This past November Kim and I spent nine days dining and wine tasting in one of the most highly acclaimed wine regions in the world. On our trip to Montalcino, we abandoned the guide books that helped us in Florence, Siena and Bologna and decided that we would just find places that looked good and take our chances. The result was quite surprising: two of the more highly recommended establishments were let downs while many of the smaller, lesser known restaurants gave us great food, outstanding service and overall incredible dining experiences. This short guide will hopefully give you an idea on where to eat, drink and stay if you don’t have time to try every place out for yourself. For those of you who aren’t traveling to this beautiful hilltop town, you’re missing out on some of the best food and wine the world has to offer.
Do’s and Don’ts!
- Book all your winery visits ahead of time. Be sure to make a schedule and stick to it. This is especially important in the busy season (May-October).
- Rent a car. It will be quite difficult to get around without it.
- Give yourself extra travel time between winery visits. Even if your last name is Magellan, and you’ve got a GPS, it’s likely you’ll get lost quite a few times trying to find the vineyards. Take your time, enjoy the views and don’t get frustrated. By planning extra travel time, you won’t feel rushed and can focus on taking it all in.
- Immerse yourself in the Italian culture. Learn some beginner Italian and although most people in town know some English, greet them, thank them, etc in their language. A little effort goes a long way.
- Carry some cash. Almost everywhere takes credit card, but some roadside shops and stands are only cash. When having a mid-day espresso, it’s much better to use your cash.
- Take lots of pictures of EVERYTHING. Meals, bottles, vistas, wineries, etc.
- Do not drink and drive. Plan a designate driver, use spit buckets, drink plenty of water, and never go tasting on an empty stomach. You don’t want your trip ruined by a few nights in an Italian jail, or worse, rolling your Festiva off the beautiful Tuscan hillsides into some of my favorite vines!
- Waste your money bringing too many bottles back to your hotel room. A few quality bottles to pack and bring back is fine (2 per person), but a lot of the wines are available in the US and unless it’s a special wine/vintage, just focus on enjoying wines out and about in town.
Il Girdino: $$$$- Upscale and pricey, this was our favorite meal in Montalcino. If you are celebrating something special (such as being in one of the most beautiful towns in the world) this is a no-brainer. Read a full review here.
Trattoria d’ Angelo: Most likely place to dine with the locals. The restaurant itself made me think of a family sitting around a table at home: seating was tight and limited (6-7 tables). In fact, the only other tables that were occupied were by locals who spoke with the servers as if they were regulars – this was a great sign as if the locals like to eat there, it must be good.
Our meal began with Lorenzo, a young (perhaps 7 years old) and hardworking helper bringing us water and napkins. The service was what I would expect going to a good friends house for a nice meal. We felt very welcome and comfortable. The wine list was average compared to the other eateries, with mostly local selections and very fair pricing. An assortment of half-bottles allowed us to try three different Brunello’s all of which were from the 2001 vintage and were quite good.
A local favorite, this Trattoria provided one of the best home-cooked meals in Montalcino. Trattoria d’ Angelo is located just one block north of the town’s main fortress. The restaurant itself isn’t very large, with a small entranceway with the register and a few take-home items (such as soda). Through a corridor to the left is the walkway into the main seating area where you’ll find only 8-9 tables, very limited seating indeed.
Upon being seated we were met by our server, a 30-something Italian woman who spoke a few words in English. Our travel dictionary came in handy more than once ! The wine list was not extensive, with many Brunello’s and Rosso’s as one would expect. But the prices were very good and there was a small selection of half-bottle Brunello’s that we took advantage of.
The food here was very good- the antipasti course featured an assortment of meats and cheeses that went great with our first bottle of wine. The pastas were fresh and perfectly seasoned, while the main courses were both expertly prepared. My cinghaile was tender and delicious and went great with our Brunello’s! Highly recommended!
Al Baccanale: Our favorite pasta in Montalcino. The mother and son duo were very friendly and happy to have us on a slow, November evening. As with Trattoria d’Angelo, Al Baccanale’s other tables were occupied by locals who seemed to know our server on a personal basis. The seating is very casual- nothing too fancy here. Just generous portions of homemade pasta topped with a variety of sauces. We were here during truffle season and couldn’t pass up on a plate of pasta covered in shaved white truffles. Simple yet amazing. The wine list was probably the least impressive in town, but of course was more than sufficient for the menu with many Brunello’s and Brunello Riserva’s, as well as other Tuscan wines.
Les Barriques: Outstanding food and service, innovative menu, good wine shop as well. Entering Les Barriques we were impressed with the pricing of the wines in the Enoteca that occupies the front of the restaurant. To the right of the wine area is an open kitchen protected by glass. The comfortable seating in the rear of the shop is in a small, separate dining area. Overall we felt very cozy and welcome and were quite impressed with the service.
