An Amazing Meal and Delightful Stroll in Baschi

Life In Umbria, Italy

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.

Sala Della Comitissa Menu

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.

Eating in Umbria

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.

Eating in Umbria

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.

Eating in Umbria

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.

Eating in Umbria

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.

Eating in Umbria

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.

Life In Umbria, Italy

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.

Life In Umbria, Italy

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.

Eating in Umbria

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.

Pork Neck in Baschi

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

Desert in Baschi

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.

Eating in Umbria

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.

Life In Umbria, Italy

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.

Life In Umbria, Italy

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.

Life In Umbria, Italy

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.

Life In Umbria, Italy

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?

Art, Architecture, Mummies, Food and Nuns in Citta della Pieve

Historic Palatial Artwork - Umbria

The city of Citta della Pieve sits a few miles south of lake Trasimeno and to the west of the regional capital of Perugia. Perched on a hill 500 meters above sea level and overlooking the nearby valley, the city evolved as one of the region’s important network of hilltop towns responsible for monitoring and policing nearby trade routes.  Our visit began with a guided walking tour of the city which provided an excellent opportunity to see its famous brick buildings, narrow alleyways, and a series of paintings by city native Pietro Vannucci more commonly called “the Perugino”.

Historic Palatial Artwork - Umbria

Palazzo della Corgna

Our walking tour began with a visit to the Palazzo della Corgna – an old palatial residence that showcased a series of beautifully decorated rooms. Each featured extremely fine detail work, that majority of which consisted of fanciful creatures being ridden, and cherubic figures hard at work or play.

An Old Door

The attention to detail and care that went into crafting the building was obvious in the fine detail work.  Though much of it showed signs of aging and wear – understandable for authentic decorations and accouterment dating back hundreds of years – it did little to detract from the feel of the place and seemed to add to the attractiveness and character of the work. In addition to the native artwork and decorations, a local photo exhibit had been set up along the naked walls and in the center of the empty rooms.  These photos, framed and displayed as they were, served as small portals into the Umbria countryside and a pleasant contrast to the historic shapes and lines that gave each room life.

Italian Rooftops

The building also provided a large balcony that overlooked the street below and provided a wonderful view of the nearby rooftops and countryside beyond.  Known for its brick and fabric work, Citta della Pieve embodies the appearance of a traditional Italian town.  A sentiment that I found was magnified significantly by the constant presence of pigeons.  While the pigeons may walk the line between vermin and welcome resident, I can’t help but feel that they do a lot to foster and warm the ambiance of the city’s rooftops.  After all, their curios antics, bobbing, hopping, and periodic cooing often serves to liven up what might otherwise be a landscape devoid of life.

Italian Rooftops

As we enjoyed the view of the valley below our guide recounted some of the city’s history.  Outlining the city’s allegiance to Perugia and the historical conflicts with Assisi that came with it.  She also shared with us brief background about the region’s Etruscan roots, and a bit of history about the small Etruscan Obelisk located in the stairway to the Palazzo della Corgna.  You can find a more in-depth of the city’s history on the Citta della Pieve official website.  Unfortunately, it’s mostly in Italian.

A Historic Cathedral

St. Gervasio e Protasio

From there it was off to a nearby cathedral. The cathedral was well maintained, and embodied what you would expect; It included artwork from a number of local/famous painters, the chief of which was Pietro Perugino. The decorations in the Cathedral also showcased an amazing attention to detail.  Particularly interesting for me, however, was the fact that the marble walls you see in the photo seemed to be mostly painted. While I’ve run into similar work in the past, the extent and quality of the paintings really caught my attention.  The cathedral also harbors one of the other oddities I’ve always found weird/fascinating about European cathedrals: preserved/mummified human remains.  I believe the remains on display in St. Gervasio e Protasio are of the 17th century poet Francesco Melosio.  The body is laid out at rest on its side, fully dressed and with a wax death mask in a sealed glass compartment built into the tomb.  Frankly, this type of thing gives me the chills. I just don’t get the appeal for any of the parties involved.

Nuns Walking - Umbria, Italy

A Light Rain

Despite a very light rain we continued our walking tour of the city which led us down a zig-zag of historic streets lined by rich red bricks and small doorways.  As we passed one such side street I caught these two nuns leisurely making their rounds.  The view triggered momentary confusion as I asked myself, “Am I in a movie, or really living this?” before snapping back to reality and enjoying the moment completely.

Random Door - Umbria, Italy

I find that one of the secrets to truly enjoying an Italian street is an attention to detail.  The grand beauty is one thing.  The overall ambiance another.  But, it’s the rich details that really flesh out the experience.  One of my favorites are doors and doorways.  I think far more attention and care go into doors in Europe than most Americans realize. Many are small works of art and more than a few showcase beautifully carved or cast shapes ranging from general patterns to wild animals. The doorways in Citta della Pieve were no exception.

