We were lucky enough to hit Sienna during a gastronomic festival held by the ‘sea shell’ district ‘Nicchio’ in the Eastern corner of the city (near our hotel Il Gardino, just outside the city wall). In the past, Nicchio residents worked as potters and their symbol is a crowned scallop shell flanked by two branches of coral. We were visiting during the run up to the Palio horse race which is held in mid August, so all the streets in the area were lit by sculptural lamps, representing these marine symbols.
Nicchio is one of only four nobile (noble) contrade; it earned its title for bravery shown during the Battle of Montaperti against Florence in 1260, when its soldiers led the attack. Now the only attack is from the lethal moped riders zooming through the streets.
From 28 July to 9 August, the ‘sea shells’ hold a food festival at the contrade headquarters ‘La Pania’, a building that opens out at the rear into a expansive park one would never guess was there. Those in the know, book tables in advance at one of several pop up restaurants scattered through the park, selling traditional Tuscan dishes such as Pappa al pomodoro, Pasta al ragù of sausage and fennel, Tegamata to Siena, and Torta della nonna.
Damn and blast, we were not in the know and all the tables in the festival were booked. They also provided a public buffet of local foods but the queue would have filled a small stadium and the wait was just too long for the kids. We soothed ourselves at the wine pavilion instead where the bar man told us ‘La Pania’ means something sticky, like resin, and the place was named after the old men of the contrade who used to ‘stick around’ all night drinking. We would have happily helped keep up the tradition but we had children to feed so we left with reluctance.
Eating in Siena is expensive unless you buy pizza and walk with your supper in hand. We had been told of a reasonable trattoria called Zest but when we arrived we preferred the simpler ‘Osteria la Chiacchera’ directly opposite. Both are on a fantastically steep hill street, Costa Di Sant’Antonio, with a Medieval ambiance worthy of a scene by Caravaggio.The chairs and tables are all cut to fit the precipitous slope. There were many delightful eateries on this street and the prices on the menus had dropped considerably too. I had that warm feeling I get when I finally find an oasis of real food in an area of over-priced tourist entrapment, sad but true even in Siena. We decided to have our starters at the Osteria which was the simple and unsophisticated, cooking you might get in a Sienese home (Zest looked good too though- finer dining, with big portions and more effort on the presentation). We ate local salami, spreads on toast, cheeses and panzanella, a typical Tuscan bread salad.
We moved on for secondi to ‘Bagoga – ristorante Grotta. S Caterina’ as I noticed a Slow Food sticker in the window. We were not disappointed with either food (a simple grill), wine or service and the girls had fun trying to refold the napkins into jackets.
Much later we walked home and I was transported back 25 years by the taste of the best yoghurt ice cream in Italy and possibly the world. I had found the Sienese gelateria I first visited as a teenager on a school art trip and nothing had changed. The kids had triple cones in celebration and they ate up every last lick.