What a fierce winter this has been. The extremes between odd 60 degree days have not been enough to balance the fierce cold, snow and winds that have crept along the east coast. We often joke about how frequently we shut down the government for the promise of snow—this year was an all time first for me when we shut down for the promise of wind.
We departed a snow covered New York City for Umbria where we have been greeted by sunny skies and fields of green.
We are often asked, “What is the best time to visit Italy?” Of course our answer is always, “Whenever you can make it to Italy.” There is always a good reason to visit Italy. For me, the best reason to visit Italy in the spring is the promise of what is to come.
When we visit during the summer—the farmers discuss the heat and the wind—how they are affecting the fields. When we visit during the fall—the farmers discuss the impact of the flies and the rains. When we visit during the spring the farmers discuss the possibilities of what is to come. The promise of a perfect harvest. The potential of a particular grape. The buds on the trees. The gentle rain that just passed through. In spring—everything is possible.
Our tours always involve food and wine—in the spring we are drinking the most recent releases. We are eating wild asparagus, artichokes and favas. As our friend Emiliano pointed out to us on day one, “The green has returned”—and we are here to enjoy it.
On a beautiful fall morning with crisp cool air and a deep blue sky we start our morning off with a walking tour of one of our favorite Umbrian cities, Perugia. And we love Perugia not just because it is the name of our favorite drinking game, but because of the sweep of its history, from Etruscan to the Roman to medieval
powerhouse to a center of the renaissance. And today it is so much more than a museum, it is a living breathing city, one that happens to be breathing cool, crisp autumn air with hints of chocolate. For Perugia is the home of Perugina, a historic chocolate company where we will be making chocolates later in the day. And Perugia is host of the annual Eurochocolate festival, which we enjoy after our tour has ended.
Sandwiched in between Perugia and Perugina is our visit to our friend Federico’s winery, Terre Margaritelli in nearby Torgiano. And as wonderful as is the tour of the winery, where we learn of this year’s troubles with a super hot, dry summer that caused the harvest to be advanced by several weeks, as well as Terre Margaritelli’s commitment to organic, sustainable farming, the highlight of the day is lunch in the winery prepared by Federico’s wife Jennifer.
For anyone who doesn’t know the background – Jennifer, Federico and their two children flew to the states last December before Christmas for a work vacation. Plans included catching up with family and friends in the states, promoting Federico’s wines and olive oil and for Jennifer to showcase her talent in Via Umbria’s kitchen, followed by a well deserved 10 days in the Caribbean.
For all of our Umbrian friends – cooking at Via Umbria is easy, its natural. Where many American chefs see a small, impossible kitchen to cook in – our Italian Chefs see an open space where they can create anything. Unfortunately while we are away enjoying that Caribbean vacation our Chef has decided that ours is not the right kitchen and gives her notice.
So – after 10 beautiful days in the sun, as the Bibi family is packing their bags to return to Italy I invite Jennifer out for drinks and ask the impossible. “Any chance you can come back to DC and cook for us for a couple of weeks while we find a Chef?” My powers of pursuasion must be good, or maybe Jennifer is just a good friend, but in any case she agrees to help out and we scramble to rearrange plans, call, beg and plead to find a space in school for the children, and two days later we are back in Washington with Jennifer at the helm of Via Umbria’s kitchen.
Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into a month, a month turns into months. Every week we change the return on the ticket. Facebook posts starts appearing (probably written by Federico) – Free Jennifer! Free Jennifer! T-shirts are made for the entire staff. And finally we find Chef Liam, someone we can trust to manage the kitchen at Via Umbria and Jennifer is finally paroled, returning after three months to Italy to her family.
Today’s lunch is our chance to see Jennifer back in her element. In the world she has created for herself in Umbria. We sit back and relax. Enjoying a meal – created in a tiny kitchen no bigger than the one at Via Umbria – that captures our favorite Umbrian flavors and experiences.
