Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dining All' Aperto in Umbria Means Spring is Finally Here

Sometime in late March, one never knows exactly when, people in Umbria will wake up one morning to find their almond trees have burst into bloom. That doesn't mean that Spring is necessarily here, because two weeks ago it snowed on top of the almond blossoms, but it does mean that the seasons are thinking about changing. The next thing is the fruit trees-- pears, cherries, apples-- and the yellow mimosas. Dandelions are next and then. . .
     ta dah. . . the ristoranti and pizzerie open their terraces.  Now, we are sure that spring has arrived and summer is sure to follow. (By the way, did you know that al fresco
does not refer to outside dining -- it means "in prison." Though you'd want to know that.)
In our little green zone between Todi and Montefalco, we have some favorite restaurants whose food is even better when eaten outside. Who cares if a bee buzzes in the geraniums next to the table? What's important is that we are in plein air, with no air conditioning, experiencing the joys of eating Italian food in its natural setting. 

Le Noci in Grutti is a ristorante we discovered when we were furnishing our house thirteen years ago. We bought a sofa from Paolo Mobili, the local furniture man, and received a coupon good for lunch for two. Expecting nothing, we were wildly happy with what we found. Danielle, Marina, the mothers, the husbands, the ladies in the kitchen have put together a place where the pasta is a dream come true and their wine is pretty darn good and pleasantly cheap. We keep going back for the gnocchi stuffed with porcini, the triangular pasta stuffed with ricotta and covered with cream and truffles, the strongozzi with truffles or country herb sauce. In the warm season, Le Noci opens the shaded terrace and we spend leisurely evenings eating our favorite dishes and generally enjoying life.

La Cucina Vecchia in Collesecco is another ristorante we discovered during the process of moving into our house in 1997. Giovanni, the owner, is a small plane afficianado and has decorated the walls of the place with photos of old-time flyers and their single engine flying machines. We love his pasta with eggplant, pasta primavera, and veal tagliata with rosemary and sage. We ask only for vino della casa. Giovanni operates out of the bottom floor of his yellow house, which is set in a gated piece of property across from the school. In summer, we sit outside in his garden, relishing both the quiet and the food.

La Locanda del Prete is a newcomer in the world of restaurants in our little universe. We can see the medieval village of Saragano from our house and now we can see our house from the terrace of the Locanda in Saragano. The place is a bit more formal than our other favorites, which is a change from the days when Saragano's few residents sat outside in the evenings in their "relaxing" clothes, chatting and watching the fireflies. In addition to the restaurant, the Locanda has a wine bar and a cigar bar, an oddity in these parts. We prefer the terrace, where we sip a glass of pro secco and enjoy the expansive view.

The terrace of Federico II on the piazza in Montefalco is the best place to be in summer, at the height of the people watching season. Since Montefalco has been discovered by tourists interested in the Sagrantino Wine Route and the fine locally made linens, it's no longer a sleepy little town. The food here is both traditional and sophisticated, and the wine list is practically unlimited. For a more secluded experience, Federcio II's sister restaurant, Coccorone, is almost hidden on a narrow street. The terrace is tiny, but in summer it's delightful, packed with flowers, and secluded within medieval garden walls.

The best terrace of all is the one at our house, La Casetta Rosa, where the view is simply wonderful, though we have to prepare our own food. Sitting under the shaded pergola having a lazy lunch, with the only sound a distant tractor or a bee buzzing the jasmine, could be a preview of heaven.

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