Pitigliano keeps its first vision a secret until the very last bend of the road from Manciano and it is a truly spectacular one: a cliff top rather than a hilltop town of considerable length built on a crest of that particular volcanic rock called tufo which characterises so much of southern Tuscany.
For long a lonely and largely unknown place Pitigliano has become increasingly popular with visitors now that (together with such places as Barga) it is designated as one of the most beautiful towns in Italy but it still retains its identity as one of the oldest settlements of La Maremma. Part of the town is actually excavated into the tufo and if you don’t want to go all the way down south to Lucania to see that doyen of cave cities, Matera, then Pitigliano is where you should be.
We parked our car near one of the garages excavated in the volcanic tufa which once may have been used as wine cellars and entered the imposing gateway into the city.
We enjoyed the local life in the main square dominated by the Orsini palace and truly felt the inhabitants still owned their town rather than being swamped (like regrettably so many others) by hordes of tourists.
The Orsini palace, dating back to the 11th century but restructured by Sangallo the younger in the 16th century, has nothing of exceptional interest except a wooden statue sculpted by someone who is very familiar in the Lucchesia and San Cassiano: Iacopo della Quercia:
It’s very pleasant to walk around the twenty-odd rooms and delight in the interior decorations and secret galleries and enjoy the views from them onto this truly golden city.
At the far end of town are the monolithic remains of the Etruscan walls, for this settlement dates at least that far back.
We returned and took a look at the baroque cathedral before descending into one of the most interesting aspects of Pitigliano – its Jewish heritage. From the Medici onwards and until the horrific deportations of World War Two there was a sizeable Jewish population. Now of the old guard only three remain.
We were issued with a skull-cap for respect (normal hats can be worn if one has one at the time) and visited an interesting museum of Jewish religious reliquaries, the ritual bath excavated in the tuft, other underground chambers and then ascended into the beautifully kept synagogue itself. In the ghetto there was also a shop selling kosher food (including wine), matzo unleavened bread and the characteristic Pitigliano sweet called sfratto. The only sad note were the couple of Mauser machine-gun wielding soldiers in their protective bullet-proof shelters outside – a reminder of the constant threat of terrorist attacks even in such a seemingly out-of-the-way and safe-sounding place as Pitigliano.
We had lunch in a characteristic trattoria where we feasted on a typical Maremman poor person’s dish, ‘acqua cotta’, literally cooked water, a delicious soup made out of traditionally stale bread, various vegetables and an egg. With our ‘pici’ the previous day we felt we had touched the heart of the cuisine of this area.
This was one of the most delicious soups we have ever tasted and fully justifies those famous lines from ‘Alice in Wonderland’:
Beautiful soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Here’s a recipe for the soup if you have tasted it and are languishing for it in some place far from Italy:
- 1 large red onion or 1 leek, roughly chopped
- 1 1/2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 pound Swiss chard, cleaned and torn in half, or 1/2 oz. porcini mushrooms, soaked and drained
- Half of a pepperoncino or any hot red pepper, fresh or dried
- 1/2 cup tomato pulp (seeded, juiced, and chopped if fresh or drained and diced if canned)
- 3 cups simmering water
- sea salt
- 2 eggs (preferably organic)
- 2 slices rustic, country-style bread, lightly toasted
- 1 teaspoon chopped parsley
- 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Tuscan pecorino cheese
- Place the toasted bread in two soup bowls.
- Place the onion and celery in a 3-quart, heavy-bottomed, pot. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and stir to coat. Cook over a medium-low heat, or until the onion is translucent but not brown. Add Swiss chard (or porcini mushrooms) and stir briefly. Add hot pepper, tomatoes, and simmering water. Season lightly with salt and simmer over a low heat (for 20 minutes, until vegetables are very soft.
- As vegetables are cooking, bring about an inch of water and a half teaspoon of salt to a boil in a deep skillet. At the end of the vegetables’ cooking time, turn the skillet heat down to a gentle simmer. Add the parsley to the soup.
- Break the eggs into a small bowl, one at a time, and slide them into the simmering water. Cook for about 3 minutes, until the whites are set, but the yellow is still runny. When done, use a large slotted spoon to place one egg on each toast slice in bowls. Ladle broth and vegetables over each egg and top with a generous sprinkling of the cheese.
Pitigliano deserves a full day and more to fully savour its delights. The surrounding country is also great for walking and is filled with mysterious Etruscan sites. We decided we should head for one of the more spectacular ones.