Easter comes exceptionally late in 2014, which means it’s a great year to take off for the week and head to Umbria where spring is in full swing.
If you are planning an Easter visit, I wrote a few tips about what to expect regarding events and food related to this important holiday for About.com’s GoItaly this week.
Want more information on what to pig out on during your Easter break in Umbria? Say no more.
What’s the funnest part of Easter in Umbria? Read on.
Have any more tips for visiting Umbria at Eastertime? Leave a comment below!
This edition of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is a bit sluggish…blame the August heat. Take a look at what my fellow bloggers including travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel (on leave this month), professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, the hilariously irreverent Kate Bailward and me have to say. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some popsicles, and join in on the conversation.
August in Italy
August in Italy is hot. Hot hot. Too hot to work (which is why this post is late), too hot to sleep, and too hot to cook—much less eat–much of anything.
There is one dish that I can always stomach, no matter what the thermometer reads. No, it’s not gelato (there are days when even gelato seems a challenge) and it’s not pasta salad (though it’s a close runner-up). It’s panzanella.
Panzanella is both a quintessentially Umbrian and a quintessentially summer dish. Umbrian because it is a delicious way to use up stale bread, which appeals to the parsimonious Umbrians and their farming traditions of not letting anything go to waste, and because pretty much every cook has their own version of it, depending upon their tastes and vegetable garden. Summer because it is built around flavorful garden tomatoes, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, and not much else–all ingredients that abound in these summer months—and involves not a lick of flame to make.
When the temperatures soar, make yourself a big ol’ plate of panzanella. And then take a nap in front of the fan.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Ingredients for four servings:
- 200 grams traditional Umbrian bread (cooked in a wood oven is best), cubed
- 3-4 ripe tomatoes (cherry tomatoes work fine, as well), chopped
- 1 small red onion, chopped
- 1 stick of celery, sliced
- (optional, according to taste: 1 cucumber and/or 1 carrot and/or a few leaves of romaine lettuce and/or capers and/or minced garlic and/or red or yellow sweet peppers)
- a handful of green or black marinated olives (the good ones, people)
- a bunch of fresh basil, chopped
Cut the vinegar with the same volume of water, making enough to soak the bread cubes. Soak for about five minutes, then press out the liquid well (the cubes get a little mushed up…it’s fine.).
Mix the bread with the chopped vegetables, olives, and basil in a large salad bowl. Dress with olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste.
Let the panzanella rest in the refrigerator for about two hours.
Yep, that’s it. Nap time.
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.
Before I go any further, let me just preface this by saying that Umbria is a food culture, not a drink culture. A group of friends in Umbria is much more likely to organize an evening around a meal—either at home or at a restaurant—than around meeting for drinks. In fact, for roughly the first 15 years I lived here I don’t think I ever met up with friends for a cocktail. At most, we would grab a beer after dinner in the pub…but even that was rare.
Lately a small cocktail culture has begun to take hold in Umbria, for a number of reasons. First, the concept of the aperitivo has become increasingly popular over the past couple of years, probably because the happy hour-esque pairing of drink with food around dinner time is something that the Umbrians can cotton on to without much trouble. Also, with the economy being what it is, it can be cheaper to nurse a drink for an evening of after-dinner conversation than order a meal (However, as part of my hard hitting journalism, I actually found myself consuming an €8 cocktail the other night. €8. Like, the same amount I pay for a pizza margherita and a small beer in my real life.). And, of course, Umbrians–like the rest of the world–like to feel like they are doing the same things hip people in Manhattan are doing, so mixed drinks are hot right now. Though the hip people I know in Manhattan seem to spend an inordinate amount of time ordering-in Vietnamese sandwiches and watching The Wire on their TiVo.
The bottom line is that you are probably not going to get an extraordinary drink in Umbria. This is not the land of the mixologist, but of the porkologist. If you want a memorable salame, you’ve come to the right place. If you want a memorable Manhattan, you should probably go there. This is, however, a land of wonderful views, people watching, and historic cafes…so I’ve given more weight in my choices to the esthetics than to the quality of the alcohol. If you’re choosy about your cocktails, you can always just order a glass of wine. Umbrians do know good wine.
A Drink with a View
Punto di Vista–Viale Indipendenza, 2 Perugia
The bad news is that Perugia has no rooftop bars. The good news is that this hilltop town doesn’t need them. Perch yourself on one of the stools along the parapet which forms the long wall of this outdoor bar, and sip a cocktail while enjoying one of the most spectacular views around. From here you can see almost the entire length of the Umbrian valley, and prettily lit Assisi on the far hill.
Why, yes, I did manage to snap this picture on the night of the full moon. Why, yes, I do rock.
Il Trombone–Via Fontanello 1, Spello
The view from this outdoor lounge is so enchanting that you will be tempted to return here for a meal. Don’t do it. The restaurant is—how can I put this?—a crime against Italian cooking. But the adjoining bar is a lovely tree shaded patio with wicker seating tucked into niches and an incredibly soothing view over the green olive-grove covered hills surrounding Spello. I repeat: just drink here.
The view takes the edge off just as much as your drink.