Città della Pieve - Umbria, Italy

The Oratorio di Santa Maria dei Bianchi

One of Citta della Pieve’s must-sees is the Adoration of the Magi. A wall-sized piece of artwork that was done by Perugino in 1504. Though the piece is over 500 years old it still features vibrant color and is in beautiful shape.  It also does a wonderful job exploring perspective and offers a fun insight into what the region must have looked like in the 1500s.  The work is especially interesting because of two letters which were discovered in the 1830s and outline negotiations over price in the lead up to the commissioning of the wall fresco.

Città della Pieve - Umbria, Italy

The piece is also significant because it offers a glimpse into the fashion and styles which were likely popular among the upper classes in Citta della Pieve in the 1500s.  The painting serves as a great source of inspiration for people fascinated by the period and eager to re-create the clothing and hairstyles of the time.  They had quite the flair for color, don’t you think?

Città della Pieve - Umbria, Italy

Wonderful Winding Streets

With the Adoration of the Magi behind us it was time to wander the streets once again.  Our path cut across the winding roads taking us through small alleyways and across larger streets carefully paved with large flat stones.

Città della Pieve - Umbria, Italy

Our next stop was a small courtyard that held a variety of historical creations.  One of the objects was a massive ballista. The fully functional ballista stood nearly 6 feet tall, and was mounted on wheels so that it could easily be re-positioned.  Our host proudly informed us that it was one of the ballista used during the city’s archery competition, a time when the region’s various areas would all come together for a grand contest.

Città della Pieve - Umbria, Italy-8600

Located immediately to the left of the ballista was what looked like a massive canon.  It was mounted on what appeared to be a full sized wagon, and was more than a little imposing.  In addition to being at least 8 feet long, the mouth was nearly the size of a basketball.  Upon closer inspection it turned out that the “canon” must have served as an early gunpowder precursor likely designed by Leonardo Da Vinci.  The cylinder was actually made out of wood and open at both ends.  It was designed in such a way that it could be cranked back, and a large bolt could then be inserted, which would in turn fire…much like a canon.  Despite having spent time in numerous military museums, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.  Fascinating!

Città della Pieve - Umbria, Italy

Our path from the courtyard took us down a number of beautiful brick streets clothed in a half hazard mixture of multi-colored shutters and blooming flowers. At one point we found ourselves at a wonderful little alleyway called the Baciadonne which is so tight that only one person can fit through it at a time…and even at that it is necessary to turn sideways towards the end.  It has to be one of the narrowest streets in Italy, and is a definite must for visitors to Citta della Pieve. It also has a certain romantic charm, so lovers – be warned!

Città della Pieve - Umbria, Italy

Our last stop on our walking tour was the historic Diocesan Museum. The museum is housed in an old church which dates back to around 1260.  Over the years the church has been renovated and expanded several times.  Many of the renovations changed the structure completely.  The end result is an odd mishmash of styles and artistic forms.  Today, the majority of the interior has been painted white, giving it an incredibly unique feel.  A feel compounded by the presence of several life-sized plaster cast-based statues which are set up in the middle of the hall.  The photo you see above is of a fresco which was discovered during a renovation, and is of some of the church’s early artwork. The art was later covered over during one of the countless renovations where it lived on, hidden, while the rest of the world raced about its daily business. While far from the largest or most impressive physically, the Museo Civico-Diocesiano is highly unusual and a wonderful spot to visit.

Eating in Umbria

Dinner at Terziere Castello

Exhausted from a full day spent exploring the city we retired briefly to our hotel rooms, located on the far end of the city, before responding to a dinner invitation from the city’s mayor and a number of the town’s influential personalities. The meal was hosted in a wonderful old tavern that embodied everything you might think of when hearing the term “medieval meal”. The doorway dumped us into a long hall with a low, vaulted brick ceiling that left me feeling as though I was inside the city walls – perhaps I was? Though the rooms were sparsely decorated the walls were lined with old suits of armor, shackles and a mixture of different weapons and regional banners. We were seated on long benches set with earthen mugs and bottles of local red wine, where we settled in and began to chat about the day’s activities.

Eating in Umbria

The first plate we were served was a wonderful mixture of local cheese and wild boar served in several different ways. It was accompanied by a delicious liver paste smeared on coarse bread and went perfectly with the red Sangiovese wine we were provided. The next portion was a special pasta, normally only prepared on festival days which was bathed in a light olive oil sauce and served with meat. The flavor was fantastic with a wonderful balance between the pasta, meat, olive oil and with just enough salt and garlic to really set it all off.

Eating in Umbria

The pasta was followed up by chunks of beef in a heavy sauce served with what I initially thought was mashed potatoes. You can imagine the surprised look on my face when I mouthed the first spoon full only to discover it was, in fact, polenta. It was a silly mistake given my love for polenta, though admittedly it had been a while since I had found any. The polenta accompanied the somewhat heavily spiced meat well and softened the flavor nicely leaving us all stuffed…but, this was an Italian meal and we should have known it didn’t end there.

