During my time in Umbria I had the opportunity to enjoy a number of absolutely fantastic meals. The local tourism board wined me and dined me until I was bursting and could barely move. Needless to say it was a great chance to engage with Italian food in a way I had not previously experienced. As a lactose intolerant traveler with a light gluten allergy, Italy had always been a culinary destination I eyed with suspicion. Granted, most of the food I enjoyed on this trip wasn’t the usual low-cost eats and street food that aligns with my budget, but it still managed to completely change my relationship with Italian food. Of the places which treated us to a meal, the absolute best of the lot was Sala della Comitissa in the small picturesque town of Baschi.
The restaurant sits near the far point on a hill that looks out over the nearby valley. Access is gained through a long stairway off a small street that is just wide enough for a car to carefully navigate. The entrance is simple, clean, and cozy. With less than 15 tables, Sala della Comitissa makes no pretense about the experience they offer. Their aim is a cozy, elegant meal prepared and served with care and love. Some of the sparsely decorated stone walls are laden with old swords, candles and other distinctly medieval decorations. Others are painted in a natural beige plaster which helps highlight the beautifully set tables that fill the room.
While relatively new, the restaurant was opened in 2010, the approach to tradition and culture is not. Each table has three types of chairs at it. Of these, one is gilded and ornate. This chair is reserved for the guest of honor. To further allow for guests to honor members of their group, two other chairs offer a second level of distinction in the form of arms, while the remainder of the chairs are comfortable and elegant but lack both the arms, ornate gilding, and rich upholstery of the seat of honor.
Our meal started with a delightful toasted bread with a rich liver pate alla grappa and crushed hazel nuts. The pate was creamy, pungent and awash in flavor.
Next up was a fresh and wonderfully healthy/velvety carrot and ginger puree with rosemary and olive oil-flavored croutons. This dish was a universal hit around the table and it was fun to watch each of us eye our empty cups strategically, carefully analyzing if (and hoping that) we’d missed a small spoonful that might be reclaimed.
This was followed by a light and flavorful zucchini flan served with gently salted, perfectly ripened tomatoes, olive oil and crushed fennel. The small flan (though I’m likely misnaming it) was surprising in both its creaminess and lightness. Where I expected it to be dense its texture had more in common with whipped cream. Unfortunately, due to the high dairy content, all I was able to do was sample the dish. Luckily, in anticipation of my cursed lactose intolerant limitations they had a special surprise in store for me.
In place of the dairy-heavy third dish, the chef prepared this special salad for me. What I initially thought was a purely vegetarian (and blissfully dairy free) plate ended up actually being a succulent mixture of shaved wild boar (what looks like cabbage), fresh oranges, olive oil and what I believe was fresh orange all topped with fennel. While I enjoyed all of the plates I had over the course of the meal this one was definitely the most surprising. The flavor was fresh, slightly zesty and simultaneously sweet and salty due to the wild boar. It lit my palate on fire and prepared it perfectly for the next course.
Before we dove into the next course, however, our host graciously invited us into the kitchen for a quick peak. The kitchen is small, cozy, and has just enough room for the three people who were hard at work on the meal. It was clean, orderly, and the focus on quality and freshness was obvious. Greeted with gracious smiles, the kitchen staff was in the midst of preparing a special type of traditional spelt pasta.
The spelt pasta dates back to ancient Roman times and was served with fave beans, little tomatoes, salted ricotta cheese, bacon and a fresh sprig of parsley. The relatively neutral/subtle taste of the spelt highlighted the flavor of the fave beans, tomatoes and bacon creating a well balanced meal that was both delicious and felt slightly earthy and organic.
This plate was followed by a more easily recognizable ragu. The traditional ragu was based on the chef’s grandmother’s recipe and featured tagliatelle pasta accompanied by meat raised and butchered nearby. It is worth noting that all of the ingredients used over the course of the meal were local and seasonal. The plates we were served were designed to represent both Umbria and the area’s seasonally native foods. It showed in the freshness of the ingredients, their complex flavor, and the well rounded design of the meal as a whole.
Starting to feel more than a little stuffed, the final main course was served. As a major fan of meat in general I was excited for the opportunity to try what the menu informed us would be pork neck-bones cooked and served in a light sauce with fresh pepper. The pork was so tender it virtually melted on my fork and as you might expect was jam-packed with flavor. I traded my usual large fork-fulls for small delicate cuts to make each piece last as long as I could. The neck meat was served with a mixture of local greens. While they tasted a bit like well-buttered spinach, I believe it was a mixture of wild greens harvested and then steamed for the meal
While the others were served what was by all accounts a wonderful local interpretation of the traditional zuppa inglese I dove into the house’s interpretation of traditional specialty pastries. These were super sweet, light, and the perfect way to round out what had been a positively delightful meal.
Now one thing I haven’t given nearly enough attention to – but which savvy observers may have noted on the menu – was the wine. Each course was accompanied by a different local wine! Each of the wines was everything you would expect from a well-selected local Italian wine and went wonderfully with the meal. The final wine, however, was the one that really caught my attention. The Calcaia Dolce 2006 from Orvieto was, we were told, a mold wine. Yep, that’s right, mold. An incredibly potent and sweet wine with an almost brandy or mead-like flavor and feel. The candy wine comes from grapes which are left to ripen on the vine to the point where a special type of grape mold called ‘noble rot’ sets in. This helps with the fermentation process and results in a sweet desert wine that is the perfect way to round out a meal.
As we carefully stood to thank our hosts for their wonderful hospitality I think more than a few of us secretly loosened our belts a notch. The meal had lasted for three hours and we had delighted in every second.
As we made our way back to the bus we slowly meandered the streets of Baschi. The town embodies the picturesque nature that marks the region and despite a light rain was alive with people going about their daily business.
Situated on a hill, the views out over the nearby fields, forests and countryside quickly left me feeling like I was walking through a dream. Everywhere I looked I was greeted by fairy-tale images which seemed more like the fanciful oil paintings of blissful life in small-town Italy than reality.
With lungs full of fresh humid Italian air I found myself humming happily to myself as I snapped photos and walked the length of the town which took all of five minutes. Once back at the main road we climbed back on the bus and headed off to our next destination for the day: Orvieto…but that’s a story for tomorrow!
What is the best Italian meal you’ve had? Where was it?