A Drink with a Different View
Tric Trac–Piazza Duomo, 10 Spoleto
If you are green hill panorama-ed out but would still like some eye candy to accompany your gin and tonic, head to one of the outdoor tables at this elegant bar overlooking Spoleto’s breathtaking duomo. The piazza–closed to traffic–is unusually quiet for an Italian square, so you can sip in peace while gazing at the softly lit facade of one of the most magnificent churches in Umbria.
The bell tower is currently under scaffolding, but that doesn't distract from this breathtaking facade.
Nun–Via Eremo delle Carceri, 1A Assisi
This rather unfortunately named brand-new-never-been-opened-still-in-box luxury hotel and spa seems to have gotten everything right…the elegant renovation of the historic ex-convent it now calls home, the breathtaking spa in the excavated Roman ruins under the hotel, and the chic internal courtyard bar open to both guests and the public. This glass, chrome, and dramatically lit space offers a unique view in Assisi…looking up, rather than down, you see the Rocchicciola, or secondary fortress which dominates the skyline.
Hotel Bontadosi–Piazza del Comune, 19 Montefalco
If all humans are actors in this theater of life, the main stages in Italy are doubtless the town piazzas. Settle yourself down in one of this elegant hotel’s inviting outdoor couches, order a drink from the formal yet approachable staff, and watch the show.
Get front row seats to the show in Montefalco's charming piazza
Bar 1.2–Piazza Garibaldi, Todi
Right under the portico of the elegant Palazzo del Comune, this new bar is both a wonderful place for people watching and, if you’re lucky, listening to live music. The atmosphere is young and casual, the shows are a mix of acoustic, jazz, and alternative, and the piazza is hopping. A winner.
H2nO–Via Baldeschi, 12/a Perugia
If the sun isn’t cooperating but you are still hankering for a Cuba Libre, search out this quirkily hip bar right in the university district, with its young clientele and a fun vibe. The main floor is built around some restored Roman arches in brick and stone, which makes it an interesting space when the weather outside is frightful.
Il Vincaffè–Via Filippeschi 39 Orvieto
This wine bar is upscale yet friendly, like a neighborhood place in Soho. Great wines and spirits, jovial staff, and some foodie munchies. A perfect place to pop in for an hour on a chilly fall evening to imbibe and rub elbows with the locals.
This great shot by Dean Thorsen captures the vibe of the place. Good times.
A special thanks to Alessandra from Discovering Umbria for her Todi and Orvieto help and suggestions!
I have to fess up and admit that it took me years to finally work up the courage to check out what turned out to be one of my favorite festivals in Umbria.
My only other contact with anything resembling a medieval fair was the now defunct King Richard’s Faire outside Chicago, which is an event roughly 1/3 kitsch, 1/3 tacky, and 1/3 fat, badly dressed midwesterners (I feel I can say this with impunity, being myself a fat, badly dressed midwesterner). Actors wandered around the fairgrounds in costumes which can be described only as flower child 1980s Shakespearean, chitchatting in ye olde English, and selling “jars of mead” (Budweiser) and “sweet water” (Coke) from handbaskets. The food was whole turkey legs, eaten with one’s hands, and funnel cakes. The crafts were dried flower arrangements and toy swords. I loved it, to be fair. But I was 8, to be honest. When I was 8, the height of cuisine was chili-mac, the height of fine wine was Lancers (Grandma drank it), the height of music was K-Tel’s Disco Nights, and the height of culture was King Richard’s Faire.
So it was with much trepidation that I approached the Mercato delle Gaite in Bevagna, imagining obnoxious jesters, marauding costumed concessionary hawkers, and just simply too much bad taste for my grownup self to handle. Instead, this ten day long festival set in the 1300s is the antithesis to all of that, and a damned good time for both adults and kids, to boot.
One of the principal differences is that the annual event—founded in 1983–is not simply entertainment but instead a competition between the four traditional gaite, or quarters, of the town of Bevagna: San Giorgio, San Pietro, San Giovanni, and Santa Maria. Each quarter earns points primarily based on their historical accuracy during each of the four competitions held during the festival; continuous and quite rigorous accademic research goes on behind the scenes and the festival’s jury is largely made up of historians and experts on fourteenth century Italy. Like I said, there ain’t no ye olde English-esque stuff going on.
The coat of arms for San Giorgio
San Giovanni's coat of arms
San Pietro flies these colors
The crest of Santa Maria
Another difference between the two festivals is, of course, the venue. Bevagna is an absolute jewel in the Umbrian plain, listed among the most beautiful villages in Italy. The festival’s four competitions all take place in the lovely main piazza, and the medieval streets, buildings, and courtyards which surround it. A charming place to visit all year round, this town really shines when all decked out for their annual festival.
The most important difference is, of course, the events themselves, four in all, which make up the competition between the gaite—first among them the mestieri, or artisan workshops. Each quarter has the task of organizing two different workshops which use both the techniques and technology of the 1300s to actually produce wares—which makes the Mercato delle Gaite unique in a region where medieval festivals come a dime a dozen.
