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Tuscany Entertaining: Italian Villa Idyll

A renovated Tuscan farmhouse has many charms, from ancient orchards to a sleek swimming pool. But its biggest enticement is the splendid food prepared by a marvelous local cook.

When I made my plans to rent Podere Zingoni in the central Tuscan town of Sarteano, an hour south of Siena, I couldn't have predicted that it would be the hottest June in one hundred years. The road to the villa wound past fields of sunflowers and wheat baking in the 104-degree heat, then narrowed and turned into a dirt track as it began to climb. I was soon rising into oak woods above the cultivated plains. When I finally stepped out of the car, I was greeted by both a fresh breeze and Graziella Dionisi, the villa's cook and housekeeper.

"Vieni, vieni...ci penso io," Graziella said. "I'll take care of things." She led me to the shady terrace, where a leafy green canopy with bunches of purple grapes framed a view right out of a Renaissance painting: a patchwork of fields, a stand of cypresses, a crenellated hill town in the distance.

That afternoon, I explored the house and the grounds while waiting for my friends to arrive. There was plenty of room for all of us: Podere Zingoni, which seems like a smallish stone building from the outside, has five bedrooms and sleeps 10—the perfect place for a weeklong house party. After days touring nearby hot springs and the towns of Siena, Montal-cino, Pienza and San Casciano, we'd return to the villa to relax. We'd walk through the gardens and orchards below the house, planted on a series of terraces held in place by ancient stone walls, to reach the slate-gray infinity pool. Later, we'd enjoy Graziella's simple, delicious dinners.

I'd rented the villa from Ilaria and Giorgio Miani, who own five properties in Tuscany and who live and work in Rome. Ilaria, looking unbelievably fresh in white linen, stopped by to make sure we were settled in. "We really haven't changed much in terms of the original external structure," she explained, describing her renovation of Podere Zingoni. "Like almost all restored farmhouses, the ground floor was originally animal stalls, so we naturally reworked these rooms, opening them up with windows to let in the light. The upstairs was dedicated to bedrooms, and while we've added bathrooms, we have tried to respect the original room divisions."

Ilaria's sense of style infuses the villa. When she and Giorgio began restoring houses some 20 years ago, she realized she couldn't find the furnishings she envisioned. So she started her own company, based in Rome, for which she designed everything from the massive hand-painted four-poster bed in my room and the marmalade trays in the dining room to the teak-and-canvas lounge chairs by the pool.

The cook at Podere Zingoni, like the owner, takes pride in bringing a ruin back to life. During our week, Graziella made us beautiful salads of potatoes with string beans and zucchini that had been picked in the villa garden that morning. Herbs seemed to find their way into most of her dishes; for instance, she stuffed a roasting chicken with fistfuls of thyme, marjoram, parsley and rosemary, then served it with a fresh herb sauce. Because, as she said, "The view is splendid and the table beautiful, but without the perfect meal life would be pretty poor, no?" Yes, I agreed.

(To rent Podere Zingoni, call Giorgio Miani at 011-39-335-679-26-22 or e-mail him at giorgiomiani@tin.it. Prices begin at $3,500 per week, plus an extra $10 per hour for the cook. For a catalog of Ilaria Miani's home furnishings, call 011-39-06-686-13-66.)

Elizabeth Helman Minchilli is an author who lives in Rome and Todi, Umbria.

Published October 2002
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