Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Finale

Our last night in Italy we dined close to home in Chiusi. Having been lost several times in this town, it hadn't endeared itself to us, but it was the nearest larger town and was as far as we were willing to drive with an early departure time the next morning.

Having already consulted the travel books and the list our hosts sent us, we knew that La Solito Zuppa was the right choice. After getting lost before finding it, we made our way to the cozy bistro. We were greeted at the door by lovely owner Luana Pacchieri and seated at our reserved table near the hostess station at the front of the restaurant. She asked which type of bottled water we preferred, "con gassata" or "naturale", and if we'd like the house wine. Since the other diners all had carafes of red wine and no bottles in sight, it seemed like the thing to do. It was delicious. Luana told us that it was from a vineyard in Montalcino and the grapes were 100% Sangiovese. We didn't know how much it cost until we paid at the register at the end of the night, but we didn't think it would be outrageous and at eleven euros, it wasn't.

Luana's husband, Roberto, came to the table in short order and after determining that we'd like to hear the menu in English (we could have also chosen Italian, Spanish, German or French) he began to tell us about the way they serve dinner there. He told us that we would begin with our choice of soup or pasta, then described five or so choices from each category. He told us that the portions were small and not to worry. We both chose ravioli, one in a butter sage sauce and one in a tomato sauce. The ravioli appeared to be green gnocchi when it came to the table, but we enjoyed the dishes nonetheless.

From the list of secondi Roberto recited and described, Gnome chose the cinghiale, a regional wild boar specialty, and I chose the salt cod in a light tomato sauce. The chef chose our individual (though still shareable) contorni: pureed potato with nutmeg and smoked lentils, chick peas and cannelini beans in olive oil. Delish.

It was too dark in the restaurant to take decent photos of our plates, but the ceiling shot at the top shows a wall full of Slow Food awards. When I noticed them and mentioned it to Luana, she said, "You like Slow Food?" and reached for the latest Italian edition of the group's magazine, opening it to the article celebrating La Solito Zuppa's 25th anniversary. Bonus!

Full but not wantinng to miss out on any delicious desserts, I chose a no-sugar chocolate mousse. A big fan of dark chocolate, I wasn't worried when Roberto restated that there was no sugar in the dish. The pudding came in a shallow bowl and was indeed bitter, but it was topped with a dark chocolate cookie crumble that sweetened it up a bit. I could have enjoyed it very well with the remaining house wine in my class, but Luana showed up at the table opening up a bottle of a fortified wine saying that it went with the dessert. It wasn't my cup of tea, too bitter and sweet at the same time with some unusual spices, but I liked that they automatically served liqueurs with their desserts. The couple at the table next to us were poured a Prosecco with their sorbets.

About that couple. They were young, Italian, and fit, yet they managed to eat five or six courses, including a cheese plate, with no trouble. How do they do it? Is it all the walking? It's not because they skipped lunch, because that's another two hour affair.

Our mystery bill was very reasonable, in fact Gnome pointed out that a similar meal in an American restaurant, should we be able to find one, would have cost us more than double. It was a great way to end our trip.

Happy Anniversary, La Solito Zuppa, Luana and Roberto!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Our House in Umbria, Part Due

Sunday, up early with the hunt and all, we made our way to nearby Panicale. Based on the recommendation of Stew Vreeland's blog, See You in Italy , we chose Bar Gallo for lunch, having arrived too early for the last day of the town's wine festival. The small piazza had several choices for outdoor dining, so we had plenty to look at while we ate our torta al testo, a panini made with the local bread, which is thin and unsalted and quite delicious and in our case filled with mortadella and rocket, known to us as arugula. The Italians like their bitter flavors.

