The creator of the world's most expensive olive oil is standing in a dusty parking lot beside Tuscany's autostrada, hurling glass bottles against a concrete wall. Thwuck…doink. Thwuck…doink. Remarkably, not one breaks. "See?" Armando Manni says proudly. "I had these made specially in the Veneto—the bottle is a half-inch thick. The manufacturer thought I was crazy."
Crazy is certainly one way to describe Manni, an Italian ﬁlm director who happened upon an unexpected second career in 1997. "When my son, Lorenzo, was born, I wanted to give him the healthiest food I could ﬁnd," he says. Immersing himself in research, Manni realized that what manufacturers call extra-virgin olive oil is often of an inferior grade, compromised by exposure to sunlight and oxygen long before it's consumed. With the help of scientists, Manni was able to bottle a "live" oil, which he claims contains more cancer-fighting agents. He keeps his product from oxidizing by topping it off with nitrogen; the bottle's thick black glass protects it from sunlight. Portions are small (only 3.4 ounces) so the oil stays fresh from start to quick ﬁnish, and each comes marked with a vintage and a "best before" date. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Charlie Trotter, Michel Troisgros, and Thomas Keller are a few of Manni's devoted clients, each happy to pay $7 an ounce for this ethereal liquid gold.
Brimming with passion and possessed of impeccable taste, Manni embodies the term gusto, in both senses. (In his Comme des Garçons suede jacket and handmade leather boots, he also looks uncannily like Robert De Niro.) The Rome native—who spends half his time in Tuscany, where his olives are grown—recently opened his black book and took me on a tour of the Italian countryside. We tracked down vintners, cheesemakers, and salumai who share Manni's intense enthusiasm and rigorous devotion to craft, as well as family-owned restaurants that still do things the old-fashioned way. The culinary treasure trail starts here.
HONEY AND JAM La Parrina
At this rustic farmstead B&B south of Grosseto, the air is scented with the same herbs and flowers that ﬂavor its wild honey—a heady conflation of rosemary and eucalyptus made even more intense by the strong sunshine. ("We need to ﬁnd shadow," Manni murmurs as we pull in. He's carrying precious cargo—two cases of oil—and doesn't want it to overheat in the parked car.) Agriturismi have proliferated in Italy lately; La Parrina is one of the few selling high-grade products that are every bit the equal of the setting. We stop at the farm stand to buy jars of house-made jams (kiwi, kumquat marmalade, lemon-and–golden apple), as well as organic lettuces and herbs grown on the property. The owners also create fantastic cheeses, including an 18-month-aged caprino that's rich and dense. A tasting room for pairings of wine, cheese, and jams makes it easy to decide which to take home. Km 146, Via Aurelia, Albinia; 39-0564/862-626.
PAPPA REALE Ristorante Petronio
"Maremma is like Texas," says Petronio Scalabrelli, dressed in blue jeans, plaid shirt, and suspenders. At his humble restaurant in the heart of Italy's cowboy country, the walls are covered with sepia-toned photographs of ranch life in the early 1900's. The meal begins with fava beans and purple baby carciofi, which Scalabrelli plucked from his garden an hour earlier, served raw with a drizzle of salted olive oil. Next comes the signature pappa reale, a pillow-shaped potato pasta resembling an oversized, airy gnocchi, lightly swathed in a tart pork-and-beef ragù. It's followed by a grass-fed Florentine steak, seared on lava rock. Eggy, almond-dotted biscotti and house-made limoncello signal the end of the show. And that's just lunch. 74 Strada Statale, Marsiliana; 39-0564/606-345; lunch for two $60.
CHEESE Caseificio Seggiano
As we drive north, wild fennel overtakes guardrails, and forests of Mediterranean pine are replaced by endless ﬁelds of red poppies. We are heading to see Francesco Tamburelli, a cheesemaker who produces some of Italy's best pecorino di fossa, aged for seven months in wells lined with straw. Twelve years ago, this handsome Roman businessman fell in love and moved to Seggiano to join his ﬁancée's family business. Today, the small factory is creating one-of-a-kind cheeses, including a mellow pecorino dolce that inspires compulsive eating. Visit in the early morning to get a bite of the still-warm, buttery ricotta just after it's made. Via Privata, Seggiano; 39-0564/950-034; tours by appointment only.
BRUNELLO Siro Pacenti
The road to Montalcino has sweeping vistas of the Tuscan countryside: ocher-hued villas on hilltops, cypress trees, neon-green expanses. As we approach a long driveway, Manni raves about Siro Pacenti's wines, which he loves so much that he bought a case for his son's future cellar when he was born. The standout Brunello de Montalcino is a complex Sangiovese with powerful spice and red-fruit flavors, a precise marriage of grapes from several plots of land in Montalcino. It is aged for three years in Sylvain and Taransaud oak barrels, and then for another two in Pacenti's cave. Look for bottles from the 1995 and 1999 vintages to add to your own collection. 1 Localita Pelagrilli, Montalcino; 39-0577/848-662; tours by appointment only.