Umbria Tuscany Trip Report Late Fall 2013
This is my first post having been a longtime lurker on several Chowhound boards. I have always found the information I've gleaned from other folks postings incredibly helpful in trip planning and hope this is of use to future travelers. Two couples (food/wine loving farmers and former restaurant chefs) spent a week in Umbria...based in Spello which proved to be a perfect, centrally located, charming town. We fell into a routine of having a morning coffee at Bar Tullia and then heading out for drive/exploration/and most importantly extended afternoon meals in surrounding towns. Evenings were spent snacking/drinking back at our apartment or at a local enoteca. Here goes (in order of consumption)-
Bevagna- Trattoria di Oskar
We drove to Bevagna directly from the Rome airport which put us into town just in time for a terrific lunch at this small, chef owned restaurant. A limited, changing menu was available via a menu 'book'' that simply listed each day's offerings and was further explained by the the chef or his wife. Between the four of us we ate a good portion of the menu and this first meal wound up being one of the best we had. We had a Ceci Flan with a spinach base served warm with Goat Cheese, Olive Oil and Cannaro Onion Puree and a Chickpea Soup with Brandade Mousse and Olive Oil to start. Strozzapretti in Norcia Sauce (pork sausage with amazing ricotta), Fettucine in Chianina Ragu and a warm Farro "Stew" with cabbage, cavalo nero, Cannara red onions, chickpeas and a vibrant fresh pistachio coulis followed. Next course included a tasty Chianina Beef Tartare, Grilled Sausages and Grapes with a Grape and Red Onion Sauce and Grilled Quail, glazed with Truffle Honey on a bed of sauteed cabbage and cavalo nero. Even the desserts here were delicious...we had a Milk based Panna Cotta with Fennel and Olive Oil and a crazy good Bittersweet Chocolate Fondant studded with toasted pistachios, crumbled shortbread like cookies and candied orange served with a sweetened ricotta cream. We concentrated on drinking Umbrian wines the whole week and the list here was small, regionally focused, fairly priced and paired well with the food. We liked this place so much we returned for our last lunch in Umbria!
Spello- Enoteca Properzio
We made ourselves at home in Spello and easily found a couple of friendly butchers, a small, well stocked market and most importantly, a good wine shop...Enoteca Properzio became our go to spot to pick up a few bottles to take back to our apartment, have an extended, focused tasting or just enjoy a light snack with a good bottle. Roberto Angelini and his kids Irena and Luca were great sources of info and suggestions. Both a shop and restaurant (we only ate lightly here...excellent pecorinos, meats and crostini) they stock wines at all levels (no schlock) and do a huge shipping business. We were by no means high dollar customers but (I think) because we showed an interest in learning about Umbrian wine were given a lot of personalized attention...a very comfortable setting to hang out and enjoy a glass or two or three.
Spello- Frantoio di Spello
We totally lucked out with our timing as the local olive oil cooperative just started pressing their new oil the week we were there. Well worth a visit/tasting if you're in town late October early November and they're in production. Really top notch oil at very fair prices...we brought home a bunch. After tasting all over Umbria and Tuscany this was our favorite.
Sunday lunch in a bitty agricultural village known for their onion production. We were the only non-locals in the place and while the menu read well the actual execution was a bit off. Run by a lovely couple who literally did everything themselves we had a fun time just relaxing at a leisurely pace, being together at the table. The standout dish was a simple but perfect Spaghetti with Anchovy and Onion.
Torgiano- Ristorante Siro
This was the one reservation that I struggled with...We spent the morning in Deruta (wonderful tour at Grazia Deruta by Ubaldo Grazia himself!) and were looking for a place within easy drive distance...many restaurants were closed on Mondays so we wound up here. The place was very busy with what appeared to be mostly locals (the extremely reasonable menu of the day seemed to be a big draw)...Porcini were in season and were heavily featured. Preparations were rustic and the simplest stuff was the best. Good Pear, Pecorino and Honey plate, a giant bowl of Gigante Bean Soup with Porcini and Olive Oil, a huge crispy pork shank was our favorite main (other meats were way overdone and pastas underwhelming) and there was some tasty cima di rapini. Youngish servers seemed uncomfortable with having to deal with English speakers (although our friend is fairly fluent in Italian and we were in the scheme of things not a difficult table-we all read menu Italian). Overall OK but not outstanding experience.
