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Report 1084: A Springtime Slow Travel Prize: Ten Glorious Days In Umbria And A Little Bit Of Rome

By Stella from New York, NY, Spring 2006

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Page 7 of 12: Orvieto, Chasing Rainbows and Some Very Good Bacon

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A very big rainbow

The clouds of the day before had blown away overnight, and we awoke to a brilliantly sunny day, crisp and cool. Today would be our day in Orvieto, and C. had studied the map and decided upon a driving route while we lingered over coffee and leftovers from the night before.

We departed from Le Case Gialle and headed south-west, towards Orvieto, through the forested hills around Monte Martani. There was no shortage of twisty, winding roads to take, some of them dirt-and-gravel, others nicely paved. At once point we found ourselves in a nature preserve, surrounded by forests of vine and moss-covered trees. We pulled over and hiked up a hill, snapping lots of pictures of flowers and leaves and anything else that caught our eye.

Exploring the Valtibernia, we skirted Todi, eyeing it from a distance. I hoped we would be able to stop there on our way to Orivieto, however, C. became completely distracted by Lake Corbara, which we stumbled upon by accident. We followed a road that skirted the lake, peeking out at us as we went up and down the forested hills that surround it. I only learned later on the lake is man-made, created by a modern dam along the Tiber. Nonetheless, it is a pretty, crescent-shaped lake, with plenty of picturesque vantage points at which you can pull over and explore. We did just that; and C. took a walk down a steep hill to the banks of the river while I perched on a large boulder high above, enjoying the sunshine reflecting off the water.

The countryside that surrounds Orvieto is just stunning. It is a shame that more people don’t seem to want to explore more of it, focusing instead on some of Umbria’s better-known areas. I was glad that we had a car that day; it allowed us to wander around the prettiest spots surrounding the city, stopping whenever we wanted to admire the view or snap pictures. The approach to the city was dramatic; Orvieto sits high atop a volcanic formation of tufa, and was unlike any of the other hill towns of Umbria we had seen.

To this day, I don’t remember seeing the parking lots or the funicular station at the bottom of Orvieto. We entered the town at the opposite gate, and before I really knew it, we were inside the city walls and winding our way upwards, much in the same manner of our impromptu trip to the center of Perugia. It was relatively simple to find our way to the Piazza del Duomo, and I giggled at C. Driving to the Duomo was becoming his modus operandi. Much to our surprise, we discovered that there was a nice, relatively empty little parking lot located right in the corner of the piazza. In we went, and the smiling attendant gave us our ticket. C. looked at me as if my advice about having no choice but to park at the base of the town had been a complete myth.

Orvieto’s magnificent Duomo was completely free of scaffolding and sparkling in the sunshine. There were a few tour groups milling about the piazza, but the overall number of visitors to Orvieto that day was low, and we felt lucky. The Duomo was just empty enough to be airy, and just crowded enough to be too noisy. Apparently, everyone felt they could speak at the top of their lungs, and the noise bounced off the massive stone colums. I peeked into the San Brizio chapel, and the drooled at the thought of spending some time in there, but I knew that meant getting tickets and waiting until after lunch. I think C. was frescoed out by then, so I told myself I would surely visit Orvieto again one day.

The Duomo closes for about two hours for lunch, so that was the perfect opportunity for us to search our our next great meal. C. had a friend in New York who had heartily recommended Antica Trattoria dell’Orso, so we set off to find it. We ambled our way away from the Duomo, towards Piazza del Popolo, and found the restaurant easily on a side street.

I will remember Antica Trattoria dell’Orso forever as one of my favorite restaurants in all of Italy. Everything about it was so perfect in an utterly haphazard way. Lace curtains adorned the windows and handkerchiefs were hung over the lighting fixtures, casting a warm golden glow in the front room where we were seated by warm and smiling Cirio Cristiano. Ciro is the co-proprietor of the restaurant, along with the chef, Gabriele di Giandomenico.

After setting down a huge carafe of house red and some mineral water, Ciro proceeded to tell us what we could have for lunch. No menus…just a few options to choose from. There were two pastas being offered, both were house-made tagliatelle, served with either black truffles, or zucchini and gorgonzola. We enthusiastically ordered one of each, to which Ciro responded with a wide grin. Next, Ciro said that the chef had prepared a wonderful special, crespelle, or crepes, very thin, stuffed with calamari and topped with crema, and broiled. Mmmm….one of those please, and what meat can we have? Lamb chops, of course. Can we have some greens, too? Ciro was very happy with our order, and we were very happy with Ciro.

