Smack in the middle of the Italian peninsula lies mysterious and landlocked Umbria, home to some Italy’s most magnificent salumi, exotic Assisi, the entire cult of St. Francis, the collegetown of Perugia (home to the world-famous chocolates), and Lago Trasimeno, the largest lake in Italy south of Lombardia. Traveling within Umbria is best done by car as the train system is a bit convoluted and tends to take you many places- fortunately, that often includes the exact places you want to go.
Though considered less chic for the international traveler than Frances Maye’s Tuscany, Umbria has many similarities to its northwestern neighbor. The food is every bit as good, if not a little bit more roughly hewn. The first thing to notice in Umbria is the incredible variety of salumi.
It is a touch of funghi that bring us to the glorious second (of three) local specialty ingredients that you can find here, the black truffle. Not nearly as powerful, or as wispy and evanescent as the white truffles that grow in the Emilian appenines and the rolling hills of Piemonte to the north, black truffles are more representative of the gritty, rustic, heady, hog-butcher fragrance I associate with walking through Todi or Norcia just before lunch time. I lust for these black diamonds in the winter, just when they are at their prime. They will be shaved or grated over anything and everything from December to March and add a gutsy, what I perceive as an almost purple flavor to the local rustic food.
The Umbrian restaurant scene is filled with great places. Not that many new places in the last 10 years, mind you, but time-tested, family-run establishments that really deliver. This is important!! This is a region where, when properly organized, a simple meal can transcend every fancy thing you have ever eaten. But sometimes it seems too simple! Fret not. Do not miss the wine component in Umbria. When combined with the local salumi and those frisky black truffles, your head will swim, hoping to catch your imagination as it floats toward heaven, ever so serene and filled with joy.
One of my first stops every trip is to a winery in Torgiano owned by the Lungarotti family, who has set up an excellent hotel with a splendid restaurant called Le Tre Vaselle. There, you can rent horses, pack a lunch of some excellent panini, and go for an exquisite ride through truffle country to the top of the Tevere river and be back in time for a killer dinner moistened by old vintages of their magnificent Rubesco-all for much less than half the price of a bottle here in the US.
The town of Norcia is so famous in Italy for its butcher culture that the word Norcino (meaning someone from Norcia) is now synonymous with butcher. The first things to try are a few picks from the infinite varieties of salami, soppressate, sausages, and prosciutti. Smell them first and you will immediately know why this is the fabled land of the butchers. The pork here seems to taste just a bit richer, sweeter, and, well, porkier than any other salumi in Italy, excepting that from Emilia Romagna. In Norcia, the salumi is often accompanied with simple bruschetta, and either local oil or a smattering of the local black truffles.
Travel north to Assisi where there are many dining choices. I love Dal Moro for their faro minestra, the garganelli with fresh ricotta, and the squab with lardo and juniper. Also in the traditional realm is La Fortezza where black truffle bruschetta is the very first thing you will smell as you enter. As they preserve their own black truffles, you can smell and taste that delicacy almost year-round. For your secondi, either grilled lamb skewers marinated in local Montefalco wine, or duck with wine mosto precede the obligatory pecorino cheese course, also to be eaten with local wine.
A little fancier and more creative is San Francesco, where the food is still gutsy, but a little lighter texturally. Try the barbozza, a cognate of guanciale, or whole wheat lasagna with lentils and sheep’s milk cheese, braised duck with porcini, and any of the truly remarkable desserts.
Gubbio, further north, offers two more excellent choices. The first, Taverna del Lupo, feels like an elegant trattoria (think wild hare) that offers hard-to-find local exotics. Special salumi are the way to start here, followed by the passatelli pasta in a vegetable soup with some crazy local sage and pork liver wrapped in caul, and served with tiny wild chicory sautéed with garlic shoots and vin santo.
Villa Montegranelli is an 18th-century villa replete with a long cypress lined entrance and a hedge maze in front! Uh huh, this place feels like a movie set. The dining room is elegant, but not pretentious, and the food is a little fancy, but you can order well and eat well. I loved the chestnut millefoglie with pecorino fondue and black truffles, the pappardelle with wild boar, and the braised rabbit with leeks and sweet wine. The beautiful pecorino aged in walnut leaves was practically invented here. When served with local wine (the third of the three local specialties) at low prices, it all combines to create a delicious head rush that you’ll feel as you walk out of the restaurant after the meal, so prepare yourself.