Day 1: The Arrival ~

"2012 DaVinci Wine Storyteller" "Mark Leslie"

An Italian Adventurer’s Journal

Benvenuti a Vinci! –Welcome to Vinci!

I have landed in Florence, Italy, and thanks to DaVinci Wines I am about to leap head first into a week of unknowns and unfamiliars—unknown adventures and unfamiliar faces.

The first to greet me was Jade Sheldon-Burnsed, a photographer and one of my fellow cohorts selected by DaVinci to experience Vinci. Young, stylish with a glamorously short-cropped, magenta-dyed hairdo, and somewhat reserved, Jade and I found our way through customs and out of baggage claim to be greeted by Carolina—our guide and interpreter for the week.

Carolina (pronounced with an Italian accent as “Caro-LEE-na”) is actually Scottish, though her blonde hair would have you think Californian, and has lived in Italy for 30+ years. I can already tell that this is going to be a week of a cast of characters—and I can’t wait to play with each of them! Travel isn’t just about sights and tastes, it is about the people you meet, too, as you journey with them through a particular moment in time.

I am always slightly nervous when meeting new people. I don’t want to make an immediate ass out of myself—which is easy for me to do. I know that I can be a force to be reckoned with, especially when it comes to Italy. The moment I land in Italy, I become a precocious 8-year-old with a thousand questions influenced by seemingly know-it-all opinions of my previous trips to “the boot,” plus a strong desire to use my infantile Italian.

“Piacere,” – “Nice to meet you,”– I said to Carolina as we shook hands.

“Oh you speak Italian? How wonderful!”

If only she knew the truth—I have a basic knowledge of Italian, thanks to Alessandra my Italian teacher in Viterbo, Italy. To say “I speak” Italian implies a certain fluency that I have yet to learn and a certain confidence that I have yet to master.

If I was nervous, Carolina put me at ease instantly with a flash of her big smile and the slightest lilt of a Scottish brogue, which harmoniously peppered her English as she welcomed us.

Within moments we were in the car traveling west from Florence (Firenze, in Italian), as Carolina prepped us for our first day’s events and what the week might hold in store for us. I dusted off my Italian language with her and the driver as best I could.

I was rusty—but to speak incorrectly is more important than not to speak out of nervousness or fear.

As adults we forget how often we correct children as they are attempting to master their language. As children we yearn to express ourselves with new words and emotions—not thinking twice about leaving behind our toddler pointing and grunting ways of asking for a drink or for something we craved. To always embrace the fearless, knowledge-craving child of our youth is hard to do when our peer-shamed sense of not wanting to seem ignorant or foolish takes over us in adolescence to become our own worst critic and judge throughout adulthood. To improve, one must fail. To learn, one must speak—or be doomed to spend an adulthood in toddler-esque grunting and pointing!

[Subscribers click HERE to join me in arriving at the Casale!]

Before I knew it, we turned onto a Tuscan cypress-lined gravel road that cut through a vineyard up to where we were staying—Casale di Valle (House of the Valley or Valley House), perched at the top of the property, completely surrounded by vineyards.

The Chapel and the main house of the Casale di Valle

The Casale is an old hunting lodge with several out buildings and a chapel. Yes, it has it’s own chapel! We are staying in the newly renovated main house. One of the outbuildings is under the beginning stages of renovation and I believe it will have future guest accommodations in it, too.

Thalita (pronounced “Tah-LEE-ta”) greeted us at the door. In her 20s, she was a welcoming soul, full of laughter and good nature, who works for the Cantine Leonardo da Vinci. Being Brazilian her native tongue is Portuguese, but she speaks excellent Italian and English. It is in moments like this that I wish I were fluent in Italian or any second language for that matter … hell, if nothing else, I wish I spoke better English!

I tried to speak as much Italian as possible, though having been awake for almost 24 hours by now, all I seemed to muster up was “Piacere.” [Pronounced “pee-ah-CHER-ay”—as in “Cher” the singer.]

