A born-again Italian continues her travels in the center of the country, pointing out cultural (and often culinary) highlights
Vito navigated us through Umbrian superstrada traffic, finally arriving in the hills south of Foligno, olive trees and vineyards instead of strip malls. The medieval village of Montefalco is adorable, dedicated to the San Francesco, the olive and the vine, with dozens of shops selling wine and extra virgin, and postcards of my favorite saint. We checked into Spirito di Vino, a restaurant-inn, with three comfortable rooms but most importantly a phenomenal selection of local wine at the wine bar-restaurant.
Host Paola Bordoni filled us in on the story of the local Sagrantino grape. It's an ancient wine that had traditionally been made in the sweeter, higher-in-alcohol passito style (grapes ripen on straw mats until semi-dry, and then are pressed) until the '70s, when experiments with a dry version yielded interesting results. Sagrantino (both dry and passito) became a protected DOC wine in 1979, and upgraded to DOCG in 1992. The production zone isn't huge, mostly small producers, as well as superstar Caprai, the area's largest winery.
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We snacked on chickpea polpettine (tiny "meatballs"), paired with a glass of Trebbiano Spoletino, Terra dei Preti, an interesting white wine from Collecapretta, outside the Sagrantino zone. Giampiero Bea (we had plans to visit his winery) suggested the Locanda Rovicciano, a rustic trattoria in the countryside, for dinner—we weren't disappointed. Porcini mushrooms, truffles, seasonal and local produce, and homemade pasta (extruded from bronze dies, in the traditional style) were featured on the menu. Spaghetti alla chitarra with salt cod and chickpeas, garganelli pasta with Roman cauliflower and crisp pancetta, grilled squab, quail, steak or lamb, braised veal cheek, classic stir-fried broccoli greens, deep-fried artichoke wedges, roast potatoes. We drank more Collecapretta, white Terra dei Preti and Il Burbero (all Sangiovese).
We met Giampiero Bea at his winery, right outside town, in the midst of construction. He's building a new environmentally friendly cantina, suiting his natural enological philosophy and architectural degree. We went for a ride through the vineyards, with Giampiero explaining about exposure, altitude, with meteorological stations measuring away. In the cellars we were enchanted by the Sagrantino drying racks, all stacked up, looking decidedly sculptural. We had a tasting in the old cellar. Giampiero's wines are a reflection of each harvest, slow fermentation with native yeasts, no chemical intervention, all carefully detailed on each label. I enjoyed the Montefalco Rosso and Rosso Riserva, Sagrantino from the Pagliaro vineyard, all super-traditional, paired with bread and Bea's extra virgin or chicken liver crostini, concluding with a glass of Montefalco Sagrantino Passito, paired with a raspberry jam crostata.
Fresh pasta had been rolled out, lamb was roasting in the wood-burning oven. Our meal was a feast, black truffles used with excessive abandon.
We headed back to Spirito di Vino for a bowl of soup (the cellar was chilly) and then strolled to the deconsecrated church of San Francesco—pass through a gift shop and an enoteca (a glass of Sagrantino may be a religious experience) to get to the actual church. I'm crazy about Benozzo Gozzoli and San Francesco so I knew I'd love the fresco cycle, 20 episodes of the saint's life, including praying to birds in nearby Bevagna and blessing Montefalco and its inhabitants, with olives and vineyards in the background. We went to Cannara for dinner, a village famous for its onions and onion festival. Perbacco, two rooms in the heart of the village, was decorated with Andy Warhol reproductions (from when he was a fashion illustrator) including dancing pigs and a cherub in a wineglass. We had onions in every course but dessert, prepared by Annarita, served by host Ernesto and his wife, Simona.
We devoted a whole day to the Caprai family, beginning with the founder, Arnaldo, who has a textile empire and one of Europe's largest lace collections. I'd visited his virtual museum on his website and wanted to see the actual one. We toured the factory with Arianna, Arnaldo's daughter, and observed machines making lace, an impressive combination of low and high tech. We visited the shop and admired a display of lace reproductions of church rosette windows and lace-making accessories. I was surprised to find out there was no actual museum (political snags) and that there was no time for shopping (more cashmere, clothes, linens) although Arnaldo gave us each a lace rosette. We were on our way to the Caprai winery.
I had been disappointed to learn that one of my favorite restaurants in the area, Enoteca Il Bacco Felice, in Foligno, had closed. So I was thrilled to find out that the restaurant's chef-owner, Salvatore Denaro, was cooking for Caprai and would prepare our lunch at the winery. He invited us into his kitchen—fresh pasta had been rolled out, lamb was roasting in the wood-burning oven. Our meal was a feast, black truffles used with excessive abandon, all accompanied by Caprai's wines—crisp white Grecante day, big reds Montefalco Rosso and Sagrantino. Salvatore, befitting his Sicilian origins, is a volcano. We had a fantastic, fun lunch. Marco Caprai (Arnoldo's son) arrived in time for dessert—just back from wine-tastings in the U.S. We adjourned to the tasting room, tasted a few more wines and then Marco accompanied us to Spirito di Vino for a final glass of wine, with some Spanish ham. He had, after all, skipped dinner.
Perbacco Via Umberto I, 14, Cannara (Perugia)
Next stops: Cashmere, country roads, huge detour for fish lunch, inn in the mountains, meeting an old friend, making salumi, and more.
Image: Faith Willinger