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Unearthing a Hidden Jewel in Tuscany

A converted villa makes a good base for exploring Pistoia, long overshadowed by Florence

July 28, 2002|RAY MOSELEY

PISTOIA, Italy — The guidebook had let us down badly in the choice of a hotel at Lake Garda, and now we were heading south to Pistoia in Tuscany and certain doom. The next hotel on our itinerary had come from the same wretched book.

"This place we're going to is so bad," I joked to my wife, Jennifer, "that the Italian government has tried to house refugees in it and they refuse to go."

The decision to visit this less traveled part of Tuscany had been a gamble in more ways than one. On our mid-May trip, we could have gone to Chianti country, with its incomparable hills, imposing villas and cedars standing like sentinels over endless stretches of vineyard. We could have gone to the more popular cities of Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Lucca or Pisa. But we decided to forgo known pleasures for a Tuscany untouched by hordes of tourists. Another guidebook--a cultural guide--had suggested that Pistoia, 21 miles northwest of Florence, was not without its charms. So we were headed into the unknown and, to make matters more unnerving, we had persuaded two friends, Paul and Mimi Horne, to join us at the Villa Vannini, the country house hotel recommended in the first guidebook.

Fortunately, even bad guidebooks can sometimes redeem their worst mistakes, and the best ones prove their worth. In Pistoia and Villa Vannini, our luck turned.

The Villa Vannini is perched on an Apennine hilltop, 1,000 feet up and four miles north of Pistoia, and our first sight of it was reassuring. Built in 1780 and used as a summer residence of nobility from Florence and Pistoia during the 18th and 19th centuries, it is a three-story hostelry with only eight bedrooms, all tastefully furnished with antiques. A large terrace on one side of the building is surrounded by linden trees and oaks, and just beyond, dominating the landscape, stands a magnificent deodar, a Himalayan cedar.

The bedrooms are simple and lack the features that many travelers take for granted. There are no telephones in the rooms, no TV sets, no radios. Each room has its own bath, but only two are attached; the rest are across a corridor. There is no elevator to the upper floors and no air-conditioning. The villa is clean and comfortable, but not a place that spoils with little luxuries in the bedrooms.

What makes the Villa Vannini exceptional is its restaurant, the Deodora, named for the cedar. Luigi and Marta Bordonaro, a friendly couple from Pisa, manage the villa for its elderly owner, Maria Rosa Vannini. Luigi is not simply an excellent self-taught chef; he is a culinary maestro, a magician who gives traditional Tuscan dishes a modern and innovative touch that is consistently outstanding. Marta makes the dough for the pastas, bread and desserts, and they match the quality of Luigi's cooking. All four in our party have had years of experience in Italy, and we unanimously agreed we had never dined as well.

Each dinner consists of four courses, so well balanced that you never get up from the table feeling you have eaten too much. A typical menu: chicken terrine with a small salad of marinated onions; pappardelle (extra-wide noodles) with zucchini flowers; Cinta Senese, a small, richly flavored pig native to the Siena region, braised in Chianti with sage-flavored mashed potatoes; and Marta's crema caramellata with a prune on top, which was a cross between a creme caramel and a creme brulee--and superior to both.

On the night after this meal, the second course was unusual: ravioli of Cinta Senese placed in the fold of a cloth napkin. Luigi believes that sauces served with ravioli detract from the flavor of their meat, so he serves them in a napkin to preserve moistness and heat. Delicious. Another of my favorites was pappardelle with rabbit, duck and cockerel.

The Bordonaros stock only Tuscan wines, most in the $20 range but some double that or more. The modestly priced wines were uniformly good so we stayed with them, mainly Rosso di Montalcino Brunelli 2000 and Nobile di Montepulciano Salcheto 1998 or 2000. For our one fish dinner (six different fish or shellfish in four courses), Marta chose for us one of the few good Tuscan whites, I Sistri Chardonnay Felsina 1999.

We approached the Deodora with a measure of skepticism, committed to having only one meal there. Within reasonable driving distance, there are at least four Michelin one-star restaurants. But after our first night at the Deodora, there was never any question of where we would eat the rest of our dinners. With one exception.

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