Cured meats and cheeses Baked stuffed zucchini flowers Rocciata stuffed with cauliflower and greens Homemade hot peppers Porchetta (of course)
All of this is washed down with a parade of Federico’s wines, making our afternoon in Torgiano not only relaxing but delicious.
We may miss Jennifer back in Washington, but on a magic day here in Italy, we’re glad we freed her to come back to her new native land.
“A truffle is the fruiting body of a subterranean Ascomycete fungus, predominantly one of the many species of the genus Tuber. Truffles are ectomycorrhizal fungi and are therefore usually found in close association with tree roots. Spore dispersal is accomplished through fungivores, animals that eat fungi”
Today we met Pippo – a truffle dog who has served his master well the last 13 years. He was a champion white truffle hunter but is getting a bit white himself around the snout and beginning to slow down. Not quite ready to retire, his owner has farmed him out as a black truffle hunter, a challenging job but not quite as physically exhausting as hunting the rarer white truffle. Pippo makes a great black truffle hunter. For Pippo hunting for truffles is an adventure, a job you can see that he enjoys. Its pretty simple, go for a walk with your master. Keep your nose to the ground constantly sniffing, searching for the scent of a truffle that is released when the truffle is ripe. Dig up the ground – gently but diligently. Dig deep until you find the truffle and then wait patiently for your reward – not the truffle but a treat from your master. For Pippo the truffle the hunt is a game.
In hunting for truffles the hunter is important but the dog is key. Without the dog you simply cannot find truffles. Truffles grow underground and while they sometimes leave clues as to their whereabouts above ground, they can’t reliably be spotted. Although they’re called tubers, they aren’t like a potato where you can see the plant above them. Truffles truly have to be sniffed out. Which is where Pippo comes in.
Returning to the home of our hosts for the day, the Bianconis, we meet their other dog – Eddie. Eddie is a high energy dog who as a puppy was always getting into trouble. A loveable naughty dog with needle-like teeth and a disposition to nip. How many times in a day can you say “Eddie, No.” Watching Eddie while enjoying our truffle feast, Gavin, sitting next to me points out that Eddie is having all of the fun while Pippo got to do all the work.
While work is fun for Pippo it still is work. He has been working his entire life and is now one step away from retiring. He gets well taken care of and he gets to eat, or at least smell truffles everyday. He is one happy dog.
Eddie has never worked a day in his life. He could have been trained as a truffle dog – but he wasn’t focused and pretty much not interested. His reward? He gets well taken care of and gets to eats truffles every day. He is one happy dog.
We had a very succesful day today – we found about €600 worth of black truffles. Or should we say Pippo found about €600 worth of truffles and we sat back and enjoyed them.
The highlight of Day 1, on which eight of our group, including Suzy and me arrived in country, had to be the carriage ride with Roberto. It’s not easy picking just one favorite on a day that included lunch in Santa Maria degli Angeli, a walking tour of Assisi, a visit and winetasting at Roberto’s winery and a marathon welcome meal prepared by Chiara. But when you get to spend a half hour with Roberto DiFilippo, the inspirational owner of DiFilippo and Plani Arche wineries, being transported in a carriage drawn by the horses that work his fields, listening to his philosophy of organic and biodynamic farming while you clip clop through rolling fields that are home to his vines, licked by the cool, crisp, late afternoon autumn air, how could that not be the highlight?
It’s that sort of experience, making the acquaintance of one of the area’s top winemakers and immediately boarding his ten person carriage, entering his world at his invitation, becoming his guest and his friend, that makes these food and wine tours so special. Half an hour later, our group of eight guests find themselves sitting in Roberto’s tasting room enjoying his wine as he and his colleague Valeria introduce them to grechetto, trebbiano spoletino, sangiovese and sagrantino, not to mention Roberto’s special Vernaccia di Cannara.
Some of the couples on this tour arrived in our little corner of heaven knowing one another, but by the end of that first day, a day on which all shared and experienced so much together, everyone – those who had already been friends and those that became friends today – had become part of the same family. And so it goes here in the tiny village of Cannara, where Suzy and I have brought part of our family, our oldest son Austin to help manage the group, that we bid a late goodnight, bellies filled and souls sated, to our new family with whom we will share much this week.
