Lifelong Florentines will say what they will about their rival Siena, but the fact is the medieval city is now rivaling plenty of bigger cities in its growing group of newer bars—a far cry from dives and tourist-ready wine tasting rooms—that are breathing fresh life into the drinking culture and bringing it deservedly into the 21st century.
In piazza del Sale, away from the well-trodden streets of Siena’s centro storico, Salefino Bottiglieria and sister restaurant, Salefino Vino e Cucina, have turned this under-discovered piazza into a buzzy local scene. While the restaurant has been around since 2015, owners Claudio Di Sante (formerly a manager at Florence’s Il Santo Bevitore) and his partner Alice Dal Dosso opened the Bottiglieria just across the piazza in 2019 to create a more laidback dining experience. “The kind of evening without the obligation to stay for a long time,” says Di Sante. “You can come for a glass, maybe run into other people and then decide to stay longer. That’s the spirit of the Bottiglieria.”
Staying for longer, whether inside the Bottiglieria’s cozy chic vaulted interior or at an outdoor piazza table, is the ideal scenario. The wine list reflects what Di Sante values most when choosing a bottle: close relationships with small producers in Tuscany and elsewhere in Italy, as well as some from France, Spain and Germany. (There are also cocktails and zero-proof drinks, with twists on classics and rotating specials.) Orange wine lovers will be delighted to find an amber-colored option by the glass, in addition to bottles, but all of the wines at Salefino are more interesting than most around town. Plenty are natural wines, though Di Sante says that’s not the only thing he cares about when sourcing. “A fancy label and some maceration aren’t the only things that make a natural wine,” he says. “It has to be good.” What’s more important than focusing on such labels, Di Sante believes, is being “more holistic—to drink with curiosity, to empathize with the winemaker and with the land the wine comes from.”
In a city center filled with cheese and salumi boards, the Bottiglieria’s eclectic and mostly non-Tuscan small plates are quite possibly the most enticing things you will eat in Siena. The owners’ goal was to create something “that looked to the world beyond, bringing something to the city that came from outside the walls…dishes without a genre.” The result is a tapas-like list that changes with the seasons (and with creative whims), the real treat being the seafood—oysters and polenta squares with baccalà mantecato are always on offer. There’s also a chic little panino with the classic pairing of butter and anchovies, but ramped up in the Salefino treatment with whipped salted butter and house-made pane that’s reminiscent of tear-apart milk bread or dinner rolls. While seafood can’t be sourced from the immediate vicinity, Salefino is committed to sourcing ingredients from small producers, just as they are with their bottles.
You’ll find more vino at Trefilari, just behind piazza del Campo. Here you can find about 1,000 bottles, most of which are—surprise—not Tuscan and not Italian. (Blessedly, however, one can find a glass of Lambrusco from about two hours north.) But Trefilari is better known for its cocktail program. When Antonio Dolfi, Mirko Ferrucci and Roberto Biagi opened Trefilari in 2019, they saw the potential for a modern cocktail bar that didn’t yet exist in Siena, but that locals would surely flock to. (More recently, they’ve also opened Trefilari Ristorante down the street.)
Siena is “very tied to its traditions, but there’s also been this growing craving to try different things,” Dolfi says. (There’s a good dose of irreverence in the food, too, even in aperitivo-sized bites.) They wanted to offer not only well-known cocktails (one can always order a Negroni, Old Fashioned or a Manhattan), but also his own constantly changing innovations. “We don’t want to bore people with the same options all the time.”
Bored they will surely never be. Perhaps the most notable thing about Trefilari is that the bartenders will gladly make custom drinks upon request, whether from a customer’s specific vision or general preferences. “Most of the local Sienesi are attached to the drinks that have been created for them specifically on various evenings and they come back because they know that we’ll always have their drink, tailor-made for them,” Dolfi says.
Or put yourself entirely in the bartenders’ hands and try whatever creation they’re currently enamored of. A recent stunner is the Ricciarello, a tribute to ricciarelli, the beloved Sienese almond cookies. Made with Adriatico’s “Latte di Mandorle” Amaretto Bianco and the color of a cappuccino, Dolfi’s creation is an expert study in balance. Order this drink at the end of the night and into the wee hours when the local Sienesi fill Trefilari and the street corner outside.
The Irishman/Bar 115
A few streets away, the quiet via dei Rossi is home to the remodeled The Irishman, which was originally owned by another local, Antonio Tortorelli, who opened the bar in the 1970s as a casual space where he could socialize with friends over a drink. Fast forward to 2012, the year Kieran Patten first visited the city with his wife, Donna Passannante, and experienced that expat-familiar feeling that he’d somehow come home. His then crazy-seeming dream of opening a bar in Siena’s center became easier to realize once he befriended Tortorelli and the two of them started discussing the idea of Patten taking over one day.
It’s now been nearly two years since Tortorelli’s death, but Patten, an Irishman from Dublin with Siena’s architectural silhouette tattooed on his forearm, has recently reopened The Irishman, formerly named The American Bar when it was under Italian ownership (which has also been known by some locals as Bar 115, for its street address) in Tortorelli’s honor. The medieval cellar-like rooms have been respectfully updated to fit Patten’s vision, with sleek banquettes and new lighting, while maintaining original elements—like the tufa in one of the walls and an old well that’s visible through the floor. On offer are classic American and craft cocktails as well as eight beers on tap, including a Brooklyn IPA and Irish Guinness, both nods to Patten and Passannante’s other beloved cities.
The food will be substantial enough to make any visit into a full meal. On opening weekend, the focus was on the aperitivi boards, which automatically accompany first drinks, featuring a creative trio whose star is the pimento cheese vol-au-vent-style tart, which has already won over the locals. But the full menu will offer both American and Italian “elevated comfort food”, says Patten. Rather than add more versions of Sienese classics to the city’s existing Tuscan spots, Patten wants to give Siena an eatery with things that can’t be found elsewhere.
The Irishman (which he and Passannante refer to as “the American bar with an Italian accent…and Irish hospitality”) will stick to the local practice of using the highest-quality ingredients from Sienese and Tuscan producers, but for things like “a superlative burger, a superlative fried chicken sandwich,” in Patten’s words—to guarantee a great meal for those who want to eat out in a non-trattoria setting. And even in this bar scene, you can end the meal with something sweet—the banoffee pie might be worth the trip alone.
The Irishman is a true hybrid of the cultures it has been born from. Patten’s philosophy of hospitality effuses the place with warmth and a spirit that makes every hour of the evening feel like a party, whether you’re a local or a tourist or a Florentine expat. “There are no strangers in Kieran’s life.” says Passannante, “There are only friends he hasn’t met yet.”