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The Umbrian Sagra Survival Guide
If you really want to see how the Italians in rural Italy live, your best bet is to head to the nearest sagra.
A sagra is a festival organized by a community, either an entire town or a smaller subdivision within a larger municipality, which almost always centers around a specific food or dish. Most of these foods or dishes are local specialties, i.e. truffles or wild boar or torta al testo (a type of flat bread), but you can find sagre featuring wild cards like beer or crepes as well.
A sagra can be one of the most fun, authentic evenings you'll spend in Italy. Or it can be a frustrating wash-out. Here are some tips to help you get the best out of the experience.
Know what to expect
Okay, imagine your church youth group organized a dinner and bazaar that lasted ten days and involved feeding about a thousand people a night. Total chaos would reign. Well, that's pretty much what it is. A booth where you order your food, a big tent where you sit at long tables with complete strangers and eat off plastic plates, a couple of carnival type booths where you can shoot cans or play the lottery for prizes, and a dance floor. And hundreds of people shouting orders, bustling around with trays of food, eating with gusto, and trying to talk over each other. If you are looking for a quiet, romantic evening for two, this is not the place. If you want to really soak up rural Italy, you've hit the jackpot.
Choose your sagra well
As I mentioned before, most sagre specialize in local dishes, and these are the ones you want to hit. My favorite sagre are the ones in the tiniest towns, right in the main square. I try to avoid the huge, overblown sagre held in anonymous fields outside of town. If you're not from the area, it's not easy to know which ones are your best bet...it's tough even for those who live here. Most are cyclical in quality: they begin small and the food is excellent, then word gets out and they grow beyond their capacity, so the next couple of years folks don't go and the food gets good again. When all else fails, ask a local. Sagre are publicized primarily with the big posters plastered along the roads and in the main squares, or the local tourist information offices sometimes have listings.
Get there early
As I mentioned above, an atmosphere of benign pandemonium is what you'll usually find, so the best strategy is to get there early before the place is really jumping and it is hard to find a table or your errant order of tagliatelle. By getting there when the kitchen opens, you have a slight hope of finding a decent place to sit and eat in relative tranquility, but still enjoy some great people watching. The other key benefit to being there before the sun sets is that you will have finished your meal before the band begins to play. One of the main attractions of the sagre, other than eating and socializing, is dancing. Italians are passionate about ballroom...you'll see little old guys out there cutting the rug who you swear you just saw five minutes earlier huddled on a plastic chair over by the port-a-potties sucking down oxygen from a tank. Okay, remember that Zeppelin concert in '73 that gave you pretty much chronic tinnitus for the following three years? Well, those guys don't have anything on "Guido and his Ciao Ciao Mazurka Band". The louder the fox-trot, the better. It's fun to watch, but I prefer to have already finished my meal so I feel free to head out when my ears start to ring.
Choose the right day
If you really want to sample the fare at a sagra, but are not a big crowd and general anarchy fan, get a hold of a schedule. Most sagre run ten days (two weekends and the week between them). So, first, don't go on a weekend. Everyone and their brother dines at sagre on the weekends. Second, choose a weekday evening to go when there is no dancing. As I said before, one of the main draws to the sagre is the music, and many people actually dine at home but come over afterwards to dance and chit-chat. Most sagre have one evening a week when something other than music is scheduled, most commonly card games (briscola or scopa) or recitals by the local school kids. You'll find the place relatively calm on those nights.
Case the joint
Every sagra has it's own SOP for ordering and being served, which are all convoluted, multi-phase systems which involve at some point at least four people under the age of 12. Some have you first choose a table, then give them the table number when you order at the booth so the server can bring you your food. Some have you bring your order from the booth to the kitchen, and then just stand there until it's ready. Or, you have to choose a table and give the table number to the kitchen and they'll bring it to you. Or, they give you a number and read it over the P.A. system when it's ready and you have to get it yourself. Or, you sit down and order from your table like in a restaurant. So hang back for a minute to see what other folks are doing before you dive right into the ordering line and tick the folks off behind you because you didn't know that you needed a table number first, or some such thing. Also, don't expect a menu in English, or even very precise Italian, so either grab a photocopy and your pocket dictionary before you step up to the window, or, if you're feeling adventurous, just go with the house dishes (usually listed apart, or with an asterisk).
Keep a sense of humor
Like I said, Italy, lots of people, unpaid adolescent servers, loud Waltz music, indeciferable menus. The chances of you getting lamb chops instead of pork, or penne instead of tagliatelle, are pretty big. So, take it with philosophy and choose your battles. If things look relatively calm and you can actually track down a volunteer server, go ahead and explain the problem. If folks look harried and the noise level approaches a neighborhood under JFK's landing strips, enjoy your lamb and chalk it up to experience. Obviously, if things have gotten completely screwed up, you think your order may have fallen into a black hole, you require something vegetarian, or some other insurmountable problem, track someone down and complain.
Bring your kids
This is the one place on earth where I can guarantee you that someone else's offspring will be worse behaved than your own. So go ahead and bring them. Until the band starts up, let them run completely wild with the other roughly hundred kids tearing around the dance floor, give them some money to win kitschy crap at the lottery booth, sell your soul to the devil and buy them something God-awful at the confectionary truck, let them ride the two or three rickety carnival rides set up behind the dance floor. Your most memorable experience in Italy will doubtless have to do with art, culture, or food. Theirs will be the night you took them to the sagra.
Use good form
If you see lots of people waiting for a place to sit and eat, don't linger over dessert. It's nice to leave any left over wine in your bottle for the folks still eating next to you. Spend money...the primary goal of these festivals is fund raising for the locals for the youth groups and things. Eat, dance, and enjoy yourself.
I mentioned above that sagre tend to be cyclical in quality, so I hate to recommend any specific ones as they tend to vary in quality from year to year. But I'll stick my neck out anyway:
Overblown, but worth it:
Small and charming:
Tiny and authentic:
No Sagra for You!: Maureen lists the possible sagre (festivals) you can attend in May in Tuscany, and why you many not want to.
Summer is the Time for Sagra!: Anne Robichaud describes the local "Primavera Sant'Enea" (Spring in Sant'Enea) sagra in Umbria, what to expect at a summer sagra.
Rebecca Winke lives in Assisi Italy and operates Brigolante Guest Apartments. www.brigolante.com
© Rebecca Winke, 2004
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