hide captionThe landlocked region of Umbria is quintessentially, almost primally Italian, says food writer Tom Gilbert. Its cuisine reflects the virtues of all Italian cooking: simplicity, tradition and respect for fresh, local ingredients.
Tom Gilbert for NPR
The landlocked region of Umbria is quintessentially, almost primally Italian, says food writer Tom Gilbert. Its cuisine reflects the virtues of all Italian cooking: simplicity, tradition and respect for fresh, local ingredients.
To mangle a familiar quotation from Tolstoy, all regions of Italy are different, but each is Italian in its own particular way.
Suppose the Italian regions were women (humor me here). Lombardia would be a glamorous but unapproachable Milan model. I see Emiglia-Romagna as a wealthy, slightly dowdy widow. Umbria would be the wholesome, friendly girl next door. Unlike the American girl next door where I live, however, this one is a terrific cook.
Despite being landlocked and somewhat of an economic backwater — or perhaps because of these things — Umbria is quintessentially, almost primally Italian. This is certainly true of its cuisine, which exemplifies the cardinal virtues of all Italian cooking: simplicity, tradition and respect for fresh, local ingredients. Any list of the products for which Umbria is famous would include farro, a grain; prosciutti and other pork or wild boar products from the town of Norcia; and the gloriously funky black truffle, not to be confused with the equally glorious but even pricier white truffle of Northern Italy and France.
My first visit to Umbria was a three-week trip to Spoleto, a few hours' drive north of Rome. Most of the drive is up. Like other Umbrian cities, Spoleto sits on top of an ancient rocky citadel like a wedding cake. It is so unaffected by the passage of time that I could actually use a 17th-century woodcut of the city that I found in a shop to get around. It was a place near the Piazza della Liberta that introduced me to penne alla Norcina, a dish combining pork, cream and black truffle.
It also introduced me to Umbrian openheartedness. The first time I ate there with my daughter, a classical singer who was in Spoleto for a vocal symposium, we had a lovely two-course dinner, including a bottle of Sagrantino, for which we paid a total of about 35 euros. Seasoned travelers expect to pay more than locals in Italy. But it was a bargain by New York standards, even at what was the tourist price.
In accordance with my strict travel policy, having eaten well once, we went back for more. That night, however, we met and shared a table with an Italian opera director who was working on a production for the fall season. Whether because of that or because I had wandered into the kitchen for a chat about guanciale (hog jowl to you Southerners), this time we were charged only 15 euros for the same meal. I questioned the bill with the owner, who smiled and insisted, "Quindici! [Fifteen!]." We ate there a few more times, including the night before we were to fly home. As we said goodbye, the owner gave us hugs (and a few tears), urged us to keep in touch and refused to let us pay at all.
About The Author
Tom Gilbert writes about food, baseball, politics and the history of New York City. A longtime resident of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where he is a notorious home cook, Tom knows the good food places in three NYC boroughs and several Italian regions; he can eat in eight languages and talk about eating in five.
While my daughter was busy rehearsing, I made several hikes in the Apennines, using Norcia as a jumping-off point and staying at mountain rifugi — austere hostels that sometimes serve rustic meals. There I found a sweeping, mystical landscape that cannot have changed much since St. Francis of Assisi walked through it. I climbed through sunny valleys waving with poppies and lentils — a local red variety with a particularly deep flavor — and over rugged peaks whipped by gale-force winds.
On a two-day excursion across the mountains into Le Marche, I heard wolves howl, interrupted herds of wild boars on their evening forage, and detoured around truffle reserves protected by barbed wire and threatening signs. While hiking in this wilderness I met only one human being, a shepherd who, oddly enough, addressed me in Romanian.
At an isolated abbey and in tiny Castellucio, the town with the highest elevation in Umbria, which sits along the Piano Grande, I encountered wholesome, soulful dishes that seemed, like the stark beauty of the Umbrian landscape, to express an Italianness stripped of pretension and reduced to its essence.
Recipe: Strangozzi Al Tartufo (Strangozzi Pasta With Black Truffle Sauce)
Strangozzi is a pasta that resembles spaghetti, except that it is square instead of round. If you can't find it, spaghetti, linguine or almost any thin pasta, fresh or dried, will work. Black truffles (tartufi neri) are imported to the United States, although they usually come preserved in liquid in a jar rather than fresh (in season) as in Umbria. They are expensive. To keep the cost of this dish down, substitute 1 large portobello mushroom, minced (or the equivalent amount of another earthy mushroom), and combine it with a tablespoon or two of finely grated black truffle, truffle paste or a pre-prepared truffle sauce, available for around $10 online. For the anchovies, either use the kind you find in a good Italian shop — the whole ones, salted and layered in a large can, that you have to rinse, clean and fillet yourself — or skip them.
