In Perugia, we stayed two nights in a castle. A legitimate, built in the 1500’s, medieval looking, complete-with-turrets castle. It had been converted into a small, somewhat luxurious resort, with poolside drinks and wonderful Umbrian countryside views. The rooms were small and somewhat rustic, but fitted with answers to any need for an overnight stay, including local Perugian chocolates, slippers, various toiletries, and lovely bathrobes (it’s all about the bathrobes). The actual reason that we had decided on this particular accommodation, (bathrobes and turrets not being sufficient persuasion for Jay), was that this castle is the location of a well-reviewed restaurant, Il Postale, that had claim to a prestigious Michelin star. Our (few) previous meals at Michelin starred establishments had been some of the better experiences of our lives, both in food and service, and we were looking forward to adding another such memorable evening to our collection.
Since it’s not every day one eats in a castle, we began our evening with two glasses of Italian sparkling wine, Franciacorta. Our table was outside on the expansive veranda of the restaurant, which seemed to be where everyone that evening chose to sit. It was a lovely night, and the veranda overlooked a valley with the city of Perugia on the hilltop in the horizon. After some deciphering of the two different menus (classic and “creative”), we ordered our dinner, and soon enough the first tastes arrived from the chef. The first amuse bouche, a rolled slice of chicken breast, with a red pepper sauce and a dark crunchy crumble was gone in a bite. Nothing too remarkable, and too small to make any judgments on, but I’m never going to argue with extra food.
The second amuse bouche was a creative and savory take on the local specialty, Perugina. These are the little round chocolates that come in silver or blue foil wrappers that originated in this region. Only the actual ingredients for this dish were pretty far from chocolate. Made to resemble the little chocolate balls, and even placed in brown chocolate paper wrappers, these balls were made of house made chicken liver mousse. Rolled in hazelnuts, the small balls of mousse were smooth and delicious, and so light I didn’t feel the need for some bread or toast to spread it on. Delighted with this fun surprise, our anticipation grew for rest of our meal.
Our two antipasti arrived shortly afterward. Mine was a sweetbread dish. Sweetbreads are the thymus gland of a veal cow, and are not commonly available in restaurants. They are time consuming to clean and prepare, and very easy to overcook. Usually they are breaded and fried, but tonight I was having a braised preparation. The chef seemed to be partial to impressive plating techniques, and was generous in the use of various foams and mousses. The sweetbreads were served with a beet mousse, puree of fava beans, and some braised cauliflower. The sweetbread itself was quite large, but tender and well cooked. The plate overall struck me as a little fussy, but everything tasted good, so… well, let him fuss.
Speaking of fussy, our other antipasta was somewhat of a mystery. It was titled on the menu as “Subasio Under a Blanket of Snow” (roughly translated). Subasio is one of the nearby mountains in the Apennine range. This did not sound particularly edible, so we asked our waiter for more information. (Or any information, for that matter. That title was particularly unhelpful in the ingredient department). On finding out it was some form of beef tartar, involving a savory gelato made with parmesan cheese, as well as local black truffles, and further being assured that this was a very famous and sought after dish, we went for it. It arrived, looking like a bowl full of a pile of whipped cream, with a lone slice of black truffle perched on top like a flag. Whipped cream is exactly what it was, a savory one also made with parmesan cheese. Once we dug a little deeper, we found the center to be the promised parmesan cheese gelato, and under a thick bed of truffle slices in the middle of the pile, we found the chopped raw beef tartar. I really wish the taste was as impressive as the display, but unfortunately this plate suffered from serious under salting. The cheese lacked bite, the beef was freezing cold and somewhat bland, and the “mountain” of a dish, while not poorly made, still fell a bit flat for us.
Let me just interject here, that with Michelin stars, comes Michelin star pricing, and this restaurant was no exception. I have no problem with an occasional splurge, but my expectations rise (I think, understandably) along with the price tag. So far, we were underwhelmed. And our long empty sparkling wine glasses were still sitting forlornly on our table, despite the fact that we were well into a bottle of red at this point. A small detail, perhaps, but a disturbing departure from our previous experiences of service at other restaurants with this prestigious award.
The pastas were next. I ordered one with what sounded like a ton of artichokes. I love artichokes. The pasta was filled with artichoke, had an artichoke puree, and was sprinkled with fried artichokes. Spurts of the ubiquitous white foam and fresh pea shoots decorated the plate. It was good. Not nearly the best pasta ever, but tasty and definitely artichoke-y.
Jay’s pasta dish was paccheri with woodcock ragu. Paccheri is a short, large tube shaped pasta. It’s one of Jay’s favorite types of pasta – I find it difficult to eat since I have to cut the pasta into smaller pieces in order to comfortably eat it. However, it’s pasta, and I really couldn’t complain too much. The woodcock is a game bird, and the ragu over the pasta was made with lots of red wine. It was a rich and robust sauce. The meat was braised to perfection, with a gaminess that was just on the verge of being overwhelming without being unpleasant.
With the same “fussiness” I noticed in the beginning of the meal, one of the meat courses was titled “Pigeon: The Experience”. Even if I wasn’t a fan of the name, the pigeon itself was wonderful, precisely mid rare, with various pieces of the whole bird marching across the long plate, interspersed with large slabs of seared foie gras and fresh grilled vegetables.
The lamb dish was a chop and shoulder, with another fancy presentation. Grilled vegetables of varying colors were cut in strips and laid side to side like a rainbow underneath the lamb. The lamb was cooked to medium temperature, and was a little gamey for my taste, but still good. I loved the addition of chopped hazelnuts on the meat.
A small palate cleanser to ready us for dessert was a (surprise!) mousse made with saffron. It was light, pretty, and helped start changing the channel from savory to sweet.
In my dessert, I finally found a breath of the Michelin starred air I was expecting. Perhaps this is where the chef found his true inspiration, perhaps he had a really passionate pastry chef, but these desserts definitely saved our meal from dying in a sad rut of average. (This is also the point where our long neglected sparkling glasses were finally removed from their overlong stay on our table). I ordered a white chocolate panna cotta. Barely dusted with pistachio, the delicious, more savory than overly sweet creamy gelatinous dessert hit all the right notes. A sweet raspberry sorbet on the side, the panna cotta was decorated with a couple of sugary beet chips, and a brush of sweetened beet puree underlined the dish. The beet additions were actually sweeter than the chocolate panna cotta itself, a kind of creative backwards balance that I enjoyed.
The second dessert, a form of mille-feuille or napoleon, had delicious and rich layers of creamy custard and fresh pizzelle cookies with generous amounts of confectioner’s sugar. Besides being slightly difficult to eat, and including a mysterious dab of mango puree on the plate that felt out of place, this dessert could have vied with for a place in the finest patisserie. After our meal we were sent a rather large assortment of “Piccola Pasticceria”, each one showing the care and love that our two desserts had delivered before them. Whoever is making the pastry here is pretty serious about their job.
We finished our Sagrantino Passito dessert wine along with our delectable little bites of dessert, and managed to slowly make it back to our room without bursting. It wasn’t our favorite fine dining meal, but far from a total loss. The view during dinner was gorgeous, the weather perfect, and we had had lots of laughs and fun throughout the meal. As we relaxed in our room (in a castle, remember), we were thankful for an opportunity to experience tastes and luxury, even for a day.