I love a surprise as much as anyone (especially if its diamonds) but sometimes the best part of something is the anticipation. For our Fall Harvest tour in Umbria I love the planning, the packing, the reading and rereading of the itinerary. Imagining the sights, sounds and smells we will be enjoying. Anticipating the highs and the lows. Preparing for all types of weather – does packing an umbrella really give you a better chance of clear skies? Better not take the risk – throw it in.
Talk about anticipation – we have been talking with this week’s group for 4 years trying to get a date on the calendar for their Fall Food & Wine Tour. Bill and I have been working around the clock with Marco and Chiara putting together a week that captures all of our fall favorites. We work with each other to create a schedule that gives a full day with a little bit of flexibility to find new adventures along the way. Our challenge isn’t what to do – it’s how to do everything. So many people to meet, foods to eat and wines to discover.
This week is a reunion for us. Catching up with Italian friends who are now part of our family. Sharing stories of weeks past and planning for more adventures ahead. Every stop this week includes friends who have shared experiences with us right here but also outside of their hometown, outside of Italy. So stay tuned for new stories with old friends.
And stay right here ’cause these are the good old days.
I recently started watching the Netflix series Stranger Things and I really like it. The show, which is set in rural Indiana in the 1980s follows a group of kids seeking to find their missing friend, and involves a secret government program that punches a hole through parallel universes in order to engage in some cold war spying, only to unexpectedly unleash an incredibly evil monster. Some great acting, especially from the kids, some creative writing and some compelling story lines. I would definitely say it is worth a watch.
I mention this because Via Umbria has been engaged in its own project to bridge parallel universes. And far from unleashing monsters, we have only spread deliciousness and joy.
Those two universes are, of course, Italy and America and we are engaged in an experiment to connect the two. We do that by creating an authentic Italian experience in Georgetown. And we do that by hosting American guests on semi annual food and wine tours at our farm house in Umbria, immersing them in the authentic Umbria that we have come to know and love.
On Saturday, we arrived in Umbria with nine guests in tow to kick off our fall Food and Wine tours, and less than 36 hours later, I dare say that they have already begun to understand and share our love of Umbria. Yesterday we introduced them to the wines of Umbria, the same Grechettos and Montefalco rossos and Sagrantinos we import and sell at Via Umbria. They met Elena DiFilippo at her organic and biodynamic cantina and drank wine with her, and will welcome Elena’s husband Roberto when he visits Via Umbria this spring. They dined on a homecooked dinner by Chiara Cicogna and heard her speak of her family’s cashmere business, and will join Chiara and us in Washington on November 16 when Chiara exhibits a selection of cashmere treasures at a special holiday trunk show at Via Umbria. This morning they experienced truffle hunting under glorious blue skies near Citta di Castello with our dear friends Saverio and Gabriella Bianconi, who are readying to ship the day’s spoils back to Via Umbria to take center stage at a pair of special truffle dinners coming up next week.
Nearly a year after reopening our doors as an Italian market, café, restaurant, enoteca and retail store, we are realizing our dream of truly connecting the worlds we inhabit in Washington and in Umbria. This week our food and wine tour group will dine at le Delizie del Borgo, a restaurant lovingly operated by our friends Simone Proietti-Pesci and Ombretta Ubaldi in Bevagna and next month Ombretta, a certified sommelier with an unmatched appreciation for Umbrian wines will return with us to Washington to host a series of special wine dinners at Via Umbria. Later in the month Simone will join us in Georgetown to cook alongside our outstanding executive chef Johanna Heilrigl. We can’t wait for these two to renew their acquaintance and to dazzle us with what they think up and cook up next. A tasting at the Tabarrini winery on Thursday will no doubt be a highlight for our guests, but a command performance in Washington is in the cards, with a special visit by the winery’s owners Giampaolo Tabarrini and his wife Federica Pietrolati for some memorable dinners and maybe a glass of wine or two.
