Sometimes it’s serendipity. Like, for example, when you are driving through a one horse town like Collepepe–best known for its…um…well…let’s see…its…uh, it’s very close to the pretty hilltown of Collazzone—and you spot the little Gastronomia Andreani market-slash-butcher-slash-baker right off the road and you pull in to stock up on groceries.
Sometimes—sometimes—it’s knowing the right people. Like, for example, when you are invited to participate in a blogger weekend in Umbria (from what I could gather from my experience, by “participate” they meant “eat and drink free and often, take home lots of swag, and speak well of us”, all three of which activities came to me surprisingly easily. In fact, I am now offering myself out as a sacrificial participant in blogger weekends organized by other regions in Italy. Except Tuscany, of course. I’m ain’t doing that shit for Tuscany. Unless the swag is really good.) and when the bus (Yep, they shuttled us around in a bus with a big sticker on the side. Luckily, I’ve already lost my hipster street cred.) stops in front of the unassuming Gastronomia Andreani for the opening welcome dinner you panic just a little. Because it’s not like you organized the weekend or anything, but you still don’t want Umbria to blow it in front of your fellow bloggers who, taken together, pack one of the biggest travel blog punches in the Italian language. No, not good to screw up the welcome dinner.
But however you end up there, you are in for one of the most pleasant surprises in Umbria.
If food is Umbria’s heart and soul and the small family-owned business is its backbone, Gastronomia Andreani combines these into one organic whole. The Andreani family has been serving customers at their local emporium for almost a century; today, the third generation–brothers Antonio and Floriano, along with his wife Silvana—have expanded what began as a tiny provincial general store in 1915 into a superb culinary mecca.
Silvana Andreani welcoming us to dinner.
To call it gourmet or foodie would only detract from the almost reverent concentration on simple yet sublime local fare: their in-house butcher (run by Floriano) is known across the region as one of the best sources of high-quality locally-raised beef and pork, the delicatessen is overflowing with Umbrian wines, charcuterie, preserves, cheese, pickles and marinated vegetables, olive oils, and other Umbrian delicacies carefully hand-chosen by Antonio, and Silvana rules the roost in their house bakery, churning out schiacciata (a focaccia-style pizza), torta al testo (a local flat bread), jam tarts, breads, and seasonal sweets.
But to stop at the commercial backbone of the Gastronomia would do a disservice to its heart and soul: the Andreani family itself, deeply rooted in Umbrian soil and passionate about passing on the local culture and traditions through food. This quickly became evident during our evening there, when roughly twenty Italian food and travel bloggers were treated to a special sneak peek into their upstairs restaurant, which will open to the general public from May, 2011.
Antonio Andreani presenting our dinner.
It was impossible not to be drawn in by their enthusiasm and knowledge, as course after course left Silvana’s deft hands in the kitchen and was presented by the charming Antonio, who gave a brief explanation of each dish in its historical and regional context. From the antipasto (including ingredients like Cannara’s famous red onions, Assisi’s prize-winning pecorino, freshly picked wild asparagus, Chianina, and rich torta di formaggio), to the strangozzi with traditional Umbrian ragu, to the deboned guinea fowl slowly roasted in a local red wine, to the selection of jam tartlets with their homemade preserves; we weren’t just served delicious food, we were taught why it was delicious, what significance it has to this season, this place, this people. These are folks who take their food seriously, and–in this time of disconnect between what we eat, where we live, and who we are—I respect that.
Not to say our evening wasn’t fun. The Andreani family is warm and affable, and an evening in their restaurant was like being invited to dinner at your favorite aunt and uncle’s house. She can motherhen you in a way that you would never tollerate from your own mother, and he can lecture you in a way that would irk you endlessly from your father. But somehow they make you feel both coddled and smart, worth their affection and their attention, and eager for your next evening together.
This homemade jam showed up in our goodie bags.
The Gastronomia Andreani will open their restaurant to diners Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights from 5 May. They also offer cooking classes and catering. Silvana is the co-author of the Umbrian cookbook “La Cucina Umbra Facile” in Italian and heads a local sourdough starter bank.
A special thanks to photographer Marzia Keller for kindly letting me use her photographs.
