Norcia is an Umbrian town that is world famous for being the birthplace of salumi (cured meat products such as prosciutto). To this day, butcher shops specializing in pork all over Italy are called “Norcineria” after this town. We planned two days into our itinerary to spend in this small oasis of all things meat.
Norcia is a walled-in city on top of a mountain, and it takes some getting to get there. The drive up is full of sharp turns, tunnels, huge tractor-trailers, and can be a little nerve wracking. We finally pulled into the arched entrance of the wall and immediately proceeded to drive up a pedestrian only road. Fortunately the people were good-natured enough to redirect us without any unpleasantness, and we found our hotel around the corner. We were informed that a large group from England had bought out our entire hotel, and would we mind staying across the street in their four star place, at the same rate? Um, ok. Excited to be upgraded, and encouraged by the friendly people, we unloaded and headed right out to check out the town.
The cobblestone street was picturesque, and over the wall the view of the surrounding mountains was breathtaking. We passed a salumi shop, complete with stuffed wild boar heads hanging on the wall, and displays of truffles and sausages in the front of the store. A closer inspection revealed that the dramatic looking truffles were actually stones, just for show. The interestingly named “Mule’s balls” and “Grandpa’s testicles” sausages were actually made of nothing of the sort (thank goodness), and simply named for their appearances.
As we walked, we passed several of the same shops, with the same products, displayed the same way. We were starting to get a little bit of an eerie feeling – everyone was too friendly, the town was too orderly, almost too beautiful, and the elaborate displays of stuffed wild boar were starting to look a little too staged. You got the feeling you were in the Disneyland for sausages. Slowly we began to realize that although this town is little known in America, it is actually a huge tourist destination for Europeans. We tend to avoid tourist traps when possible, which is why we haven’t been to Tuscany, and we were avoiding Assisi on this trip. Looks like they got us anyway. (Sigh.) I can think of worse places to spend two days!
On the square in Norcia is a beautiful church, connected with a still functioning monastery. We were encouraged by the hotel staff to stop in at 7:45 for the monk’s Gregorian chant, which was something we had never experienced before, and were looking forward to. It was only fifteen minutes long, but it was a beautiful and solemn experience. The blended voices of the men in the echoing building were heavenly. It was so soothing, in fact, that after about ten minutes we found ourselves almost struggling to stay awake! I highly recommend recordings to anyone with trouble falling asleep.
Our dinner reservations were in the restaurant of the hotel we were originally planning to stay in. It was well reviewed, and advertised as the oldest restaurant in Umbria, known for salumi, truffle dishes, and grilled or roasted meats. They offered for us to pick our favorite table in the place, and they would reserve it for us. We sat in a room with an open wood burning oven and a view of the salumi cutting station. We had eaten so much salumi in the past few days that we decided to order just a salad to start – the only option on the menu was a version of caprese salad, with tomato and mozzarella over lettuce. We figured we’d try it. Sounded refreshing.
Wow, were we disappointed. The tomatoes were green and unripe, the cheese was bland, and overall there was a lack of seasoning and freshness about the dish. I am so accustomed to being wowed especially by the cheeses in Italy that it did not occur to me that we could be served such a let down. We tried to eat as much as we could, and silently thanked our stars that we had only ordered one antipasta.
We had a great bottle of 2004 Sagrantino di Montefalco that we had ordered, so we sipped on that as we nervously waited for our pastas. All of the sudden, a small plate appeared at our table, brought to us by a very young, and very smiling, chef. He apparently had seen me take a picture of our terrible salad, was flattered, and wanted to bring out something extra for us. We thanked him, and dubiously inspected the plate, which contained some very dry, and rather old looking pieces of pizza. The looked eerily similar to some of the appetizer bites we had been served when we ordered our Campari drinks at their café a couple of hours earlier. I was going to avoid them, but a quick glance behind me revealed the ambitious young chef standing in the doorway, quite obviously waiting for us to thoroughly enjoy this lavish generosity. Ugh. Thank goodness for a decent bottle of wine.
Our pastas arrived shortly after, the first was a tagliatelle in a lemon sauce with prosciutto. The flavor was better than we had feared, but the dish was over sauced, and the prosciutto was undercooked at least for my taste. It was like warm chopped up ham pieces. I would have preferred a crispier component.
The other dish was promoted as a specialty of Norcia, and certainly, I had never had anything like it anywhere else. There were layers of cheese filled ravioli, with sheets of pasta in between, in a creamy truffle sauce. It was like a ravioli/lasagna. There were a few mysterious red splotches on top, some sort of tomato-based sauce, but it was so overwhelmed with the truffle flavor I’m not exactly sure what it was. The dish was quite good actually, and we began to hope that the rest of the meal was on an uphill trend.
No such luck. The grilled meats that the restaurant was so famous for took a nosedive again. Under seasoned, grossly overcooked, and outright tough, we gnawed our way through our secondi (grilled veal and a steak) the best we possibly could.
We had finished our wine, and rapidly, too terrified to attempt dessert, we made our escape. Here’s hoping tomorrow’s a better day – after all, you win some, you lose some.