Connecting our guests and our customers to the incredibly rich experiences that we have found in Umbria is what we do, regardless of place. Whether it takes place sotto il sole or under the sun, in Cannara or in Washington, these are the experiences that make up a life and we are proud to offer them to you.
If you’ll hold my hand we’ll chase your dream across the sky
For we can fly we can fly up, up and away
—Up, Up and Away, The Fifth Dimension
Early to bed, early to rise is not our typical modus operandi during our visits to Umbria and our Saturday night activity – dinner for 25 in our farmhouse, highlighted by an outdoor fireworks display to celebrate one of our guests’ birthdays – did not presage well our ability to rise early for our Sunday activity.
But rise early we did. Both from bed and from the ground.
Arriving at the Cantina Dionigi at 6:24am, a full minute before the drop dead deadline of 6:25, we were greeted warmly by our good friend Roberto Dionigi, one of the family owners of this venerable Montefalco winery. We were also introduced to Eleonora Lolli, marketing director for Balloon Adventures Italy, Umbria’s new hot air balloon tour company. In just a short while we would slip the surly bonds of earth and float peacefully above the val d’umbria.
Balloon Adventures Italy is owned, operated and piloted by Peter Kollar, a recent emigrant to Umbria who had the good fortune to purchase a property next door to the Cantina Dionigi. Peter chose the property because it featured a good sized open, flat piece of land ideal for launching and landing his 18 passenger balloon. That he became fast friends and associates with the Dionigi family, whose name is emblazoned prominently on Peter’s balloon, which he boasted is the largest in Italy, is just the sort of good fortune that seems to happen often in Umbria.
Peter’s Germanic roots were apparent from the moment we met him in the field where our balloon was being prepared for its flight. Against a backdrop of the enormous mongolfiera, he barked commands to our group of 16, barking at us to stand here, to stay away from that, to get ready to board the basket and how we would brace for landing. His bark turned out to be much worse than his bite, however, as he punctuated his necessary commands with humor and grace. By the time the balloon was fully inflated and we had scrambled aboard the basket, it was clear to all that our pilot was in control of the balloon, its passengers and the situation. He admonished us not to worry about anything. Unless he seemed worried.
And with a few revs of the engine – well, rather a few bursts of flames from the ignitors that Peter constantly used to replenish the balloon with hot air – we rose, slowly, gently and peacefully from the field. Until we could look down directly on Peter’s hangar, his house and Roberto’s expansive fields of sagrantino, merlot and grechetto. Until we were a thousand feet high and were able to see across the valley to the beautiful glimmering cities of stone that dot the mountainside – Assisi, Spello, Trevi, Spoleto. Until we reached two thousand feet, floating languorously in the cool morning air, the golden yellow sunlight bathing the hills as a patchwork of vineyards unfolded below us, giving way to the hilltop Etruscan beauty that is Perugia and the small shimmering outline of Lago Trasimeno in the distance. We topped out at three thousand feet on a day that Peter described as “too perfect,” a morning so completely windless that steering the balloon through the usual air streams that pilots ride to bring them to their landing spot did not exist. And so our pilot cut short our adventure, expertly guiding us into a field just below another of our friends’ wineries, coming to rest among a grove of olive trees. The property owners, startled to see an enormous balloon descending into their grove came running to give us assistance, but the only help Peter needed was for them to show him a route that his Land Rover and trailer could take into the grove so we could pack the balloon and basket and take our group back to the Cantina.
After deflating and packing the balloon we were transported back to Roberto’s winery, where our group was treated to a fabulous breakfast of fruits, sliced meats and cheese and Roberto’s Grechetto, Montefalco Rosso and Sagrantino wines, served, of course, after the obligatory glass of champagne or prosecco that marks every successful return to earth of the balloon and its passengers. In the gleaming, new Dionigi tasting room, with its unmatched view of the val d’umbria and Assisi and Spello, we bonded with our fellow passengers, shared our reactions to the unforgettable views and the experience of seeing this land, which we have seen so many times from ground level, from a new and truly wondrous vantage point.