1 black truffle about half the size of a golf ball, grated (or substitute truffle paste or sauce)
Dried or fresh pasta
Combine minced garlic, minced anchovy fillets and a large pinch of salt. Work into a rough paste with the side of a chef's knife.
In a pan large enough to hold the cooked pasta, warm anchovy paste in 1/4 cup or more of olive oil over the lowest possible heat. Stir with a wooden spoon for a minute or two, or until the paste mostly melts into the oil. Do not brown the garlic.
If using only unadulterated black truffle, skip this step: Add the minced mushrooms and cook them on low heat for 20 minutes. If they shed a lot of liquid, turn the heat up to high at the end and cook off most of the liquid.
Add grated truffle or truffle sauce. Stir for 15 seconds (lengthy cooking spoils truffles' taste and aroma), then turn off heat. Salt to taste, and add a few generous grinds of black pepper.
Cook pasta until al dente. Before draining, check the truffle sauce in the pan. If it is too dry, loosen it with a quarter cup of the pasta cooking water.
Add drained, cooked pasta to sauce in pan. Turn heat to medium. Toss pasta and sauce in pan for 30 seconds. Drizzle with more olive oil (why not?) and serve.
Recipe: Minestra Di Zucca, Farro E Verdure (Squash And Farro Soup With Greens)
Farro is a member of the wheat family and is related to emmer, spelt and similar grains. It has a nutty taste and a chewy texture. Farro tolerates poor soil and high altitudes, which is why it has been grown for centuries in the mountains of Tuscany, Umbria and the Abruzzi. Because it is a whole grain, it breaks down slowly in the human body and provides steady energy without causing spikes in blood sugar, as refined flour does. This may explain why the ancient Romans built an empire while eating farro porridge daily. It is imported to the United States. Farro labeled "semiperlato (partly pearled)" will cook faster than ordinary farro, and farro labeled "perlato (pearled)" will cook even faster. If you encounter completely untreated farro, give it an overnight soak in water before cooking.
1 medium butternut squash (or almost any eating pumpkin or squash), peeled, cleaned and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 cups roughly chopped greens (cabbage, kale or escarole)
12 cups stock (meat, chicken or vegetable)
Salt and pepper, to taste
In soup pot, warm the garlic in the olive oil over low heat for a few minutes without browning garlic. Discard garlic.
Add herbs, bay leaf, celery and onion. Cook, stirring, for 5 to 10 minutes, or until onions are soft and just turning golden.
Add farro and squash, turn heat to medium and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.
Add the greens and stock and simmer for at least 30 minutes, or until the farro is tender but still a little chewy. Salt and pepper to taste.
If you are Italian, drizzle more olive oil over the finished soup.
Recipe: Penne Alla Norcina (Penne In The Style Of Norcia)
There is no chance of finding sausage or other pork products here like those produced in Norcia, which is so synonymous with high quality that butchers throughout Italy call their shops norcinerie. Freshly made sweet Italian pork sausage is a good substitute. (Avoid sausage made with fennel if you are also using black truffle. It is an unpleasant combination). Money-saving tip: This dish is less sublime without the black truffle but definitely still worth eating.
1 tablespoon grated black truffle or 2 tablespoons prepared truffle paste or sauce
2 cups grated pecorino cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste
Boil penne in salted water until a little firmer than al dente and drain.
In a pan large enough to hold all of the cooked pasta, slowly cook the onion in the olive oil over low heat, stirring, for 15 minutes or until the onion is soft, translucent and slightly golden.
Remove the meat from the sausage casings, crumble into small pieces, and add to onion and oil. Turn heat up slightly. Cook, stirring, until meat is almost completely cooked through.
Add white wine, turn up heat to medium and cook until wine boils off.
Add cream and turn heat up to medium-high. Cook down cream for a few minutes, until it starts to thicken. Add cooked penne and combine.
Pour penne and sauce into a bowl. Add grated truffle and toss with 1/4 to 1/2 cup grated pecorino cheese. Check and correct salt and pepper. Serve, providing additional grated pecorino cheese on the side.
Recipe: Insalata Di Farro (Cold Farro Salad)
The first time I had farro, it was in the form of a refreshing cold salad that I was served at a spa in Spello, Umbria, after my morning hot-sulfur soak and before my afternoon mud bath. This dish can be made with many variations in the ingredients.