Couldn't be a better time for visiting Chianti region Italy: Between the grape and olive harvests is a golden time in central Italy. The crowds are small, and the wine is delicious.

December 08, 1996|By Nancy R. Newhouse | Nancy R. Newhouse,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Small leafless trees covered with orange persimmons strike an incongruous but brilliant note in the still welcoming November landscape of Chianti. Even in Florence, a fruit-loaded tree is tucked in here and there along busy streets or in small back gardens.

The crowds are gone, and this is an ideal time to visit.

The grapes have been harvested, but the gently sloping vineyards are clad in bronze, and the olive harvest is beginning. Men cut the grass under the trees before putting down nets that will catch the olives -- both green and black varieties -- that fall during picking.

Hilltop palazzo

Walking in Castellina in Chianti, one of the high-perched hill towns reached by a vertiginous, twisting road, my husband, Michael, and I came upon a handsome new hotel in an ancient building.

Although the Albergo Palazzo Squarcialupi (telephone [39-577] 741186, fax 740386) is closed until March 15 (but open Dec. 22 to Jan. 6), a pleasant young woman at the desk walked us through.

The 15th-century stone palazzo has kept its traditional winemaking business and cellars below, and on the upper two floors has 15 rooms and two suites.

The long, cool halls, white-walled and floored with red tiles worn to a patina, are as inviting as the large guest rooms with dark wood-beamed ceilings and comfortable, slightly spare modern furnishings. (The ultramodern bathrooms have showers only.) Someone knew how to modernize this magnificent building without spoiling it.

Sharing part of the ground floor is a pristine wine shop, La Cartellina, crammed with fine Chiantis.

Doubles cost $104 this year, $111 to $124 next year, at 1,446 lire to $1. Christmas in Chianti?

Vineyard B&B

Our own small hostelry near Greve in Chianti, reopens the first week in March and has just four rooms. Again they are spacious and tile-floored, with ceilings of huge old beams, lovely bathrooms, and at night the utter quiet of deep country. Windows on our side overlooked the vineyards.

A copious breakfast, including paper-thin prosciutto and delicious local pecorino and other cheeses, is the only meal normally served.

Villa Vignamaggio (telephone 39-55 853007, fax 8544468) is on the grounds of a large private villa, of which it is an outbuilding, converted into an upscale B & B. A few rooms in the service section of the villa have also been made into guest rooms. Vignamaggio sells its own Chianti Classico on the premises. Double rooms next year will be $173 without breakfast ($12.50).

At two fine restaurants in Florence, Cibreo and Alle Murate, the waiting staffs when we visited were made up solely of women. Young and fast moving, they kept things going at an efficient clip. At Alle Murate, even the sommelier is a woman, whereas in Rome we did not see a female waiter (family-run trattorias are an exception).

Women in the kitchen

Umberto Montano, owner of Alle Murate, said: "The fact that all waiters are women at my restaurants -- I also own the Caffe Italiano and all the waiters there are also women -- is tied to a very precise choice about my own professional work ethic. I think restaurant work is beautiful if it's done as though one were at home, providing customers with the same attention and care as a woman acting as hostess in her own home. Men just aren't as good as women at doing that. I think it's better to have women chefs, too."

At Cibreo, Benedetta Vitali, co-owner and pastry chef, said the predominance of female waiters was accidental, but chefs are ++ another matter. "We think it is important to include women. Most European chefs du range are men, women chefs are very rare," she said. "Men and women have very different cultural systems when it comes to most things, including the kitchen, and I think that the best cuisine occurs when these different systems work together."

Chestnut harvest

An autumnal treat in Florence at the thoroughly delightful Cantinetta Antinori, 3 Piazza Antinori (where the wine by the glass was a velvety Chianti, the '94 Antinori Special Reserve) signaled the opening of chestnut season. The Cantinetta offers regional Tuscan specialties, and one of these was a dessert, castagnaccio, made with chestnut flour.

The bread-like cake, studded with small raisins and topped with a sprig of rosemary, was served sliced and lightly toasted. The Italians having lunch around us ordered it, too, but added a slice of ricotta.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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