Food & Travel Guide to Umbria, Italy

Italy

The sky is exceptionally clear for a November afternoon. It’s a few minutes past 3 pm and the sun is already slinking into waves of hills – the only green behind saffron-coloured vines. Electric jeeps crawl up a narrow road punctuated with potholes, stopping every now and then to sigh languidly. Finally, we come to a stop and step out. Roy and I are standing in front of the Lorenzo vineyard on the Castello Monte Vibiano estate.

Lucca is in a long-drawn-out introduction of Umbria, the place the Italians from Milan and Rome like to escape to, when suddenly he stops and says, “I want you to listen. Just listen.” The soft autumn wind caresses the golden leaves, birds engage in light humming. Then, nothing. Nothing. Perfect solitude. And Umbria is exactly that. A piece of secret Italy drenched in olive gold

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CASTELLO MONTE VIBIANO

For decades, the Fasola Bologna family has been the custodians of their estate, their soil. It all began a long long time ago. Andrea Fasola Bologna planted thousands of trees to create a fence around their land back in the days to protect the vineyards and olive groves from manmade impact. Slowly, the trees grew and so their vineyards and olive trees prospered. Everything bears fruit. Nature for nature. It’s a simple philosophy. An ethos the family has stood by since.

The ride back to the cellars is leisurely, slow-moving through the vines and the air scented by grapes. As the sky reaches twilight, the wine tasting is served. Wine tasting in Umbria is not a journey of the Italian superstars, like the Brunello di Montalcino, the Barolo or the Amarone. Harvesting wines here is the simple joy of pouring the best of the Umbrian land in a glass. Superstar wines are of course still exceptional. But exceptional does not always have to be famous. We started with the Maria Camilla and the Vigna Luisa – whites scented with fruit. The olive oil follows. A small bottle, for the preservation of quality Lucca says, is poured over bread. The taste is smooth and green. Then comes a platter of salumi and cheese from the macelleria up the hill not far from the estate. We have now come to the reds and that has to be the San Giovanni, the castello’s beloved

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TRUFFLE HUNTING

Like Tuscany, Umbrian soil is known for harbouring the best black diamonds. Near Borgo Castello Panicaglia, there is a tartufaia where truffles are hidden in the ground. Two dogs, Nora and Leia, are accompanying Johnny on the truffle hunt. Pigs were traditionally used but not anymore. “They eat the truffles,” Johnny tells us with raised eyebrows. Truffles are not really a kind of mushroom, and not like anything else. They are simply jewels hidden in the woodlands that have a curious, exquisite taste. As quick as their nose can carry them, Nora and Leia bound to each elusive spot and unearth the truffles. Each find is scooped up by Johnny who stores it securely in a jar.

When we reach the castello, Federico has already prepared scrambled eggs and schiacciata. That day we brought back black truffles. White truffles are also found in Umbria, but they’re more elusive. As Mirca cleans the truffles, we pour ourselves each a glass of Umbrian wine as we imagine the dogs having their own treat, possibly prosciutto di norcia. We then eat the truffles shaved over the eggs and bread. “It’s very traditional,” Mirca says. To me, it’s cucina tipica italiana. Simple and delicious.

Borgo Castello Panicaglia is a 17-room hotel restored from a 13th century castello by Albert and Inger, who wanted to create a family-friendly agriturismo. So the castello became a place where children can bake pizza or while the evenings away perched on lounge pillows at an outdoor cinema. In the garden, Federico grows fruits and vegetables to make food for the guests. The rest are of course sourced locally. Only the best of Umbria. Doubles start from €140. 

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PERUGIA

The loveliest of meals are often astonishingly accidental, a restaurant on the way to somewhere. We are driving to Perugia, the capital of Umbria. We had wanted to go to Civita di Bagnoregio first but seeing the number of steps, we decided to eat instead. We enter Antico Callaro and ask for the best dish to try. “The truffles or wild boar,” the waitress says without a single beat of hesitation. That is what we got and we find ourselves licking our lips at the last forkful.

