Nice Evening Out
The score: Let’s just say that some need a second date to win you over, and some you know are the love of your life before you even get to dessert.
You know when your best girlfriend has been trying to set you up with this friend of hers for years and all she does is talk him up and drop little hints into every conversation and mention that he still happens to be single after every one of your breakups and so finally, though you never go on blind dates on principle, you give in and call the guy? And he sounds really nice on the phone, so you say, Sure, Saturday night is fine. And the date starts really well: he brings you peonies, which are your favorite flowers, suggests this really lovely rooftop bar to watch the sunset, orders two Gin and Tonics without having to ask, and you get settled in thinking, Hey, this could work.
Then things go downhill. Fast.
His favorite movie is Titanic. He would never visit Morocco because he’s heard it’s dirty. If Sarah Palin’s only two constituencies are the Religious Right and Fans of Comedy, you are both constituents though you belong to the latter group and he, you are beginning to strongly suspect, the former. And just when you are thinking that the evening has been a total wash and you would have had much more fun hanging out on the couch in your Slanket with a glass of Merlot and the first season of Glee and are thinking of the tongue-lashing your girlfriend is going to get the next morning for setting you up with this loser, the most amazing man walks into the bar. The. Most. Amazing. Man. And Mr. Loser looks up and says, Oh, hey, there’s my brother.
And that’s how you meet your husband.
Corso Cavour, 202
Okay, now translate that all into restaurants. My dear friend, Letizia, whose food opinion I respect and trust, had been talking up Nanà for ages. Ages, I say. So many ages that I kept putting off actually going to Nanà because I wanted to save it for a special occasion, which just happened to be a friend’s 40 birthday. And it started off wonderfully: the restaurant is a charming retrofitted salone signorile (an airy surprise after you pass through the narrow corridor entrance), the proprietors (a family of father, mother, daughter, son-in-law) were warm and we started the meal with a long chit-chat about local wineries, the menu was limited but promising and the wine list had some of my favorite Umbrian cantine. Even the appetizers boded well; I had a light leek and truffle flan with cheese sauce which was perfect in every leeky/truffley/cheesey way.
Then things went downhill. Fast.
Our pasta dishes were mediocre. And I really wanted them to be good, because it was like being on a blind date with your friend’s friend and you want to like him so you can bring back a positive report to your friend, who you know is waiting by the phone for a play-by-play when you get home. But it just wasn’t happening. They were bland, slightly overcooked, and mean portions (and I say this from an Italian portion point of view, not an I-must-have-enough-to-take-home-in-a-doggie-bag-so-I-can-microwave-it-at-the-office-tomorrow-for-lunch portion point of view.) Our plates had five potato/truffle ravioli on them. We were tempted to check the floor to see if some had slid off on the trip from the kitchen.
Our meat dish (venison) was inedible. I am cringing to say it, because one of my cardinal review rules is: if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t review the restaurant, but it’s the truth. We left it virtually untouched (and they, very graciously, took it off the bill later). And the salt they forgot to put in the pasta water was on the artichokes. Wow, pass the water.
They rallied at dessert (I had their nice little traditional bread pudding, which I haven’t had in years and it was a little dry but still nice and cinnamon-y. My friend had their warm chocolate pudding cake, and was very satisfied. So was I, since I ate half of it.)
Despite having had a lukewarm first date with Nanà I am still writing it up. Why? Well, for one I feel like this restaurant deserves the benefit of the doubt. The proprietors are so welcoming, passionate, and obviously put a lot of care into their service–my gut feeling is that we just stopped in on an off night, which is a shame but happens. I am going to give them a shot at a second date, and we’ll see what happens. For better or for worse, you will all know about it. For two, as I was writing this article I skyped my friend, who, as it turns out, has much more charitable memories of our meal than I do. So perhaps I’m just being too demanding. And, for three, the night we went to Nanà is the night I discovered my New Favorite Place in Perugia, aka L’Officina.
Borgo XX Giugno, 56
As we were walking down the street towards Nanà, we passed a small dimly lit doorway a couple of blocks away and I said, Is that a store? And my friend said, No, it’s a great little restaurant. I’ve eaten there a couple of times. Fabulous food.
So awhile later we went back to this funky space, part art gallery, part restaurant, part left wing social revolution headquarters (just kidding…but it does kind of have that vibe). From outside, the small doorway seems to lead to some sort of used bookstore or second-hand furniture shop, but it’s the original architectural details from when the building was a workshop for building and calibrating scales—including the turn of the century wooden floor–which give it the ex-industrial-loft feel. But following the stairs towards the back you find yourself in a larger room (crammed with tables, European-style. Not the place to stage a break-up. Just in case you are reading restaurant reviews looking for the perfect place to stage a break-up.) with artwork covering the walls (they host rotating shows of local artists) and the kitchen behind a glass partition.
