I love Italy. It’s as simple as that. The people, the culture, the history but more than that the food.
Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to a wedding in Italy in a moderately remote part of Umbria just an hour away from Perugia, a place called Torgiano. My time in Italy totalled a week, visiting Pisa, Spoleto, Assisi, Rome, and several other small historically important towns.
After landing in Italy and a flying thirty minute visit to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower I made my way to my first destination, a villa in San Gimignano. My journey there was long and fraught with mis-direction, so along the way I stopped to grab a bite to eat. Not looking for anything special just something on the run I purchased my first slice of pizza and in reality my first slice of Italy. This was the best slice of pizza I have had ever in my life! It was a simple Black Truffle and Courgette Pizza. You may read truffle and feel that it is not something that would be classed as simple, but this is Umbria - the land of the truffle. They were everywhere and most of the food is laced with it. The pizza was luxurious and an absolute delight, a sign of great things to come. I would later venture into a local supermarket and see bottles of 500g black truffle paste, stacked up like ketchup, for only 9 euros!
Still a little hungry I arrived at the villa, high on a hill with spectacular views, something I came to expect across Italy. My timing was perfect as the wedding group was just sitting down to dinner. The menu here was simple for the region but oozed style and freshness. To start I opted for a Trio of Pecorino with Walnuts, Honey and Apricot Jam. I thought it was unusual for an entrée but it was a nice start to taste some local cheeses. I accompanied it with a white wine similar to a chardonnay but much oakier and buttery than we seem to be able to get in NZ. My pasta course was a delicious Wild Boar with Tagliatelle which was similar to a Bolognese. My carni or meat course was a Pork Loin which was very strongly flavoured with Shitake Mushrooms and of course Truffle. The pork was well cooked and generally this was a great simple dish. My wife had what is quickly becoming her favourite dish which is Ravioli of Goat’s Cheese with Sage and Walnut Butter. It was fresh, light and a perfect specimen of what real ravioli should be.
Before we said goodbye to the villa I had my first Italian breakfast experience. There were the usual things, yoghurts and cereals but one thing that stood out for me was the fresh (and probably local) prosciutto. It costs us and an arm and a leg here but in Italy it is served pretty much on tap at the breakfast table!
Before we left San Gimignano we had been advised to try the local Gelato store, Pluripremiata Gelateria which had won the accolade of 2006-07 and 2008-09 Gelato World Champion, it didn’t disappoint. The queue out the door was incredibly long but it was worth the wait behind the coach tours. My banana gelato was divine; it was like eating the creamiest, smoothest banana you have ever had. I also had mint and I can tell you with full confidence I will never taste gelato like this again. Unlike most mint flavoured gelatos or ice creams which have a false flavour this was fresh, it tasted like mint leaves had been crushed straight into my cup. My wife and I tried many different Gelato places during the rest of our trip but nothing compared. I can without doubt recommend this experience and challenge anyone to find me a better tasting gelato.
We would have other great meals along the way like a 50/50 Bruschetta, Half Pecorino, Prosciutto and Rocket and Half Pecorino Laced with Truffle. My wife had her favourite - Tomato, Mozzarella and Basil. The stand out about this one was the bread, it was amazing. The restaurant was called Bar 500. Although the food was great, the resident dog at the restaurant, Nellie, a British Bulldog proved a bit of a distraction and a holiday favourite.
The other notable meal we had was after we had arrived at the wedding venue, the castle in Torgiano. The whole wedding group went to a local restaurant, where we were told to pay 13 euros each. I must say this proved to be a bargain! Ok, so the pasta seemed pre-bought but it was 13 euros and we were served antipasti, a pasta trio, and wines!
The food I experienced on the day of the wedding was a bit of an eye opener. We started with simple canapés as the staff at the castle finalised what they called the antipasto course. As I approached the food I realised I had never seen anything like it. There were tables and tables of food, a Giant Whole Smoked Salmon, Freshly Baked Pizzas, Freshly Carved Prosciutto Sandwiches, a Cheeseboard like no other with Huge Wheels of Pecorino and Knots of Mozzarella as long as your arm. There was a fish table which included Octopus Carpaccio, Fresh Oysters, Mussels, Whole Grilled Prawns, the list goes on and the pictures explain more than my words ever could. I thought that perhaps this was our dinner, it would have been more than suffice, but no, that was just our antipasto! We then moved inside and were served 3 more courses of truffle laced dishes before moving from the restaurant to another area where we ate from the biggest wedding cake I have ever seen. It was a beautiful sponge topped with cream and the freshest of fruits. Accompanied by shots of local Lemoncello, hand-made chocolates finished off the food before plenty of cocktails and dancing!
Travelling to Rome we stopped in Perugia at Ferrari café, a restaurant in the middle of the street and then in Spoleto where we would experience what I thought was our only bad meal complete with glugy pasta and antipasto that tasted quite old.
Whilst in Perugia we stayed at the chocolate hotel which was designed on well…chocolate. The accommodation was lacking but the breakfast buffet was great. It pretty much consisted of chocolate in all forms. A giant bottle of Nutella, Chocolate Fondue, Chocolate Fruit, Chocolate Cereal and of course Pain au Chocolate. For those not ready to delight in chocolate for breakfast they also had the usual meats, cheeses and bread.
Finally we arrived in Rome, in the midst of the hottest summer in years and this combined with our busy schedule saw us taste a lot of gelato in the city. During a particular busy day we passed a pizza place and decided to stop for a slice. I was interested to see that the pizza was sold by weight. From a giant pizza straight out of the oven you choose the size of the slice you wanted and the server cut it and weighed it out for you.
When we arrived in Rome there were two restaurants that we visited worth writing about. The first was Il Veneto, it was a rather beautiful restaurant with the wines they sell being the décor in bookshelf style. We started with a Capresse Salad in which the mozzarella was served inside the tomato, a very nice presentation I thought and a Goose Liver Pate. To follow a full flavoured Gnocchi with Clams and Mushrooms and for my wife a Pecorino Spaghetti. My meat course was Veal with Apple and Pistachio. This restaurant summed up why my clothes no longer fit! It seems at least four courses is the way to go in Italy. You have antipasto, followed by primera, then pasta and then a secondi course and if you can fit in a dessert after that then you have that to. Probably tiramisu!
Our second restaurant in Rome we visited on our final night and I find myself feeling just as low now as I did back then. Realising that I am now not in Italy eating a variety of multi-coloured carbs in some shape or form disappoints me somewhat. We ate at Al President restaurant, coaxed in by the salesperson that stands outside each restaurant trying to get your business. There was a list of things I wanted to try in Italy before I left and three of them hadn’t been ticked off yet. This restaurant sorted that problem out. I enjoyed a dish of Sea bass, simply Served with New Potatoes, it was fresh and delicious. To follow I had Carbonara - incredible, not full of cream and cheap bacon as is the bastardize versions outside of Italy. It was fresh pasta, lightly coated in the traditional sauce of egg yolk, parsley and pancetta topped with freshly grated parmesan. For the dessert, you guessed it I had Tiramisu! My wife finished off her Italian experience with her favourite Bruschetta of Tomato, Basil and Mozzarella and Goats Cheese Ravioli with Sage Butter.
There was only one more thing to do before bed on our last night……squeeze in one last gelato!
L'Italia arrivederci e grazie per i ricordi roughly translated as goodbye Italy and thanks for the memories.