Not long after we ordered, an American man and woman entered the restaurant, greeting Ciro like a brother. They were seated across from us and it was apparent that they were regulars. Our pasta arrived quickly, diverting our attention in the best of ways. This would be the second plate of tagliatelle with black truffles I was served in Umbria, and although the first was very good, the second was ethereal. The pasta had been rolled very thin and was delicate, but still perfectly al dente. Pasta, truffles, butter and cheese…what more does one need? The tagliatelle with zucchini and gorgonzola was equally fabulous; the gorgonzola was absolutely subtle, and had merely been used to give the pasta a creamy, thin sheen; tossed with it was julienned zucchini that had been sautéed perfectly – golden around the edges, tender and melting. It as if I was tasting pasta for the first time, a revelation, considering I have been pretty intimate with the stuff for most of my life.

In between our courses, the American couple placed their order and began talking to us. They were from southern Virginia, and lived not far from Orvieto in Civitella del Lago, for 4 months a year. They told us that Antica Trattoria dell’Orso was their favorite restaurant, and when in Italy, they ate there several times a week, and Ciro and Gabriele were their good friends. We chatted back and forth for a bit before more food came for both tables. My lamb chops were sizzling hot and tender, truly “scottadita,” or burn-your-fingers good. Annointed with olive oil and rock salt, they were delicious. C.’s crepe was light and delicate, gratineed on the top and melting on the inside. Alongside, we shared sautéed escarole with pine nuts and olives.

Afer our delicious meal, Gabriele came out of the kitchen and we were introduced to him by our new friends. Soon, we had glasses of grappa in front of us and both Ciro and Gabriele were seated in between the two tables, sharing stories of their 15-year partnership, at the restaurant and in life, and their house just outside the city walls. What had started out as a simple lunch turned into a festive, three-hour marathon.

It was with full stomachs and happy hearts that we left Antica Trattoria dell’Orso, promising Ciro and Gabriele that we would surely return someday and say hello. On our way back to the car, we stopped for gelato at a buzzing shop next to the Duomo, but just as we sat down to enjoy it, raindrops started falling. We finished up fast before it started to drizzle and retrieved the car; the frescos in the San Brizio chapel would have to wait for my next visit. Even though we had barely seen much of Orvieto, we had an unforgettable afternoon, enjoying good company and making new friends.

As we headed out of Orvieto, the sky was divided in two ... dark, menacing rain clouds on one side, bright, sunny light on the other. We would stay just ahead of the thunderstorm most of the way back home, but outside of Todi, on a road that ran alongside the Tiber, it finally caught up with us. C. pulled over and let the torrential rain pass, then headed towards the spot of sun that seemed just ahead of us on the horizon, saying, “I betcha we will find a rainbow,” and setting off our afternoon quest to capture it. For the next hour, we followed the sun, with the gray clouds at our backs, taking some incredible pictures of stormy skies, and finally finding a brilliant and incredibly wide rainbow that arched across the entire horizon. We could not have asked for a better photo op, and both cameras clicked away.

It had been a wonderful day, filled with nature walks and good food, and leaving both C. and I pretty tuckered out. When we got back to Le Case Gialle, it was clearly time for a nap. We passed out, but not before promising each other to wake up in enough time to go to Montefalco for dinner. Time was running out, and our elusive dinner at L’Alchimista was not going to happen unless we put some effort into it. Nonetheless, we both slept like rocks, burning off our lunch in the process and waking up ready for another great meal.

Off we set for Montefalco, once again driving right through the gate and up to the center of the town. Set in the main piazza of Montefalco, L’Alchimista is a beautiful enoteca, selling wines from Umbria and other regions of Italy, as well as local honey, olive oil, cheeses, pastas, grains, jams and other Umbrian specialties. Downstairs is a mini-restaurant, with about eight candlelit tables and a decidedly cozy atmosphere. An absolute dream of a place, L’Alchimista is the brainchild and labor of love of the amazingly talented, young, female sommelier-proprietor, Cristina Magnini. Cristina’s mother Patrizia does all of the cooking, and her father helps run the shop. Cristina is very low-key, sweet, friendly, and wickedly smart young woman, who achieved her certification as a sommelier at the tender age of 22. She was manning the door when we arrived, and she ushered us to our little table with a smile. Much to our surprise, she asked us if we were the chefs from New York. Apparently, Mauro from Le Case Gialle had told Cristina that we would be stopping by at some point that week, and she had been waiting for us to show up!