If I were given two choices, and the choices were a) rip my beating heart from my chest with my bare hands or b) spend an evening in a children’s theme restaurant wearing a silly hat and participating in a “guess how many beans are in the jar” competition at the prodding of a microphone-wielding MC dressed as a cricket, I would, of course, choose b).
But only after thinking about it long and hard.
Which is why, when my dear friend Barbara, a bubbly blond mother-of-two-up-for-anything-anytime Aussie (That’s how they are Down Under. Mostly because eight of the ten most lethal animals on the planet call Australia home, and you get very Carpe Diem and No Worries, Mate when you know a simple trip up the walk to retrieve the morning paper may end in meeting your Maker.) called me up to say, “Hey, did you hear about the new Pinocchio restaurant for kids in Perugia?!? They wear costumes! They have games for the kids! Let’s take the boys on Saturday!” (At least, that’s what I think she said. I’ve known her since 1993 and I still find myself struggling with that strange language she claims is English on the phone. We often revert to Italian.), she was greeted with a long silence. So she gave me a tongue lashing, which she is wont to do when I act like a bludger, need to get off my fat date, stop being a dill and/or drongo and/or knocker, because really, sometimes I make her spit the dummy. Since I don’t really understand any of that, but none of it sounds very good, I offered to call and reserve before she called me a whacker for good measure.
This is how it went:
Hello, this is the Talking Cricket. Can you please hold?
Uh, ok. (I hold.)
Hello, sorry about that. How can I help you?
Um, did you just say that you’re the Talking Cricket?
Uh, ok. I need to reserve for Saturday night. Four adults and four kids.
And will the children be eating on Pleasure Island?
I was beginning to rethink my choice of b).
Osteria di Pinocchio
Via Tazio Nuvolari (Pian di Massiano)
But here I am, a few months later, not only about to endorse this place as one of the funnest evenings to be had for a family with kids under about 8, but openly admitting to becoming a bit of a regular. To explain why, let me tell you what Osteria di Pinocchio isn’t.
It isn’t garish
I had formed a mental picture of an aesthetic which hovered in that nightmarish land between Disneyland ca. 1972 and Chuck E. Cheese ca. 1987. Lots of formica in primary colors, industrial stain-camouflaging carpet, neon lights, and those swivel chairs that are hooked directly onto the table so that both fat people and children can’t use them (which, as fate would have it, comprises about 92% of Disneyland and Chuck E. Cheese’s combined customer demographic.).
I had forgotten that Pinocchio did not, in fact, originate from a mid-western strip mall, but instead from Tuscany. Lovely, understated, natural wood and period details Tuscany. Really, if you ignore the immense wooden Pinocchio suspended above your head along the length of the ceiling, you could imagine yourself being in any warmly furnished large restaurant in central Italy. Well, you have to ignore the maitre-d’ with the cricket antennae headband, as well, but we’ll get to him.
Where the interior decorating takes it up a notch is in the separate children’s dining room, where the walls are covered with lovely Pinocchio-related reliefs in stained wood and matching child-sized stained wooden tables and chairs. But the effect is both fun and tasteful.
It isn’t video-game loud
Okay, I admit that if you are looking for a quiet candle-lit bistrot to stare into each other’s eyes for a romantic tête–à–tête, this may not be the place. It’s a relatively big restaurant, and most nights the place is hopping.
However, conversation loud is one thing—screaming children and flashing and buzzing arcade game loud is another. As I mentioned above, there is a separate dining room for children (they can choose to eat there or in the main dining room…my kids love the separate dining room, though some shyer types might balk at you being out of sight during dinner), which cuts out the lion’s share of screaming and running children, a common sight at most other children-themed places. Also, in keeping with the muted decor, there are no video games in sight. Kids are kept busy by the staff in the children’s dining room, who organize sing-alongs, games, story-telling, dancing, and all sorts of stuff to keep them engaged and entertained for the evening. Which means that you are free to enjoy the Holy Grail of any parent’s dining experience: an uninterrupted conversation.
