Il Falconiere: A Michelin starred Tuscan adventure
CORTONA, Italy, October 27, 2016 – Il Falconiere is an exquisitely stunning luxury resort and spa that sweeps across the Tuscan hillsides of the Baracchi family winery nesting in the shadow of the stunning mountaintop village of Cortona.
At the center of this gorgeous Relais & Chateaux property, now celebrating its 25th year, is their internationally acclaimed restaurant whose master chef, Silvia Baracchi, has held a Michelin star since 2003.
Silvia and her husband Riccardo are the owners of the Baracchi family estate that has occupied this land for generations. Riccardo, in fact, was born in the large 17th century villa on the property that is now a part of the hotel, and he is the chief winemaker and guiding force behind the Baracchi family vineyards.
With 23 rooms spread out in different buildings across the expansive property, Il Falconiere is more than a luxury boutique hotel, but rather a quintessential Tuscan experience that delights with its attention to detail, and invocation of the grander purposes of living a life.
Set on 150 acres of vineyards and olive groves, Il Falconiere has 9 rooms in the main villa, 2 junior suites attached to the 16th century chapel, and 11 villas in a restored group of farmhouses dating back almost 700 years. The stone villas in the farm house have walls over a foot thick.
Our villa is a gorgeous one bedroom suite with ancient terra cotta floors, sloping wooden beamed ceilings, and a huge stone fireplace in the spacious sitting area.
Views from the living room look right up to the mountaintop village of Cortona, while the bedroom overlooks the vineyards and the Tuscan hills beyond.
Antique furnishings, ancient hand painted doors, and entrance doors that are hundreds of years old add to the delicious sensation of being catapulted back in time, all in beautifully renovated suites, with sumptuous beddings, but whose modern touches are disguised by a palpable sense of historical antiquity.
Arriving on the property in the afternoon there is already a festive atmosphere on the outdoor patio beside the reception area, even though it is only 3 o’clock.
A group of 5 or 6 friends is enjoying several bottles of pink champagne in the bright afternoon sun, laughing heartily, the glass conservatory of the restaurant framed behind them, and then two of them turn and welcome the new arrivals.
It is Silvia and Riccardo, hanging out with some friends and business associates, opening a bottle of Baracchi sparkling rose, and giving the type of welcome that says this is a special family experience, a world unto itself, and come and join us in exploring what we have.
Literally, come and join us, for in the next minutes Silvia and Riccardo have opened another bottle of champagne and we have joined them and their friends in an afternoon revelry of conversation and camaraderie.
As it turns out, to stay at Il Falconiere is to have the full Riccardo and Silvia experience, for they are everywhere, at the winery, the restaurant, wandering the grounds, giving a tour to a wine distributor, entertaining writers and celebrities.
Riccardo began the whole process decades ago by restoring the original manor house on the grounds of the family estate where he was born, eventually restoring the vineyards and the whole property in a decades long labor of love.
He is one of the great pioneers of Italian wine growers and the full range of Baracchi family of wines are all grown on the estate.
They run the gamut from a phenomenal Ardito Syrah, to an elegant Pinot Noir, an exceptional Sangiovese, and on overwhelming tour de force in their Brut Rose pink champagne, that is, sparkling wine made by traditional methods.
Walking the grounds is like strolling across a country estate, surrounded by bucolic vineyards stretching up into the hills. Brilliant pink wisteria adorns trellises along the length of the parking area, and on the walkways of the village.
On the hills above lies the ancient town of Cortona, nestled along the ridgeway like a silhouette against the sky, an omnipresent sentinel as the sun sets and the moon rises.
On the road leading to Cortona stands an ancient Church 1000 years old, its dome glistening over the gleaming hilltops.
Nearby, the ramparts of the old city are luminescent, crystal clear in the blue sky, as it hovers above Il Falconiere from every angle of the property.
The reception desk is a compact outbuilding where their friendly boxer warms himself in the sun. A number of cookbooks by Silvia and the full range of Baracchi wines are displayed inside, available to order and ship anywhere in the world.
On the lawn next door is the famous falcon of Il Falconiere’s namesake. Riccardo and Silvia display their loving relationship with the bird as they take turns posing with him in full falcon attack mode.