Anyone basing themselves in Perugia should stay a few nights at Posta Donini, a painfully beautiful residence that was once the summer home of the Donini family. This is an unruffled 15th century hotel peacefully situated away from the lights and sounds of the city. The delicate flora hand drawings on the pale yellow walls lining the hallways are of flowers and plants found in the garden. Everything is soft, airy and full of beautiful things. One evening, a black cat jumps off a table and scurries to the door as I approach the concierge. The concierge seems unstirred by the cat’s visit, like it is any usual day at Posta Donini. Roy is unconvinced, he was in the room. Of course, I could not let the cat’s presence go unacknowledged. As we stand in front of the concierge in the morning, I lean forward and ask about the black cat, part of me afraid that it had been all a daydream. Then, he proclaims with a flourish of his hand, “Ah… the gatto… He always comes here in the evenings… With the white one.” This is why it comes as a surprise that the cat is sunbathing out by the window that very morning. So Roy has a ball of a time stroking the black feline. He had to concede. There really is a black cat at Posta Donini. We call him Lucio, the Posta Donini cat. Doubles start from €120.

At a family-run restaurant nearby, Albergo Ristorante Siro does the warmest Umbrian dinners. Ask for Fabrizio, he knows the menu like the back of his hand. He is more of a refined friend and gentleman than a waiter. Everyone goes for the meat here; bistecca, salumi… For us too, nonetheless. When Fabrizio presents the bistecca, we cannot help but express our awe at the immense size of the cut. Fabrizio simply chuckles and says proudly, “When I was your age, I could eat two of that on my own.” That is our cue. We did ultimately finish the bistecca… and it was divine. For casual meals, make a trip to Osteria Mangiafuoco where umbrian food is served by Francesco, the owner with a larger-than-life personality. Every dish comes with laughter and nothing is ever taken too seriously

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HILLTOP TOWNS

Orvieto has many great things. Great escalators, to take you up to one of the highest Umbrian towns. Great views, in Piazza San Giovanni and at the edge of Via del Duomo. And a great church. There is nothing more brilliant, more striking, than the Duomo di Orvieto. A reminder that in Orvieto, Christian religiosity is at the centre of everything. Churches in Italy are a very special thing. The art, carved and painted on every surface, is a masterpiece of love. Then there is the food. Another masterpiece of love. In the Piazza del Popolo, the tables at Osteria da Mamma Angela are full with people angling for a plate of salumi, Mamma Angela’s very-Italian specialty.

Near Orvieto, the day is moving slowly in Todi. Gelaterias have stopped selling anything cold in the autumn chill, replacing it with warm torciglione and coffee. The doors of other shops have shuttered in anticipation of the winter break. The Piazza del Popolo remains empty save for the locals catching up on their day-to-day routine. Even in such colourless days, there is much to see in the unhurried pace of the town. School children totter up and down the stairs that lead to the Cattedrale della Santissima Annunziata, playing catching. An elderly lady takes a stroll to the market. Waiters share a laugh with their friends outside the trattoria before dinner starts. Umbria is undisturbed, ever restful. Now I know why the Italians love to escape to Umbria.

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Food & Travel Guide to Tuscia, Italy – What to See, Eat & Do

Italy

It can be hard to describe Tuscia. “It is a short distance from Rome,” A man attired in a sharp business suit says, leaning against a stone-coloured building along Via del Corso in Rome. Tuscia has been his usual city escape. To others, it is like “the other Rome”. And like Rome, Tuscia is in Lazio. It is less than two hours away. The flavour of the province also brings to mind the typical Roman cuisine of the pecorino, guanciale, artichoke, porchetta, to name a few.

Now, Tuscia is emerging from the shadow of the Eternal City, surprising travellers with its historically fascinating network of Etruscan cities. Narrow roads journey through the deep emerald forest, leading to palazzos and castellos shrouded by stories of battles, of conquests. These palatial houses, some still owned by the aristocrats, breathe memories of their illustrious past. 

