Rocker Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, will soon export the olive oil and honey they make at their Tuscan retreat to America. Here, they discuss their passion for Italy while their chef, Joe Sponzo, shares his best Italian recipes.
About 45 minutes southeast of florence, Italy, near the town of Figline Valdarno, there’s a place called Sting’s Café. This establishment is known to only a handful of insiders; to visit, you must first snag an invitation to Sting’s Tuscan home, a 900-acre estate known as Il Palagio, where the yoga-toned musician, his producer/actor/philanthropist wife, Trudie Styler, and their family spend the end of every summer. Their household staff christened the outdoor patio “Sting’s Café” because it’s where he often hangs out during the day, pushing oversize chess pieces around a giant marble board, enjoying a glass of wine or doing nothing at all.
Sting calls it “my living room”—and there is plenty of life to be observed. Il Palagio’s terraced gardens give way to panoramic views of the Tuscan countryside and glimpses of the estate’s considerable agricultural holdings, which include olive groves, vineyards, a five-acre kitchen garden and some 80 families of bees. Though Il Palagio and Sting’s Café are not open to the public, a taste of the sweet life found there will soon be available in America, when the couple brings their line of organic olive oil and honey to U.S. stores (they’re already available at Harrods in London). Trudie donates a percent-age of all profits to the environmental causes she and Sting support, like the Soil Association, which promotes organic food and farming in the U.K., and the Rainforest Foundation, which the couple founded in 1989.
The olive groves are one of Sting’s favorite spots on the estate’s grounds. During the last harvest, he even lent a hand. “I’d never picked an olive before,” he says. “I saw them doing it, and I thought, ‘I’ll join in.’ I got a basket. I started picking. I filled a basket.” He laughs. “Very therapeutic.”
Oenophiles can also soon get a taste of Il Palagio: Sting and Trudie have just bottled their first vintage of wine (though it needs to age for three years before it will be released). Il Palagio’s vineyards, which sit in the Chianti region, are being converted to biodynamic under the supervision of consultant Alan York, who recently did the same with the Benziger Family Winery in California. “I think biodynamic is the way to go,” Trudie says.
For Trudie, Il Palagio is the culmination of a dogged seven-year search for an Italian retreat, followed by a decade’s worth of restoration and expansion, much of it via the reacquisition of hundreds of acres of land sold off by the estate’s previous owner, the Duke Simone Vincenzo Velluti Zati di San Clemente. Il Palagio has more than doubled in acreage since Sting and Trudie purchased it in 1997, and though it does not lack for modern conveniences, its Old World ambience—parts of the estate date back to the 16th century—is still evident. In the family game room, for instance, a vaulted ceiling painted with frescoes of angels, birds and forest scenes coexists with a snooker table and a Wurlitzer “Elvis” jukebox.
Today’s Il Palagio is operated in a way that is not only respectful of its Tuscan roots and centuries-old heritage, but is also, in many ways, an improvement upon the past. And crucial to the estate’s institutional memory are Paolo and Bina Rossi, the brother-and-sister team who run the place for Sting and Trudie. The Rossis were literally born at Il Palagio, where their father worked as the Duke’s estate manager. Bina runs the household staff, while Paolo oversees the gardens, farmlands and bee colonies. When Sting and Trudie visit for their summer holiday, much of their food comes straight from the estate—and that makes it very satisfying to eat, Sting says. “Instead of bringing in food from elsewhere, it’s our food, so that makes it taste better—maybe psychologically,” he adds with a smile, “but it hasn’t been [shipped] on the freeway.”
The man in charge of Sting and Trudie’s meals at Il Palagio is their private chef, Joe Sponzo, who also oversees the kitchens at their New York City and Malibu, California, homes. A native of Windsor, Connecticut, Sponzo, 38, inherited his love for Italian cooking from his grandmother; he then trained in the kitchen of the Michelin three-star Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence. He moved to New York in the early 1990s, where he cooked with Pino Luongo and David Bouley. In 1992, Sponzo catered a party at Sting and Trudie’s Central Park West apartment; afterward, Trudie asked him if he was willing to travel. He’s been with the couple ever since, though he says he’s merely the guy who executes Trudie’s vision for a healthier, tastier lifestyle for her family, centered around her conviction that “you shouldn’t put a lot”—be it time, distance or complexity of preparation—“between the source of the food and yourself,” she says.
According to Sting, there is another reason Sponzo is adored by his clan: “He’s been with the family for 15 years. And we’re not that fat.” But calories aren’t the only concern for a chef feeding pampered media stars and their guests, who have included Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks and Madonna. Boredom is another potential pitfall, but Sponzo makes sure that weeks elapse before any dish is repeated. He keeps careful track of the dishes he serves, with the intent to pen an Italian cookbook similar to The Lake House Cookbook, which he and Trudie coauthored in 1999.
Most of the ingredients Sponzo uses at Il Palagio are grown or raised on the property—or run wild in its forests, like the cinghiale (wild boar) that emerge from time to time to terrorize the family’s Irish wolfhounds and a staffer or two. Paolo hunts boar and gives the meat to Sponzo, who turns it into a spezzatino (stew), braised in wine and served with buttery polenta.
Though Sponzo serves Thai, French and Vietnamese dishes at the estate, he says his employers “lean more toward Italian than anything else.” As for the head of the household, Sponzo says, “You can always bet on sausages with Sting”—particularly when they’re part of a pasta dish Sponzo makes that combines sausages from the local butcher and fresh peas from the kitchen garden.
When he’s creating new dishes, Sponzo cherry-picks recipes from Italy’s many regional cuisines. For instance, he prepares a salad of roasted carrots and beets tossed with walnuts, blood oranges, arugula and a citrus vinaigrette. Sponzo says it’s just his riff on root vegetables done in the simple, uncontrived way that Tuscans cook.
Another dish, a tomato-bread soup called pappa al pomodoro, is Tuscan at its roots, but Sponzo makes his thinner than the locals, who like their tomato-bread soup thick enough to support a spoon on end. Dessert is another traditional Tuscan delicacy, torta della nonna: a flaky pasta frolla crust perfumed with a hint of lemon zest, filled with a velvety pastry cream and served with pine nuts and berries. It’s the kind of dish—created from local ingredients and inspired by local tradition—that embodies the “sweet life” Sting describes when I ask him what Il Palagio means to his family. “We eat well. We breathe well. We sleep well. We live well. It feels healthy.”
Frank DiGiacomo is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. He was previously a writer and editor at the New York Observer.
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