Life has a funny way of going full circle. Take Gaetano Arnone. His first encounter with Florence was as a student at age 18 before shaping a successful chefing career at Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali’s New York restaurants Babbo and Otto. After some pandemic pondering, Gaetano and his wife Meigan returned to Italy in 2020. Their main project was consulting on the opening of Dario Cecchini’s restaurant Quintale in Franciacorta, but they soon headed to Villa Le Corti, a graceful late Renaissance property designed by Santi di Tito, near San Casciano in Val di Pesa, just 30 minutes due south of the Duomo. The backstory? Gaetano became firm friends with Filippo Corsini when they were working at Babbo and the bond with the Corsini family was made even stronger upon Filippo’s tragic death in 2016.
“It feels like destiny that we were supposed to come here and offer our support to Duccio and Clotilde Corsini,” comments Gaetano. “I’d reached a stage in my career where I wanted to get away from the restaurant scene. Villa Le Corti, with all its history and heritage, is the perfect place to run culinary classes in a fully working 17th-century kitchen, which is a surprise for most guests as these types of spaces are generally kept off-limits.” It’s not all about cooking courses. Gaetano works as a private chef for the vacation villa on the estate and is developing the kitchen garden to serve both his needs and those of the on-site restaurant.
“We are working to elevate the experience of Italian culture with historical references and hospitality,” remarked Meigan, whose decade of experience as a photographer and interior designer working for Babbo and Alyssa Kapito has been embraced by the Corsini family. Meigan acts as Villa Le Corti’s creative director, heading up the estate’s photographic aesthetic on social media and adding a beguiling boutique, a cross between a retail and private dining room in what was formerly the estate’s weighing station.
This is not my first time at Villa Le Corti. A month before, The International School of Florence kindly invited me to their annual gala for dinner under the stars and dancing in the loggia-lined and cross-vaulted courtyard. Now Gaetano and Meigan have asked me back for a more in-depth tour of the hilltop tenuta with its 50 hectares of vineyards and some 15,000 olive trees. Greeting me with smiles and a much-needed fan, we step inside the instantaneous cool of the cavernous restaurant and enoteca before delving into the impressive 17th-century cellars and olive oil production rooms, a sequence of corridors, terracotta jars and oak barrels. The winery highlight lies up some narrow steps: the vinsantaia, whose medieval walls are etched with ancient order numbers in a Da Vinci Code-like vibe. Outside, the summer sun is glaring on the symmetrical Italian gardens and Gaetano explains the kitchen garden he’s planting with the help of local farmers. “They follow the natural cycles of the land, when to plant and when not to. I’m learning so much from them.”
There’s a surprise in store. Clotilde Corsini is hard at work in the courtyard where I’d previously danced the night away; she’s in the process of sorting out a leaking loo (“Such is the glamour of an old property!”) and tidying away chairs from a South Korean operatic performance the night before. Up the pietra serena steps, the princess escorts us into the family’s archives, whose inventories, wills and contracts—the earliest of which dates to 1020—were moved to the villa from Florence in a Herculean effort in 2014. Devoid of lighting and air conditioning, every nook and cranny is kept dark to protect the priceless documents—much of the 17th- and 18th-century correspondence surrounding Pope Clement XII, born Lorenzo Corsini, is encrypted in a code that the family have yet to break. Designed by Filippo Corsini for his mid-1600s marriage to Lucrezia Rinuccini, the Stanza di Apollo is unexpected in its grotto-like effect; one cannot help but wonder what the bride must have thought on her wedding night. The feminism is balanced out in the Galleria degli Stemmi, a long corridor lined with archaic tomes, where the coats of arms of all the Corsini women are on proud display.
History works up an appetite. Down in the bowels of the villa, Gaetano has laid a table with elegant glassware and candles for lunch as he stands at the centuries-old stove and adds modern, considered touches to traditional Tuscan recipes. A world away from the New York restaurant scene, he and Meigan are shaping a new chapter in their lives and in the boundless history of Villa Le Corti.