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VITERBO

Viterbo is very much like an attic trove of notable gems disguised as forgotten knickknacks. Monuments and artefacts are scattered all over the historical centre. Start at the piazza where you can see the Palazzo dei Papi and the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo. This area was once the military fortress of the Etruscan civilisation. Some of the remnants of the civilisation had been left engraved into the street building walls, still. So perfectly engraved they are almost missable. Look for the accompanying inscriptions on the walls not to miss them.

For Roman cuisine, Osteria Tanta Robba does family-style dishes. The menu is simple but classics like the carbonara, cacio e pepe and gricia are more than satisfying. Just 20 minutes away, there is the Tutto N’artro Magnà in Bomarzo. The trattoria also serves as a butchery, so you know the meat will be delicious. Within minutes of ordering, plates of chicory, porchetta, meatballs, chickpeas are served. Then comes the finale – a fillet sizzling on a plate. 

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VILLA LANTE

In Bagnaia, Villa Lante is a remarkable piece of renaissance garden design. It was originally designed for Cardinal Gambara who relishes the outdoor lifestyle. Perfectly-manicured hedges form a unified harmony, akin to a Renaissance painting. From a bird’s view, the balance and unity of the garden is undeniable. 

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SORIANO NEL CIMINO

Less than an hour away from the main sights, Soriano nel Cimino lies at the heart of Tuscia. Castello Orsini stands at the peak of the town, fortified by layers of sepia-roofed houses. Along the way on Via Montecavallo, Palazzo Catalani is a gem of a hotel stay. The 17th century building was once the residence of a nobleman. The rooms have been converted and some of the walls painted with elegant frescoes. Doubles start from €70. 

Every morning, Caffè Roma is buzzing with early risers. Locals stand at the bar for a quick espresso and brioche. Others are yelling orders for the generously-priced pastries – cannoli, sfogliatelle, cannoncini… For casual lunches, Pizzeria da Gigi does pizza romana, chicory, artichokes and potato frittata. The owners are welcoming and the food, down-to-earth.

As Friday announces its arrival, locals amass just in front of Macelleria Porchetta in quiet anticipation. Excitement ripples when the butcher comes out with the prize – a whole porchetta roasted with fennel. Everyone moves in. Slabs of pork fall onto the wax paper as his knife carefully treads the crackling. It’s a must to have a porchetta with its crispy skin. An indulgence worthy of a Friday night

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CASTELLO RUSPOLI

Entering the Ruspoli estate from the garden feels like a daydream. A man in a cashmere coat and tortoise-shell glasses guides you through long stretches of dense thickets. Out of the undergrowth emerges the Castello Ruspoli from afar. Its entrance stands at the end of a long narrow walkway lined by tall hedges.

Roaming the gilded halls clad in faded floral-patterned wallpaper, you can still catch a whiff of the stories that once enveloped the Castello. The residence has been passed down from generation to generation but Ottavia Orsini, wife of Marcantonio Marescotti, is the one whose presence and design taste still deeply perfume the garden of the Castello. Starting from the entrance, head to the right of the estate and you will see the secret garden which Orsini had personally designed for Marescotti – his very own sanctuary.

The Castello is still owned by the Ruspoli family today – Claudia and Giada Ruspoli, and their cousin, Francesco Maria Ruspoli. They keep the first and second floors open for visitors over the weekends, while the rest remain their private residence. Stays at the Castello are by invitation only

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Food & Travel Guide to Emilia Romagna, Italy – What to See, Eat & Do

Italy

Trace the origin of any Italian ingredient and you will somehow end up in Emilia Romagna. Mention the name to any well-deserving Italian chef and they would talk for ages, about the “sensational Parmigiano Reggiano”, the “noble Culatello”, the “Balsamico Vinegar, smooth as velvet”. The list just goes on. It is where the most Italian of all Italian food comes from, and the most quintessential. In Emilia Romagna, there is no festival. There is only the feast. And so, the gastronomic adventure in Italy’s eating table begins. 