“Piacere. Parla italiano?” Thalita replied. “How wonderful.”

I chuckled and explained that I speak like a baby, “Parlo come un bambino. Parlo un poco italiano.”

And with that, more people poured out to greet us from the various doorways leading to the Casale’s main foyer.

We are quickly introduced to Anna (the Chef), Celia (Thalita’s mother who is visiting this week from Brazil—she only speaks Portuguese), and Franco (the gardener and person responsible for the upkeep of the residence).

I was “Piacere” left and “Piacere” right as we fell into a huddle of hand shakes and nods all the way around. Anna and Franco speak only Italian.

My room is a suite on the top floor of the Casale. From my window I have a view of the vineyard.

Screen covered view from my room

How I wish I could remove the screen from my window. It is getting in the way of an unobstructed view of the countryside. Come to think of it, I believe this is the first time I have ever seen a screen on a window in Italy!

“Marco…,” a voice calls out.

“Eccomi,” – “Here I am,”– I reply, shouting in my room.

It is Carolina calling from the bottom of the stairs. “Anna prepared a little snack for you.”

“Sarò giù subito!” – “I’ll be down in a moment!”

There is no way I am going to miss out on any food while I am here. Regardless of how exhausted I am, I am going to eat Italy!

The Casale has three levels. I should probably give you a quick tour sooner than later.

The long view down into the modern kitchen

The ground level has been renovated to be a modern space throughout—including an industrial kitchen, a dining space with five or six large round tables, public restrooms, an entry onto an outside tented patio, plus another section of unknown rooms down a long hall off the foyer.

The living room or grand salon of the Casale

Going upstairs to the main floor, there is the original living room space, which is quite baronial with a fireplace, a suit of armor, and a huge double-door main entrance leading outside to the main grounds with the chapel.

The old or rustic kitchen of the Casale.

Off of the living room, there is an informal dining area leading to the original kitchen, complete with a stone sink! Across the hallway there is a formal dining room with wall tapestries and a grand table. Further down the hallway there are more bedrooms.

The formal dining room of the Casale.

Stone stairway leading up up to the bedrooms

Going up another staircase to the second floor leads to my bedroom and Jade’s, which is across from mine. We are the first to arrive so we have been given the suites. Hmm, the early bird catches the worm in Italy, too.

Downstairs in the modern dining space, Anna and Franco prepared a table for us of typical Italian light lunch snacks or “spuntini.”

Antipasti are set~

A platter of classic bruschette (fresh tomato and basil), a selection of cheeses (pecorino – sheep’s milk), salami, prosciutto, vibrantly orange sliced cantaloupe, sliced bread, water and, naturally, a bottle of DaVinci’s Chianti.

My plate of typical antipasti~

I made my plate and was in heaven. Simple, fresh, colorful—all the things that make me think of Italy. [At the bottom of this post, you’ll find the recipe I learned for the classic bruschette—I am going to share as much as I can with you!]


And for dessert? Why, Anna made a yogurt cake. And she even broke out the DaVinci Vin Santo (a fortified wine similar in idea to a sherry or a port). Sadly, the DaVinci Vin Santo is not available to the American market. You will have to take my word for it that it was delicious and was the perfect thing to have with a slice of Anna’s heavenly cake.

Surprisingly, with this type of lunch, you can become quite full rather quickly, so after a couple glasses of wine, a lot of laughter and getting to know one another, plus a glass or two of Vin Santo, I was ready for a nap!

Carolina and the driver were off to pick up Jenna, the PR person spending the week with us and then after that, the other two DaVinci Storytellers: Michelle Kondrich (an illustrator) and Cathi Iannone (a culinary blogger).

Coming down after a nice, long hot shower and a nap, I was ready to meet everyone including Filippo, who was going to be our driver for the week.

Dinner tonight was at a golf club.

Yes, a golf club in Italy.

I know that the words “golf” and “Italy” don’t seem to go together, but throughout Tuscany, golf courses are starting to appear. To sound perfectly sexist, while the tourist women shop and take cooking lessons, their husbands get together and shoot a round of 9 holes—everyone comes home with a “great trip in Italy” story.