Castellucio/Norcia- Taverna di Castellucio
Castellucio is a singular place...perfect weather and a lentil centric lunch. The Taverna seemed to be everyone's go to suggestion for the area (choices are limited). The food was rib sticking. uncomplicated and fairly one noted...other than Lentil Soup, Rigatoni with Lentils, Porcini and Ricotta and Grilled Sausages with Lentils, we had a good Spaghetti alla Gricia and a couple of simple trout preparations. The trout was a welcome break from the region's focus on meat and they came from one of several trout farms in the area...good quality trout subjected to more cooking time than ideal. This place had a suprisingly good wine list for being out in the middle of nowhere. Be sure to pick up a few bags of lentils if you visit the town (we got ours off a sweet woman who was sorting her husband's crop on her dining room table) as they truly are delicious and easy to pack.
Next stop was the famed town of Norcia to stroll and pick up some salumi for our remaining time in Spello. This is the town of cured meat and truffles and a fun place to spend a few hours. We made the bulk of our purchases at Norceria Ansuini and all of it was terrific...Also went in search of the Cookie Lady who had been mentioned on a past Chowhound posting. She works out of a tiny bakery (no designated name) that is located at Corso Sertorio 13. Apparently she keeps somewhat irregular hours and was closed when we first walked by. We checked with the shop next door who said to return in 15 minutes. The wait was worth it for the sheer adorableness of the proprietress and the cookies were quite tasty...most seemed to be based on the same buttery dough with a myriad of different fillings...the quince, ricotta and chocolate and chestnut varieties really stood out but all the flavors we tried were good and held up well for the next two days.
Montefalco- Tabarini Winery and L'Alchimista
Excellent morning tour of Tabarini which was set up through industry connections back home followed by a memorable lunch at L'Alchimista. They were featuring several dishes utilizing locally grown black celery and the food in general was a little more vegetable focused than what we had previously seen. Stand out dishes were a Black Celery Parmagiana, a Radicchio Salad with Walnuts and Pecorino "Crouton", Black Celery Bisque with Black Truffle, Potato Ravioli in Truffle Sauce, Gnocchi with Cannara Red Onions and Tomato, a spectacular Sagrantino Tagliatelle with Black Celery and a local specialty of Braised Sausage Stuffed Black Celery in Tomato Sugo...and....a side of Roasted Cipolline Onions. Would definitely return to this place!
Orvieto/ La Palomba
This restaurant was very old school traditional (in a good way). We started with suprisingly for this time of year good Tomato Bruchetta , and a trio of pasta dishes...Well made Umbricelli done Amatriciana style, Arrabiata style and perhaps the best..with Black Truffles. Perfect Pasta with a VERY generous grating (grated not shaved) of tasty, fragrant Black Truffle. Also had a standout Pigeon in Black Olive Sauce (came with liver toasts-yum!), a big bowl of delicious Trippa in Tomato Sauce and a plate of simple Roasted and Grilled Mixed Vegetables.
Bevagna- Trattoria di Oskar Round Two
After spending the morning is Assisi we decided at the last minute to return to our favorite restaurant of the week. Reservations are highly suggested here as although we arrived early and were able to snag an open table we saw several other tables of walk-ins turned away. The menu was about 50% the same as our last lunch but 50% completely different. We had a few of the same things sampled at the previous meal (preparations remained consistent and well executed) but mostly tried new things...Pigeon Liver Mousse with Pumpkin Brioche and Fig Sauce. Wild Greens Flan with Brandade Mousse, a rich traditional "stew" of Chianina Beef "Bits" including liver, heart and kidney, Tagliatelle with Porcini, Chanterelles and Pumpkin, Bucatini Carbonara with Guanciale and Greens, Roast Pork Tenderloin wrapped in Lardo with Roasted Potatoes and Roasted Pigeon served with Roasted Apple, Red Onion and Potatoes. Also had a Chocolate Tart with Pear and Clementine and an Orange Cream Filled Beignet with Soft Caramel and Candied Orange. Another excellent meal prepared by a talented chef who obviously has a passion for what he does...Highly reccomended!!!!
At this point we split from our friends (who went on to Piedmonte) and we spent the next few days in Tuscany.
Valliano- Piccola Trattoria Guastini
Although we spent a few hours in Montepulciano exploring we booked lunch a few miles away in the way less touristy town of Valliano (I could see no other reason to go there other than a delightful meal at this place). We had two of the best pastas of our entire trip here...a Pappardelle with Suckling Pig Ragu and beautiful Pigeon Ravioli with Rosemary and Juniper Berries garnished with the roasted legs. Fried Rabbit was simple and delicious and the Roast Duck while flavorful was a bit dry. A generous side of garlic accented fresh spinach was perfect. Finished with Poached Figs with Hazelnuts and Chocolate Mousse.
