Secluded two thirds the way up a steep hill in the lush, deep green countryside outside the little Tuscan town of Cetona, La Frateria, as the restaurant is called, is housed in Il Convento Di San Francesco, a convent started by St. Francis in 1212. Many of Francis’ disciples, who also became saints, stayed here, nourished by the area’s extraordinary peacefulness. Over the past 800 years it drifted in and out of use and abandonment, as both a convent and a monastery. Then. in 1970, a Franciscan priest, Padre Eligio, asked the Bishop of Florence for permission to take over the by now severely dilapidated structure and restore it to use as part of a drug rehabilitation community he calls Mondo X, which he had started a few years earlier.
It took 12 years to bring it to an immaculate condition, mostly faithfully preserved down to its bowed stoned walkways and its solid, implacable walls, with the chapel and church. Some of it is refurbished modernly with exquisite taste so that giant windows and heavy, elegant doors allow light and access into naturally cooled stone rooms. High-design lighting fixtures and impeccably placed ancient artifacts such as giant clay chipped wine vats and life-sized wooden statues and crucifixes discretely adorn the property inside and out. In a lot of places the original wood, which was peeling irreparably from the structure, is repurposed in the furniture and trimmings of the guest and communal rooms. Plain, dark wooden benches surround one of several original courtyards in the center of which sits an old well. Deep orange-brown clay and white stone flowerpots full of bright flowers are on ledges and ground everywhere. When it starts to rain, members of the community stop what they are doing and run to retrieve metal umbrellas that they place over the exposed flower pots so that the flowers are not crushed.
It was Padre Eligio’s vision to take people severely struggling with life, almost all young and drug addicts, and bring them into a monastic existence where they would grow and cultivate the food, groom the grounds and become a community of love and service that could enable them to relinquish their troubled pasts. It was also his vision to make part of the sprawling, maze-like compound a small hotel of five rooms and two suites converted from monks’ cells and a restaurant, all run entirely by the recovering addicts, from the most junior gardener to the executive chef.
And the restaurant is, in more ways than one, divine. I have eaten in many of the best restaurants in Italy and not one comes close to the extraordinary food at La Frateria. It is startlingly inventive and staggeringly simple, delicate and hearty, rich and plain. The breads (which they bake from their own wheat) are a feast unto themselves – savory and light, paired with two small bowls of pastes, olive and capers. The affetati of cured fatty and salty salumi and prosciuttos, wine red and flesh pink, melt in your mouth, usurping fear of their being too salty and fatty. One of the appetizer courses (there are many) is fritti dorati, golden fried vegetable morsels, physics-defying in their lightness. These were delicious; the ephemeral richness of the oil they are fried in being inseparable from the faint earthiness of each of the vegetables. If you could taste food in two dimensions at once this would be that experience.
We would have been satisfied (although that is a weak and inadequate word), if we’d stopped there. At one point we looked anxiously at the hand printed menu to try to figure how far along we had gotten and found that we were only at the second item. Next came a cold slice of duck stuffed with kumquat, which magically cut and preserved the richness of the dish at the same time. This was followed by what we mortals grasp more commonly as eggplant parmigiana, but which here is a flan of eggplant perfumed with tomato and rosemary. It was spectacular – so light and packed with flavors and to dance before our senses. Rice with saffron was subtly, not overpoweringly, aromatic and dissolved into a mist of flavor as though sprayed into our mouths. Four flat noodles with guinea fowl and herbs came next.
The final savory dish was a perfectly cooked rib of beef, which was personally carved by the chef, Mario Buffone, who bent over the meat with the solemn concentration of a surgeon. The taste was sublime, delicious and weightless. It was perfectly salted, as if the chef had sorted through a pile of salt to find the two or three perfect granules to place on the meat. Which he might have.
We drank a bottle of Rocca di Frassinelle, 2011 – a Tuscan, 100 percent Sangiovese wine, which they recommended and which was immeasurably delicious and smooth. It complemented the food perfectly.
Dessert was a revelation of a parfait of strawberries in an improbably balanced coulis of wild berries. In a sane country this would be illegal.
