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Lucignano Val di Chiana

The Zanetti family, the ownes of Tuscany Villas

Oil and tourism do mix. At least if it's olive oil. Thus has been the experience of Lilly Zanetti and her family. Part-time Naples residents, Zanetti, her husband and her son have recently launched two new business ventures: producing and importing olive oil from their own grove in Tuscany, Italy, and offering their two beautiful guest villas at the same location as vacation rentals.
Equal to the reputation of Tuscan produce and wine is that of its olive oil. The hearty soil of the region, combined with its temperate climate, makes for one of the most ideal environments in which to farm olives, and Tuscan olive oil is among the world's finest. "Bad olive oil tastes like gasoline," espouses Zanetti. The trouble is consumers are so used to buying supermarket olive oil that they don't know what they're missing until they try the real thing.
Zanetti began bottling her own olive oil about 15 years ago, made from the olives of 100 year-old trees on her property. "The older the tree the better the oil." she says. Originally, she had the oil, which is processed in Lucignano, made for the enjoyment of her family and friends. But as she started getting more requests for the extra virgin olive oil, her oldest son Alex hatched a plan: increase production, bottle the oil under the Villa la Piertraia label (Zanetti's family villa in Lucignano) and market it to gourmet groceries around the country. Zanetti's response? "I told him, "Go for it!"
The result is a family-run business that's taking off fast -- Villa la Pietraia is available in 40 exclusive shops around the country including Wynn's Market in Naples. The business is Alex's baby, and Zanetti insists that she is "now just the helper behind the scenes." But she still insists on taste testing all the olive oil that bears the family label. Alex is branching out into the production of private label balsamic and apple vinegars, as well as cheeses from the region. "Americans are really learning to discover the flavors of Tuscany." she says.
The villas and olive grove are situated on Zanetti's family estate, just outside the 12th century town of Lucignano. Best known for its churches, art and Thursday food market, Lucignano is home to just 2,000 people. While not particularly touristy, says Zanetti, the town still has "everything a tourist needs," including a handful of authentic restaurants -- one of them four-star - a ceramic store where visitors can buy locally produced wares, and of course, the traditional food market.
Located in Valdichiana region of Tuscany, Lucignano is nestled in rolling hills and is surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. Less than a half-hour from the better-known towns of Siena, Arezzo and Montepulciano, a town famous for its wines, Lucignano is a sepia-colored, medieval walled city laid out in concentric rings radiating from the town square. A romantic, picturesque step back in time, it remains one of Tuscany's undiscovered gems.
Zanetti would like to help tourists discover Lucignano. Her two villas, Villa Gloria and Villa Ulivi, are located just a short walk from the town. One dates back to the 18th century and the other is a modern structure. Each sleeps eight. Guests at each villa have use of one of two swimming pools, though Zanetti cautions "the water is a little cold for Floridians." With comfortable furnishings, a full service kitchen and the option of a maid and cook on site, the villas are an excellent means for travelers who wish to get off the beaten path and experience a culture that has changed little over the centuries. Staff on site, often including Zanetti's son Marco, arrange for transportation and will escort guests around the region if they'd like a guide -- something she recommends, considering the winding roads and unmarked lanes of Tuscany.
Whether for the glorious sunflowers of July, the brisk air of November or the bright blossoms of spring, Zanetti is always drawn back to Lucignano. "I grew up here," she says, "and the older I get the more I am drawn back to my roots. I wanted something that would always bring me back to Italy." She says with a laugh that her sons have developed the same love for their family home. "I made them go to Tuscany as children," she says. "I told them they needed to get to know the villa, to ride on a tractor with a farmer, and now it's in their blood."
Zanetti and her husband, Franco, first met in the unlikely town of Nashville, Tennessee. She had settled there after her first marriage, and Franco visited the city on business. "I guess he picked me because I was the only Italian woman in town," she says. She had a business importing jewelry from Europe, and he imported leather. A friend who had a home here introduced them to Naples in the 1980's. "Franco always loved Naples," she says, "though at first it was just for the name." She adds that his love of boating and the water drew him immediately, but he had to convince her that it was a good place to live. "I resisted at first," she says, "but now we have the best of two worlds -- four months in Naples and eight months in Tuscany."
The couple shares their home in Naples with their younger son, Marco who's a senior in high school. Alex divides his time between Nashville and Italy. While in Naples the Zanetti's entertain friends from Italy, many of whom have chosen to make this their home as well. "Naples is a mini-Tuscany," says Zanetti, "at least as far as Italians are concerned." She says that overseas Naples is well known as a "neat town to come to. It's considered a small heaven." The easy lifestyle appeals to their European sensibilities, and days in Naples are usually filled in a manner similar to that of an Italian seaside resort -- beach in the morning, a big lunch, a nap, followed by a bike ride, perhaps some shopping and finally dinner on the town. "They love the peace of Naples," she says.
But far from resting on her laurels with her Italian expatriate friends, Zanetti will be returning to Tuscany this November. For what else? The olive harvest. "Our family is destined to live two different types of life," she says. But she wouldn't have it any other way, and neither, apparently, would her children. Alex loves his international lifestyle, and young Marco plans to manage the villas when he finishes school. "My children have decided on their own that this is how they want to live." She says that living in two different cultures has taught them to be more tolerant, more accepting. "And now," she says with a contented smile, "we are part of a much bigger picture."
Article Published November 2002 in "N the Magazine of Naples"
On 2007 Marco helps with tours and the Villas.

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