Many thanks to Brendon for contributing this post. I love the “will it result in good memories?” standard. Read to the end to see what I mean.
There’s a little restaurant in Canino, which is a village outside of Tarquinia, which is a town outside of Rome. The restaurant is Archibusacci. Surrounded by olive trees, Archibusacci also produces olive oils. There’s a dried hog in the center of the main dining room, and the staff can slice off prosciutto that is as fresh as it possibly can be. Joined by friends new and old, we sat down at round table under a window that allowed a setting sun to shine on our table. The waiter brought us a cart full of antipasti, traditional starters for an Italian meal. Tired, a little out of sorts, and unable to communicate, I was the happiest guy in the world.
That was exactly a year ago, and I’m still reflecting on the memories from a wonderful first trip to Italy. The food, the wine, the sights, the history, the company—all were perfect. All of it centered around Rocca di Benano, the most splendid little villa, just outside of Orvieto. Rocca di Benano was our home base for a week in Umbria, which allowed us to explore big and small Italy all with ease and convenience.
The small towns of Italy are not to be missed. In one day, we enjoyed espresso and gardens in Radicofani, a spectacular lunch of truffles and egg in Montechiello, art and history in Pienza, and Banfi wine in Montalcino. We drove by countless Italian towns, wishing we could stop at all of them, or at least marking them down so we could visit on the next trip. We returned to Orvieto in the evening, drove down a dark road, and pulled up to Risto-Pizzeria de Zia Graziella, where, as the only diners, we had the full attention of the lovely Zia Graziella. Her full attention led to no less than six pizzas, a slew of appetizers, a digestif, a dessert, and even a private tour of her kitchen. It was the most full I had ever been. Zia Graziella reminded me of my grandmother, especially as she was watching closely to make sure we enjoyed her cooking. It was the most memorable meal of the trip, and that’s something.
The next day, my wife and I woke up early, and for the opposite experience, took a train to the big city of Florence. We were there in just under two hours (that gave me the chance to watch the penultimate episode of “Breaking Bad,” downloaded via wifi at the villa the night before), and when we hopped off the train, we went straight to the Mercato Centrale. We browsed and grazed and marveled at the varieties of mushrooms, dried meats, and produce. During a full day, we climbed the Duomo, walked across the Ponte Vecchio, and ate an amazing meal at 4 Leoni. We walked through gardens, stopped for espressos and gelato, and took selfies galore. The train brought us back to Orvieto that evening, and we were in our bed for a restful sleep.
Small towns, big cities, Benano was perfect.
What’s funny is that we almost didn’t go. My wife and I received an invite to travel with our friends Paul and Karen, the owners, but we already had a holiday trip scheduled to Paris in December for another friend’s wedding. Two trips to Europe in four months seemed a bit much. But after work one day, I was visiting with someone whose opinion on travel (and a lot of other things) is to be respected. His question to me at the time was whether the trip would result in good memories. I said it probably would, and he said then it would be foolish not to go. He even went so far as to say if we had a bad experience, he would pay for my trip. It was the safest of bets. Life is about making memories, he said that day, and he was right.
One year later, we’re longing to go back. We miss the food, we miss the relaxed way of life (va bene!) and we miss the adventures. One year later, the memories are still bringing us joy. So this week, we’ll open a bottle of wine from the region, raise a glass to Benano, and hope that our return trip is sooner rather than later.
Many thanks to our good friends Kris and Ellen for visiting Benano — and special thanks to Kris for writing this post about our visit with Chef Lorenzo at Ristorante Zeppelin in Orvieto:
If I were to write a book about our recent visit with good friend Karen Smith, I’d call it “Eat, Pray, Cook.” Forget the Julia Roberts movie and bestselling book. Cooking is love when you have delicious fresh ingredients, a beautiful setting, a fabulous friend and family, lots of laughter and a charming cooking instructor. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Last month, for our daughter’s 13th birthday, we paid a long overdue visit to Italy to sample la dolce vita. As part of the trip, Ellen and I traveled to the medieval hill town of Orvieto to rendezvous with forever friend Karen, with whom I had worked many years ago in Cincinnati. Karen had urged us to spend a few days in her version of heaven on earth in nearby Benano. We left the planning to her and had no idea what fun awaited us.
In addition to all the beauty that is Umbria – rolling olive groves, twisting roads that lead to everywhere and nowhere, sprawling vistas with skies and mountains that look beautiful in both rain and sunshine — Ellen and I were treated to a wonderful day in Orvieto as students of Chef Lorenzo Polegri. Karen has known him for many years and recommended we forgo the cooking class I’d found in Florence to experience Chef Lorenzo’s instead. Let me assure you, she knows her recommendations.
Our class started with an early morning trip to the open air market, where Chef Lorenzo introduced us to local merchants and explained the difference between various cuts of meat, types of cheese, varieties of vegetables – what an education!
His energy was contagious, and despite the cold, we were engaged (and engorged!) by the time we arrived back at his wonderful restaurant, Ristorante Zeppelin, for the instructional portion of our “class.”
In a kitchen stocked with every ingredient you could dream of, all the right tools and utensils, and culinary students to clean up afterwards (who knew how great this could be?), we developed a menu and started our tasks at hand. Lovely Lorenzo, with his delightful sense of humor and near perfect English, enthusiastically explained how to prepare artichokes for breading and frying (one more thing off my bucket list).
He and Ellen then settled in to make a sensational salad, focaccia and pasta and a delicious citrus custard. Eggplants were stacked and drizzled with delicious sauces created impromptu by all of us as we toasted, tasted, tested and revised.
