VILLA A SESTA, ITALY, February 2, 2017 – La Bottega del 30 is an extraordinary Michelin-starred restaurant in the tiny hamlet of Villa A Sesta in the hills of Tuscany 15 miles east of Sienna. The lifetime achievement of Franco and Helene Stoquelet, and in its 20th year holding a Michelin star, the actual experience of this culinary treasure is a blindingly transcendent example of what the best of haute cuisine, tradition, and passion for life can produce.
Without exaggeration, La Bottega del 30 delivers one of the greatest evenings of fine dining imaginable, intimate, ambitious, daring, exquisite, a treasure of unimaginable proportions that exists in its own space and time, incomparable on many levels, creating its own universe of which it is the master.
Helene Stoquelet maintains an elegant air, as if her patrons were having dinner in a small family home with close friends, all while delivering a passionate palate of Tuscan cuisine that has both panache and intimacy, that is both finely imagined haute cuisine, and country dining.
La Bottega del 30 makes a mockery of more pretentious, unquestionably amazing Michelin-starred institutions in Paris, Milan, Firenze and New York, even as Helene insists that her outpost of culinary precision is merely different, not better.
One can identify with her modesty, but the truth is, an evening at La Bottega del 30 is both different and better than many of its Michelin-starred cousins.
All share precise execution of exemplary cuisine, but she manages to capture something that transcends the designation of merely a great restaurant, fine food, or innovative cuisine.
Helene brings the Parisian flair of her life to her small, 15 table restaurant, and for those who make the pilgrimage to this culinary outpost in the quiet, tiny village of Villa a Sesta, the reward is a richly indulged example of the finest measure of life.
Helena embraces a passion for her existence and her restaurant with a commitment to exceptionalism that is palpable, and in doing so, shares that on the most personable intimate level throughout the experience of the evening.
Helene and her husband Franco fell in love with the picturesque mountain hamlet of Villa a Sesta, the food, the atmosphere, the people, the rolling hills, opening the restaurant in 1987 in an old farmhouse.
They focused on the rich bounty of local farm to table ingredients, veal and pheasant and lamb, vegetables and pasta and truffles, keeping to the highest standards, and their success was immediate.
They received their first Michelin star in 1997, and have held it every year for the last 20 years. Franco retired a few years ago, but Helene and her small staff continue to amaze and delight 6 nights a week, from March to November, in an intimate setting whose charm is only exceeded by of the extraordinary meal that follows.
Villa a Sesta is an ancient village dating back to the 8th century in the Castelnuevo Berandenga district in the gorgeous rolling hills of Chianti 20 miles east of Siena.
The twisting road up into the hills is dotted with hamlets and vineyards, impeccable views and the stunning golden sunlight of dusk that adds glory to the scenic wonders.
The village is tiny, and truly ancient, with a history going back to the glories of Rome, surrounded by vineyards of the exceptional local winery in a region famous for its Chianti Classico.
It doesn’t take long to walk the village, a sleepy place of only several square blocks, from the soaring fields to the south with views looking off across the vineyards to the distance, to the elegant church at the centerpiece of the courtyard.
In one corner of the village, almost hidden, on the edge of a vineyard, is the quaint farmhouse that has been transformed into La Botega del 30.
It is farmhouse chic, disarmingly quaint, even rustic, serenely beautiful as the sun sets, the vineyards of Villa a Sesta stretching up from the restaurant to the cloudy hilltops above on a brilliant blue day.
A scarecrow sits on the porch next to a wine barrel. An oxcart filled with old wine jugs sits across the gravel path in the shimmering sunset, an homage to the joys of a simpler village life.
The restaurant itself is quite small, two stone rooms with a total of about 15 tables. On warmer evenings dinner is also served on the veranda outside.
Dolls from Helene’s youth, pictures of family across the ages and a collection of purses adorn the ancient stone walls, a haphazard gathering of collectibles that only add to the homey feel of the evening.
Helene is head chef and master of ceremonies, greeting her guests and seating them, taking them through each course of the menu, either ala carte or as a 6-course tasting dinner, with a bedside manner that is both warm and almost motherly, if your mother was a Michelin starred chef.
Her tight-knit stellar staff have been together for years, and work together seamlessly in a relatively modest sized kitchen out of which they produce so much culinary joy.
Chef Nadia Mongiat is indispensable in the kitchen, Sommelier Diego Tuti is a precise and commanding presence, and server Katerina Oliveri is charming and flawless throughout an enchanted evening.
The meal is a series of 6 courses picked by Helene, served over a sublimely leisurely 2 1/2 hours, punctuated by her courtly explanation of the heavenly delights of each dish as it arrives.
The meal begins with a delightful opening round of millet with cuttlefish, dressed with fermented millet sauce and asparagus, an innovative surprise that sets the tone for the evening.
Broiled snails with Tuscan sausage butter, tarragon and parsley is exquisite, a taste sensation that is as daringly classic a country dish as it is spectacular.
Charcoal spaghetti with cherry tomatoes basil and burrata are simple, elegant, succulently exceptional, the tomatoes a fiery red, and is devoured with tantalizing joy in a succession of bites.
A big ravioli filled with spinach, ricotta cheese, and egg yolk with truffle sauce from Crete Senesi is a climax to the early courses, gorgeous to behold, extraordinary to consume, a trance-like an aura descending across the brain as pleasure circuits overload in an orgy of flavor and taste.
A fabulous Quail filled with swiss chard and sausage, wrapped in Colonnatta lard with creamed pasta, is an explosion of subtle texture, the meat tender and flavorful, served country style in a deep dish cooking pan.
The roasted cheek of veal with creamed potatoes and watercress is exceptional, the veal melting in the mouth like a royal delicacy, the countenance of flavor and textures is intoxicating.
The meal is accompanied by a spectacular Villa a Sesta Chianti Classico Riserva 2011, grown in the vineyards of the village, a rich fabulous fruit forward wine that is a brilliant accompaniment to a stellar meal.
As it happens the owners of the Villa a Sesta winery, who also own an internationally recognized polo club nearby, are here tonight having dinner.
They are clearly regulars and Helene engages them like the old friends they are, but it speaks to the passionate inter-connectivity of those who have made the restored medieval village of Villa a Sesta into something special, an exotically genuine unspoiled corner of paradise in the sky.
At other tables are visitors from Singapore, Japan, France, as well as well to do locals who dine here again and again.
Though clearly a stop on the European foodie Michelin starred tourist circuit, La Bottega del 30 is unquestionably more than worthy of the distinction.
The atmosphere is electric, the cuisine is a dream like experience, and the hours wind by in a flurry, but not before consuming an array of sumptuous desserts and freshly brewed coffee.
The soft glow of an evening well spent hangs in the air.
Some restaurants deliver fine dining, extravagant menus, and over the top service, and that is all well and good. Helene does something different.
She invites people to come to her home and makes them part of her family for an evening. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Open from March to November.
www.labottegadel30.it 39 05 7735 9226
Joel Berliner is a travel writer based in Los Angeles @JoelBerliner
All photos by Alison Reynolds @BigAlPeoplesPal