The small town of Cannara, my temporary home during my 3 month Italian sojourn, is undeniably small. And this is a great thing! The 10 or so minute stroll from the idyllic countryside farmhouse to town center brings you past the single supermarket, the pizzeria, the bank, the hardware/convenience store, the town monument, then plops you down at the bar. I’m using the definite (the) rather than indefinite (a/an) article here because, well you can be sure it’s the bar because it’s the only one in town. While on one hand this means fewer options, you don’t need anything else when you arrive to Bar Blue Sky and the baristas know how you take your coffee, or you start to pick up the rules of the card game that seemingly every male over the age of 60 in the town congregates to play in the late afternoon every day. For two weeks each year, however, this small town becomes the center of Italian cultural and culinary fascination during the Festa della Cipolla.
Cannara is known throughout Italy, and to some extent even throughout Europe, as the place where the best onions are grown. The onion is the agricultural legacy of Cannara, and this two-week long festival celebrates the bulb by opening pop-up restaurants throughout the town with onion themed menus. All the cooking sends out the smell of onion through the town and beyond, drawing visitors in on the scent streams from far and wide. And a crazy thing happens – this small town suddenly becomes absolutely bustling! An estimate of visitors over the two weeks I received from every Umbrian I know was between 60,000 and 70,000. This is for a town that my own estimate would say has about 1,000 residents, so you can imagine the change of scenery!
At nights during the festa, the town is alive with dangling lights, live music, local artisan vendors selling their wares, and, of course, innumerable onion dishes from which to choose at the various temporary restaurants. Hiring a staff to work for only two weeks is likely a tall task, so they skip it altogether – the employees are composed of town locals, coming in pretty much any age imaginable (I’ve seen some 7 year old-waiters and some 70 year old-waiters) who volunteer when they can throughout the course of the celebration. And because everyone is excited to try the once-a-year food options, the lines are huge. Arriving late on the last night of the festival, Cal and I had no time to wait and instead pulled the real clever move of eating at the best actual restaurant in Cannara – Perbacco – with the talented chef Ernesto and his delightful wife and host Simona.
We ate roasted onion; we ate onion soup; we ate onion pizza; we ate onion cream; we ate onion ice cream (shockingly good). It was a full meal and a satisfying meal, and Ernesto made the perfect wine recommendation for two novice drinkers – he so casually explained that the bottle of wine satisfied all of the specific areas of our interest (from Umbria, dry, not heavy but with enough body, spontaneous fermentation) without us even giving him any criteria. And, lo and behold, two novice drinkers finishing a whole bottle of wine together (and a digestivo) led to a pretty fun evening! We stayed at the restaurant for about three hours, taking up conversation with the Dutch spouses seated next to us and reveling in the fashion choices of the visiting population ambling our typically sleepy streets.
To end the night, we made our way to the Onion Disco Pub. To my knowledge, this outdoor bar and venue is closed for all but these two weeks of the year, so you have to know that folks make the most of its brief opening. The music bumps from here across town most nights of the festival, and it is where people gather after having dined on their onions and need to start – or keep – drinking. It was the largest – and youngest – crowd I’ve ever seen in Cannara, singing along to the band’s covers of classic Italian pop hits. Once tired, we left the scene and headed home, thankful for the short walk from the center of our small town.