The bell foundry...one of the "mestieri"
Over the years some of the less successful workshops have been replaced, others enlarged (this slow but constant evolution means that the trades have become more elaborate and spectacular with time), and now all are marvelous and fascinating.
The immense replica silk thread making machine
From the silk workshop–which raises silkworms, unravels the cocoons, and spins fine thread on a manual wooden contraption which fills an entire room and looks as if it jumped right out of one of da Vinci’s sketchpads of marvelous machines—to the paper workshop—which produces fine handcrafted paper by pounding rags with an enormous pulper powered by a waterwheel—to the bell foundry—which casts bronze bells on commission from churches and historical societies all over Italy—each workshop is manned by artisans in period garb who explain their trade as practiced 700 years ago. There are ten mestieri in all (two are permanent and non-competing) open to the public every night from 9-12 pm and Saturday and Sunday from 5-7 pm and again from 9-12 pm.
The apothecary's workshop
As long as you are headed into town to see the workshops, plan to have dinner at one of the four taverne (outdoor restaurants) organized by each gaita. The second competition which takes place during the festival–and figures into calculating the victor–is gastronomic. Each quarter of the city researches recipes and ingredients used in fourteenth century cuisine and offers the public a chance to taste the fruits of this research by creating a menu exclusively made up of historical dishes. The fare is heavy on meat (especially game), spices (this year I had a spice lasagna which was fabulous), and egg pasta and bread. You won’t find tomatoes (no tomato sauce on your tagliatelle), potatoes (no gnocchi), corn (no polenta), or any other ingredients which were brought back from the New World 200 years after the time of the gaite.
A banquet with period food and costumes
After dinner and before making the rounds of the workshops, you can stop in the central Piazza Silvestri and watch a series of theatrical and musical events in costume, or the archery contest (the third of the four competitions during the festival). Especially interesting is the Notte Medievale, a dusk to dawn medieval festival-within-a-festival with a full night of art, music, dance, and food.
Archers from the four Gaite prepare to compete in the piazza
The highpoint of the festivities, and the origin of the name Mercato delle Gaite, is the medieval market which takes place during the afternoons of the final weekend. Each quarter organizes a working market, where locals play artists, artisans, tradespeople, and farmers displaying their wares—the competition consists in trying to create the most interesting, artistic, and historically accurate market square. The feel of these markets really is a step back in time…each teems with customers weaving their way through the market booths, the din of the tradespeople hawking their wares and the live animals protesting their confinement, the smell of fresh flowers and herbs, cheeses, and dried sausages, the colorful garb of the costumed sellers and their stalls heaped with wares.
A market scene
I suppose the one thing the Mercato delle Gaite and King Richard’s Faire have in common is that you will find yourself inevitably bringing something home from both…what you end up bringing away with you from Bevagna, however, will never be a source of buyer’s remorse.
These photos were reproduced with permission of the Associazione Mercato delle Gaite.
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
Lunch and dinner; closed Tuesdays
Vegetarian and gluten free options
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.
Our meal was paid for by e20umbria, but would have been about €40/head.
Via S. Agata, 14
Lunch and dinner; closed Tues (open every day during the Spoleto Festival)
Can accommodate vegetarian and gluten free (no separate kitchen for celiacs)
I haven’t written a restaurant review in a long time, and there’s a reason for this: it’s a pain in the ass. Menus change, chefs change, management changes, the place has a bad night, it closes, it moves–it’s just too hard to keep current with it all. When I go back over the restaurants I’ve mentioned over the years in the reviews section, they all seem so out of date that I get demoralized.
That said, I’m throwing my hat back into the ring because I’m often asked for restaurant recommendations for Spoleto and I’ve never had a particularly convincing answer. Until now. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Spoleto over the past week for the Spoleto Festival, and have eaten at a number of the city’s local eateries. Of these, a couple have stood out (see below) but the only one that has piqued my interest enough to return for round two (aside from the awesome pizza by the slice place in Piazza del Mercato) is Ristorante Apollinare.
Before I actually wrote about it, I wanted to eat there at least twice…the first dinner I had was a kind of officially workish thingie, so I thought maybe they had pulled out all the stops and if I were to come back as a mere mortal (with my kids, no less) the food would be less memorable. Luckily, I was wrong.
Let me just preface this by saying that Apollinare immediately got on my good side by doing one of my favorite things: face time with the chef. I love when the chef comes out of the kitchen to chit chat for a minute and let you know what he (or she) is cooking up. I also love eating al fresco…Apollinare is part of a medieval convent, so it’s all pretty stone walls and exposed beams indoors (Don’t expect any chic contemporary restaurant decor in Spoleto. The local esthetic leans heavily towards dark wood and damask.), but Umbria in general is the land of stone walls and exposed beams, so it’s easy to get all twelfth century, schmelfth century after awhile. And the winters can get long here; it’s nice to juice the summer for all it’s worth and get outside as much as possible.
The young chef, Michele Pidone, is cute as a button and, though he’s been at Apollinare for 12 years (head chef for five of those and manager for two), he’s still brimming with the enthusiasm of the newly converted. His menu is seasonal–though the specials change every few days and he’s always ready with off-menu suggestions–and centers around local, traditional dishes served up with just enough of a twist to keep them interesting but not overwhelming.
