Wednesday is pork day on our Food and Wine itinerary, a day dedicated to driving to the far corner of Umbria to visit Norcia, the capital of pork butchery of Italy and the hometown of Saint Benedict, the patron saint of Europe. Thursday is also hiking day in Castelluccio, the beautiful mountain valley town just beyond Norcia, whose vast lunar-like valley is blanketed with fields of lentils prized throughout Italy.
The itinerary says Wednesday is pork and hiking day. But the weather says no. A steady rain, which started the previous evening has thrown the proverbial spanner in the works. We scramble to make new plans.
Often when guests inquire about renting our villa they will ask whether there is enough to do in this corner of Umbria to keep them busy for an entire week. It has been nearly four years since we bought and opened la Fattoria del Gelso and during that span we have visited the area well over a dozen times, often for several weeks at a time. And we have barely scratched the surface of this fascinating and hostpitable area.
So yes. There is plenty to do here.
We revise the day’s schedule – start with a visit to nearby Santa Maria degli Angeli to see the basilica there that houses the porziuncola, the meeting house where St. Francis started his order of frate minori (Franciscans); lunch at our favorite pizzeria in Perugia; a walking tour of that town, the regional capital of Umbria; and a visit to the studio of our friend, the talented artist Giuseppe Fioroni. We will finish the day with dinner at our favorite restaurant in town, Perbacco, and see our good friend Ernesto.
You see, each day’s itinerary could be completely scrapped and an entirely new itinerary created from scratch. Because there is so much to experience in Umbria.
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Today the town of Santa Maria degli Angeli is really just a suburb of Assisi, but back in the day of St. Francis it was a world away, a wild, marshy area outside the safety of Assisi’s town walls. It was here in the 1200s that Francis settled when he renounced his father and his father’s values of material comforts and instead placed his faith in God and dedicated his life to doing works of charity and service. Here he rented a small plot of land from the Benedictine monks and established a meeting house for his followers. He called this complex the porziuncola, or little portion of land, and since its founding it has been a place of great religious importance to Francis’ followers.
In the late 1500s a massive church was built over the Porziuncola and today its dome can be seen from miles away across the valley.
On our rescheduled rain day our little group exhibited the same gasps of awe that we experience every time we walk into the enormous church upon seeing the tiny building under the massive dome, the small stone building that has seen so much history. Regardless of one’s religious faith or lack of it, it is an impressive sight.
This sight was even more impressive as work was being completed to build a stage and altar in front of the Porziuncola for tomorrow’s visit of the Pope, the first Papal visit to Assisi and Santa Maria degli Angeli in several decades.
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As we arrived Perugia around lunchtime, the rain continued its slow, steady beat, shrouding the Etruscan hilltop town in thick fog, punctuated here and there to reveal portions of this haunting city along our drive up the windy access road. We arrived at the Mercato Coperto car park, a multilevel garage just outside the city walls and a creaky elevator ride up to the city’s main historic center, thankful for our knowledge of the local roads which can make visiting this fascinating city a real pain. We emerged from the elevator onto the main floor of the mercato, a rooftop market with a breathtaking panorama of the valley below. As we took in the view it seemed as though the rain was slowing and the clouds and fog beginning to lift. We headed down the main pedestrian street, the Corso Vannucci to the tiny Pizzeria Mediterraneo, hoping to deliver on our promise to our group of the best pizza in Perugia.
Mediterraneo operates on the theory that one should find a single thing he does well and stick to it. They make and serve pizza here and make and serve only pizza here. No salads, no pastas, no grilled meats. Two young pizzaioli stretch dough into plate sized disks and top them with the fresh ingredients that diners order on their pizzas, then plunge them into the restaurant’s wood burning oven. Three minutes after you place your order, a steaming, crispy/chewy pizza is delivered to you. You can wash it down with a beer or wine. That is all.
And no one who ever ate at Mediterraneo has ever complained that they couldn’t get a salad or some pasta or plate of grilled meat. They, as we did yesterday, are thankful that Mediterraneo learned how to do one thing well, exceedingly well, and has stuck to it.