A small chapel hundreds of years old adorns a cozy nook next to the spa and has been restored to serene perfection.
A rustic pathway leads across the grounds to the farmhouse villas, passing the helicopter pad behind the olive grove where George Clooney landed when he came for lunch some months ago.
There are two swimming pools on the property, one nestled in the shadow of the farmhouse villas, the other just across from the spa, both with sweeping views of the vineyards and the mountains above.
Dinner at Il Falconiere is one of the finest dining experiences imaginable, a precise tour de force of brilliant cuisine, exceptional service, and an experiential location that is as grand as it is sublime, especially as the sun sets.
The building that houses the restaurant is the ancient lemon house, where the citrus trees were stored in the winter months to keep them from freezing.
This elegant imposing structure has been transformed into one of the world’s finest restaurants, with dinner served on the ground floor under domed brick arches hundreds of years old.
Breakfast is served in the mornings on the second floor in a charming room that is all antique furnishings and gingham tablecloths, a decidedly rustic feel to the room, with a vast spread of fresh pastries, specialty eggs, and breakfast meats.
Downstairs is a different story, where the dining room has an elegance and a stunningly ethereal level of refinement apparent in every corner, and from every member of the staff.
Matre’ d and head waiter Luigi Pipparelli has been here since 1993, an elegant, comfortable, commanding presence guiding his guests through 6 courses or more of delightful and innovative Tuscan culinary delicacies.
The kitchen staff is an extension of Silvia Baracchi’s precise, warm and deeply passionate personal style, with Chef Richard Titi executing her cuisine in a ballet of flavors, colors, and gorgeous presentations of Tuscan haute cuisine.
The wonderful Sous Chef, Salah El Taymani, has been here for 26 years, and tonight he leads the kitchen through its paces with meticulous elegance.
Marinated scampi and yellowtail with cucumber and mixed sprouts in a passion fruit dressing is extraordinary in its lightness, tangy flavor, and delightful presentation.
A lasagna styled Pappardelle filled with Tuscan ragout of 3 minced meats, tomato sauce and nutmeg scented bechamel is a tour de force of deliciously enthralling tastes and textures.
Spaghetti with tuna tartar, flavored pea with coffee scent is fabulous, deceptively simple, a subtle combination of luscious flavor, and thoroughly delicious.
Cod with spice broth, candied cherry tomato, green beans and ginger is wonderful, crisply cooked on the outside, and succulent and tender within.
Calf Tenderloin with salt cod sauce and chick peas is a tribute to the incredible Chiana beef in this region of Italy, perfectly cooked, a medium rare celebration of succulent filet.
Ossobuco with pea puree and marrow cream flavored with saffron is a Michelin starred redefinition of refined taste and style, beautifully presented, the meat melting in the mouth, the bone marrow a sublime accompaniment.
The meal is accompanied by a fabulous bottle of Baracchi Pinot Noir, an elegant fruit forward wine with balance and depth on a par with some of the most notable Pinots from Sonoma County, with a lovely nose, delicate hints of spices, and a long clean finish.
A flurry of custards, cheesecake and an assortment of deserts and fine Italian coffee is the fitting finale to a classic meal of amazing haute cuisine.
Leaving the restaurant for the short walk back across the property to the farmhouse villa, the chilly Tuscan night wrapped around the stars, the mind swims through the memory of this amazing dining experience, recalling courses and details, basking in the warm glow that comes after an evening of sheer perfection.
The Spa at Il Falconiere is a strikingly lovely affair, with a long sleekly designed soaking pool extending out into the yard from under a domed portico surrounded by elegant settees.
A wide range of luxurious treatments and massages are available in rooms that range from sublimely serene to romantically luxurious. One room has a deep brass bathtub and fireplace, and long pampering visits are frequently paired with wine and champagne.
Taking a cooking lesson with Michelin star chef Silvia Baracchi is as exhilarating as it is intimidating. A vivacious star presence in and out of the kitchen, Silvia exudes charm and charisma, but with the steely precision of a master chef whose attention to excellence and detail even exceeds her ability to multitask.