Eating in Umbria

Our final course was dessert. A somewhat dry and very hearty cake that had a light chocolate flavor and was perfectly accompanied by a wonderful local dessert alcohol. I believe the drink was the local version of candy sweet mold wine, but am not positive.

My time in Citta della Pieve was rich and wonderful, albeit brief. I look forward to an opportunity in the future to return and to explore the city in greater detail…ideally in time for the Renaissance festival. The costumes, competition and food offer a tantalizing promise of wonderful experiences and adventures!

A special thank you to the people of Citta della Pieve for the opportunity to sample the local food/experience and their hospitality. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the city and the opportunity to be their guest.

Fresh Food and an Italian Agriturismo

Umbria's Amazing Countryside

A few hundred (or perhaps thousand?) years ago the Italians figured out one simple truth: food is king.  At the end of the day if you want to win someone over you can offer them riches and fame with mixed degrees of success OR you can skip all that and feed them with an abundance of amazing food.  The more time I spend in Italy, the more convinced I am that Italy’s latest plan to re-conquer the known world stems not from boardrooms or council chambers, but rather small country kitchens across the country.

Umbria's Amazing Countryside

Our whirlwind tour of Umbria whisked us from the beautiful vineyards and olive groves I mentioned in my last post to a wonderful old villa and agriturismo in the countryside about 10 miles outside of Perugia.  Our hosts were the owners of the Poggiolo Villa who had opened their doors (and kitchen) to us along with a number of local business people, and poltico’s eager to share some of the area’s noteworthy attractions, foods, and wines.

Umbria's Amazing Countryside

As our bus rolled to a gradual stop in front of a large ivy covered gate I eagerly hopped down and out, skipping the last step and eager to dive into lunch. What greeted me was a tree lined gravel road that paused briefly at the gates before slipping through and winding up a cypress lined drive. As I paused to inhale a deep breath I was hit by a wave of rich scents. The flowers were all in bloom and the buffet of smells they offered were incredible. As I slowly inhaled – soaking up the fresh, natural scent, I found myself in one of those moments where you don’t want to pause to exhale, eager instead to keep gobbling down the sweet air until your chest refuses to take in and hold so much as another sniff.

Eating in Umbria

The sprawling villa was gorgeous; small fountains, green grass, flowers in bloom, vine covered walls, beautifully colored buildings. We paused briefly for a quick introduction in a small courtyard. Before long the general ambiance of the place left me itching to lay down on the grass, surrounded by a bed of small yellow flowers beneath one of the gorgeous trees heavily laden with bright purple blossoms. Instead, we were welcomed into the old villa and shown the way to a small living room. The ceilings were painted, the entire building decorated in traditional artwork, paintings and furnishings – it was as though we stepped back 2 hundred years into the past. Then as we passed into the next room we were greeted by a wonderful spread of locally grown food, all of which seemed freshly harvested. It included great breads, fresh tomatoes, spices, eggplant, beans, delicious shaved onions in olive oil, wild boar, and then a series of pasta dishes that left my mouth watering.

Eating in Umbria

Before we devoured our meal, however, we were introduced to two house specialties.  They were thick juices – the type you’d get at a juice shop…almost pulpy, thick-but-smooth.  They were fresh and frothy. It was obvious that they had just been pressed. Sweet. Refreshing and the perfect way to re-hydrate.  Our hosts explained that they were packed with natural vitamins and every bit as good for us as they were delicious.  I quickly noticed that my glass was empty and couldn’t help but go back for 2nds and thirds.  Then, we were introduced to each of the different plates displayed artfully on the table nearby. Introduction complete it was time to sample the local wines, fill our plates, and to dive into lunch and rich conversation.

As we enjoyed our meal (which was fresh, flavorful, and embodied the spring weather we were enjoying), a light storm blew in offering us a wonderful view of the Umbrian countryside. The light rain combined with a soft breeze to enrich the scents of the nearby fields and served to magnify the sweet, potent scents of all of the blooming flowers located around the villa.  Somewhere over the course of the meal, I made a mental note that at some point in the future I’ll have to return for a a few days – enough time to relax, slow down, unwind, acclimate and to properly soak up the complete experience.

For those unfamiliar an agriturismo is typically an agriculturally based facility which has been expanded to include hospitality options for visitors.  In Italy these usually include old converted villas, farms and ranches. Often the food made available is grown/raised/picked either on the spot or in the immediate area.  Many have started offering organic options, and they offer a chance for wonderful local food in a fresh and very personalized way.   While not always super budget oriented, they offer a great option for people looking for a more intimate experience and interested in enjoying Italian food in a truly natural environment.

I’d like to extend a hearty thank you to our hosts for their wonderful hospitality, sharing their local cuisine, and a fantastic taste of another aspect of Italy’s rich culture.