The service was rather perfunctory (nothing bugs me more than when you ask your waiter about a dish, and they have to check with the kitchen because they don’t know what’s in it. Folks, that sort of research should happen in the ten minutes you open for dinner, not when you’ve got people already seated. And, while I’m bitching, no use having an encyclopedic wine list if half the choices aren’t available. Ok, I’m done.), but the food was, simply put, amazing. Now, let me warn you that this is definitely nouveau-Italian. If you are looking for classic Umbrian dishes, this may not be the place for you. But if you’ve had your fill of strangozzi al tartufo and are in the mood for a meal that pushes the envelope in a delightful way, you’ve hit the jackpot. The descriptions of the dishes go on for a paragraph, the presentation is whimsical (my friend had ravioli in red sauce served in a Margarita glass), and the ingredients quirky and original.
I had carob tagliatelle tossed with arugula and almond pesto and a delicious creme brulée with Madagascar vanilla bean, both of which were memorable and left me feeling happily in love with this place. But the real winner of the meal was the tasting menu, comprised of a seemingly endless procession of tapas-sized samples –appetizers, first and second course selections, and dessert–each paired with a different wine. A wonderful way to try this restaurant’s innovative cooking without commiting yourself to any one menu choice, and at €25, the price was more than fair.
All told, I am very much looking forward to my second date with L’Officina (perhaps this winter, to check out their seasonal menu changes) and a long and happily committed relationship. But I may just have a little fling on the side with Nanà. You never know.
Expect your meal with wine to run between €50 and €75 for two at both of these restaurants.
Osteria Rosso di Sera
V. Fratelli Papini, 79
San Feliciano (Magione)
serves dinner and lunch on Sunday
The score: It’s so womantic. But while you’re gazing into each other’s eyes, try not to forget to enjoy your food.
I’m a sucker for a meal with a view. I’m especially a sucker for a meal with a view of the sunset. I’m particularly a sucker for a meal with a view of the sunset over water. I’m decidedly a sucker for a meal with a view of the sunset over water sans mosquitos. So much of a sucker that I have even been known to close a blind eye to a mediocre meal just because it was consumed in view of the sunset over water and I came home with no welts on my ankles.
The good news is that if you’re a sucker like me, there is a meal with a sunset-over-water-view waiting for you (which is kind of a tall order for Umbria, one of the only Italian regions out of 20 which is completely landlocked). And the even better news is that your dinner will be anything but mediocre.
Rosso di Sera (the name is a riff on a popular Italian aphorism: Rosso di sera, bel tempo si spera–or “a red sunset promises fair weather”) is set right on the shore of Lake Trasimeno which, like most mud-bottomed lakes, is more lovely to gaze at from afar than to swim in. Located in the small town of San Feliciano, the restaurant is perfectly placed to soak up every minute of the crimson sun setting over the lake and surrounding rolling Umbrian/Tuscan countryside and they know it. A few years ago they fitted out a charming wooden verandah (with screened windows!) so now pretty much every table has a view.
The menu is not extensive—no more than five or six offerings for every course—but reflects a balanced mix of traditional local food (the osteria is part of the Slow Food movement, so pays homage to the local olive oil, lake fish, and heirloom legumes) and edgy contemporary interpretations that seems to be their style. Despite the restrained menu, there were vegetarian, fish, and meat options for each course.
We began with two sformati—ricotta herb and tuna potato—which were both honest and well turned out, if a little too generous in the portion size. Our pasta—whole wheat egg pasta (tagliatelle) tossed in a creamed squash sauce with diced summer vegetables—was a perfect foil of side-sticking rough pasta and delicate veggies. I did get a look when I asked for more cheese, which is kind of a pet peeve of mine. I can’t abide parmeggiano moralists. Sheesh, it’s not like my pasta was with seafood.
At this point we were forced to skip our second course, what with the honking big sformati and mound of pasta—but it turned out to be fortuitous, given the dessert menu. (I’m a big dessert person…see my review of Perbacco in Cannara to understand this thing I have about the sacred station of the dessert menu). Let me just say that I had a dark chocolate torte with pear-anise sauce. Probably the only moment I was distracted from the view.
They have a solid wine list…we went with the suggestion of the proprietor, which initially hit me like a triple sucker punch. White! Chardonnay! Sicily! Two things I don’t particularly enjoy in wine, and a third which was the punch line to the game of “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong.” But, I’ll be damned, it was good. It fit the food and the place and the moment. Just like a wine should.
The service was a little spotty when we were there, but I got the feeling it was a problem of staffing and not attitude. Besides, what with that romantic sunset, who wants a waiter breathing down your neck?
Our bill came to about 50 Euros (with our bottle of Sicilian Chardonnay).