His strangozzi al tartufo got a double thumbs up from my kids (who are very blasé about truffles, having been pratically weaned on them), and I especially loved his vegetable parmeggiano, for which he departs from tradition and doesn’t fry his vegetables, making the final product filling but not stuffing. My son also enjoyed the chianina hamburger, and we all devoured our carrot and ginger quiche amouse bouche. I had high hopes for my mixed green salad with fresh fruit, nuts, and raspberry vinaigrette, but for some reason it didn’t gel. Italy doesn’t do eclectic salads very well, so I was philosophical about it.
The plating is uninspired–I’m more for substance than show so that doesn’t bother me much—but the attentive service (did I mention I love when the chef comes out to your table to check on you?) and solidly excellent food make up for it. There are a couple of themed fixed menus (including a vegetarian option, bless him), which range from €15 to €35/head, but when Michele greets you with a “Ci penso io?” (Would you like me to take care of you?), I would take him up on the offer. You’ll be in for a satisfying surprise.
Full disclosure: My meals were paid for by e20Umbria, but I picked up my sons’ tab. Because they’re not so good at washing dishes.
There were a couple of other memorable restaurants that I stumbled across in Spoleto this week. Here are the also-mentioned:
Trattoria del Festival
Via Brignone, 5
Via del Duomo, 3
(lovely terrace with a view)
We are celebrating our second holiday season with the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli (on temporary leave), art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, help yourself to some Christmas cookies, and join in on the conversation.
If there’s one thing that I love, it’s reward for hard work.
If there’s one thing that I love even more, it’s reward for pretty much doing nothing at all.
Which is why one of my favourite liqueurs to make—and I make quite a number—is bay liqueur. Super simple and quick (unlike, for example, Nocino, which is a pain in the ass to make and takes roughly three years), bay liqueur is a crowd pleaser: easy on the palate, nice in the summer chilled (or, my favourite, on top of ice-cream) and excellent in the winter straight up or to spike an espresso. It comes out a pretty color, too, so present it in an elegant glass bottle with a bit of ribbon and you’ve got yourself a perfect hostess gift for the holidays.
Easy as pie. Actually, easier than pie.
Follow this monkey-proof recipe and watch the kudos pour in. It’s satisfying. Trust me.
Bay Liqueur: The Recipe. Annotated.
Okay, so the one trick to this recipe is that you must use FRESH bay leaves. I had no idea what fresh bay might look like (my previous experience with bay was a small plastic jar of greyish, brittle leaves on my mother’s 1970’s spice rack, which I duly added to stews when following the recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook) until I moved into a house in the Italian countryside with an immense bay bush growing in the front yard. And I only put into focus what type of bush it was the first time I pruned it and the intoxicating perfume of fresh bay hung over the garden for hours. (Never smelled fresh bay? It’s the most delicious scent EVEH. I have a tick every time I pass through my front yard of picking off a leaf and rubbing it between my fingers and sniffing my hand for the next hour or two. People kind of avoid me on the street, but it’s worth it.)
The good stuff. Fresh from the bush.
So, if you don’t have fresh bay don’t even bother making this recipe. I don’t know what will happen if you try to use dried bay leaves, but I can guarantee you that it won’t be good.
- 96 bay leaves (This is why you had children. Go send them out to pick the bay right now.)
- Zest of two lemons, cut into strips
- 1 kg plus 300 g sugar (the evil processed granulated white kind)
- 1.5 lt water (tap is fine)
- 1 lt alcohol (You can get 95% alcohol at the grocery store in Italy—You can’t get ibuprofen, but you can get 95% alcohol. Go figure.—but I know that isn’t true everywhere. I have friends in the States who use vodka.)
Put 66 bay leaves, the lemon zest, and the alcohol in a glass bottle, close tightly, and let it sit for 24 hours.
The next day dissolve the sugar in the water, add the remaining 30 bay leaves, and bring to a boil. Let it simmer for a few minutes over a low flame until the syrup takes on the bay flavour. I usually simmer for about 15 minutes.
Let the syrup cool, add the alcohol mixture, and strain it through a coffee filter into glass bottles.Cork or close tightly to store. When ready to serve, filter once more into decorative bottles (if the bottles sit for more than a few weeks there will be a bit of cloudy sediment at the bottom, which is not that pretty but does nothing to the taste.).
The main ingredients and the finished product ready to be stored.
Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.
This is the tenth installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some caramel corn, and join in on the conversation.
I just woke up one day and knew it was time. I mean, you can only live in fear for so long. You can only avoid your demons for so long. You can only exist in a state of denial, shame, and self-imposed existential isolation for so long. At a certain point, it’s time to stand up and take back your life.
It was time to make gnocchi.
Yes, okay, I know. I’ve been living in Italy for almost twenty years and I’ve never had the courage to make gnocchi. There are a few dishes I’ve never made in all my years here for the simple reason that I have access to a number of elderly country ladies who are masters at dishes like torta al testo, torta di formaggio, and tagliatelle. So, when I have a hankering, it’s just plain easier to ask one of the zie to whip them up for me than go to the trouble of making it myself. Plus, it totally makes their day (Week. Month. Year.). I figure that when they start dying off on me, I’ll go to the trouble of learning their secrets myself.