The only distraction that can border on annoying is the roughly five minutes of game playing (see bean game above…we have also witnessed trivia quizzes and riddle-solving) led by a loudly mic-ed Pinocchio in the main dining room. But even he grew on me after I actually won the competition one night and took home a nice bottle of Sagrantino di Montefalco for my effort. My hipster smugness goes right out the window when prizes are involved.
It isn’t crap food
Your average 6 year old is no gourmand, and most restaurants catering to kids know that. Timeless favorites like greasy pizza, hot dogs, tater tots, and soft-serve ice cream feature prominently on the menu. Your average 6 year old is also no credit card holder and likely won’t be footing the bill, however, and–since I am–I would like to eat something resembling something edible (and, to be frank, have my kids eat something that isn’t a gateway drug into childhood obesity).
The food here is good. I mean, not life-changingly awesome, but solidly good. Fine pizza (fired in a wood-burning oven), inventive antipasti, nice primi, big honking hunks of meat roasted over wood-coals secondi. A nice selection of fixed menus (I’ve seen vegetarian, traditional Umbrian, fish and seafood, among others) if your brain has been so fried by parenting that you’d rather not ponder pages of dishes in a foreign language.
The best menu by far is over in the children’s room. The kids get a fixed menu, but whoever cooked up the piatto del giorno sure had a lot of fun (and an amazing amount of creativity). My kids have had parmeggiano boats filled with tortellini floating on a green bean sea with a corn sun and a cricket’s face made of mashed potatoes with asparagus antennae and a meatball bow-tie. Fun stuff, and they actually ate the asparagus. Makes you want to take up food styling at home.
It isn’t a money black hole
So, for your kids to have a healthy meal (ok, with an occasional french fry and some ice cream), unlimited kiddie bar access, and a good three to four hours of awesome fun, it will cost you a whopping €15. Which is pretty much the same thing a regular pizza + drink + dessert will cost you in any run-of-the-mill restaurant in Umbria, but with no entertainment. The price/quality ratio for the regular menu is more than fair: the fixed menus with four courses run €25 (I couldn’t finish my vegetarian menu the last time we went) and the alla carte is more than in line with average trattoria prices. The lack of arcade machines or tacked-on entertainment extras means that it’s easy to keep an eye on your budget for the evening.
Oh, I forgot to mention the funny hats. They’re free.
Sure, you say, her prose is brilliant and she’s photogenic as all get out. But are her tones dulcet?
Well, my friends, feast your ears on this week’s Eye on Italy podcast, during which I (with fellow expat blogger and vegetarian Michelle Schoenung) discuss how to navigate the turbulent waters of alternative diets (primarily vegetarian and gluten-free) in the free-flowing river of Italian cuisine.
And remember, there is nothing like a good editor to polish prose, Photo Shop to correct pictures, and excellent editing to transform a bumbling stutterer into a poised and authoritative interviewee. Just a thought.
On with the show!
There are so many great walks and hikes in Umbria that it’s impossible to explore them all (unless, of course, you are Bill Thayer).
It is, however, very possible to select the crème de la crème, and in doing so see some of the most stunning countryside in Italy. I was able to share five of what I consider the best hikes in this region recently on the Bootsnall Indie Travel Guide‘s blog.
So dust off those boots, get yourself a good map and some sunscreen, and head to the hills. But read my guest post first!
There’s nothing I like more than a good hike. Okay, maybe a hearty meal. And a solid night’s sleep. And a pair of warm socks. And a compelling book.
But after all that, I really like a good hike. So it was a pleasure to be able to share one of my favorite hikes in Umbria on Keith Jenkin’s wonderful Velvet Escape travel blog.
The trail itself is breathtaking, but my favorite part of the hike is the mysterious legend behind its final destination. Take a look here to read about this quirky hike.
I am still a Twitter novice, despite a year of tweeting. Twitter tends to bring out the worst of my Luddite nature, though I do enjoy tweeting about events and news regarding Italy and Umbria and find it a great resource.
So when Kathy McCabe of the venerable Dream of Italy asked me to guest on the recent #italychat to tweet about Umbria, it was with both excitement and trepidation that I accepted.
Even if you missed the live event, you can still see highlights from the transcript here. (I mention one of my current favorite restaurants in Umbria: Camesena)
Thanks again to Dream of Italy Travel Newsletter for having me as a guest!
