Hill town of Norcia in Umbria - a great find (Long)
Posted on Jul 01, 2013 by
This trip report might be of interest to: - anyone doing a food tour of the Umbria region in Italy - anyone interested in Italian small towns most easily reached by car (train+bus is ok too) - anyone looking for outdoor activities in a rural setting This is a somewhat wordy report of a delightful 3 day stay in Norcia where we went to beat the heat of Rome. My husband and I have been living in Rome. For the final 2 months of our 12 month visit, we are trying to get to many of the small, hill towns that are not on everyone`s list to visit. It`s been 95 degrees here every day so a little relief from that is in order too. So, we were off Monday morning early on the train to Spoleto and then to catch the bus to Norcia. We`d read that Norcia was THE place for anything pork and that butchers country-wide would advertise their professional or personal ancestry related to Norcia (the "know everything about raising, curing, cutting and cooking pig capital of the country") by calling themselves Norcino (person from Norcia, and in this case meaning a butcher from there) and naming their shops Norceria or Norcineria - a butcher shop specializing in pork products. The rides to Norcia were just lovely with very beautiful scenery. It`s about an hour + 45 minutes train ride from Rome, then about 40 minutes on the bus. Norcia is a pretty small, prosperous town. I thought I`d booked us at the Grotta Azzura, but we actually stayed at the newest hotel (only open 2 months) of the family chain, called Palazzo Seneca. The Palazzo was a total surprise and total score! This is the nicest place we`ve stayed in for quite a while, charming and elegant in an old world kind of way, while still very inviting. Although the room is only 120 euros at the moment, we suspect they`ll be moving that up when all the services (like internet) are added and their 1 starred Michelin chef becomes a 2 star in the near future. We had a fairly large and very lovely appointed bedroom with all hand crafted furniture made locally I think. All the leather in the place is of top quality and is used in a nicely eclectic combination of old style and contemporary. There was a lovely brown leather couch in our room as well as a red leather contemporary computer desk - both of which I`d like to take home. There were several very lovely sitting rooms, one a well stocked library of books on Italy in either Italian or in English.
But the real surprise was the restaurant Vespasia at the hotel. Our impression from the day before, was that you see the same basic pork, truffle, spelt and lentil dishes
offered in just about every restaurant. While the menu at Vespasia consists instead, of very creative and unusual combinations and permutations of those same wonderful ingredients. Since I`m not a food writer, the description of the dishes was difficult and I`m afraid I may make them sound too complicated or fussy which they were not. Dinner started with a complimentary spumante. Tony is getting really good at sharing now so we split the antipasto of carpaccio of veal. Accompanying the tender veal slices were miniature pork meatballs, and luke-warm buffalo mozzarella combined with spelt, fresh mint and ginger. We then split the risotto with a nettle sauce that had pieces of pork liver, pork crackling, and grilled pieces of pork lightly accenting it. Finally we had a dish of lamb cubes with mushrooms and truffles in a stew like presentation. We rounded dinner out with a custard (creme brulee from the chef) and a chocolate custard with baked orange slices. We agreed that the menu in general, and our dishes specifically, amounted to the most creative, delicious, yet not over the top food we`ve had since we`ve been in Italy. Now that`s quite a statement.
Next day, we did it again! After a lovely morning at the pool, we had lunch at the Vespasia restaurant. The chef came out to meet us (since we`d raved about his food the night before). We will watch his career with interest. His name is Flavio Faedi. He is 27 years old and already has been awarded a Michelin star. He is really into his food and is quite charming, yet real. He explained that they are taking a risk there at Vespasia. Umbrians expect the same traditional dishes, cooked exactly like mom did them. He is hoping to provide innovation to these wonderful specialties found here in Umbria. New dishes using the finest of the traditional ingredients. He`s got my vote! Since the hotel has only been open 2 months, we essentially had our own personal chef. He knew he had 2 admirers and he was excited to show us more of his creations. After leaving us he sent out an amuse bouche served in a martini glass. There was a layer of fresh apricot puree, topped with a melange of diced tomatoes, spelt bread, with a fresh mussel as the crown. Then he sent a small first course of a fresh mushroom salad. We then had what we had ordered: Tony had the veal carpaccio again while I had the plate of specialty ingredients from Norcia. There was a layered item of prosciutto sandwiching river trout marinated with aromatic herbs. Also presented was a fresh ricotta mousse, and fresh baked crayfish. We then each had wild apple filled with foie gras, roasted red onions and sweet raisin wine, all baked in foil and garnished with gorgonzola cheese. For dessert, a tiramisu with ricotta cheese, barley and candied spelt. After lunch we made a reservation for the Bossanova Night
the hotel is having on August 30th, dinner included. Can`t wait! There are lots of outdoor activities available in Norcia (swimming, hiking in the national park, kayaking, etc) as well as having a truffle hunting outing where the spoils are used in the cooking class later that day. We didn`t get a chance to try all these things, but I think we covered the important parts.