Alexandra O'Neill Takes Tuscany
The birthplace of the Italian language, Tuscany is world renowned for its stunning scenery, luscious vineyards and artistic legacy. For Alexandra O’Neill, the visionary designer behind the breakout evening wear label Markarian, there was no other place to spend her birthday last summer. She whisked thirteen of her closest friends to the countryside for a sun soaked week filled with local exploration, ravioli making, and even a legendary horse race. We caught up with her for a few tips on how to execute the perfect Italian adventure in and around Siena with just the right amount of "dolce far niente.”
Stay: Torre Al Poggio
Alexandra’s first step was to find a suitable sanctuary for her nearest and dearest to lay their heads. Nestled amongst olive groves and vineyards, Torre al Poggio’s hilltop estate provided the group with a main villa and medieval tower, both recently restored to preserve and celebrate their ancient authenticity.
Minutes from the medieval metropolis Siena and a short drive from several other hilltop towns, the homestead was a perfect launchpad for the group, who spent lazy mornings lounging by the pool and afternoons seeking out local attractions.
VISIT: Villa Di Geggiano
Alexandra’s group became fast friends with Gregorio, a Tuscan native and son of the Bianchi Bandinelli Boscu family, who have called Villa di Geggiano home for nearly five hundred years. The 1527 family estate and vineyard, just down the road, was declared a National Heritage site of outstanding beauty and featured heavily in Bernardo Bertolucci’s sultry love letter to Tuscan summers, the 90’s cult classic film Stealing Beauty.
Gregorio kindly invited the designer’s entire party over for dinner one evening, epitomizing Italian hospitality by treating them to a beautiful homemade meal under the stars. “Gregorio cooked everything with local ingredients from their property and the area. We sat with their family and friends, including their grandmother who is in her 90’s, talking for hours. It was a magical night in the garden under strung twinkle lights,” Alexandra said.
Naturally, the delicious meal was accompanied by the fruit of their labor in the vineyards. “Their wine is great! I actually have an allergy to wine and was able to drink their’s without any reaction,” Alexandra said in reference to their organic farming techniques.
The crew returned for a wine tasting another afternoon to take in an art exhibit in the family’s personal chapel and tour the villa’s art collection, including a breathtaking hallway of frescos, led by the ever charming Gregorio.
SEE : The Palio
The group’s escapade just so happened to coincide with The Palio, Siena’s famous biannual horse race, which takes place in the town’s central piazza. O’Neill’s friend Emily of Bellini Travel arranged for their party to join a dinner hosted by one of the teams the night before, where they dined with town officials and Giraffa’s expectant jockey.
Shop: Montalcino 564
“There are great little shops in all of the towns,” says Alexandra. “They have ceramics, specialty local foods, linens, and antiques. I loved this one linen shop in Montalcino.” Montalcino 564 sells exclusively in goods made in Italy, making it a temple of novel items such as kitchen linens, cashmere, wool blankets and fine pashminas. Alexandra picked up beautiful napkins in multiple colors for her birthday dinner back at their villa.
But the designer’s number one recommendation for what to bring home? “Pecorino from Pienza!” Pecorino is Tuscany’s unique sheep’s milk cheese and Pienza is its’ charming town of origin. Pecorinos are traditionally creamy, hard, drum-shaped cheeses, with a variety of tastes and flavors depending on their age and additional ingredients. The charming shop Marusco e Maria sells a beautiful truffle pecorino, and will even vacuum pack it for you to take on the flight home.
When in Rome, do as the Romans. When in Tuscany, cook! For Alexandra, this meant a private cooking lesson to learn how to make homemade pasta. Organized by the villa’s owner, this endearing traveling cooking class came right into their kitchen, bringing aprons and a fully planned menu. Guided by the charismatic chef Marta, this lesson gave a snapshot into the family secrets of regional cooking. Alexandra’s favorite part was learning how to make Tiramisu. “I didn’t know it could be that easy!”
Though many lovely meals were had in the region’s fantastic restaurants, Alexandra’s favorites were the ones shared with friends old and new at Torre al Poggio and Villa di Geggiano. “There is such a culture and sense of community surrounding food and cooking in Italy that you don’t always find other places,” she reminisces. And it’s apparent, from a trip to the local grocery store or a dinner party with a neighbor, that each act of preparing, serving, and feasting is done with thought and care. “It’s not just about eating food, it is everything that goes with it. It’s about the ingredients and process and the company you share it with.”
The best part? She’s thinking of doing it all again this summer.