Full Disclosure: The proprietor once had a restaurant just down the road from me (which I didn’t particularly like), but we didn’t figure out it was the same guy until after we’d paid the bill.
Via Umberto, 1
The Score: Cool or Kitsch? You decide.
This is a fun place with an imaginative menu (ever have pasta with rooster crest before?) that we just plain like. It is in this tiny little nothing town of Cannara (as opposed to the nearby tiny little something town of Bevagna), in a tiny little nothing space of place, but someone had a good time with the interior decorating, and someone else with the menu, and we’re just along for the ride.
The menu is quite limited, which is only a problem if you become regulars like us. We have had probably everything on both the winter and summer menus over the years, and Stefano’s favorite things are the hot pate antipasto (served with style in a little ceramic dish over a lit candle) and the smoked duck breast antipasto. I really like the herb gnocchi and the walnut, pear and gorgonzola ravioli. They also do a damned fine onion soup, it being Cannara, home of the annual onion festival.
They have an extensive wine list, and the chef is quite passionate about wine, so we usually ask him to pick something out for us and have never been disappointed. The chef is also an amateur horn player, so if you don’t want to be serenaded for your birthday keep it under your hat.
My only complaint is the dessert menu. Now, I have a small confession to make. I am a big dessert person. Big. A dessert menu can make or break a place in my book. This is the page I flip to first on the menu, and often order my entire meal based on what I will be having for dessert. So a dessert menu less than stellar is a big handicap in my book.
They have peach melba, for the love of God. Where’s the chocolate souffle? Where’s the tiramisu? Where’s the Gran Marnier mousse? Okay, the coconut torte with warm chocolate sauce is okay as a pinch hitter, but I wouldn’t mind a little more sinfulness to end my meal. My grandmother eats peach melba. (Of course, my grandmother is in her mid-seventies and works, volonteers, and generally enjoys her perfect health, whereas I will probably be dead of a chocolate dessert and butter induced stroke in my late fifties.)
We usually pay around 50 Euros for a meal with a bottle of wine here, but very rarely have a second course. We find an antipasto and primo (and a sad excuse for a dessert) is more than enough.
Full Disclosure: We are friendly with the owner, who often offers us a digestivo on the house.
Enoteca L’Alchimista Wine & Co Enoteca
The score: They don’t serve crow, but I sure found myself eating it.
I find it shocking when I discover that I’m not always right. It happens rarely, of course, as I am usually always right. But every once in awhile I am not completely right, and I am served up a big old dish of steaming hot crow, which I choke down philosophically. Then I immediately try to get back on track with the being always right thing.
Case in point:
Enoteca L’Alchimista Wine & Co Enoteca
Piazza del Comune, 14 Montefalco
There are a couple of characteristics common to a certain category of restaurants in Italy that pretty much guarantee mediocre food, in my experience. A setting of outdoor tables looking over a pretty main piazza, for example. Frequent mention on the online foodie forums. A menu in three languages, color coded for vegetarian, low sodium, and gluten-free options. A website with a flash intro. And lots and lots of foreign customers.
This is because Italians are all about food. They are not about ambience (some of the best food I’ve had in Italy has been served in stuffy, overcrowded restaurants panelled alla 1976 basement rec room and decorated with soccer trophies and an oversized fish tank.). They are not about foodies (if you discuss food with ardor and passion in Italy you are just a normal citizen, not part of an irritatingly pompous social subset.). They are not about complicated menus (Good: a single page grease-spotted photocopy with name of dish and price. Better: a chalkboard near the door. Best: the waiter tells you what you will be eating today. And you had better like it, because Mamma’s in the kitchen.) or blingy websites. And they are certainly not about pleasing an international palate.
Which is why it took me so long to try L’Alchimista in Montefalco, which I had been hearing about (primarily from my guests here at Brigolante and on the travel forums) for so long. Everything about the place turned me off. The charming outdoor tables in Montefalco’s main piazza…incidentally, one of my favorite towns and favorite piazzas in Umbria. The purple prose praise in the guidebooks and on the forums for the wine/gourmet shop inside the enoteca, and for the food itself. The extensive menu, with its unusually ample selections for vegetarians, celiacs, and those trying to watch their waistline. The website with so much stuff flashing at me I got a headache and had to lie down in a dark room for a few hours to recover. And the lots and lots of foreign customers.
I went so far as to recon another restaurant in town that I was sure would be better. Because I’m always right. So I dragged a friend all the way to Montefalco to dine at Spirito Divino, which has an elegantly understated website, is on a smaller secondary piazza, offers a simple straightforward menu, and strangely seems to be under the international radar (the foreigners are all up the street at L’Alchimista, apparently). When I got there, I was pretty convinced I was right. The restaurant is charming…exposed beam and tile ceiling with requisite hanging prosciutti and garlic braids, shelves of wine bottles lining the walls, compelling menu, enthusiastic owner/server. Unfortunately, the food was a heartbreaking disappointment. And overpriced. I was crushed.
