The Craftsmen of Montepulciano

By Cameron Hewitt

Every traveler has their favorite Tuscan hill town. Mine’s Montepulciano. For one thing, it’s fun to say: Mon-tay-pool-chee-AH-noh. And it’s simply charming. Steep, twisty, cobbled lanes clamber up through an ancient, stony cityscape draped over a ridge. But the main reason I love Montepulciano are the people who pass the years here as their families have for generations. Here, like nowhere else, I feel connected to the heritage of a real, living town.

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Montepulciano’s main square occupies a postage stamp of rare flat land at the very pinnacle of town — the misnamed Piazza Grande. Facing the square are the proud tower of the town hall, some fine Renaissance mansions, a lion-topped fountain clutching a shield of Medici pills, and the jarring naked-brick facade of the town’s Duomo, which locals have never had the money to dress up properly.

From the main square, a pedestrian lane snakes down through town. Strolling just a hundred yards along this main drag, I drop in on three different craftsmen — each one with a fierce passion for doing just one thing, and doing it better than anyone.

My first stop is the Cantina Contucci, where I’m greeted with fanfare by Adamo. Spraying me with rapid-fire Italian, Adamo explains that he’s been making wine here since he was in short pants. He officially retired 20 years ago, he says, but they still let him come to work every day.

This town is famous for its robust Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wine. The grapes are grown in the surrounding hillsides, but it’s here, in a deep warren of cellars, that they become Vino Nobile. Underfoot, endless tidy rows of wine casks silently age beneath dramatic Gothic vaults.

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Walking among the truck-sized barrels, Adamo’s animated chatter crescendos. When it comes to his wine, he’s not just enthusiastic — he’s evangelical. Each cask is an old friend. My Italian is rusty, but Adamo’s exuberance is a universal language. For emphasis, he periodically reaches out and excitedly grips my arm.

Adamo

Fixing me with an intense but caring gaze, Adamo explains that a good wine has three essential qualities. He points to his eyes, his nose, and his mouth: color, bouquet, and taste. Finally, Adamo pops a cork and pours a sample in my glass. He won’t let me leave until he’s certain that I fully appreciate his life’s work.

I step from Adamo’s dank cellars into the crisp winter air. Wandering just a few steps downhill, I’m drawn in by the clang of metal against metal, like the ringing of an out-of-tune bell. Peeking into a cluttered time-warp of a workshop, I see a hardworking coppersmith named Cesare, hunched over an anvil—an actual anvil, like from the Roadrunner cartoons.

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Cesare invites me in to see his finely detailed, hammered-copper pots. Like Adamo, he needs no English to convey his devotion to his craft. He lets me peek into the adjacent museum of his works, and shows me a photograph of the huge weathervane he created to adorn the rooftop of Siena’s cathedral.

Excited to demonstrate the heat-conducing properties of his favorite medium, Cesare instructs me to crouch down so he can place a copper bell over my head. He shushes me and taps the bell with a little hammer, creating a rich, harmonious tone. I can actually feel the sound waves radiating all around me, warming up the top of my head.

Flattered by my interest, Cesare declares that he will make me a gift. He pulls out a set of tools that he inherited from his father, who inherited them from his father, and so on, dating back to 1857.  He lays a copper circle onto his anvil, and methodically arranges his antique hammers. Then he lovingly dents the disc with floral patterns, my wife’s initials, and our wedding date. He refuses payment. Instead, he shows me a scrapbook crammed with photos and postcards from his past visitors. While he has a shop around the corner (Rameria Mazzetti), it’s clear that Cesare is not in this for the money. It’s all about his love for the craft.

A few steps farther down the same street, I step into a lively restaurant: Osteria dell’Acquacheta. It’s dinnertime, and it’s packed. The handwritten menu is a sure sign that this place revels in what’s fresh today. But one thing that’s always on the menu is steak.

Osteria dell'Aquacheta Restaurant

Giulio appears. He’s a tall, balding, lanky artist of a butcher with a pencil sticking out of his gray ponytail. Just as his neighbors have devoted their lives to one thing, Giulio’s calling is grilling the perfect steak.

Giulio makes his rounds through the crowded restaurant. He pulls up a chair at each table and talks the customers through their options. When a steak is ordered, Giulio walks up the seven steps at the back of the restaurant to his busy open kitchen. There, a giant slab of beef rests on a butcher block. First, Giulio gently saws his way through the soft flesh. Then he hacks the clinging sinews with a giant cleaver. He slaps the five-pound T-bone on a sheet of paper, descends the stairs, and shows it to the customer. They nod in approval.

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Back up the stairs, the steak goes on the grill, pushed deep into a wood-fired oven: five minutes on one side, five minutes on the other, then sprinkled with coarse salt. When Giulio delivers the still-bleeding streak to his customers, they dig in — their eyes much bigger than their fast-filling stomachs. It’s a meal any steak-lover will never forget.

Whether it’s steak, copper, or wine, there’s something so inspiring about people who are completely devoted to their life’s work. In Montepulciano, you meet people who can’t stop working just because they’re retired. People for whom appreciation is better payment than money. People who find their niche in life and fill it with gusto.