On a driving tour of Tuscany, it's nearly impossible to take a wrong turn. Every road leads to a more beautiful view, a better taste of vino, a meal worthy of your finest Instagram filter. Still, the savviest Tuscan roamers all eventually set their sights on Cortona, in the province of Arezzo. Though exposed by the best-selling Frances Mayes memoir 'Under the Tuscan Sun,' Cortona remains a sleepy hilltop town that gazes down longingly at the picturesque countryside below. It is there, nestled between the vineyards and fragrant olive groves, that we found one of the great Tuscan experiences: a cooking class in the 17th-century villa, Il Falconiere.
Once the home of poet Antonio Guadagnoli, since 1860 Il Falconiere has been owned by the Baracchi family, who used the villa as their family residence for generations before transforming it into a luxury hotel, spa, and Michelin-starred restaurant. Meandering down the long driveway, past lush gardens and stone walls, we quickly felt tucked away from the normal vacation bustle. The rooms are suitably top-shelf – think soft beds, terra cotta tile floors, and wood-beamed ceilings – but the real draw here is the food and wine, and for the culinarily curious, the chance to learn from a master chef.
In the afternoon, we strolled to a private kitchen housed at the highest point on the property (between lessons, we could wander onto a balcony, sip wine, and take in the view). Our class was called "Along the Etruscan Traces," and it was taught by the restaurant's head chef Richard Titi, along with a charming American interpreter who may have the best job in all of Italy. Over three hours, we prepared a deep-dish country herb pie; homemade pici with cherry tomatoes and aromatic herbs; pork medallions with black olives, fennel, pancetta, and orange; and, for dessert, a flaky pastry with fresh pears, pine nuts, and melted chocolate. The class concluded with some tipsy revelry and a few toasts in broken Italian before we hustled back to our room and dressed for dinner.
Located in the villa's old lemon house, the restaurant features a glass and wrought-iron conservatory that overlooks a spectacular outside dining terrace. The Tuscan sun slid behind the horizon as each dish we prepared (we suspected that a few of our less presentable efforts were scrapped and replaced by the pros) was served to us with a wine pairing from the Baracchi family's estate wines. No one remembers how we arrived back to our room hours later. In the morning, we filled our trunk with wine and said farewell to Lela, the resident Falcon. [From $378/night and $260 per class; ilfalconiere.it]