Umbria is known as “the green heart of Italy” and its majesty is well apparent to all who wind along its wandering lanes, who hike its gentle slopes, who explore its jewel like hill towns. To take all of this in from above, however, to drink in its panorama a full three hundred and sixty degrees, floating along on the soft morning breeze like a feather in the wind, is a truly unforgettable experience.
I seriously doubt whether any members of the Fifth Dimension ever experienced the thrill of a balloon ride. But they certainly nailed it in their 19xx hit, Up, Up and Away –
The world’s a nicer place in my beautiful balloon It wears a nicer face in my beautiful balloon
Bill and Suzy
For more information on Balloon Adventures Italy or to book your own aerial adventure, contact Eleonora at +39 366 314 0558 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit their website at www.balloonadventures.it.
I have been vaguely aware of the existence of an Italian game from the countryside called ruzzolone for some time. I don’t know where I first heard of it, but I wish I had heard about it sooner.
Lucky me! About a year or so ago, while doing a google search on a particular winemaker we wanted to learn more about I came across his image in front of his winery. In the picture Giovanni Dubini was launching a huge wheel of cheese down a dirt path. With a few admirers cheering him on. This was Giovanni playing ruzzolone. The image of this sophisticated winemaker joyously playing farmers’ game captured my imagination and made me want to learn more about the game.
For the past year or so I have been joking with Albertino Pardi that I wanted to learn all about ruzzolone and transport the sport to America. Albertino, whose family owns and operates the Cantina Fratelli Pardi winery and who is a friend and colleague of Giovanni started my ruzzolone education on the spot, teaching me all that he knew about the sport, an ancient game that by some accounts traces its roots back to Umbria’s Etruscan forebears. Despite its origins, though, it is a game that was made for the country, for rustic folks, for Umbria.
Ruzzolone is the answer to the question, “how can I entertain myself if all I have is a wheel of cheese, a belt and a country road.” The sort of question that no doubt comes up often in rural Umbria. Today’s modern game has substituted a standardized wooden disk for a wheel of cheese (which no doubt was too valuable to waste on sport), but still uses just a cloth strap and a country road. Players wind the cord around the disk and rock back and forth several times in a stylized, ritualistic windup before heaving ho in a motion not unlike a professional bowler, but putting all manner of English on the delivery of their disk to enable it to curve around corners, hug the edge of the road and, as is the object of the game, travel the farthest distance possible. And how it does travel! On a good throw for hundreds of yards, wending its way around curves, ricocheting off of hillsides, rolling ever forward for upwards of 20 to 30 seconds.
There seems to be no dress code for participants, save dark clothing and caps. Shaving seems to be optional as well. Grunting, so loud and baying that it would put Maria Sharapova to shame is looked upon favorably as is the occasional uncontrolled spewing of obscenities and invective as the disk deviates from its flight plan and launches itself into a nearby field or up a bank into a thicket of trees.
But what a way to pass an afternoon. Especially on a beautiful spring afternoon as Albertino, his wife Jessica, his brother Gianluca and father Alberto and I did recently along a quiet country road outside the ancient borgo of Castel Ritaldi. Grunting aside, the only sound was the occasional disk clacking along the rough asphalt, eventually coming to a halt with a bang when colliding with the makeshift barriers erected along the course or with a wobble as it lost momentum and simply rolled over. If the sport of golf is sometimes described as “a good walk spoiled,” ruzzolone is a good walk made even better.
No wonder country farmers live to be 100. They drink lots of red wine, eat pork fat and walk along country roads with their friends, playing a game that Seinfeld could have invented. After watching (and even trying my own hand at it) I am convinced my instincts were right a year ago when I vowed to Albertino that I was going to bring ruzzolone to America. Ruzzolone may be just what we need.
