In my youth, I was completely obsessed with the idea of traveling to Italy. Based on that, I took a semester of Italian in college--but only one semester, because I was running out of electives after changing my major so many times. I remember asking my professor where her favorite places were in Italy, and all she said was, "Siena."
"What about Rome? How about Florence? Venice?"
It took me far too long to get myself to Italy for the first time, but when I finally did, we saw Venice, Florence and Rome, but I was determined to visit Siena as well. It did not disappoint.
Siena has everything that you need to romanticize Tuscany, but it also has a fabulous fan-shaped town square, surrounded by medieval brick buildings. All of the brick buildings are the same distinctive brown color, which you might recognize from your Crayola box as "Burnt Siena." (By the way, I was deprived as a child, and had to beg for the 128 color box of crayons for years before my mom relented and splurged. I'm still not over it. Ahem.)
There are plenty of things to see and do in and near Siena, but the thing that was most revelatory for me was discovering pici pasta with cacio e pepe. Wowzers. Pici is a thicker spaghetti, rolled by hand, and it's a special kind of thing in Siena. But it's also often paired with a cacio e pepe (cheese and black pepper) sauce.
The pici with cacio e pepe that I had in Siena is easily the best pasta dish I've ever eaten in my entire life. That's not hyperbole. We had incredible pasta other places in Italy, and I've even had some terrific homemade pasta here, stateside, but hands down, that plate of pici cacio e pepe was the best. All the more remarkable, because it's such a simple dish.
I've got the New York Times recipe for cacio e pepe bookmarked, but I haven't yet tried to make it. I guess I'm just worried that it couldn't possibly live up to my first exposure to the dish. I'll just have to go back to Siena.