Guests can arrange a cooking class during their stay and experience an afternoon in the kitchen making a series of 3 course classic Tuscan dishes led by Silvia and Sous Chef Richard Titi that are then served that evening in the splendor of the restaurant Il Falconiere.
In a gorgeous working kitchen set up in a spacious first floor farmhouse villa cooking pupils prepare a menu of stuffed zuchini blossoms with ricotta, wild boar medallions stuffed with olive tepanade wrapped in pancetta, and learn to make classic hand rolled pici pasta (eggless spaghetti) from scratch along with a tomato garlic ragu sauce.
As wondrous as it is to spend the afternoon with Silvia preparing the meal, it is even more astonishing to taste the exquisite fruits of our labors that evening in the glorious splendor of the restaurant, a Michelin starred meal made with our own hands.
No mention of Cortona can exclude the film Under the Tuscan Sun, which in the years since its prominence has turned the old walled city into somewhat of a tourist destination. But isn’t that always what “they” say, and shouldn’t everyone have visited everywhere 20 years ago when it was …well 20 years ago.
That said Cortona is a lovely, rustic, ancient town with narrow cobblestone streets and large stone buildings, and retains a lot of its bucolic character amidst the abundant shops and the characteristically very steep streets off the main drag.
Wander down to the edge of town and overlook the ramparts, looking out across the rich valley, past the ancient cemetery on the hill.
There, in the center of the valley is Il Falconiere, its vineyards sweeping to the east and west, from the main road all the way up to the mountain, the yellow grand villa a beacon in the sun.
On the edge of town , through the village square where the old men gather, and past the shops where two matronly natives are chattering, is Bottega Baracchi, an outpost for the food and wine of Silvia and Riccardo in a more casual tourist setting, but beautifully located right at the main entrance to the walled town.
Later that day Riccardo is escorting us around the winery at Il Falconiere, just below the farmhouse villas, a fully self-contained operation producing a range of extraordinary wines, all within the facility.
Riccardo is both production manager and chief winemaker, but works closely with his son Benedetto, handsome future scion of the Baracchi family estate.
Riccardo was the first to market a sparkling wine from the Sangiovese grape, the staple of Italian wine, and in the process created a pink champagne that is the highlight of the Baracchi array of fine wines.
The wine cave where the pink champagne is aged is a compact subterranean thing of beauty where he stores and matures a limited production of 6000 bottles, tilted in racks at a 45 degree angle and made in the tradional methode.
Riccardo and his assistants turn each bottle a quarter turn each day during the resting period, prior to the dosage and corking process, an excruciatingly detailed labor of love for a devoted and highly talented artisan.
That same passion goes into the manner in which he has planted the grounds, including an astonishing Pinot Noir he produces from vineyards at the higher elevations of the property.
His trademark super Tuscan includes an award-winning blend of Syrah and Cabernet, and he is as proud of his wines as he is of Silvia’s Michelin star, as they both are of this exquisite Relais & Chateaux luxury resort they have created together from the whole cloth of their lives.
More than that, they as people and personalities are the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor of culinary destination resorts, for he is swarthy and handsome, and she is raven haired, and stylishly beautiful with a dramatic sense of self-assurance.
After years together as a couple, and in business, and after holding the Michelin star since 2003, and still in the prime of their richly woven lives, their interpersonal intensity and sense of purpose infuses every inch of the grounds.
Together they have created this beautiful perfect combination of land and cuisine, wine and food, life and love, drawn together in the Tuscan hills, like a fairy tale come true, for both of them, and for their guests, who may arrive as guests, but always leave feeling a little more like family.
12 Double classic rooms (9 in the 17th century villa) start at around $250 a night, 2 Deluxe Rooms begin at about $350, 5 Junior Suites start at around $400 a night. 3 full Suites run around $550 per night, and the ultra-deluxe Winery Suite can be had for a sleek $750 a night.
www.ilfalconiere.it @ilfalconiere @SilviaBaracchi
Joel Berliner is a travel writer based in Los Angeles @JoelBerliner
All photos by Alison Reynolds @BigAlPeoplesPal