If in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, in the dog days of icy February he is most likely thinking about his next vacation. Preferibly to warmer climes. If the drifting snow and slate-colored skies have got you dreaming of your next trip to central Italy, here’s a quick overview of what you can expect in springtime in Umbria.
Spring Weather in Umbria
Spring, specifically April and May, is one of my favorite times to visit Umbria. The crowds haven’t yet begun to bunch up around the major monuments, hotels, restaurants, and anyone working in the travel industry is just coming off a winter rest so happy to see you, the days are longer (many churches and monuments are open until dusk, so a longer day is conducive to getting more bang for your buck), and the lovely Umbrian countryside comes alive with blossoming trees, blooming gardens, and meadows of wildflowers.
That said, being properly kitted out for an Umbrian spring involves a little packing savvy. Make sure you bring clothes you can layer, since the weather may go from chilly and rainy to sunny and warm in a matter of days (if not hours). I would include a jacket, a sweater (or fleece), shoes that can take rain, a scarf (or pashmina), and an umbrella. Obviously March through mid-April will require heavier layers, while the end of April through May warms up considerably and you can get by with lighter clothing. For some average temperatures, try this handy graph here.
Also, make sure you have both indoor and outdoor sights on your itinerary so you can work around anything the sky might toss at you. The weather is, of course, spottier than it would be at the height of summer, but generally has cool, sunny days (good for walking or exploring a hill town) interspersed with some showers (a great excuse to duck into a museum or church). …and gets steadily warmer and sunnier the further you push forward into May.
Spring Holidays in Umbria
If you are planning your trip on a strict budget, by choosing a “shoulder” season (those buffer months between high and low season), you will be more likely to find deals on flights, accommodations, and car rentals. Shoulder season for Umbria generally includes the months of March and some or all of April, but you need to keep an eye on when the national holidays are, as you won’t be likely to find discounted rates during those times.
8 March: Festa della Donna (National Women’s Day)—This isn’t likely to flip rates into high season, and may even save you some money if you are of the fairer sex. The Ministry for Art and Culture has periodic discount days for state museums and monuments across Italy, and on the Festa della Donna women have free admission. Beware of trying to dine out, however, as restaurants will be packed with tables of girlfriends out for a night on the town and many places will offer only a fixed menù dinner option.
17 March: Festa Della Unità dell’Italia (Unification Day)—Word is still out as to whether this holiday is a one-off for 2011 or will stick around for awhile. Some museums and monuments will be closed, as will offices and businesses (most restaurants and shops catering to tourists should remain open). As it falls on a Thursday this year, many Italians may take advantage of the ponte (“bridge” between a holiday and the weekend) to head out for a mini-break, so hotel prices may reflect the surge in demand.
19 March: San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph’s Feast Day, celebrated as Father’s Day)—This doesn’t really have any effect on anything, but if you happen to be in Italy with your favorite Dad, you might want to buy him a plate of zeppole (a custard-filled fritter) or frittelle (a sugar-dusted rice fritter) traditionally eaten today to show him your love.
Pasqua/Pasquetta (Easter weekend–from Good Friday through Easter Monday)– One of the most popular times for Italians to take advantage of their schools and offices closing and head out on vacation. Definitely high season prices, and availability may be scarce. On the upside, however, visiting around Easter offers an opportunity to participate in the many rituals and traditions surrounding this solemn yet joyful holiday.
25 April: Festa della Liberazione (Liberation Day)—Some museums and monuments (along with all offices and schools) may be closed, and if it falls near a weekend you may run into a ponte peak. This year il 25 Aprile (as it is colloquially known) is the same day as Pasquetta, so see above.
1 May: Festa dei Lavoratori (Labor Day)– Some museums and monuments (along with all offices and schools) may be closed, and if it falls near a weekend you may run into a ponte peak. The Ministry for Art and Culture has periodic discount days for state museums and monuments across Italy, and on Il Primo Maggio (as it is colloquially known) many offer €1 admission.