This is not the case with gnocchi. I don’t know any older Umbrian women who are particularly talented at gnocchi, which is not a traditional dish in Umbria. Sure, they can throw a bowl of them together under duress, but it’s clearly not their piatto forte. Which is probably the very same reason that I’ve been avoiding making them for all these years. I mean, if Zia Anna—who can almost single-handedly butcher an entire pig and cook up its entrails into something enticing in her 300-year-old wood burning oven in the farmyard out back—can’t make a decent plate of gnocchi, it must be incredibly tricky, right?
But then a couple of things happened. One is that my friend and professional chef Jennifer started shaming me almost daily about it. It was bordering on a bullying-like situation. My self-esteem was beginning to suffer. And then–to rub salt in the wound–Jennifer showed wine blogger Mary Cressler how to make gnocchi in roughly 37 seconds, and Mary went home to make a perfect pot of gnocchi on her first go with complete nonchalance. Nonchalance, I say. And Mary had been in Umbria for all of five days. I’ve been here for 19 years.
It was humiliating.
As a final catalyst, there was the looming monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, with the appalling theme of “roots”. Whoever came up with that idea is clearly a raving idiot (yes, it was me). But then the lightbulb clicked on. Roots! Potatoes are root vegetables! And potatoes are the main ingredient of gnocchi! I would make gnocchi!
Let the record show that when I said those exact same words to Jennifer over the phone, it was met with a disconcerting silence. The life of a genious is a lonely one, my friends.
So gnocchi it was. I was stoked. Ready. Yet potato-less.
Yes, potato-less. You’d think that living on a farm would guarantee a virtual endless supply of basic foodstuffs like eggs, potatoes, and grappa…but we had finished the potatoes from last year and the spring spuds aren’t ready yet. So, I called Jennifer back to ask what kind of potatoes I should buy from the grocery store.
The words grocery store were met with a disconcerting silence.
Which is why I found myself driving around the Umbrian countryside in search of a farm truck hawking locally grown potatoes. Because if my first go at gnocchi was going to crash and burn, it wasn’t going to be because I had the wrong damn potatoes. Luckily, I came upon a truck pretty quickly and the guy there had bagged me up a couple of potatoes when I mentioned I was making gnocchi with them. At which point he snatched the bag out of my hands and dumped them back in bin with a look like I was the biggest cretin who had ever pulled over next to his pick-up. “Why didn’t you say so? You don’t need the Colfiorito reds, then. You’ll be wanting the Avezzano browns. They’re grown in the sandy soil along the river.” Ah. I nodded wisely. He went on to discuss the merits of making gnocchi with potatoes from Avezzano for several minutes. Other clients chimed in. Advice and warnings were given. Pointers. Tips. Trouble-shooting solutions. None of which were particularly encouraging.
I got back home assembled the rest of the ingredients, according to what Jennifer had told me over the phone:
- Four to six potatoes. I’m not even going to try to tell you what kind. Ask your farm truck guy.
- An egg, slightly beaten with a fork.
- Four to five cups of flour. Have five ready just in case.
- A small handful of grated parmesan cheese.
- Salt. (I forgot to put the salt in and they came out fi…oh, wait. I won’t spoil the ending for you. But don’t sweat the salt thing.)
And then I took about 20 minutes to decide on what music I wanted to listen to while I cooked. Because my priorities are straight.
I washed the potatoes and put them in a pot of salted water, brought it to a boil, and then lowered the heat to a simmer and, in theory, let the potatoes cook until fork-tender. What really happened was that I got distracted by this singularly hilarious blog post by my friend Michelle, which pulled me down the rabbit hole of capes, Borsellinos, and cigars until I suddenly realized that I had probably overboiled the potatoes. As it turns out, they came out fi…oh, wait. I won’t spoil the ending for you. But don’t sweat the overboiling thing.
I drained and peeled the potatoes (while roughly still the temperature of the surface of the sun) and then went to pick my sons up from school. I wanted to involve them in the gnocchi-making process, as it involves a) the food mill (big fun); b) mixing dough by hand (bigger fun); and c) rolling out snakes and cutting them into pieces (playdoh-level fun). And, of course, if my first go at gnocchi was going to crash and burn, I could blame them.
When we all got home, we put the cooled potatoes through the mill, then made a well with about three cups of the flour and added the potatoes, beaten egg, and cheese. My sons took turns mixing and mashing it all together, gradually adding more flour until the dough wasn’t sticky. My gut feeling is that we worked the dough a little too much (My turn now! No, let me knead it now!) but as it turns out, they came out fi…oh, wait. I won’t spoil the ending for you. But don’t sweat the kneading thing.
The boys broke off chunks of dough to roll into snakes, which they then cut into the classic little pillow-shaped squares. I kind of gave them free reign at this point, which risulted in a hodge-podge of sizes, shapes, and scored vs. unscored gnocchi on our final tray. But we’re less about form and more about function at our table.
