Smack in the middle of the Italian peninsula lies the mysterious and landlocked Umbria, home to some of Italy’s most magnificent salumi, exotic Assisi, the entire cult of St. Francis, the college-town of Perugia (home to the world-famous chocolates), and Lago Trasimeno. One should travel Umbria by car, considering the train system proves a bit convoluted and tends to take you many places other than the one you want to go.
Though considered less chic for the international traveler than Fraces Maye’s Tuscany, Umbria has many similarities to its northwestern neighbor. The food is not only just as good, but even a little more roughly hewn. The first thing you need to notice about Umbria: the incredible variety of salumi.
A touch of funghi brings us the second, of three, specialty ingredients to the region: 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, the black truffle is 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 when they are at their prime, shaved or grated over anything-and-everything from December to March, adding a gutsy flavor to the local, rustic food.
The restaurant scene in Umbria has many great places, most of which remain successful as time-tested, family-run establishments that truly deliver. This region, without the frills and brand-new restaurants, offers a simple meal that can transcend every fancy thing you have ever eaten. But if it ever seems too simple, then 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 towards heaven, ever-so serene and filled with joy.
The town of Norcia’s fame derives from its butcher culture, so-much-so that the word Norcino (meaning “someone from Norcia) also now works synonymously with “butcher.”
A splendid restaurant run by the Lungarotti family where 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. Make sure to be back in time for a killer dinner moistened by old vintages of the vineyard’s magnificent Rubesco.
I love Dal Moro for their faro minestra, the garganelli with fresh ricotta, and the squab with lardo and juniper.
At La Fortezza, black truffle bruschetta is the very first thing you smell when you you enter. As they preserve their own black truffles, you can smell and taste that delicacy almost year-round.
At San Francescoa, the food is 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.
Taverna del Lupo feels like an elegant trattoria 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 and served with tiny wild chicory sautéed with garlic shoots and vin santo.
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.