If you were lucky enough to have a friend who loaned you her house in Italy, your lazy and pizza-filled life would look like this. When Los Angeles food writer Carolynn Carreno was offered a chef's house in Umbria, she jumped.
UMBRIA, Italy – For the last few years, I have had the luxury of having a friend whose house in the Umbrian countryside sits vacant most of the time. For years, when I talked about wanting to get away, Nancy would tell me, "Go to Italy! Use my house!' One summer, after finishing the manuscript for a cookbook and turning 40 collided on me, I took her up on it. I grabbed my dog Rufus, a free ticket that I had paid for in interest on an American Express card, and flew to Rome. There, I rented a car, and somehow drove as straight as you can through winding Italian roads to a town called Panicale.
"There are two entrances to the walled town," Nancy instructed me before I left. "Inside one entrance is the only bar in town. It has a name, but everyone just calls it Aldo's." She told me to go to Aldo's and ask for Giovanna, the housekeeper. "She doesn't work there, but they'll go get her, and she'll give you the key to my house."
And so began my introduction to this town and to a way of life.
Nancy, by the way, is Nancy Silverton, owner of the Los Angeles restaurants Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza. When I spotted this sign on a day trip to the south, I had to stop and take a picture. (See above.) She ended up using it for her staff's holiday cards. Regrettably, I didn't travel the 1 kilometer up the hill to see the town.
Every year in the summers since, I've tried to spend as many weeks, and sometimes months, as possible in this lonely house. When people ask me what I do there, my usual response is: "Nothing. It's a good nothing, but you have to like nothing." Some people might be bored by a life where walking 100 yards into town to sit at a cafe in a tiny piazza constitutes the morning and evening social agenda, and where driving an hour or more to get lunch because you heard they do something great with ragu or wild boar or a suckling pig is your idea of a wild adventure, but this is my speed.
Add to that a comfortable place to stay, friendly townspeople who know me and my dog by name, and a train that takes you to Rome or Florence in an hour. In a word: perfetto.
This is Italy in the summer in a bowl. My friend Melissa and I had it with red wine, in tiny bistro glasses, on ice. What can I say: It was 100 degrees outside, and Panicale (perhaps all of Italy) has yet to discover air-conditioning.
In the summertime, the villages host festas, usually to benefit a local charity. Food is made by local women (home cooks: the best kind!) and served on plastic plates by high school kids from the town. And the wine, of course, is local too.
The traveling butcher showing off his Chianina beef at the town festa. Chianina, famous for its tenderness and rich, beefy flavor, is what bistecca alla Fiorentina is made from. I've never been able to find it in the United States, which is just one more reason...
This is pasato. In the summer, especially in the countryside, tomatoes are passed through a passa pomodoro, or "tomato passer," then bottled to be used to make sugo all year long. This is a very small portion of my neighbor's production. The whole family gets involved. Even the men.
The nice thing about Italy — well, one of the nice things about Italy — is that the wine costs about as much as water, and you pretty much can't go wrong. I love Umbrian whites like this Orvieto. Back in Los Angeles, I drink Orvieto just to remind me of Orvieto. The taralli (tires) crackers are from Puglia, but they sell them in my town, which just goes to show how open-minded Italians are becoming to the foods of other regions.
Day trips in Umbria usually revolve around getting food, such as suckling pig with skin that's perfectly crackling and crispy. This is the piece de resistance at Latte di Luna, a little trattoria in Pienza, a beautiful Tuscan town where all the residents seem to have gotten together and decided to plant bright red geraniums.
In Montepulciano, after a delicious lunch of pasta and pollo. (Not together, of course.)
Every morning, I take a long walk through the Umbrian countryside in order to prepare myself for the eating ahead. You won't be surprised when I tell you that the tune, "The long and winding road" is pretty much constantly playing in my Umbrian brain.
Pellicano, the "birreria, spaghetteria, paninoteca, pizzeria," down the hill from Panicale was the inspiration behind Pizzeria Mozza. My favorite pizza here is the mangia fuoco, or "fire eater," with red sauce, spicy peppers, and what Americans would know as peperoni, a version of which is also on Mozza's menu.
An aperitivo of prosecco is one of my favorite rituals of Italy's very ritualistic eating culture. The olives decorating the glass at a bar in Città della Pieve were a special (in a weird way) treat.
One of the best things about what I have come to refer to as my town is that it is only an hour-long train ride to Florence or Rome. My favorite pizzeria, Osteria del Caffé Italiano, only serves three varieties: margherita, marinara, and Napoli. Rumor has it that if you ask for anything different, you'll get kicked out. I ordered the margherita.
Italians are more likely to have you over for lunch than to meet you for lunch. At least that's the case with Rolando. This is his cacio e pepe. Rolando founded the company Manicaretti, which imports all kinds of fine artisinal goods from Italy, the most well-known of which is Rustichella di Abruzo pasta — you know, the stuff in the pretty brown bags. For this pasta, he used their new primo grano line of pastas, made using grains from the first harvest. It has a subtle wheat flavor and slightly grainy texture that really comes to life in this very simple dish.
These fields are like craters at the very top of a long, mountainous drive toward the Marche, the least known region of Italy. It looks more like Tibet than any idea you have about Italy. Little tiny Umbrian lentils, in various shades of lentil-brown, are worth their weight in gold.
This is what "local" looks like: a woman on the road home from Castelluccio selling exactly four things: onions, potatoes, lentils, and farro.
Cheeses labeled "Grandfather's Balls" and "Castelluccio's Viagra." Need I say more?
This burrata, about the size of my head, comes from a caseificio (local cheesemaker) in the nearby town of Todi. My friends and I always try to make a trip there before a party. In fact, this caseificio is, in a circuitous way, how the Mozzarella Bar at Osteria Mozza was born. (For the full story, read The Mozza Cookbook!)
Pecorino, or sheep's milk cheese, is the specialty around here. It comes in all different stages of aging. Fossa means "pit," so I suppose this was aged in the earth. It's all good.
The view of the back of town from my kitchen window at Casa di Nancy. Now do you see why I never want to leave?