It was time for the reckoning. I cooked the gnocchi in two batches in a large pot of salted, boiling water so they wouldn’t stick together (they only take a couple of minutes to rise to the surface after you dump them in, so it’s easy to keep the first batch warm while you quickly cook the second) and dressed them with our own pesto, which we make in summer and freeze to use the rest of the year. They looked pretty good…they had retained their shape (a promising sign that they wouldn’t be too mushy) but also swelled just slightly while cooking (a promising sign that they wouldn’t be too tough).
And it was underwhelming. I mean, not the gnocchi. The gnocchi were fabulous. Perfect. Despite a strong probability that we used the wrong potatoes, despite forgetting the salt, despite slightly overboiling the potatoes, kneading the dough to death, and having made no two the same size.
Which just goes to show you. Sometimes the secret to success is not sweating the small stuff.
Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.
I spent the month of January blogging about wine for Umbria on the Blog, and, while it was certainly one of the funner months in recent history (the parts that I, ahem, remember), the experience served to bring home one truth: there can, indeed, be too much of a good thing. I got pretty wine-d out by the time the project came to a close with the International Wine Tourism Conference in Perugia, but before I hop on the wagon I thought I’d throw together a quick guide to the principal wines produced in Umbria with some suggestions for my favorite places to sample each.
Hard at work researching. Really.
Though this region has a wine-making tradition that began with the Etruscans over 2000 years ago, the Umbrians spent most of the past two millenia brewing up tiny batches of wine for use by family and friends, and never made the name for themselves to rival that of their Tuscan neighbors.
That said, over the past twenty years the culture surrounding wine in this region has moved out of the private sphere and into the public eye. Commercial cantinas have begun to make themselves an international reputation by both refining the traditional varietals and by pushing the envelope with new products and blends.
The principal wines produced in Umbria are:
Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG from the area surrounding Montefalco. This tannic, full-bodied red made from the Sagrantino grape is aged a minimum of 30 months (the final 12 in wood barrels), has spice, berry, and earth flavors, and is best paired with roasts, lamb, game, and aged cheeses. The Passito dessert version–made with grapes which have been dried at least two months–goes well with biscotti or berry jam tarts. Blended with Sangiovese, the Sagrantino grape is also used to make a Montefalco Rosso DOC.
Colli Martani DOC is produced in much of the same area as Sagrantino and includes a Trebbiano (made primarily with Trebbiano Spoletino) and a Grechetto–two light, clean whites and a Sangiovese which, if aged for a minimum of two years the latter of which in oak barrels, carries the name Sangiovese Riserva. The Riserva is more complex and structured than the easy-going Sangiovese and can even get Chianti-esque, pairing well with grilled meat and aged cheese.
There are a plethora of excellent wineries in the area surrounding Montefalco where passers-by (I’m always impressed with myself when I remember how to make that plural) can stop in for a tasting. Arnaldo Caprai is, perhaps, the best known, and for good reason. The Caprai family almost single-handedly resurrected the largely-forgotten Sagrantino grape in the 1970s and has been one of the most active wineries in refining and marketing the wine. Their tasting room is sleek and modern and their wines the same. I also love the equally historic yet more rustic Scacciadiavoli winery, and the venerable winery Paolo Bea is making some excellent award-winning Sagrantino. Also rans are di Filippo, both for their wines and for their vibe, and Colpetrone, one of the few wineries in the area that’s not a family business.
Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG is produced in the area surrounding Torgiano and made from Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Trebbiano, Ciliegiolo, and Montepulciano grapes. This complex wine must be aged at least three years and its bold yet balanced flavor is best enjoyed with roasts and fowl, game, and hard cheeses. Torgiano also produces a number of DOC wines, both white (with Trebbiano and Grechetto grapes) and red (with Sangiovese and Canaiolo). It is also one of the few areas in Umbria which produces spumante.
There are only two wineries in Torgiano proper: Lungarotti, the Grande Dame of Umbrian wineries, began selling their wine in the 1960s and continue to be one of Umbria’s most well-known names in wine; and, just down the road, the upstart Terre Margaritelli, which is just six years in the biz but already making some of the most interesting wines in the area and is one of my favorite wineries right now.
Orvieto DOC Perhaps one of Umbria’s best-known wines is the crisp white made with Trebbiano, Grechetto, Verdello and Canaiolo grapes from the hills surrounding Orvieto, which makes up 75% of Umbria’s total wine production. The mineral and delicate fruit flavors in the dry white come from the particular volcanic rock in the area; these wines are best with fish, vegetables, or strong cheeses. A sweet version is produced by letting the grapes stay until late into the fall on the vine, where they produce a high level of sugar. Sip them with cookies or creamy cheeses like gorgonzola.
Lago di Corbara DOC The microclimate around Lake Corbara between Todi and Orvieto is such that producers there have been experimenting with innovative blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Nero–not widely found in other areas of Umbria–along with the classic Sangiovese. The full-bodied reds coming out of these wineries are intense, dry, and slightly tannic.
