Photographer Franco Pagetti of VII Photo Agency has seen and documented the horrors of war. His battlefield photos are breathtaking and his reputation in the field is of fearless journalist and fabulous cook. When the bullets fly he runs toward the action and when it’s over he whips up some pasta. A small villa on a farm in Tuscany is Franco’s sanctuary and he takes great joy in sharing the beauty of his home and preparing food for his friends. We finally found the time and resources to visit him on our recent trip to Italy.
Franco’s home in Tuscany is not the Tuscany of tour books. He lives in Polverosa and the locals prefer to say they live in Maremma not Tuscany. This is rugged Italian farmland still inhabited by cowboys and farmhands and formally by bandits and thieves. We drove through miles of rolling hills, several dirt roads and acres of recently harvested fields to get to Franco’s house. He lives on an active farm currently processing the very recently picked sunflower and corn harvest.
The grounds are peppered with pomegranate trees and sits on the high land surrounded by the fields. There is a central courtyard where all of the residents have outdoor patios covered with greenery and herbs. The rosemary bushes are as big small cars and wild fennel grows everywhere. The sights and smells in this place make you realize why food is so ingrained into the culture in Italy.
On our first night Franco took us to his favorite local restaurant, Rosa dei Venti in Albinia, where among the amazing dishes we sampled the Pesce al Sale and a Ravioli with Dorado and dried tuna eggs were the standouts. The whole fish was entombed in a cave of salt and baked. The result was a fish that was steamed by its own moisture. It was flaky, slightly briny and delicious. We drank a 2004 Lagrien and a 2007 Sudtiroler (Pinot Noir). The food was fantastic but I was already looking ahead to the next night’s dinner, one that Franco would cook himself.
The next two nights were two of the best meals I have ever eaten. First, Franco made a spaghetti alla vongole unlike anything I have tried. The freshness of the ingredients, particularly the small sweet clams that had come out of the Mediterranean that morning and the tiny but potent dried pepporcini peppers made the difference.
With dinner we drank a 1994 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. Gianfranco Soldera is renowned as maybe the finest maker of Brunello in the world…and it was an absolutely sublime experience. This was the most complex and exquisite wine I have ever sipped. That was true for one day until we drank a 1983 Soldera with the following night’s dinner. Incredible. These wines shaded my view of everything else I drank on this trip.
We ate raw langoustines with salt and lemon and red snapper Carpaccio with olive oil and red pepper corns before we were treated to Franco’s signature dish. His whole fish rubbed with salt, stuffed with fresh rosemary, wrapped in wild fennel branches and cooked over an open fire is legendary among his friends. The dish was Tuscany…rugged while elegant, simple yet complex, fresh, aromatic and bursting with flavor.
We left Maremma for Siena the next morning astounded by Franco’s hospitality, generosity and skill in the kitchen. His warmth and energy made our first visit to this part of Italy very special. Franco’s Italy. I can’t wait to go back.