I selected a Montefalco Rosso from Paolo Bea, which Cristina decanted for us, and then explained what Patrizia was offering that night from the kitchen. We zeroed in immediately on what we wanted to try, thankful that our lunch had been earlier that day and our dinner was being served well past 9:00 PM! C. really had his heart set on trying warm scamorza with honey and…you guessed it, truffles. I was completely turned on by a fennel gratin with gorgonzola. We were both enthralled by bacon, cooked in Sagrantino wine.

The cheese with honey and truffles came first, with warm triangles of bread. This would not have been my choice, not because it was not good – it was delicious, actually – but it was too rich in light of the rest of our meal, and was more of a dish to enjoy alone with specific bottle of wine. But C. had never tried scamorza and he loved it. After that, Cristina wisely gave us a little time breathe before the next two dishes arrived.

Let me get the fennel gratin out of the way. It was delightful, and again, the use of gorgonzola was subtle, blended with a bit of toasted breadcrumbs, the fennel underneath soft and tender. It was a fabulous dish, which, unfortunately, stood in the shadow of the bacon that arrived along with it. What appeared before us was a pile of bacon, unadorned. Quite simply, it was one of the single best things I have ever tasted, an absolutely ingenious creation. Keep in mind that bacon in Italy is pancetta, or cured pork belly. It is not smoked as it is in the U.S. The best pancetta comes from pigs that are fed whey, resulting in a sweet, rich meat and velvety fat. Patrizia had taken thin slices of pancetta and simply braised them in the wine. The bacon released its fat, and the wine reduced – the fat then caramelized with the natural sugars of the wine, glazing the bacon and turning it deep mahogany, crackling, tender, rich and unctuous. It was like we had discovered a new religion. (Author’s note: we talked about that blessed bacon for weeks after we returned to New York. Our colleagues at work eventually tired of it, leaving the room whenever one of us started a sentence with, “Oh my god, do you remember that bacon?......”)

Finished with our heavenly bacon and well on our way to getting pleasantly buzzed, we moved on, reluctantly. As I write this now, I find it hard to believe that we actually had more pasta after all of that, but we did. One of the dishes Patrizia is known for is her strangozzi, a particular Umbrian pasta made without eggs, cut like a long, narrow rope. She serves it with local saffron cheese and, uh, more bacon. I had to try it. C. opted for strangozzi with wild asparagus and local pecorino. Both were perfect and delectable, and thankfully, small portions. For our final course, we split a filetto of Chianina beef with roasted porcini, and a braised artichoke, topped with more shavings of Umbrian pecorino. Both were perfect; the steak was incredibly lean and incredibly tender, melting like butter in our mouths. And the artichoke was soft and almost creamy; slightly acidic, bathed in good Umbrian olive oil. Splitting it was a good idea; that damn scamorza had nearly filled us to the gills. Clearly, we were dining with purpose, as chefs on vacation often do, and which Cristina understood perfectly.

The room had filled with groups of young, attractive Italians out on the town, and a few couples that were busy canoodling in their respective corners. C. and I sat for a moment and took it all in, marveling at the meal we just had, our second stupendous meal in one day! Cristina wisely knew that we would be unable to move for some time, and brought us another bottle of water, along with some digestivi to help our tummies along. As good meals and good wine between good friends is apt to bring about, we started talking about our own mutual “stuff," and the night wore on. We finally asked for our check around 11PM, promising to return the next day to buy some gifts for our families. Cristina was leaving the next morning for Verona, to spend a day at VinItaly, the annual wine expo sponsored by SlowFood. We thanked her for her hospitality, and gave her the same promise we did to our friends in Orvieto – to return to Umbria someday soon and visit her wonderful enoteca.

We were silent on the way home. The hills unfolded in front of us, and I leaned out the window and looked at twinkling lights of the Valle Umbra, breathing in the cool, springtime air, and thanking God for truffles, bacon and wine.

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