Spring Festivals in Umbria
Hand in hand with holidays come festivals, and one of the biggest selling points to visiting Umbria in spring is the plethora of wonderful traditional local festivals, during which the region awakens from its long winter hibernation and welcomes spring with open arms. For a list of those worth checking out, take a look here. (The list ended up so long that I made it into its own blog post. Sorry about the detour!)
Spring Sagre in Umbria
The sagra season really begins to gain traction in spring, so if you are looking for a festive atmosphere, a traditional meal, and a great window into Umbria culture, stop in to one of these:
Scheggino: Festa del Diamante Nero (mid-March) When they say the Black Diamond Festival, they are not talking about the gems you wear, but those you eat: truffles!
Bevagna: Arte in Tavola (end of April – beginning of May)–A celebration of traditional Umbrian cooking, with a little art and history thrown in, along the streets and piazze of one of Umbria’s loveliest towns.
Eggi: Sagra degli Asparagi (end of April – beginning of May) This hilltop village in the beautiful countryside near Spoleto is all about asparagus one week of the year.
Pietrafitta: Sagra degli Asparagi del Bosco (end of April – beginning of May) In a variation on the theme, this village near Piegaro concentrates on wild asparagus.
Spring Food in Umbria
Affettati (charcuterie): One of the mainstays of the Umbrian diet is pork, and the region is famous for its salame, prosciutto, dried sausage, corallina, and pancetta. Traditionally, pigs are butchered during the winter, and by spring the cured and salted charcuterie is at its prime.
Wild asparagus: Umbrians are diehard foragers: mushrooms, berries, field greens and, come April, the wily wild asparagus. Local markets sell them by the bunches, and the sharp flavor is perfect with fresh tagliatelle (egg noodles) or in risotto.
Easter food: Easter is the biggest spring holiday, and, like most Italian holidays, food plays a principal role. Breakfast is traditionally the contents of the specially prepared and blessed Easter basket, including hardboiled eggs, new salame (see above), wine (yes, the breakfast of champions), a savory cheese bread (torta pasquale or torta di formaggio), and the dove-shaped colomba sweet bread. At lunch, expect egg-based pasta in all shapes and forms, lamb or young goat, artichokes, asparagus, fennel, and other spring vegetables, and the first strawberries of the season. Afterwards, merrymakers break open their hollow chocolate eggs to find their surprise inside and eat the remains as dessert.
One of the biggest selling points to visiting Umbria in spring is the plethora of wonderful traditional local festivals, during which the region awakens from its long winter hibernation and welcomes spring with open arms.
Here are a few worth checking out:
Late March to late April:
Pasqua/Pasquetta (Easter weekend from Venerdì Santo through Pasquetta). Easter is not about a bunny in Umbria; it remains a solemn and deeply religious holiday which begins the week before Easter Sunday.
On Venerdì Santo (Good Friday), many Umbrian towns hold costumed religious processions, when (often barefooted) monks and members of religious fraternities transport statues of the Virgin and/or Christ along torch-lit medieval streets. One of the most moving is in Assisi, where the statue of Jesus is taken down from the cross inside the Cathedral of San Rufino and transported on a canopied litter to the Basilica of Saint Francis and back. Many other towns–Todi, Norcia, Montefalco, Perugia, and Gubbio, to name a few—hold a Stations of the Cross pageant reinacting the martyrdom of Christ.
On Pasqua (Easter Sunday), most Umbrian families attend Mass and enjoy a long leisurely lunch together. After lunch, both children and adults unwrap the brightly colored mylar paper around their huge chocolate eggs, breaking them open to reveal the sorpresina prize inside.
Pasquetta (Easter Monday) is usually spent with friends, often day-tripping to another town for a passeggiata or walk down the Corso. One of the most popular events in Umbria on Easter Monday is the Ruzzolone cheese rolling race in the pretty town of Panicale. Huge wheels of cheese are rolled along a course around the village walls, and the winner is feted with music and wine in the piazza.
Giornata Nazionale delle Ferrovie Dimenticate (National Forgotten Railways Day)—This is one of my favorite annual events, during which ex-railway lines (many now retrofitted as hiking and biking trails) are highlighted with organized excursions, railway museum visits, and period photography shows. This year the events are during the weekend of 5-6 April, but unfortunately the website is only in Italian.