Italy has afforded us countless memorable experiences. Unique snapshots of time and place that simply don’t exist for us at home. A memorable meal under a moonlit sky with friends and family in tow. A stroll through the woods in pursuit of a truffle sniffing dog to locate and retrieve from its earthy hiding spot musty, aromatic truffles. Donning a protective suit and gloves to liberate a hive full of honey from our honeybees.
Italy is not so different from America. But it is different enough that each day brings the possibility of doing something, experiencing something that is truly unique. And so it was with my day of asparagus hunting in the woods of central Umbria.
I don’t believe asparagus hunting exists in America, unless you count pushing your shopping cart through the produce aisle in the supermarket and “discovering” bundles of green stalks, rubber banded together and standing upright, ready to be taken by the urban hunter. But for several weeks each spring the Italian landscape is dotted with Fiat Pandas parked on little country lanes, their owners combing every possible hillside for these delicacies that define the term “fresh.” We’ve buzzed by as families methodically scour roadside shoulders and we have been amazed to see groups of friends strolling through town centers with enormous armfuls of asparagus, showing off the bundles of their handiwork like it is just in a day’s work. And so I was not particularly surprised when the first words out of my mouth when I ran into Amadeo, husband of le Delizie del Borgo co-owner Ombretta Ubaldi, and someone known to me to be an avid asparagus hunter, “when are you going to take me out asparagus hunting?”
Without much of a thought, Amadeo replied, “domani. Partiamo da qui alle otto e un quarto.” The die was cast. We were to depart from the restaurant at 8:15 the next morning. The only word of advice he gave me was to wear boots. To protect against the deadly poisonous vipers.
The next morning I was at the restaurant. At 8:10. And I had my boots, borrowed from Marco’s brother in law Alberto. It didn’t matter that they were a size too small and painful to wear. They were less painful than a viper bite would be.
Amadeo arrived on time and we had the obligatory morning espresso before taking off in his Panda to a secluded wood about 15 minutes from the center of Bevagna. Conversation was not exactly easy, as Amadeo speaks no English. I fumbled my way through Italian, asking questions about whatever popped into my head. It was a beautiful, sunny day with mild temperatures. It promised to be a great day whether we spoke or not.
And so it was. Amadeo lent me a snipper, a sort of pair of scissors on a long stick that allows you to cut the asparagus stalk without reaching into the thicket because, as we now know, vipers may lurk there. The snipper cuts the asparagus stalk and grabs it, allowing you to bring the stalk to you and to add it to your bundle.
The difficulty in asparagus hunting is not the snipping, the harvesting. It is the locating. The seeing. For four hours Amadeo and I trudged through thicket, along hillsides and stream beds. I climbed over fallen trees, untangled myself (and my anti-viper boots) from vines and took a nasty direct hit in the eye from a branch that left me in pain and partially blinded for a day. But even before losing half my sight I realized that finding asparagus is not simply a visual exercise, it is an exercise in context. In that overgrown thicket there are simply too many things that look like stalks of asparagus – other plants, branches, vines. You have to know where to look, the particular sides of hills, along the edges of vegetation. You have to feel where to look. Then you have to find the telltale asparaghia, the thicket of spindly, spiny ground cover that is part of the plant and from which the stalks grow. But even then it is next to impossible to see the individual stalks that reach skyward. On occasion after occasion Amadeo would call for me and point and bark out a number. “Tre,” he would say, indicating that there were three stalks in a particular location. I would look, seeing none. Hinting at the location with his snipper I would still see none until he was touching the first one. “Va bene” I would exclaim, snipping the prize and taking it for my bundle. This would be repeated two more times as my mentor pointed out each individual asparago.
But after a couple of hours your asparagus sense begins to sharpen and even the most unskilled americano becomes attuned to the woods and to where these delicious stalks of green freshness are hiding. I would not say that I ended the hunt at even the advanced beginner level, but my two large bundles of wild asparagus – the first I have ever cultivated in my life – left me looking forward to next spring, when I intend to follow Amadeo once again into the woods and into one of those adventures that makes the Italian experience so unforgettable.