So I swallowed my pride and returned, tail tucked between legs, to take L’Alchimista for a long overdue spin. I was there on a warm summer evening, so sat at an outdoor table watching life pass by in Montefalco’s piazza and trying not to be irritated by all the English and German I was overhearing at the neighboring tables. When the waitress—who proved herself competent and attentive, if not passionate–hefted the multilingual menu at me, I hunkered down and silently spent the next few minutes wading through pages of traditional or vegetarian or gluten-free or heart healthy options. I was grim.
The house red came—a Montefalco Rosso. To me, the quality of a house wine is to a restaurant what the quality of a first kiss is to a love affair. You can pretty much tell if it’s going to fly in the first 3 milliseconds or so. And the wine was good. Very good. Ah, I harrumphed, you can hardly expect to get a bad wine in Montefalco. (I was not going to make this easy.)
Then our antipasti came…mine was a surprisingly enjoyable cheese and confit plate (like I said, I wasn’t going to make this easy) and my friend had a twist on a caprese salad. The reluctant comment: Olio buono. Now, just to put that into perspective, to have an Umbrian admit that an olio not produced directly by themselves or, in a pinch, immediate family is buono is akin to having a Democrat admit that a Republican colleague is a worthy adversary or a Greek admit to a Turk being a good neighbor. I was a bit taken aback, and hoped L’Alchimista would drop the ball on our primi so I could salvage a bit of pride.
It was not to be the case. The gnocchi al Sagrantino were fabulous…the gnocchi were light (Umbrians tend to make them heavy and either too sticky or too chewy) and freshly made, the sauce not overpowering. We even unobtrusively scarpetta-ed our plates (when you use a piece of bread to clean the remaining sauce off your dish and pop it in your mouth. Not very polite. Not restaurant behavior.). The portion was so generous that I skipped a second course, but my friend had the chicken saltimbocca (again, with a splash of Sagrantino) and again a little scarpetta action went on. The olio was buono. Harrumph.
There was still a chance for them to ruin everything, as I am a Big Dessert Person. But wouldn’t you know it, they had an extensive an embarrassingly sinful house dolce selection, from which I chose a chocolate nuclear bomb-esque mousse cake concoction that gave me tachycardia for hours and completely won me over. Nothing more be said. L’Alchimista is a winner and I was wrong.
Now, please pass the crow.
Our meal came to about €50 with wine.
Osteria del Gufo
Via della Viola, 18
Closed Sunday and Monday
The score: Bohemian atmosphere, great chocolate mousse. It’s like dining on the Rive Gauche, but the waiters aren’t rude.
If you think you’ve dined in a hole in the wall before, you’ve never been here. They manage to cram table space for about fifty and the kitchen in a space rougly the size of my bedroom. In the summer time there are outdoor tables, so ask for one specifically if weather permits. The miniscule tables, high brow modern art, and snippets of intellectual conversation from diners all add to the general funky feel of this osteria.
Despite cramped quarters, this is one of our favorite places. The menu is limited, but varies so often that, aside from the chocolate mousse, I don’t think we’ve ever had the same dish twice. The cuisine is mixed, so expect some innovative pasta dishes but don’t be surprised by the curries, cous-cous or spanakopita that sometimes make an appearance. One of the best dishes I’ve ever had was buckwheat maltagliati in a cream and vegetable sauce… I was considering licking the left over sauce off my plate.
We usually spend around 60 Euros for dinner here.
Non So Che, Spello
Via Navello, 26
Lunch and dinner served
The score: It just goes to show you: Behind every ugly warehouse stands a lovely converted farmhouse.
There is going to be an awful, panicked moment driving to this venue when you are going to break out in a cold sweat and think, “What have we done?!?” It will be right around when you pass the big Super Discount Warehouse and enter into a world bordered on one side by the busiest stretch of highway in Umbria and on the other by a group of semi-abandoned industrial hangars. Okay, trust me. It gets better.
Hidden back behind this industrial wasteland is this lovely restored farmhouse with its welcoming garden and chic interior. This is another hip restaurant of the moment, so the crowd is young and beautiful and the heels are high. We were decidedly the least attractive diners there our last time around. But the glamour factor doesn’t detract from the quality of the food, which is superb. I had fresh artichoke cappelloni, which were obviously made freshly in the kitchen. My husband especially enjoyed his lemon quiche antipasto. Our son had pizza (yes, they make pizza as well) and after a small sample we deemed it quite good.
Our favorite part of dinner were the desserts, as much a treat to the eye as to the palate. Our plates were adorned with swirls and dots of chocolate and sauce, spun sugar clouds, and dots of flavored whipped cream. And that was just the garnish. A winner.
Our bill came to around 60 Euros.