Giornata FAI (Open Day for the Italian National Trust)—FAI is a non-profit fund which protects artistic, historical, and natural treasures in Italy. Many of their sites (if not the majority) are closed to the public for most of the year, but for one weekend annually (26-27 March in 2011) some of the most unique and breathtaking of these open their doors for guided tours and visits. If you are passionate about off the beaten track villas, castles, monasteries, and parks, this is an event to watch.
Settimana della Cultura (Culture Week)– The Ministry for Art and Culture has periodic discount days for State museums and monuments across Italy. During the annual Culture Week (9-17 April in 2011), all State-owned museums, monuments, and archaeological sites are open free of charge and some organize special events, guided tours, and extraordinary openings to closed sites.
La Corsa all’Anello (The Race of the Ring), Narni–In one of the most beautiful (and off the beaten path) hilltop towns in the region, you will find the epitome of the Umbrian festival: medieval pageantry, costumed locals, banner-festooned streets, outdoor taverne with food and wine, torchlit processions, and, of course jousting.
Festa del Tulipano (Tulip Festival), Castiglione del Lago–After World War II, a group of Dutch families resettled on the shores of Lake Trasimeno to coltivate tulips, and with them came the tradition of celebrating the arrival of spring by decorating the town with the petals of the first tulip blooms, which were too short to be sold at market. The Dutch no longer raise flowers here (though there is a concentration of Dutch expats around the lake still), but the tradition continues in decorated floats, flower shows, and petal-strewn streets.
Picnic a Trevi–Art, music, and food among the olive groves of lovely Trevi.
Antiquaria d’Italia (Antique Show), Todi–One of the most important and prestigious antique shows/markets in the area, in the beautiful period Palazzo Landi Corradi.
Calendimaggio, Assisi–Perhaps the most spectacular of all Umbrian festivals, with its squaring off of the two medieval halves of the town–the “Parte di Sopra” and the “Parte di Sotto”—who challenge each other during three days of costumed pageants, medieval reenactments, vocal and instrumental concerts, dances, processions, archery, crossbow, and flag corps competitions. Splurge for tickets so you can get a good look at the action in the main piazza (the most breathtaking show is Saturday night, when antics with fire play a huge part).
Festa dei Ceri, Gubbio–“A candle race” doesn’t quite capture the over-the-top town-wide frenzy that takes over this otherwise stoic village on May 15th each year as three teams carry gargantuan wooden “candlesticks” on their shoulders and precariously charge through the thronged streets to the deafening cacophany of cheering, drums, and bells.
Il Palio della Balestra (Cross-bow competition), Gubbio–If you want a piece of the festival action, but maybe a slightly smaller piece than the Festa dei Ceri dishes up, try this historical costumed event the last weekend in May
Cantine Aperte (Open Wineries)–Wineries big and small open their doors across Umbria (but concentrated in the Sagrantino-producing area near Montefalco) for tastings, guided tours, and special events.
La Palombella, Orvieto–A caged dove representing the Holy Spirit descending upon the Apostles follows a wire from the Bishop’s palace over the heads crowding the piazza to end in a fireworks display on the opposite side in front of the basilica’s breathtaking facade. The festival is held on Pentecost Sunday, so dates vary.
This has to be one of the most arduous posts I have ever had to research. Yes, the toll of recon missions to some of the swankest spas and hotels in Umbria is a sacrifice I would only endure for someone as important as star blogger and travel consultant Robin Locker Lacey of one of the best travel websites out there: My Melange.
If you are seeking wellness and pampering–with a side of culture and history–look no further than one of these heavenly spas in Umbria!
I don’t often write about Assisi per se, as it seems that rivers of ink have been spilled in describing the town’s beauty and mystique. So it was a unique pleasure not only to be able to contribute to one of my favorite blogs about Italy (Madeline Clarke Jhawar’s excellent Italy: Beyond the Obvious) but to be able to explore some of the lesser known Roman monuments and sites in my adopted hometown.
If you have a passion for Roman history (or just want an excuse to check in to a fabulous five star spa), take a look here for some tips!