My favorite vineyard near Orvieto (overlooking Lake Corbara) is Barberani, but I openly admit that this is largely because I have a huge crush on the cutie-pie brothers who run the winery. My friend and guide Alessandra Mallozzi from Discovering Umbria, who, as a sommalier, is probably more objective, suggests the award-winning Palazzone and the small, family-run Custodi.
Assisi DOC hails from the vineyards of Assisi and Spello and comes in a white version (with Trebbiano and Grechetto grapes), light, dry, and best used as an aperitif wine or paired with fish, and an intense and persistent red–Rosso, Rosato, and Novello–(with Sangiovese and Merlot grapes), best served with pasta dishes.
The place I head to first when I want to pick up some local swill is the charming Saio winery just outside of Assisi. Lovely wine, and the family has organized some pretty walking trails and picnic spots in the surrounding vineyards with some great views towards Assisi and Mount Subasio.
Colli Perugini DOC This is a large area, extending from Perugia through Marsciano and Monte Castello di Vibio (including one of our favorite wineries). The wines produced in this area (primarily Trebbiano and Grechetto whites and a Sangiovese red) are friendly quaffing table wines, but there are also a few heirloom native varietals worth searching out, including Mostiola, il Tintarolo, la Pecorina e il Lupeccio.
The Goretti winery near Perugia has one of the niftiest stores around: there are retrofitted gas pumps in the shop, and locals come with their own containers to fill up. It’s pretty cool, as is the medieval castle where the winery is located.
Colli del Trasimeno DOC wines hail from the area ringing Lake Trasimeno with its unique microclimate allowing for the cultivation of a number of grapes not found elsewhere in Umbria: a white with Trebbiano, Verdello, and Grechetto and red with Sangiovese, Ciliegiolo, Gamay, Malvasia, and Trebbiano grapes. The light white is perfect for aperitifs or with fish and the bright, smooth red with roasts, game, and cheese.
Colli Amerini DOC is produces in the area including Amelia and Narni. The red varieties blend Sangiovese, Merlot, Montepulciano, Canaiolo, Ciliegiolo, and Barbera grapes. The Rosso can be opened young or aged and is served with pasta in meat sauce, grilled meats, or semi-aged cheese. The fruity Novello pairs well with traditional Umbrian dishes, charcuterie, or fresh water fish. Rosato, with its delicate fruit flavors, goes well with truffles, spelt soup, or pasta with pork ragù. The prestigious Rosso Superiore, aged a minimum of two years (at least seven months in oak barrels) has a bold flavor best served with braised meat, boar, and game. The whites include Trebbiano, Malvasia, Drupeggio–a variety of Canaiolo–, and Grechetto grapes and are known for being dry yet smooth, with a delicate fruit undertone that pairs well with vegetarian pasta dishes or fried seafood.
Colli Altotiberini DOC is produced in the Upper Tiber Valley. The delicate white–best paired with fresh water fish or young cheeses–is made from Trebbiano and Malvasia varietals, while the well-rounded red (Rosso and Rosato) includes Sangiovese and Merlot and should be served with legumes, risotto, or roasted chicken.
The best place to sample these lesser-known wines is at the fantastic Enoteca Regionale in Orvieto.
One would think, right? One would think—what with my extensive arsenal of feminine charms, my glam slam social life here on the farm, and the household-name fame that is part and parcel of blogging—that I would be fending off dinner invitations from handsome strangers daily. It would become a chore, really. I would be rejecting them with a languid wave of my hand and an, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly take on one more engagement, darling. Honestly. I have a limit of four nights out a week.” I would be leaving a veritable trail of disappointment and heartbreak in my wake.
Ahem. Yes, well. I know this may come as a surprise to you (It certainly did to me), and I’m going to try to break it to you gently. That’s not exactly what goes on around here. Apparently the life of a working mother of two who writes an incredibly niche (that’s French for obscure) blog on the slow travel charms of one of the smallest regions in Italy is not exactly the most sought after arm candy on the social diaspora.
Which is why, when I received an email this summer from a fellow expat of the XY chromosome persuasion complementing me on my blog and inviting me out to lunch (I believe his exact words were something disarmingly elegant like, “I think you would enjoy one of my favorite restaurants in Umbria and I would be delighted to take you as my guest”), I literally glanced over my shoulder to check and make sure he was actually writing to me and not someone infinitely more attractive and interesting who might be standing behind me. But he was, indeed, addressing me and we settled on a date a few weeks hence (just because I don’t have a very refined social life doesn’t mean that I’m not, sadly, insanely busy).
I quickly came to the conclusion that the only explanation for this anomaly had to be that my new expat friend was some sort of psychopath (this is how the mind of a South side Chicagoan works). To fend off any possible attacks, I did what any responsible adult would do: I brought my nine year old son along. Apparently Mr. X had the same thought, as he informed me he was bringing along his niece. And so, our motley foursome was formed.
If I wasn’t disappointed about the woeful state of my social life before this lunch, I certainly was afterwards, as it turned out to be one of the highpoints of my summer. Mr. X is a delightful, erudite retiree who has lived in Umbria with his wife for the past few years and devotes much time and energy sussing out wonderful unknown eateries. His adult niece, visiting from Brooklyn, was a fun and funky designer who was great with my son. The conversation was easy and engaging, and before we knew it we had been at the table chatting for three hours (and my son was officially late for his rugby practice).
