We rolled up to the hilltop town of Montepulciano on a Sunday afternoon, just before sunset, and climbed to the main entrance where folks were already standing in line. It was the day of the annual Bravio delle Botti, a race in which pairs of 2 runners representing the eight districts of the town compete in rolling a 80 kg wine barrel through the streets, starting at the Colonna del Marzocco and finishing in the main square. What makes this feat even more challenging is that this course runs uphill for nearly the entire race. Crowds line both sides of each street, much like those attending a parade. We found a spot and enjoyed a street beer across from the Sant Agostino church, whose steps were lined with excited locals, anxiously waiting for the event to begin. While we only got to enjoy the race for the 12 seconds it took all the guys to pass us, we ended up wandering around this most Bacchian of Tuscan towns, finding some nice views of the surrounding vineyards soaked in the golden beams of the setting sun.
We were actually very much looking forward to the popular lunch in the Piazza Grande, but the line was a bit intimidating and the menu a tad expensive for grilled meat on a paper plate. So we opted instead for someplace more quiet, off the main streets still crowded with race fans. We found Le Rime Bar on Via delle Farine, sloped downwards toward a parking lot with a fabulous view, and lined with beautiful stone arches. Le Rime is set in a stone building claimed to date back to the 1200’s. Inside you will find a deli counter for take away and a dining room downstairs. We chose to sit outside, so that we could enjoy people-watching, and the very attentive dude (owner?) came running right over with a menu and an offer for a “free wine tasting” (the only phrase he seemed to known in English).
We tried three gorgeous local wines and chose a 2005 Nobile di Montepulciano with a very spicy bouquet and persistent depth, which made it a great accompaniment to our meaty meal.
These massive charcuterie boards are what I’ll perhaps miss most about Tuscany. Although the bread, as the French beaux quickly noticed, is completely flavorless and very dull, these layered collections of meats and cheeses surprised us each time. At Le Rime we got 2 types of mild, nutty Pecorino, the local cheese of nearby Pienza. There was also wild boar prosciutto, coppa, salami with fennel and some sort of soft, fatty boar cut which melted pleasantly in my mouth.
The regional pasta of the province of Siena is pici. It’s on every menu in Montalcino, San Gimignano, Pienza, Certaldo, the Siena capital and Montepulciano. It was on the menu at El Rime so we got it, al ragù. This is a thick, soft, uneven pasta, similar to udon in texture. It came with a savory tomato and crumbled pork sauce which could have been a tiny bit richer in flavor but was nevertheless very satisfying. When in Tuscany, pici is a must try.
Siena is also all about the wild boar. I guess through hunting these guys to keep them away from the precious grapevines of the region, locals developed a taste for the lean, deeply flavored meat. “Cinghiale” is another word you’ll find on nearly every menu, and wild boar busts are a popular souvenir, though maybe a tad difficult to fit in a carry-on. We ordered Le Rime’s boar stew, which came in a phenomenal tomato based sauce, so full of flavor that we had to ask for extra bread just to sop up every drop. The hunks of meat were also beautifully cooked, tender and falling apart into steamy fibers, great with the soft veggies with which they were braised.
Unlike many of the other towns in Tuscany that we visited, Montepulciano does not have a 10p.m. bedtime. As we finished dinner and walked to the car there was still plenty of life everywhere. Businesses were lit and open, adults flowing out onto the street from wine bars, families from gelato parlors. True Mediterranean culture. For boar, for pici, for wine and pan forte, for a wonderful and lively night out in a mini metropolis, Montepulciano should be a mandatory stop on every Tuscan road trip.