Overall, this was Kim’s favorite meal in Montalcino, so much so we ate here twice! The food was very good and our server was top notch. On both visits we took advantage of the well stocked enoteca (wine shop) to ensure we had enough wine stocked in our hotel room!
Il Giglio: Elegant and upscale, our food was good, the wine cellar is amazing. Highly recommended by both friends and locals, Il Giglio was just OK. I had a rissoto that was very overcooked and a rabbit dish came out bland a big let down. That said, the first courses were great and I will definitely visit again in the future. Especially worth visiting is the impressive cellar which includes some of the most prized treasures that Montalcino has had to offer over the last 50 years.
La Taverna at Catello Banfi: Overpriced and overrated. Our lunch at La Taverna was by far our worst meal in Montalcino. It started off great with a couple glasses of a Banfi sparkling wine paired with a cabbage cake with flan and bacon, and a place of mixed Bruschetta. The cabbage cake was a hit, if it was a wine I’d go 95 pts or more. The Bruschetta’s included chicken liver, mushroom, cinghale tartare which was delicate and flavorful. At this point of the meal we were overly satisfied with the food while the service was still just OK. The service began a bit unorganized, with multiple servers working our table yet it seemingly impossible to get a glass of non-sparkling water. Waters came, as did a bottle of 2004 Banfi Rosso di Montalcino which we enjoyed enough.
The next course consisted of a barley and sausage soup, which was well seasoned and enjoyable, and a ravioli with meat ragu that overall was a major letdown. The sauce was plain, the ravioli was well overcooked and the dish itself was a bit watery. We were hoping at this point that it was just a fluke and our entrees would be on pair with the starters. We were mistaken! Kim had a dry, overcooked pork chop and my cinghale in red sauce with polenta was barely palatable. But dishes were left on the plate less than 1/3 consumed. We finished our wine, waited (and waited) for our check, and 90 Euros later, left for our tour and tasting.
Overall the Taverna is a HUGE pass on my list. I spoke with other guests staying at the Banfi hotel that acknowledge they had similar experiences during their week there. Perhaps the chef was off and his apprentice was left, unprepared, to keep the kitchen moving? Maybe it was just an off week? Either way, with the abundance of great food in the region there is no reason to spend $180 on this lunch. We actually grabbed a small pizza at a place down the street from our hotel and ate it in our room (with some Rosso!). That said, the tour was a lot of fun, our guide was great, and the tasting room and facilities are incredible. Definitely worth a visit to this beautiful estate, just eat and drink somewhere in town!
Other dining options:
A few Lodging options:
Castello Banfi – Il Borgo- Pricey, but definitely the most elegant accommodations in town. Stunning estate and property, this resort is the ultimate with two highly acclaimed restaurants, a state of the art visitors center/tasting room, cooking classes, and stunning suites. For those who require the finest in accommodations, this is for you.
Hotel Vecchia Oliviera: We stayed here for 7 nights: Loved the people, views of the vineyards (on the edge of town but close enough to walk everywhere), and breakfasts! Rooms are comfortable with jacuzzi tubs and beautiful artwork. Pricey during the peak season (as are most places) but for location and views definitely worth it. The abundant parking doesn’t hurt, either!
Il Giglio Hotel and Restaurant: Good proximity to the town center. Beautiful wine cellar, elegant and spacious rooms- recommended.
Castello di Velona: Stunning historic castle, gorgeous views, luxurious suites and rooms.
Hotel dei Capitani: Center of town which helps if you’re big on the nightlife scene, simple yet spacious rooms, classic decor.
Le 7 Camicie: Beautiful countryside setting with swimming pool, gorgeous views and a quiet escape from town.
Hotel Bellaria: Another simple countryside lodging option that offers great views, more economic pricing and great hospitality.
Hotel Residence Montalcino: I have no experience with this hotel. Check out this review.
Le Ragnaie: Gorgeous 18th century structure located among the hills of Montalcino, this simple yet elegant hotel features moderate pricing and great proximity to town and the vineyards.
A Few Great Vineyards to Visit:
- al Pardiso di Frassina
- Croce de Mezzo
- Santa Lucia
- Casanova di Neri
- Castello Banfi
- Fattoria dei Barbi – Outstanding restaurant as well
- Biondi Santi- Worth the price of the tasting (25 Euros)- must visit!
And don’t forget to visit the Fortress (la Fortezza) where you can do some great tastings, have a nice plate of lasagna, and pick up a bottle of 1945 Biondi Santi Riserva for a cool 4700 Euros!