My friend Federico owns a gorgeous menswear shop in Todi – Minciarelli. A witty, incredibly friendly guy, Federico is a true artist when it comes to selecting and especially displaying merchandise in his gallery-like store, which is just steps away from the imposing Romanesque church of San Fortunato. Like most Italian merchants, Federico takes pride in his product and is always eager to share his expertise with customers new and old. Federico has some serious pet peeves, though, and most of them involve foreigners who don’t seem to appreciate or understand Italian shopping etiquette. They’ll slip into his shop without even the slightest “Buongiorno” (“You would never do that in someone’s home, would you?” he asked) and proceed to….TOUCH THE CAREFULLY FOLDED AND STACKED merchandise!! Not only do they leave a mess, but touching with oily fingers often leaves spots on his fine cotton shirts. Sometimes, and this really drives him mad, shoppers will even dare to mess with his window displays, removing a belt here, some leather gloves placed just-so into the pocket of a wool jacket, never stopping to think that this fashionable composition took hours to create. L’arte della vetrina (the art of the shop window) is a highly respected art here in Italy. Italians will usually window shop for weeks before deciding to enter a shop and see the item up close. For kicks sometimes, he likes to sneak up on shoppers who try to slip out of the store without acknowledging him and say in a loud, cheerful voice “ARRIVEDERCI! GRAZIE!!!!”
I promised Federico that I’d help him out by sharing a few Italian shopping etiquette rules with my Italian students and fellow travelers.
I can’t imagine a more idyllic place to spend a Sunday in Umbria than Castelluccio di Norcia. Just yesterday, we left Todi with a big appetite for natural and culinary wonders. After about two hours we reached Norcia, the salumi (charcuterie; cured meat – usually pork) capital of Italy (“norcineria” is the name given to anyone practicing the salumi art) and after our slow and windy ascent up the Monti Sibillini, we were rewarded with our first glimpse of Castelluccio and the wide open expanse of meadows surrounded by more mountains that make this one of the most popular destinations in the region for hikers, cyclists, paragliders, picknickers and foodies!
As soon as we emerged from the car and took a few pictures, a sense of freedom and pure joy overcame us. I couldn’t stop myself from running up the hills, spinning around like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music and the others in my group followed suit – age was definitely no obstacle! When we realized it was lunch time, we made a bee-line for Castelluccio’s specialty food shops and stands. (hint: in addition to the well-stocked main store in the center, look out for the ladies and organic farmers selling lenticchie (lentils), piselli selvatici (wild peas), and farro (spelt) by the sides of the road. As is my ritual, I bought several chilos worth of the best sheepsmilk cheese I’ve ever tasted – pecorino semi-stagionato (semi-aged) and stagionato (aged) – and had it shrink-wrapped (sotto vuoto). Each night I say 10 “Hail Marys” in the hopes that my luggage and its precious cargo won’t be lost in transit when I head home on Friday. After stocking up on take-home delicacies, it was time for a serious pranzo di Domenica (Sunday lunch). I joined my group of happy campers at La Taverna, the place to enjoy local specialties while gazing at the stunning mountains, which are often shrouded in clouds (Castelluccio’s nickname is the fabbrica delle nuvole - cloud factory). We began, as always, with a platter of salumi (prosciutto crudo, soft and spicy ciauscola, lardo, lonza…) and a plate of creamy fresh ricotta. The table got very quiet. Next came plates of zuppetta di lenticchie (lentil soup), polenta smothered with lentils, sausage and porcini mushrooms, tagliatelle al tartufo nero (black truffle, another local delicacy) and a simply divine souffle’ of lentils and pecorino cheese surrounded by fresh pear slices and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Needless to say, I am already looking forward to trying some dishes that I simply couldn’t manage this time on my return to Castelluccio next June.
How to get there: Castelluccio is located near the town of NORCIA in the southeast corner of Umbria. You can reach Castelluccio easily from most southern points in Umbria (Todi, Spoleto, Orvieto) as well as from Ascoli Piceno in the Marche. If you’d like, you can stay overnight in Castelluccio at one of the several places renting rooms – such as La Taverna.
When to go: to experience the fioritura or flowering, Spring is best – late May and early June, depending on the year. The early fall is ideal, too, for hiking and breathing in that fresh mountain air – not to mention working up an appetite!
Where to eat: You can get a quick bowl of lentil soup or a sandwich (panino) of local cheeses and salumi at several small stands and shops in town, but for a meal worthy of a Sunday, you simply must reserve a table – inside (dentro) or out (fuori) at La Taverna di Castelluccio.
What to order: Any dish starring the area’s specialty foods – salumi, formaggi (cheeses, especially pecorino), tartufo nero (black truffle), farro (spelt – try the insalata di farro/salad and – when you’ve had your fill of pork products - trota (trout) from the nearby Nera river.
Don’t miss – A (gentle) horseback ride along the meadow. Stop in at the family-run stable at the center of the expansive meadow to find out about their scheduling options on the day of your visit. During busy times, the group “trail” rides leave about every hour (cost: around 20 euros).