But the best part of my surprise invitation was, by far, the pure find of a restaurant Mr. X had chosen. If there’s one thing I pride myself on–other than the fact that I can move my ears and I defiantly refuse to see the movie Titanic–it’s that I pretty much know Umbria, including her notable restaurants. I may not have actually been to them all (though that is certainly one of my short term goals, which conflicts with my other short term goal of weight loss), but it’s relatively rare that someone can pull a place completely out of the hat and awe me.
I believe that we put a little bit of our souls into our cooking. I mean, not in that new agey brick-heavy metaphoric Like Water for Chocolate way, but in a more down-home pragmatic human nature way. Any creative act—painting or singing or writing or love making—inevitably reflects what’s going on in our heads and hearts. That’s just how we’re wired and I challenge anyone to sit down and paint a bright field of sunflowers or bake a sunny lemon tart the day after a death or a break-up or a foreclosure. This soul/food connection is usually more direct in our own kitchens, simply because the dishes aren’t diluted with the touch of too many hands. But sometimes—sometimes—you come upon a one-man-show restaurant where alongside your pasta you find plated a little piece of your cook’s heart. Welcome to Laura’s Hosteria.
Hosteria 4 Piedi & 8,5 Pollici
Piazza del Mercato, 10
Bastardo (Giano dell’Umbria)
Tel: 0742 99949
Why yes, I *do* know how to upload maps now. Expect lots of showing off in future blog posts.
I have to be honest and admit that I initially had my misgivings. The Hosteria is located in Bastardo (a wholely charmless village whose only claim to anything nearing passing interest is its name) in a secondary piazza ringed with bleak cement apartment blocks and a big box supermarket. We parked in a depressing commercial lot with its straggly grass and recycling dumpsters and my unease was lessened slightly as Mr. X pointed out the whimsical entrance to the Hosteria’s otherwise anonymous storefront, which could only be described as the result of a one night stand between an English garden show booth and the front yard of an organic co-op in Portland.
The eclectic front courtyards hints at the shabby chic decor inside.
The eclectic interior, with it’s meandering black and white mural decorations, fresh wildflower centerpieces, mismatched shabby chic chandeliers, vintage tableware, and—curiously—antique typewriter in the bathroom (it took me awhile to figure out why my son kept getting up to visit the loo every ten minutes), further put my doubts to rest. This was not a place which would be turning out factory-made tagliatelle with chemically-enhanced truffle sauce from the kitchen.
The small restaurant oozes personality.
Indeed, we didn’t know what would be coming out of the kitchen until our hostess, Laura, told us the specials of the day; the Hosteria is a strictly no menu sort of place. The selections are a magical alchemy of seasonal ingredients, Laura’s fancy, and customer finickiness (my son didn’t seem particularly excited about the cocoa maltagliati, ink squid tagliatelle, or ricotta and basil ravioli, so Laura took a gander at what she had in the kitchen and came up with a wonderful twist on the Roman specialty cacio e pepe, with a little guanciale thrown in for good measure. He was happy.). I was plied by the ravioli, and they were perfect…light little flavor bombs with a fresh tomato dressing. Aside from her egg pastas, Laura also makes a range of sauces to dress the dry pasta of your choice; the selection the day we visited were guanciale and zucchini, meatball and eggplant, and arrabiata.
An example of Laura's hand-shaped fresh pasta.
The meat dishes were equally diverse, ranging from a local tagliata steak, to traditionally prepared lamb chops, to the decidedly non-traditional ginger chicken or fish cakes. I asked for a cheese selection, and was treated to one of the best cheese courses I’ve had in Italy…from aged pecorino to fresh ricotta (served on a spoon with local honey), accompanied by a number of Laura’s handmade fruit mustards, relishes, and—divinely—wine reduced to an intense drizzle-able glaze.
The portions were as generous as Laura herself, so by the time we got to the dessert menu we could only handle some of her excellent biscotti (which were so good that my son managed to pocket one or two for later) and vin santo.
The Hosteria has an interesting wine list, with some off-beat local Umbrian cantine which reflect the vibe of this small (seating for about 30) restaurant and its menu. As I said, I was treated to lunch, but my gut feeling is that a couple could easily have two courses, dessert, and wine for around €50.
We had these biscotti, but without the hat.
When I asked Laura about the name she gave her Hosteria (which translates into 4 Feet & 8.5 Inches), she told me she had taken it from one of her favorite works of Brazilian author Paolo Coelho, Zahir. “The story is a parable of one man’s search for his wife, during which he is also searching for himself and the meaning of love. Four feet and 8.5 centimeters is the distance between rails on train tracks, and becomes an allegory for static nature of marriage as opposed to the constantly changing and evolving nature of love. Because the more you try to establish rules to measure love, the more love disappears.”
Kudos to Laura, her wonderful Hosteria, and the measureless love with which she feeds her clients’ bodies and souls.
These photos were used with kind permission of Laura Saleggia, who retains all the copyrights.