To say that it was windy tonight would be an understatement. I believe while we were seated in the outdoor pavilion I saw Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin, Piglet and Arnold Palmer get blown across the greens and the neighboring vineyard—it was that kind of a blustery day! Just like the Santa Ana winds in California, winds in Italy have special properties, qualities and superstitions.

The wind tonight was coming down off the west and was unrelenting and promises to blow for three days. “These winds,” Carolina explained, “always run in odd numbered days. Usually three, but it could be blowing for five—mamma mia!” Also in Italy,  if you aren’t careful, you can catch a “bad wind,” meaning one moment you are well and the next—a wind blows up and catches you off guard and the next day you are in bed with a horrible head cold. I hope to avoid a “bad wind.”

"2012 DaVinci Wines Storyteller Mark Leslie"

Parmigiano-Reggiano chunked with balsamico

Dinner: we started with an antipasto of chunked Parmigiano-Reggiano served with balsamic vinegar to drizzle over. YUM! That was followed by an unbelievable antipasti buffet. Here are the photos of the dishes~

Anchovies (Alici) with herbs, lemon and oil

Cannellini Bean and Tuna Insalata

Panzanella (a bread salad)

Pearl onions


Ricotta cheese with mixed vegetables

Mortadella with Mascarpone cheese

(L to R: Beef Carpaccio, Turkey “Carpaccio,” “Salmon Carpaccio”)

Beef Carpaccio salad

Turkey "carpaccio" salad ~ but not raw.


Salmon "carpaccio" (smoked) salad

Arugula, Bresaola, Parmigiano and Tomato Salad

Fresh Mozzarella served with sun-dried tomatoes

Sautéed mixed vegetables with couscous

And the wine ~ DaVinci’s Pinot Grigio and Chianti. Luckily, unlike the Vin Santo, both of these are available here in the States. I stuck to the Chianti, which is one that I like to drink and cook with.  And, I will admit, my challenge this week is going to be in drinking white wine. Usually not one of my favorites, in any grape varietal, white wine leaves me lacking the body of flavor I get from a red wine. However, I will say that when it comes to cooking with white wine, I prefer to cook with a Pinot Grigio over any other white.

Today was a full day and we have only just arrived. Breakfast is at 7:30am. In case any of you thought this was a vacation—hmm, 7:30am is no vacation!

Buonanotte e a presto domani! –Goodnight and I’ll see you tomorrow!


Tomato and Basil Bruschetta

Bruschette Classice

8 (2¾ to 3 pounds) medium tomatoes, cored, de-seeded and chopped into ½-inch cubes.

18 large fresh basil leaves

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more to drizzle

1 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt, plus more for garnish

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for garnish

12 ¾-inch-thick slices of artisan bread (Tuscan boule, ciabatta, or similar)

1 to 2 large cloves garlic, peeled, with the stem end cut off

Heat a grill pan over medium heat.

Meanwhile, place the de-seeded and cubed tomatoes into a large bowl. Using your hands, tear the basil leaves into 4 or 5 pieces, each, and add to the tomatoes. Add the olive oil, salt and pepper, gently mix until well combined. Set aside.

When the grill pan is hot, put the bread slices on the pan and grill until toasted with dark brown grill marks. Turn the slices over and grill the second side. Once grilled, remove from the pan and place the slices on a platter. While the bread is still hot, rub the sliced end of the garlic clove across the surface of one side of the grilled bread. The heat from the bread will “melt” the garlic into the bread’s surface.

Stir the tomato mixture one more time, and then, using a slotted spoon, top each bread slice with the tomato/basil mixture, distributing evenly amongst all slices. Arrange the assembled bruschette on a platter.

Drizzle the plated bruschette with additional olive oil, an extra pinch or two of salt, a couple of grinds of black pepper, and serve immediately.

Makes 12 full slices or 24 half slices.