Oh, wait. I have to backtrack. After United's debacle caused us to miss our connecting flight to Rome, rerouting us through Frankfurt on Lufthansa, a much better airline all around, we had a few hours before departure and really enjoyed the respite of Vino Volo on Concourse C at Dulles Airport where it was easy to decompress seated in comfy sleek leather armchairs, a few flights of wine, a bowl of buttery Moroccan almonds roasted in sea salt, safflower oil and rosemary, and a plate of fantastic cheeses: Humboldt Fog, Manchego and Stilton. The servers were impressive, too.

After Panicale, we drove to Castiglione del Lago, which felt much more touristy and had lousy gelato. Women stood in doorways of shops with samples of salami on trays and lace in the windows. It was pretty, though.

On Monday, we drove to Montepulciano in Tuscany. On the outskirts of town, we came to Madonna di San Biagio, built in the 16th century. It gave me goosebumps when we went inside.

We stopped in for a tasting at the nearest winery, where luckily the staffer spoke perfect English and we bought a bottle of Vino Nobile to bring home.

We walked into the historic center and chose to eat our lunch at La Dolce Vita, an enoteca, or wine bar. We ordered too much and felt like bad Americans not cleaning our plates. I started with ribolitta, a traditional Tuscan/Umbrian bean soup drizzled with olive oil, then had a crostini with roasted eggplant and melted pecorino drizzled with a balsamic glaze. Gnome had bruschetta with chicken liver pate that was rather strong tasting and an antipasti plate with salume, prosciutto, capicollo, fresh mozzarella and pecorino. Please note the vantage point of our table on the city street. Many pedestrians walked past, diners sat at tables, and cars passed each other all in that skinny space. Clearly not an American street.

Tuesday we drove to Orvieto and had a pizza margherita and a Peroni at an outdoor table. It was good, but nothing special. After walking around a bit, it started to rain, so we ducked under the large tent and took a table at L'Antica Piazetta for a cappuccino and tiramisu for me and a beer for Gnome. After finally finding our car thanks to a couple of very nice Italian ladies who spoke about as much English as we spoke Italian, we headed back down the winding road and, as everywhere we went, saw this view:

Wednesday night, we drove the twisty roads to Cetona, another little gem of an Estruscan hilltop town. Once Gnome managed to back the car out of the overcrowded parking area that we'd driven into, we found a place to park and walked to the piazza to Osteria Vecchio da Nilo and were seated at a lovely table in a very well lit room. Our server, Silvia, knew only a little English, and was very friendly and efficient. We started with a plate of assorted antipasti: roasted zucchini artfully rolled around buffalo mozzarella, bruschetta with tomatoes, basil and garlic that was sublime, bruschetta with pate, prosciutto and salame. Next, for our primi, we had a melt in your mouth, savory sweet ravioli that was the best single thing we ate on the trip. Divine. For secondi, we had guinea fowl with juniper berries and a contorni, or side dish, of steamed spinach and onions. Silvia recommended a 2008 Dorigo Ribolla Gialla from Friuli that was refreshing and a little complex. Perfetto. I ended the meal with a wedge of chocolate torte. We would eat this entire meal again in a heartbeat.

Thursday night, we drove the twisty roads to Citta della Pieve and ate our dinner at Serenella. We couldn't take photos because it was like we were eating in a church. The conversation at the four other tables in our dining room (there are a couple of them) was very quiet, causing things to seem a bit somber. Our server spoke no English and our Italian exasperated her a little bit. We had a yummy salad, which was served with olive oil and white wine vinegar everywhere we went, followed by a spaghetti bolognese (delicious), and for dessert, a panna cotta with chocolate sauce for me (also delicious), with a bottle of 2006 Rubesco Lungarotti, all for 26 euros.

Our favorite meal overall was in Cortona, a lunch enjoyed once again outside. Gnome had a decadent steak in a peppercorn cream sauce while I had a pecorino and pear risotto. I now know that I cook mine at home for too long, at least to suit a Tuscan. My salad also had pears, hazelnuts, fresh goat cheese, and bacon. Yum.

In the next post: our last supper. Ciao!