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After lunch we walked to Perugia’s main square, defined by its 13th century fountain, and met up with Francesco our tour guide for the next two and a half hours. The best way to see Perugia, a town founded by the Etruscans centuries before Christ, conquered by the Romans shortly before his birth, a town that became an important city-state in the middle ages and renaissance and which holds a great secret in its underground Rocca Paolina, is by foot. And the best way to learn about this haunting town, which is even more haunting on a day like yesterday, when it is shrouded in fog, is to be accompanied by a knowledgeable and engaging guide like Francesco. For those two and a half hours he entertained and educated our group with stories about the Etruscans, the Romans and his people, the Perugini.
Along the way we even noticed that the rain had stopped.
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A short ride from Perugia, in the outskirts of Ponte San Giovanni, a beautiful studio is hidden in an industrial park. This is the studio of Giuseppe Fioroni, a well regarded artist and ceramicist from this area and a renaissance man whose love of Umbria is worn on his sleeve, his shirt tail and his paint spattered apron. We have known the maestro for nearly a decade and even hosted a weeklong exhibition of his work in our Bethesda, Maryland store several years ago. We have always loved his vibrant ceramic work, in which he treats the terra cotta as a canvas to house his whimsical figures and scenes, and we have been inspired even more by his painting, in which the bright colored figures that spring from his imagination mingle with the gauzy apparitions that inhabit his dreams.
But to actually meet the man, to hear him talk of his inspiration and to experience the twinkle in his eye is the ultimate treat. A pleasure and an experience we wanted to share with our group. And so for an hour and a half we circled his studio, drinking in the color and spirit of this place and this man. It was an experience that none of us is likely to let go of soon.
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The evening of our day was given over to food. How unusual.
Perbacco, the restaurant of our good friend Ernesto, is not what one would expect to find in a small village such as our home town of Cannara. But it is here that Ernesto returned with his wife Simona after honing his restaurant skills in Rome. And it is likely that this first class restaurant could not exist in Rome. It is simply too good and too special to be lost among all of the touristy places in the Eternal City that don’t care about the tradition of a dish or the importance of the ingredients.
We have dined at Ernesto’s dozens of times. In fact, it is where we celebrated the purchase of the villa over lunch with the seller and the real estate agent. And every time we have dined there we have been treated to the most authentic food and most meticulous service. This is a place where Ernesto’s self-imposed expectation that you will have a memorable and enjoyable evening is routinely met by Ernesto himself. Last night was no exception.
One of the joys of owning a villa in the town of Cannara – Italy’s most famous town for onions – and of dining at Perbacco is introducing our guests to Ernesto’s interpretation of the Cannara onion. Two standards always appear on his menu, zuppa di cipolle (onion soup) and spaghetti Perbacco (spaghetti in a sauce of Cannara onion and anchovy). There is something imperceptibly different and indescribably good about Cannara onions and Ernesto has developed the perfect recipes to highlight those special qualities.
There are always different special dishes on Ernesto’s menu and last night was no different. These specials spring from Ernesto’s passion for offering the right food at the right time and for not only presenting plates of food but opportunities to learn about food and culture through the appreciation of food.
In this vein, Ernesto continued our wine education, which he took on some time ago as a personal task, introducing us at each dinner or cooking class to a new or interesting wine or producer or technique and, more recently, challenging us to train our sense of taste and smell. And so, as dinner wound down last night he brought out Ernesto’s great big book of smells, a large volume that contains several dozen vials of various aromas – orange blossom, truffle, peach, tar and the like. The vials were passed around the table and guesses made as Professore Ernesto nudged and guided us, helped us to make associations and to depart his restaurant fuller in the stomach as well as in the mind and spirit.
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Is there enough to do in Umbria? On a rainy day when your pork and hiking itinerary is thrown to the wind you can discover a lot about a place. I think our rainy day answers the question quite definitively.
Bill and Suzy