Montalcino- Il Grappolo Blu
We didn't realize it when we booked our stay in Montalcino but the weekend we were there was the Festa del Tordo...It was a crazy couple of days filled with pageantry and large crowds. We had a disappointing dinner at Il Grappolo Blu...three courses each and the only really memorable thing was a Goat Cheese and Arugula Salad with Bacon Wrapped Dates. Maybe the kitchen staff had been enjoying the Festa too much,,,maybe the "C" team was on that night's shift... Lackluster Tagliatelle with Sugo, terrible, mushy dish of Little Shell pasta with Peas, Prosciutto and Rosemary, an undistinguished Braised Beef Cheeks (which did come with very good fresh cannellini beans) and what we thought was an extensive but way overpriced wine list. Wine pricing in Tuscany seemed high in general if one stayed in the main tourist towns (10-15 minutes out of town the same wines, same vintages were significantly less).
Sant Angelo in Colle- Il Leccio
Started with a very good Eggplant and Ricotta 'Stack" in Tomato Sauce and then had a flavorful Tagliatelle en Sugo and one of the featured porcini mushroom specials- Tagliatelle with a generous garnish of delicious mushrooms. Talking about delicious mushrooms , perhaps one of the best bites of the trip was a plate of Fried Porcini...lightly battered, almost tempura like, perfectly fried, they remained crisp and delicious even once cooled. A huge plate of Tagliata with Arrugula and Parmesean and Braised Wild Boar with White Beans followed. Finished with some straight up Cantucci with Vin Santo. Noticed the table next to us enjoying a great looking Bistecca Florentine. Nice wine list and service with again, prices significantly less for the same bottles in Montalcino proper.
Monticchiello- Osteria La Porta
We couldn't decide if we should have lunch in Pienza or at La Porta but the promise of a classic Tuscan patio view and good reports on the food won out. We had made reservations in advance and were given the option of dining outside which I think added a positive note to the experience. Clearly a talented chef's hand in the kitchen as plates were for the most part balanced, refined and delicious. The menu was composed of the usual suspects of traditional choices as well as a couple of options that we only encountered here. A unique primi of Chickpea Puree that was layered with Baccalao and served warm with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and a memorable plate of Octopus on Warm Crushed Potatoes with Black Olives, Olive Oil and Baby Ammaranth started us off. Spaghettini with a Duck Ragu was everything you'd want it to be as was a Farro Risotto with Mushrooms. My husband's Fried Eggs with Truffles was fine (not outstanding with slightly overdone eggs and perhaps a bit of a shy hand with the truffles) but the dish of the afternoon was a perfect plate of Roast Suckling Pig...rack, loin and belly and most importantly, a generous piece of crackling skin. Excellent wines, wonderful service...we liked this place a lot.
We followed this lunch with a late afternoon tour and tasting at Ciacci Piccolomini which is worth doing if you're wine interested...again, this was set up with industry connections but they do appointments for the general public as well and we noticed several people dropping in for casual tastings.
Santa Marienella- Perla Negra
Leaving Montalcino we decided to drive down the coastal route toward FCO and have lunch along the way. We walked into this small, welcoming all seafood restaurant and had a pleasant , well executed, simple lunch outside of Octopus and Potato Salad with Green Sauce, a Fritto Misto of Calamari and Head On Shrimp, a wonderful Crudo of Gambero Rosso and Langoustines as well as some Grilled Langoustines...fresh lemon, good new olive oil, the best bread of our entire trip and a lovely bottle of wine. Sunny day...just right.
Fiuminco- Enoteca Ostricheria
We opted to not stay overnight right at the airport or deal with Rome traffic (early AM flight out) and instead stayed in Fiumincino proper. Originally intended to go out for one last full meal but at the last minute decided to just find a place to have a light bite to eat. Enoteca Ostricheria was the ideal way to wrap up our vacation...a tiny little spot run by Paola the perfect hostess, this cafe/oyster bar is right off the docks. Paola is a one woman show here...she does everything from suggesting the appropriate wine to opening the oysters, composing a nice little cheese plate etc...Be patient if it's busy and you will be rewarded with some interesting conversation and a very enjoyable time.