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Report 450: Saints and Flowers, Ham and Cheese: Seven Days in Norcia, Umbria
By Jeannew from PA, Spring 2003
Page 2 of 8: Accommodations and Food
After a rocky start with the agriturismo, we ended up at Best Western Hotel Salicone which is not far from the main gate into the walled town. For € 85 per night we had a very large room with king bed, couch, table and chairs, desk, bath with Jacuzzi and private balcony with view of countryside and mountains. The included breakfast featured an assortment of fruit, pastries and cheese which we sometimes shared with Italian women, young and old, on their way to pay homage to St. Rita of Cascia. On other days hulking athletes such as the Italian Volleyball team towered over the buffet table. Among this mix was a smattering of independent travelers, mostly European.
On our first trip to Norcia in 1998, we stayed at the Monastario Sant Antonio for the equivalent of $50 US per night. We had a clean but simple room with twin beds and a tiny private bathroom. We had to remove the toilet paper and towels to have a shower and hope the drain in the bathroom took away the water before it could overflow into the bedroom. An austere breakfast was laid out for us to eat alone each morning. We resorted to leaving notes in Italian on our beds if we needed anything because there was seldom anyone around who spoke English. It was an interesting experience, especially looking out into the courtyard to see the pigs and bee hives, but a little too Spartan to get our repeat business.
Norcia is famous for its pork products and black truffles. It seems like there are shops everywhere with boars’ heads and hairy hams hanging out front. Inside are delicious preserved meats from said boars and pigs, and cheeses from mountain pastured sheep to rival the pecorino cheese of Pienza. Locally raised grains such as faro, and the tiny lentils of Castelluccio are also featured in the shops. There are plenty of bars and restaurants. We chose a bar on St. Benedicts square (Piazza San Benedetto) for coffee, gelato and people watching. We shared the outdoor tables with other visitors, mostly sunburned German hikers who seemed to prefer beer to gelato after a day in the sun.
We ate twice in our favorite restaurant, Granaro del Monte in the Grotta Azzura Hotel. The Grotta Azzura is located not far off Piazza San Benedetto and is owned by the Bianconi family also owners of the Salicone. The restaurant is a bustling and welcoming place and Franco, the busy headwaiter tries to take the time to make strangers feel at home. A recommended appetizer is the excellent antipasto plate of assorted local prosciutto and salami. Hearty lentil soups, sausages and the Buon Ricordo dish of filet with black truffles are all delicious. Meats are grilled on the open hearth in the main dining room to make for a hearty mountain meal.
For a more intimate atmosphere we tried Ristorante Becofino on Piazza San Benedetto where we could watch the evening activities from the window. The menu featured items such as lettuce soup with mozzarella balls and peach slices, lamb shank braised with raisin and saffron, all served by a bored and stuffy waiter. To be fair, it may have been an off night, but we weren’t impressed. We may have thought otherwise if we hadn’t just spent 5 days at Hotel MonteConero (Sirolo, Le Marche) where “refined” (translate pretentious) dinner service was backed up by better food and waiters who had a sense of humor about their roles.
We then discovered a rosticceria/pizzeria outside the town walls on opposite end of town from our hotel. For the remaining nights we would select anything from meatballs to lasagna, grilled chicken and various vegetables which we took back to our room for dinner on our balcony. Wines we had brought from Le Marche (Rosso Conero, Rosso Piceno and Verdicchio) were sipped as we watched the sun go down. Most of these meals were less than € 10 for the two of us, and we had hearty appetites!
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