Bill and Suzy
While we can’t offer you wild asparagus, Via Umbria is currently featuring fresh, local asparagus from Tuscarora Farms for sale. Pick up a bunch today, while they’re still in season and try roasting them wrapped in pancetta or prosciutto. Be sure to blanch the asparagus first and roast in an oven preheated to 425 degrees for four to six minutes (or until crispy). And enjoy! It’s one of the true treats of the season.
Traveling with children can be a bit like attempting to take a herd of wild antelope for an evening stroll: they have their own wants and needs and leap in every direction. And while sipping wine will help an adult cope with the madness, it’s not an option for the kids. Fortunately, an escape to Umbria is just as fulfilling for kids as it is for adults.
Everyone always talks about what adults can do in Umbria, from touring vineyards to participating in food tours, but there are also plenty of activities for kids to do, either while parents are busy, or together as a family. Marco Palermi, Umbrian travel expert, has two lively young children in tow, so he knows first hand where to go to keep kids entertained:
Canarra is very kid friendly, even if the wine isn’t! Near the villa, there is the Victor Ugo bar that has a nice playground and other activities for kids, and this can be great for a nearby activity on most days. There are also excellent walks nearby, that parents can enjoy as well, like the “Tosco di San Francesco” (the St. Francis Forest). There is an entrance fee of three euros, in order to maintain the historical area, but it’s worth it. It’s a lovely walk that starts on the right side of the main church of Assisi, goes behind the hillside of the town, and crosses a bridge that passes over a stream whose source is in Mount Subasio Tescio. Interestingly enough, Dante wrote about this exact stream and river that pass by Canarra in his writings on Assisi.
The main castle in Assisi, Rocca Maggiore, is also a wonderful spot for kids to explore. The views from the main tower and even outside the castle are absolutely stunning, and not only is there history to learn, but kids appreciate the areas to run around and enjoy the sun. If it’s a rainy day, there is an indoor playground nearby that kids love! From trampoline tower, to slides, this place will brighten up any rainy day, and although there is an entrance fee, there is little restaurant inside it that often has great deals.
Finally, in Perugia you will find Città Della Dominica, a wonderful park and one of the oldest theme parks in Europe. It was created by Luisa Spagnoli, the inventor of the Bacio chocolate, and is set along the hill that overlooks Perugia. It’s a great way to spend a day surrounded by nature, as there are great sites for kids to interact with animals of all sorts, including the white donkey, a species that almost went extinct if it weren’t for Citta della Dominica! Tickets don’t need to be bought in advance, but easily can be through the website.
I haven’t written much about my recent trip to Italy yet. There’s quite simply too much to say, if I wanted to convey how much I saw and learned on this expedition. Instead, I’ll focus on a single simple experience: watching a steak being cooked. Driving to Norcia, the walled town in southern Umbria famed for its excellent cured pork and as the home of some heady saints (Saint Benedict of Nursia and his sister Saint Scholastica), Chef Simone, informed me of a plan to stop for dinner on the way back north. But for now, we headed on to Norcia. This town was swimming in little butcher shops. Mostly selling the local cured pork and wild boar products, norcineria. The prosciutto here was so well-balanced: nutty, sweet, salty, that I was ready to write the USDA and complain about their importation requirements right then and there. And it sure didn’t help that we were trying this in a little restaurant on the main piazza in the shadow of St. Benedict and his church. I could go on and on, but we’ll save that for another time.
After leaving the dizzying array of hanging cured meats behind us, we headed to the mountainside town where dinner was on the agenda. There certainly wasn’t much to this town, a few cafes and restaurants, with a truffle museum being the only real tourist attraction. The restaurant destination was a little osteria that felt more like a basement than a restaurant. Vaulted stone sealing, maybe ten tables, and a raging fireplace. Flanking the fireplace, a table with a whole prosciutto, sliced only by hand, made by the chef from pigs he raised himself. Above that, links of his dried sausage. This was the definition of comfortable.
