We were cautiously optimistic regarding dinner that night, although we still had yet to decide on a restaurant. In the end, we decided on no particular restaurant, but visited a couple of different ones in the town of Norcia to try a few dishes each.
The first stop was a rustic, casual looking place with wooden tables and benches and red and white checked tablecloths. The vibe was noisy, energetic, and crowded. And they had squash blossoms on their menu.
We ordered a bottle of Montefalco Rosso (usually primarily the Sangiovese grape, blended with either Sagrantino or Canaiolo), the squash blossoms, and a pecorino torte to start.
The pecorino (a sharp dry sheep’s milk cheese) torte was made with lentils of castellucci – a local product that the region is well known for. Drizzled with balsamic vinegar, the savory flan type dish was both light and rich with the sharp you-can’t-miss-it pecorino flavor. The lentils were surprisingly mild and blended with the cheese perfectly.
The squash blossoms were stuffed with a tangy, salty cheese and an anchovy in each, then tempura battered and deep fried. I love all of the above things – it was fortunate for the other diners sitting nearby that they provided the two of us with an even number of squash blossoms.
Our first pasta was called “Pasta alla Norcia” and so of course we had to sample it. It was cavetelli with a white creamy sauce and some sort of crumbly pork product, I am guessing a salami of sorts. It was not as salty as I expected (kind of a theme in Norcia), but balanced and tasty.
The other pasta was tagliatelli with a ragu of wild hare – it reminded me of an earthy beef stroganoff and had a hearty and strong flavor. Both pastas were delicious, but they reminded me of something you would want to eat if you had just come into a warm house on a cold winter day – except it was summer. Fortunately the portions were small, and we finished and departed – hoping to walk up some more room in our bellies.
Because we were not finished. There was another restaurant in town that had caught Jay’s eye – and we decided to try one more pasta and our secondi there.
We were the only guests in the restaurant that evening and although that can be a potential warning sign, we were undaunted. We ordered yet another bottle of red wine (after all, we could walk to the hotel), and soon our pasta arrived. Again, tagliatelli, this time with a ragu of local wild boar. The meat sauce was salted and packed with flavor – the hints of wild gaminess tempered with the nuances of the vegetables and spices that it was simmered with, probably for quite some time. It was a winner of a dish.
For our main course we shared a dish of sausage with the famous Lentils of Castelucci. Lentils are not my favorite food – I don’t seek them out, and when I do come across them, I eat sparingly. They tend to have a strong, almost musky flavor and gritty texture that is not overly appealing to me. These lentils were different. They were milder than other lentils I have had, but the flavor was balanced and the texture smooth. The wonderfully juicy and salty piece of sausage floating in the middle of them certainly did not hurt.
Considering the quality of both of the dishes that we tried, I am not sure why this restaurant was so empty. It was one of the best pastas we had had and certainly our favorite secondi since we arrived in Umbria. We reflected thoughtfully as we strolled back to our hotel, and stopped for gelato on the way. Gelato greatly aids reflection, I have found.