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PARMA

In Parma, the practice of ham-making practice is a tale as old as time. It is here, near the Po Valley, where the luxurious Culatello di Zibello is made. The Bergonzi family at Podere Cadassa has been crafting culatello for decades. In a natural cellar frozen in time, the culatello ages until its flavour is at its fullest. The precious meat is salted and refrigerated, before being placed in the cellar where humidity takes full reign. A walk through the cellar always ends at the family’s restaurant, Al Vèdel. In the kitchen, Chef Enrico arranges thin slices of culatello, from 16 months to 26 months to 38 months, on a perfectly polished porcelain plate. In the evenings, loud chatters emanate from the linen dining tables and red leather booths. Waiters rush to and fro tables to shave black truffles on ox tartare as a cheese cart trails them. Ravioli is served Colorno style, as Al Vèdel calls it, with pears, grape seeds and pumpkin. 

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MODENA

In Modena, the making of balsamic vinegar is a tradition still preserved at Acetaia Pedroni. Cooked fermented grape must sit in the battery, or barrels, to age for at least 12 years.

The tasting menu gives a small but complete offering of dishes that compliments the balsamic vinegar, but it’s the a la carte menu the locals order from. Vegetable flan with Parmigiano Reggiano cream, ricotta tortelloni and custard cream gelato are dished out before the owner comes over with their treasure – a bottle of balsamic vinegar. Slowly, he dabs the smooth, thick vinegar over the food in carefully measured drops as he smiles with pride. It could be the pride of owning a centuries-old tradition, or the pride of owning the barrels that produce the best balsamic vinegar in the world. Nobody knows. But everyone leaves the osteria in silent agreement that it was a dining experience unlike any other. 

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BOLOGNA

When in Bologna, a few slices of mortadella are in order. Mo Mortadella Lab gives a generous serving of Bologna’s favourite slice in a panini. Go before lunch to avoid the queue of hungry Bolognese. In Bologna, the wining and dining hour eases past the reasonable Italian lunch hour. Armed with a few plates from the local macelleria, you can grab a seat and a mandatory drink at Osteria del Sole where this longtime establishment has a strict bring-your-own-food rule. At one table, a class of students from the nearby university are having a toast with their teachers. At another, an old man sits perched over a notebook as he pens some sentences on the parched paper. Everyone has a glass of something on their table. For dinners, Hostaria San Carlino and Osteria dell’Orsa are perfect for Bolognese classics like tagliatelle al ragù and tortellini in brodo.

On any day in Bologna, chefs clamber to Antica Aguzzeria del Cavallo located on Via Drapperie. Hundreds of kitchen tools hang on wooden displays from ceiling to floor in this historical shop, any kind you can ever imagine. As a customer rattles off a list, the shop assistant bustles about, grabbing two ravioli stamps, an anolini stamp, a truffle slicer, a gnocchi cutting board and a dozen or so ravioli moulds. It’s a busy day at the Antica Aguzzeria del Cavallo. 

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BRISIGHELLA

It’s a whole new world further south in the region. Brisighella is nearer to Ravenna, and so nearer to the coast. There is a very serious seafood scene with restaurants like La Lanterna, where plates heaping with pasta and shellfish are paraded to the tables. Others include La Cavallina and Osteria Pontenono, or Il Portolano and Osteria Il Paiolo in Ravenna.

A few minutes on an unpaved road across a bridge from Brisighella will take you to Azienda Agricola Baccagnano, an agriturismo with a handful of rooms. The owner of the winery, Marco, furnished the modern rooms with vintage finds. In a restored church, guests have a breakfast of croissants, local cheeses and fruits on beautifully-mismatched place settings. Doubles start from €90. 

For views of Brisighella, take a walk from the town center to La Rocca Manfrediana and on to Torre dell’Orologio. The town truly comes alive when celebrating the autumn harvest. People come in droves from the neighbouring houses to gather around the white-top tents where the food – salumi, cheeses, pears, truffles, porcini mushrooms – are proudly boasted by their farmers. There is a band making uproarious music. White-haired Italian men are indulging in a guitar riff on a makeshift stage, crooning the tunes of 80s rock music. Even as night falls and the stalls close, the crowds disappear into the bars. The night is still young. 

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