Who needs a recipe when you can go with your gut, Chef explained. Don’t get hung up with too many rules when you cook. Do what feels right and tastes good. And believe me, everything tasted good. Truly everything.
Ellen enjoyed the pasta prep most, I think, but was also impressed that some of our food was actually served to lunch guests at the restaurant.
She felt so grown up in her white chef’s apron and well-appointed kitchen. She passed on the Prosecco poured for us as mealtime approached but was in a celebratory mood for sure – and so were Karen and I. We toasted each other, Chef Lorenzo and the chance to savor the flavors and experience of cooking, learning and enjoying each other in such a fun-filled way.
I was so moved by the experience that en route home to the U.S. I read Chef’s new book, The Etruscan Chef, from cover-to-cover. As much a memoir as a cookbook, it evoked memories from our trip and our day with Lorenzo. It features recollections of how he learned to make umbrichelli as a young boy and offered recipes for focaccia and many other taste treats that will no doubt remind us of our time together every time we prepare them.
I encourage anyone who is considering a trip to Italy to head straight to Umbria and make good friends with Karen and Chef Lorenzo. There’s so much that’s special about them and what they do there.
I’m lucky to have company on this trip, and lucky to have friends who write blog posts. My friend Aileen contributed this:
I’m not sure if it’s my love of yarn that makes me love sheep, or vice versa, but there’s something special about seeing pastures of sheep throughout the Italian countryside.
Their coats are long this time of year and they seemed warm and content as they watched us drive toward the tufa towns of Southern Tuscany.
It’s hard not to ooh and aah as you drive around a curve and catch your first glimpse (or second or third) of these Tuscan hill towns. Built upon tufa rock, they seem to reach to the sky yet balance precariously on earth. Each has a charm of its own.
Sorano (La Città del Tufo) was our first stop. The panoramic views from the piazza were beautiful, even on a cloudy day in winter.
There is also a lovely antique store run by Alessandro and his lovely wife Rikke, a Swedish transplant to Italy.
We stopped for a delicious lunch right in the center of the tiny town of San Quirico. Homemade fettuccini al pomodoro seems like heaven compared to my out-of-a-box pasta and out-of-a-jar sauce at home.
We continued on to Sovana, with its beautiful medieval clock and bell tower that make you feel as if you’re living in another time. The Cathedral (Cattedrale) in Sovana was built in the 11th century – absolutely amazing to me. Its architecture is stunning with its criss-crossed stone ceiling, striped columns and curved archways throughout the church.
Karen showed me the leather shop in Sovana that had been recommended by other friends, but alas, it was closed for the winter. Probably a good thing for my pocketbook.
I brought a heavy load of supplies for Rocca di Benano’s 2012 rental season, so my (and everyone else’s) favorite driver Francis picked me up at the airport and drove me to Orvieto. I always enjoy visiting with Francis and was delighted that he agreed to join me for lunch before I went “home” to Benano, about 15 minutes from Orvieto.
We chose a restaurant Paul and I discovered last Fall: Ristorante “Da Gregorio” just outside Orvieto, in the tiny Umbrian village of Morrano Nuovo (“New Morrano”). This unassuming restaurant, which overlooks sister village Morrano Vecchio (“Old Morrano,” although to our American eyes, they both look vecchio), is run by Fausto, his wife Francesca, and their hospitable family.
When Francis and I arrived, Fausto was talking to a small group of middle-aged men who were standing near their motorcycles. It was easy to imagine that they were businessmen unable to resist the allure of a beautiful Spring day, celebrating it with a long lunch out in the country. Everyone seemed in good spirits, but MY spirits fell as I realized Fausto was telling them the restaurant was closed. (Note to self: will you ever remember how important it is in Italy to find out what day a restaurant is closed before showing up!?)
The motorcycle gang was trying to talk their way in, so we joined in and lobbied alongside them. It didn’t seem hard to persuade Fausto to open for us. Once inside, Fausto and Francesca’s son Davide and daughter Giulia charmed me by remembering my visit with Paul — where we sat and that we had taken this picture of the family.
Paul and I were there in late October, at the beginning of the olive harvest. We had asked for bruschetta all’ olio nuovo, even though it didn’t appear on the menu. (Come to think of it, we’ve never seen new oil mentioned on any Italian menu but no waiter we’ve asked has failed to produce it, so don’t hesitate to ask for it if you’re in central Italy in late-October or November). Davide happily produced their bruschetta all’ olio nuovo: toasted bread drizzled with the brand new, just pressed olive oil and salted. The new oil at Da Gregorio was almost neon green, very strong, and full of flavor, tickling the throat on its way down. When we asked where we could buy a bottle, Fausto delivered a free one to our table, pointing out the oil mill’s owner sitting at the next table.
This visit to Da Gregorio marked a first for me: my salad arrived already dressed. In all my travels in Italy, I could not remember getting a pre-dressed salad. Fausto pointed out that he had put dressing on my salad for me, and I learned from Francis that it’s appropriate in Italy to ask them to do so by saying, “me lo condice per favore” (“Can you please dress it for me”). This is great news for me, as I have yet to master the art of pouring the oil, vinegar, salt and pepper into the small bowl already containing the salad. I can usually get the proportions right, but hardly ever manage to dress the greens evenly. Thanks to Francis and Fausto, I learned two things: how to ask for a dressed salad, and, just as important, that it’s culturally acceptable to make such a request.
For anyone interested in the details, here are the vitals: Ristorante Da Gregorio (tel. 0763 215011, closed Wednesdays). Did I mention that it’s closed Wednesdays? It’s located in the tiny Umbrian village of Morrano Nuovo, about ten minutes from the Orvieto train station, a short climb off the road headed north to Ficulle, and not all that far from the Orvieto War Cemetery.