You cannot eat like this every night – but for three nights we did. In our defense we did attempt to explain on the second night that we would like to have a lighter meal. Apparently this was interpreted to mean to bring dishes even more elaborately prepared. The result was one of the most amazing dishes I have ever eaten, a guinea fowl cooked in parchment in clay. Again, Mario appeared, suddenly and soundlessly by our side, attended by two acolytes, to gently crack the clay cocoon, remove the top and extricate the juiciest, most dimensionally flavorful bird I have ever tasted. Mercifully, they do not expect two people to eat the whole bird and preciously carve a few succulent slices for each plate. I had a few slices, a leg and a wing.
On the fourth night we fled in self-defense to Cetona and ate outdoors in a good trattoria that had the virtue of allowing us to control the number of dishes placed before us. Cetona is a beautiful, out of the way hilltop town with a medieval church and high sloping streets. It gets a trickle, rather than a stream of tourists.
On the last morning of our stay, I interviewed Batista, who is in charge of the community at the convent. She is an attractive, dark haired woman, probably in her early forties, with a brightness in her eyes that belongs only to those who have truly aligned their rhythms with the world. “Me, Mario, all the people who work with Padre Eligio, we have chosen to give our lives for this cause, this purpose, which is a purpose more than a program. Mondo X means the world, because every one of us has to feel like a citizen of the world, not Milan, Cetona, Rome, New York. X, because within us there is something that is unknown and we have to find it. A community, if you work seriously, then you discover the soul.”
I told her that not only was every aspect of service extraordinary, but that I had never seen so many happy people working at a hotel. “We teach our young people that every guest is an Angel,” she replied. “So we have to serve our guest as if he was an Angel. And we teach the young people the taste for working and not to gain money. That I work because I love it. I like peeling potatoes. I like cleaning the floor. Making the beds. And I love serving people, because I am happy with me. We teach the young people who work in the kitchen and the restaurant that if one day I am angry, I have to leave the anger outside. I have to serve the guests. And when the service is over, then I go out and pick up my anger and solve the problem.”
Amazingly, Mondo X is self-educated about hospitality, with the older members guiding the newer ones. Occasionally an expert in landscaping or a top chef will come and give a tutorial, but the recovering addicts and previously lost souls who staff and maintain the convent and restaurant have not taken professional courses. When I asked Batista who trained them, she exclaimed, grabbing the table, “Padre Eligio! Everything from the kitchen to the gardens!”
This makes sense – the phenomenal sensitivity to detail and the gorgeous, holistic aesthetic of the property is spiritual and only reachable by a higher profoundness than great hotel management.
Despite the origins of the convent and Mondo X, Catholicism is not pressed on the community, which is made up of all religions, cultures and nationalities. They only go to Mass if Padre Eligio comes and says Mass in the church. Their only obligations, besides working hard, is to sing affirmative songs before breakfast, lunch and dinner and Vespers in the chapel every evening at six. They have no TV, radio or Internet and never see newspapers. They have no idea what goes on in the outside world. And despite being overwhelmingly a young community, there are no age limits. “Last year we had a man come to the community who was 73,” said Batista.
They do not take money from the state, the Church or the families of the addicts. And they do not take money from the people who come to the community because they come from all walks of life, from the homeless to a child of Italian aristocracy. “If we ask for money, there is a difference,” says Batista. “This way they are all the same.” I asked her how they survive. “With belief and providence,” she answers.
They can leave at any time. “La porta es sempre aperto” – the door is always open, she says. “But if you make serious work, you trust the community, you trust me and I hold your hand. And I let you go when I think you are ready to fly.” She makes the universal sign of wings flapping. “You are free to go whenever you want, but if you are serious, you put yourself in our hands. Because I am Mondo X, I take care of your whole person. Padre Eligio says we come into the community like animals and we work to become men with wings, spiritual men.”
I have heard there is almost zero recidivism amongst the addicts of Mondo X when they leave. Is that true, I asked her. “Almost nobody,” she confirms.
“When they come here, everybody who knocks on our door has problems and the community offers a way of reconciliation. The severe discipline of the work helps them grow. And when they go away from here, they still have problems; life gives them problems but they have the instrument and the strength to resolve them.
“It’s the change of mentality. In the community, you learn to cut completely with the past. The past belongs to the past because it is part of my history, but I have to cut, to be a new person. If I’m in the community now, it is because my past has hurt me.”
“Padre Eligio has two purposes: to love God and the next person. How can you love God, who you don’t see, if you do not love your brother, whom you see? Because you are the image of God.”
La Frateria, Il Convento de San Francesco is located at Via San Francesco 2, Cetona, Italy.