La Speranza: The bellybutton borgo

La Speranza: The bellybutton borgo

Thu 07 Dec 2017 5:01 PM

Everybody knows about La Speranza. At least that’s what I’ve been told.

Anywhere you go in the Tuscan countryside, you’re bound to find a roadside café teeming with local characters. Curious tourists looking for a midday snack mosey in to find tables of 80-somethings playing cards, their noses turned to sneak a suspicious glance at the out-of-town wanderers.

Yet while most of these stops are visited and soon forgotten, La Speranza remains on everyone’s radar, it seems: ask a Tuscan about this tiny town and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. A “revolving door” of a rest stop, it’s at the crossroads of two main provincial roads, the “Traversa Maremma” connecting Florence and the Sienese area, and the SP27 weaving its way through the Chianti region towards other main roads and the coast.

To most of the world, La Speranza is little more than a gas station and a one-sided block of street featuring a café-bar and restaurant. It appears out of nowhere like an old Western movie set, sultry cowboys replaced by men in hunting gear and local night crawlers spitting Tuscan slurs.

Yet to me, a newly initiated commuter between Colle and Florence, La Speranza is my lazy-Sunday knight in shining armor, the Tuscan counterpart to my New York bodega. It’s always been a spot to pick up some last minute groceries or grab a quick aperitivo – which is exactly why its regional “fame” came much to my surprise.

But Laura Carli, daughter-in-law of the area bar’s founders (Caterina and Onelio Carli) was quick to confirm its reputation: “People in the Maremma, in the north, all over the place, they know about us,” she tells me from across the cash register. I’m used to seeing her for my morning coffee or during a run to pick up fresh sausages. But today, I’ve wandered into the rustic bar to get its backstory.

Though I’ve only been in the area for less than a year, the young man behind the counter is quick to remember my face. “You’re the girlfriend of…” he trails off as I finish the sentence for him. La Speranza is a “luogo di passaggio,” Laura confirms, a throughway kind of place. In other words, we frequent visitors aren’t easily forgotten.

A blown-up photograph of La Speranza in the 1950s spans the bar’s right wall. It reminds me of the lakeside town I spent my summers in, the same green benches and men in overalls throwing a sideways glance to the camera. Laura’s fragmented recollections of these local men paint a Tuscan fairytale in my mind.

“I remember my mother-in-law’s stories about this place,” she continues. When the bar was just a rest stop for local truckers, Caterina would cook late-night pastas for the sleepy drivers that stopped at La Speranza to refill their oil tanks in the station across the street.

“But I don’t know what kind of pasta she made,” she clarifies, adding, “they didn’t even have fridges back then, you know.”

A short walk away you’ll find the 12th-century summer home of the Bishop of Volterra (now a residential complex), yet La Speranza itself is only known in local “memory” as the former passageway of commuting farmers, and its precise origins remain elusive for most of us—though Laura adds they found an old well and six layers of flooring during reconstruction.

What is now La Speranza’s restaurant (famed for its bistecca) was once a barn for livestock and their farmers journeying through the area. That’s all Laura remembers of life before the Carli family, who bought the entire building complex (where they still live today) in 1956.

In the 1960s, “when people were doing well,” Laura tells me, the bar was a gathering place for those in nearby towns. “Everyone would come here after dinner to play cards,” she explains, “in a sort of veglia”—a term for ritual chatting and storytelling after dinner, usually over coffee and sweets.

When I think of La Speranza, a much-loved phrase in my Italian family comes to mind: l’ombelico del mondo, “the bellybutton of the world”, used for those places that become the orientation point of a given area. La Speranza somehow transcends the typical countryside café, serving as more than just a stopoff point. Living up to its name, it cradles every visitor in the air of Tuscan traditions, epitomizing local life in the Sienese countryside. Or, as Laura puts it, it’s a place that has simply “always been there.”

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