Americans, even non-New Yorkers, know the name Verrazzano because of the double-decker bridge that goes from Staten Island to Brooklyn. The Verrazano Narrows Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the US and was named after Giovanni da Verrazzano, a Florentine explorer who, in 1524, became the first European to enter what’s now New York Harbor. In naming the bridge, however, they got the spelling of Verrazzano wrong, which is why the bridge has one Z while the man has two.
Giovanni was born at the Castello di Verrazzano in Val di Greve in Tuscany. There’s a claim by French scholars that he was born in Lyon, but it seems that most side with the Italians. And since he always signed himself the French/Italian/Latin version of John of Verrazzano, I’m going with the Italians too.
A very, very, very narrow single-lane road took us up a hill to the Castello di Verrazzano, where we’d have a winery tour and dinner. Cars going both ways use the road, so Silvana the Guide called the castle reps, from the bottom, to let them know that we were on our way up. “They always tell us that they’ll stop the cars from coming down,” said Silvana, “but they never do.”
It was harrowing enough riding a boat-sized bus up the narrow road with a sheer drop on one side. But then, up ahead, we see two cars coming toward us. With no way to pass, we all stop and the driver of the first car gets out and approaches the bus. “What am I supposed to do?” he asks, in North American-accented English.
“You need to back up,” says Silvana, “because we can’t.”
He gets back in his car and pulls back a tiny bit, just enough for us to pull toward the hill an equally tiny bit. Then he (yikes!) maneuvers around us.
The driver of the second car, apparently deciding better us than him going over the edge, squeezes himself next to the hillside and refuses to budge. So Giovanni, our intrepid driver, swings the bus around him. Holy guacamole! This is why, we learned, we had the opportunity to buy rosaries and holy water near the Vatican on Day 1.
The Castello di Verrazzano website says that the castle started as an Etruscan, then a Roman, settlement and was acquired by the Verrazzano family in the 7th century. Documents mention a vineyard in the area in 1150. The last Verrazzano died in 1819 and it went through the Ridolfi before going to the current owners, the Cappellini, in 1958. It’s they who put the castle into the agritourism business — it’s 230 acres now hosts a hotel and restaurant as well as a vineyard. The hotel rooms are about 1k from the castle. The castle houses the current owner and some of the estate’s workers.
Before dinner, we got a tour of the property and the cellars, which date to the 16th century. The barrels are made of oak. They make 10 kinds of wine, including a white Chianti, which I’d never heard of. They also produce olive oil, grappa, honey and balsamic vinegar.
I was one of two people in our group who had asked for vegetarian for the meals that were included in our tour, and what we got was often the envy of the rest of the group. For everyone, there was always pasta (usually a penne with a simple red sauce), then salad, then the main, then desert. And, of course, wine. At the Castello, my main was a veggie quiche. And with it we were served unlimited amounts of one of the Castello’s whites and a red Chianti, as well as a generous tasting portion of their Chianti Riserva.
Fortunately, Giovanni was doing the driving home. And we were the last ones there so there was no competition for the road.
There was no doubt at the castle: Giovanni (the explorer, not the bus driver) was born there in 1485. What they didn’t tell us was the way he died: he was eaten, though not with fava beans and a nice Chianti. In 1528, about 4 years after he “discovered” New York, he was exploring in the Caribbean when he anchored off of the island of (probably) Guadeloupe. He went ashore with a small crew and all were captured and consumed by cannibals.