For our main course, we ordered a steak, rare. To cook it, he brought out a little metal grill, placed in front of the fire and started moving the hot coals underneath it. Before too long, there was a massive steak sizzling right there in front of us. I was beside myself. Here I am, on an Italian mountainside, watching my steak being grilled right in front of me: on the floor of the restaurant. And unsurprisingly, looking at glowing hot coals, my mind wandered and I remembered all the times we grilled growing up.
Fortunately for me, with this memory in mind, it’s starting to warm up here. What I mean to say is, it is almost time for us to start grilling too. We may not be able to cook up a steak right in our fireplaces, but we sure can cook on the open flame. At the Via Umbria meat counter, we’re ready. Having seen this steak transformed from raw meat into delicious dinner right in front of me, I think we should translate that experience to our own backyards. Whether it’s a prime cut that you’ve heard of: the ribeye, the New York strip, the fiorentina, or an off cut you may never have tried before: the hanger, the bavette, teres major, let’s throw that beef over some hot coals (or gas flame, if that’s what’s available). I’ll likely never have that experience again, coming immediately from one of the meat capitals of the world to fireplace-cooked steak; but we can make something just as delicious in our own backyards. So come on down, get a steak. Bring on grilling season!
When traveling overseas in unfamiliar places, it’s easy to seek out familiar foods rather than trying something new or unknown. This is quite a crime in Italy, a country with a distinctive culinary reputation that shines through in a wide rage of traditional dishes, cooking styles, and local ingredients. This varies from region to region, so before traveling to Italy, it’s a good idea to find out what foods are unique to the area you’re planning to stay in. Luckily for you, we have some insider knowledge from Marco Palermi, Umbrian travel expert, on what to eat while staying in Umbria:
Food is very important in Italy, and in Umbria, pork is king–both cured and fresh are fantastic, but the real treat is sliced porchetta from the porchetta trucks parked all over town. The best porchetta comes from Costano (they have a porchetta festival in mid August), but if you find the truck parked out front of the Conad Grocery store in Cannara, you won’t be disappointed.
Most of what we eat depends on the season. In December you will see a lot of fennel, cabbage, onions, and tomatoes. Wild asparagus is abundant in spring, and mushrooms in the fall. What you will eat depends on when you are here as much as where you go. For us, seasons, traditions, and religion are often an excuse to eat–which is why you will see things like torta di pasqua (traditional easter bread), fried strufoli or frappe with honey during Carnival, and goose in August for the feast of the harvest. However, there are Umbrian delights that are always great year round.
Torta al testo is a staple to Umbrian gastronomy that cannot be missed. It’s a sandwich made of flat unleavened bread that is flame-cooked, and filled with the most delicious Umbrian flavors. You cannot go wrong pairing these with an Umbrian beer. And of course, after a great lunch, you must try gelato. The gelato around Cannara is all very good, but Bar Gennaro is the place to go.
One town to know about (and visit before you leave Umbria) is Norcia. Its very well-known for its pork products (prosciutto, sausages, salamis) and also for its winter black truffles. The town is about an hour and a half drive from Canarra, but if that’s too far away for you, head to Santa Maria degli Angeli and visit Casa Norcia, a restaurant known for serving delicious meals and typical produce from the Sibillini mountains.
Another excellent experience is to visit a rosticceria, which is a kind of grocery store that has ready-to-eat meals, but unlike any ready-to-eat meal you’ve had before! It can be anything from lasagne to roast chicken, and it’s a very traditional Sunday activity. Good rosticcerias near la Fattoria del Gelso are Cucina’a in Foligno or Falaschi Gastronomia in bastia Umbra.
And no trip to Italy would be complete without sampling the cheeses available. From the Pecorino of Norcia to the Mozarella of Coliforito, there is no shortage of cheese to tempt your palate. Check out the nearby cheese stores in Santa Maria Degli Angelia, Brufani and Broccatelli, and try fresh creamy mascarpone, soft burrata caciotta, and wonderfully sharp pecorino.
There is no way to capture all the delicious foods available in Umbria, but starting here should give you a wonderful start to a true foodie experience.