Gluten-Free in Italy - An Afternoon to Remember

I will forever be grateful for the series of events that led to my lunch at the Ristorante di Poggio Antico which is part of a winery in Montalcino, Italy. A marvelous confluence of events created what is now a delicious piece of history for me. It began with asking Shauna for recommendations in Florence which resulted in a meal at Cantinetta del Verrazzano where I met Jonathan who recommended the winery at Poggio Antico. Gareth and I weren’t sure we would have time for Poggio Antico until our intended restaurant declared they were full for lunch. The weavers of fate always get their way.

At the winery we were greeted by the charming Alessandro Signorino who guided us to our table on the picture perfect patio. Our review of the menu did not give any hint of the delights we were about to experience. My ever-lightening purse steered my eyes to the a la carte and tasting menu items. Gareth, overtaken by a fit of generosity, offered to treat us to the full seven-course tasting menu AND a bottle of Brunello wine. Sometimes the weavers of fate just smile at you.

Before the meal we were served an aperitif – Chardonnay di Montalcino and an amuse bouche of tomato and mozzarella with a fresh basil sauce. This put our Chiostro insalta caprese to shame, and we hadn’t even started the actual tasting menu yet.

While they didn’t have any gluten-free bread (though I hadn’t given them any notice either) they did have rice crackers for me. They were a source of comedic relief throughout the lunch – compared to the rest of our food and Gareth’s selection of tomato basil, rosemary, truffle and pesto rolls, they seemed a little out of place.

We trusted Alessandro’s selection of the 1999 Brunello di Montalcino (of course from Poggio Antico).

The presentation of the wine was as beautiful as the rest of the surroundings. With a master’s hands he “rinsed” each glass with wine before pouring our bottle. [We learned later that this is to prepare the glass and remove any residue that may be left from washing.]

Our first course was a veal tartare served with shaved parmiggiano reggiano. This was my first experience with a tartare other than fish, but my trepidation was tempered by the gentle breeze and perfect temperature. The buttery texture of the veal with the simple crunch of the parmiggiano was incredible. Add the brunello wine, and we were carried off to a new level of taste sensation.

The next course, liver pate served with Moscadello sweet wine sauce (pictured above) was “the chef’s answer to the French foie gras.” My first taste of pate, during a trip to Montreal, left me less than enthusiastic to try it again. However, this is one of my most memorable dishes from the entire trip. The strawberry garnish was the fullest-flavored strawberry Gareth and I had ever had. The bite of each seed exploded with flavor. I have never licked my lips with such relish before.

The third course was on the menu as Sliced fish fillet served with Cannellini bean sauce. That day it was red mallet. As Alessandro explained to us when we asked how they managed to get such amazing strawberries, the chef picks each day the best produce and meat before deciding what to serve. Hence, the type of fish or fruit isn’t specified so that they can present guests with the best food available each and every day. The cannelloni bean sauce was light yet creamy yet not brothy. I am ill-equiped to fully describe it. The first bite was ok but the flavor developed and the finish was incredible.

Our fourth course was the first time that they had to substitute the original offering to give me a gluten-free alternative. I was given a risotto with saffron (a spice that is more expensive than gold) and zucchini. The parmiggiano reggiano garnish was a crescendo of flavor crescendo. Gareth was served a fresh-made ravioli filled with foie gras and prawns served in a lobster bisque. With the final bite he proclaimed, “that might as well been the single greatest bite that I will ever eat in my entire life.” Or ate least until the next course came.

The fifth course again brought a deviation for the gluten-free. While Gareth was presented a stuffed quail served with truffles and an Oyster sauce, I was served lamb with a Brunello wine reduction sauce, a vegetable caponata and finished with red sea salt. When I gave Gareth a taste he responded “You may have just supplanted my favorite bite.” The sweet wine sauce with the crunch of the salt, the perfectly cooked vegetables and lamb, once it was combined with a sip of the ’99 Brunello it was transcendental.

As our meal started to wind down, our next plate was the cheese course. A sheep’s milk Mille Pepe, a piemontese cow’s milk Taleggio, and of course an aged sheep’s milk pecorino, were served with a pear sauce. Our favorite was the Mille Pepe which I have tried in vain to find in NYC.

Before dessert, we had sorbetti to clear our palates. Uva fragollina (a type of grape with a strawberry hue) and Pineapple ginger. The Chef again did not disappoint.

Our seventh and final course again brought two different plates to the table. My gluten-free dessert was a trio of chocolate mouse and a zabaglione gelato topped with fresh chocolate sauce. Gareth was served a molten chocolate cake and truffle gelato in a fresh-made cialde cookie. Even Alessandro was in awe of the truffle gelato, “In my 20 years in Italy this is the only Chef who can do something like that.”

By the time we finished dessert, and yes you can see we actually ate it all, three hours had passed. After savoring every bite of a luxurious lunch, Gareth actually had to drink his cappuccino with some haste in order for us to catch the tour of the winery (the original reason for our stop at Poggio Antico). The tour was fascinating especially after experiencing first-hand the height to which a good Brunello wine can take your dining experience.

This lunch inspired us to seek out even more amazing dining experiences, including La Chiusa and Antica Trattoria Botteganova, but this meal was the most incredible display of how wine can elevate food. At the end of our trip as we tried to recount our favorite dishes, I commented on how this was the best food/wine combo of them all. As I came to realize, the chef (Roberto Minnetti, who is clearly talented in his own right) has the luxury of knowing that most of his customers will be selecting a Brunello from Poggio Antico to accompany his creations. The subtle flavors of the food are then enhanced perfectly by the wine.

Ah, I am transported back just by looking at the photos. Being gluten-free can be me more delicious than anyone can imagine when they are first diagnosed. In fact if it weren’t for my gluten-free substitutions, Gareth wouldn’t have ever known the joy that came in the form of our lamb dish. Thanks for letting me share this lunch with you. Thank you to Jonathan, Shauna, Gareth, Alessandro, and of course the chef at Poggio for being instrumental in making it .

And if you can believe it, we still made our dinner reservation later that night. Next stop on my gluten-free tour of Italy: La Locanda del Vino Nobile.

Poggio Antico

53024 Montalcino (Siena), Italy
Tel. +39 0577-848044 Fax +39 0577-846563

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