
He handed me a flute of sparkling wine, a DOC Valdobiaddene made by Loris Follador at Casa Coste Piane using 60-year old vines. It was cloudy in the glass, not what prosecco usually looks like. The label read, “The sediment present in this bottle is a guarantee of natural fermentation.” I tasted it and clean delicate flavors tickled my mouth. “Magical,” I told Roberto.
There was more to come at dinner. I sat down at one of the round, white tablecloth covered tables in the dining room and selected a warm piece of bread from the basket by my place. Roberto and his longtime assistant, Lella, make it fresh daily.
I drizzled the bread with Il Silene olive oil, an elegant golden elixir with fresh aromas and a delicate hint of pepper. It is made exclusively from pitted olives of the olivastra seggianese, a native species that grows only on the western slope of the Monte Amiata.
Roberto founded what he calls “The Oil Project According to Veronelli,” named for the Luigi Veronelli, the iconoclastic journalist who helped revolutionize Italian “enogastronomy.” Roberto recalled: “I learned many things from the charismatic maestro about the olive tree and the oil, not technical things, but spiritual ones.”
Roberto tends his 700 trees ranging in age from 60 to 300 years old with care, hand picking the olives and pitting them before pressing. They naturally yield oil rich in nutritional and health benefits. Roberto also collaborates with university researchers investigating the history of these olive trees and olive oil production on the mountain.
His cuisine begins with the highest quality products, predominately from the neighborhood. He grew up cooking in the original Silene restaurant, eventually became a partner, and then, the sole owner. Influenced by international travels and training, he creatively combines old and new recipes.
Among my favorites: scottiglia soup, made with a combination of meat and fowl in a vegetable base that is traditionally poured over stale bread; battuto crudo di vitellone, chopped raw calf beef drizzled with olive oil; papparadelle noodles with hare ragu’; roasted duck or pigeon breasts; and for dessert, crunchy apple puffs.
Roberto buys all of his wine directly from artisanal producers, mostly in Tuscany and Piedmont. He paired my dinner with a glass of Brunello di Montalcino Canalicchio di Sopra 2006.
Last year when I was at Il Silene with a larger group, we drank bottles of “cult” wines: Case Basse di Gianfranco Soldera Brunello di Montalcino, made by one of Roberto’s closest mentors and friends, and Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo Brunate Le Coste.
For dessert, Roberto poured me Vecchio Samperi di Marco de Bartoli. Bartoli died last year but left an indelible mark. His fresh, complex, intriguing wines redefine “marsala,” a sweet wine mostly used for cooking that has been on the backburner in recent years.
After dinner, I took my glass of Bartoli back to the fireplace and chatted with Roberto. He told me about the day that Swiss conceptual artist Daniel Spoerri lunched at Il Silene. Spoerri had just bought a 16-hectare farm a few kilometers down the mountain. A restaurateur and foodie himself, Spoerri is best known for Eat Art, an edible art movement that began with an exhibition in New York in 1970.
The two have been fast friends for years now and the farm has become a sculpture garden that displays Spoerri’s work along with those of some 50 other artists. Roberto now manages the open-air museum, the trattoria called “Non Solo Eat Art” (Not Only Eat Art) and four apartments that can be reserved for overnight stays.
The next morning, Roberto let me in the gate of “Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri. Hic Terminus Haeret,” usually open only from Easter to October. For several hours, I wandered through open fields, ancient olive groves, and quiet wooded corners discovering many of the 103 sculptures. They appeared unexpectedly and provocatively as I rounded a corner or looked out from a hillock. As Roberto had suggested, the effect was “…somewhere between reality and dream”: true magic and mystery on the Monte Amiata.
— Il Silene. Località Pescina, Seggiano, Grosetto. See website for directions and general information. Closed Monday (Sunday dinner in winter). Tel. 0564.950.805; Fax: 0564.950.553.