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Checking out the Competition in Pienza

So... yesterday I went to the forbidden land... you know that neighbor to the north of ours that begins with a T.... and yes, if you are wondering, my husband (good Umbrian that he is) did threaten to change the locks on the doors. 

That's right.  I went to Tuscany (gasp!).  The lovely town of Pienza to be exact (double gasp!).  I had been hearing a lot about Pienza from passing tourists and since some friends of mine wanted to check it out, I thought I would tag-along. 

Now, it really bothers me when journalists treat Umbria as a sort of lowly step-sister to Tuscany, but I have to admit, after my visit yesterday, I kind of get their mentality.  I could compare Pienza to my favorite Umbrian town, Bevagna.  Both are medieval towns set in the idyllic Tuscan/Umbrian countryside.  They are similar in size, as well as aritistic and historic offerings.  But, there was one big difference:  Pienza was OPEN FOR BUSINESS.  Enotecas and restaurants started tastings at 11:30.  Shops were alive and inviting, not to mention open all day (a shock for someone like me who lives in the land of the never-ending pausa).  The sun was shining, the wine was flowing, it was a perfect Tuscan afternoon... but yet, something was amiss...

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Where were the Italians?  Ok, obviously the shopkeepers were Italian (all of whom, right down to the gas station attendent, spoke perfect English (and probably German as well)), but where were all of the old people sitting around on their plastic chairs, where were the men arguing about local politics in the piazza?  Where was the real Italian life?  Where was the bric-a-brac hardware store, and the alimentari?  Everything was just a little too slick and polished and the town seemed to be created for tourists.  This feeling was confirmed when, getting a coffee, I asked the barista where she liked to eat.  She couldn't tell me one place (as she neither lives in, nor frequents Pienza) and so referred me to the owner, who gave me a glazed over 'all of the restaurants are good' answer.  Hmmmmmm.

It seems to me that both regions have to work on their toursim a little bit.  Tuscany has certainly paved the way to greatness, but has gone off the rails and now seems to have a Disneyland type mania going on.  Tuscany is a brand.  I engaged in a conversation with a tourist from New York, and, when I told her that I lived in Umbria, the next region over, she said to me (as do many tourists) "Oh yes, I just love all of Tuscany!"  That kind of thing breaks my heart, while at the same time makes me happy that Umbria is not saturated with these hapless "UnderTheTuscanSunTourists".  Umbria, on the other hand, could learn some things about marketing and attracting tourists:  swinging wide open those doors and shaking off that closed 'member's only' feeling... and maybe cutting down the hours of the mid-afternoon pausa - we can't eat four hour lunches every day.  Time to throw your hat into the ring, Umbria!


On to the important stuff, here's where I ate:

La Bottega di Pienza:  we stopped in here for a tasting of local cheeses and Ercolani wines produced by this family.  At €5.50 for a jumbo size glass of wine and tons of cheese, this was a bargain - the wines, however, were unexceptional in my opinion.

La Buca di Enea:  Lunch.  Cute little trattoria with good local food - we had a Fonduta of Pecorino with porcini mushrooms and lardo di Colonnata, Pici (the local Tuscan pasta) with duck ragù, and Ribollita (Tuscan bread soup).  The food was decent, but rushed - I still had my pasta in front of me when the owner slammed down 3 bottles of digestivi on our table - nice touch, but we had been thinking about trying one of the meat courses, let alone dessert - I guess not!  That is something that will never happen in Umbria - they don't even think about turning tables, in fact they seem to get really annoyed if they have to reset a table during service!

La Bandita:  Not satisfied with the wines we had consumed so far, we decided to try one more place.  La Bandita is a modern restaurant/wine bar in a boutique hotel of the same name (owned by Americans).  It is worth the trip alone just to sit outside on their patio, sip wine, and watch the chef pick fresh herbs for your cheese plate.



Thanks Colleen - I already want to go back to La Bandita! ;-)

Colleen Simpson

So you went over to the dark side. I so totally agree with this exquisite comparison of our beloved Umbria with overly hyped Tuscany. But we can learn something without giving up authenticity! I take guests on my Tuscany tours (as well as all over Umbria) and we always go to Pienza for its particular history and the gorgeous setting. Met the owners of La Bandita this past March (before they opened)and must say their spring pea soup and Chianina beef burger with mint mayo rocked with everything locally sourced. Glad that you found them. Very happy that we have a relaxed and non-touristy place to eat now in Pienza!

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