Many thanks to Brendon for contributing this post. I love the “will it result in good memories?” standard. Read to the end to see what I mean.
There’s a little restaurant in Canino, which is a village outside of Tarquinia, which is a town outside of Rome. The restaurant is Archibusacci. Surrounded by olive trees, Archibusacci also produces olive oils. There’s a dried hog in the center of the main dining room, and the staff can slice off prosciutto that is as fresh as it possibly can be. Joined by friends new and old, we sat down at round table under a window that allowed a setting sun to shine on our table. The waiter brought us a cart full of antipasti, traditional starters for an Italian meal. Tired, a little out of sorts, and unable to communicate, I was the happiest guy in the world.
That was exactly a year ago, and I’m still reflecting on the memories from a wonderful first trip to Italy. The food, the wine, the sights, the history, the company—all were perfect. All of it centered around Rocca di Benano, the most splendid little villa, just outside of Orvieto. Rocca di Benano was our home base for a week in Umbria, which allowed us to explore big and small Italy all with ease and convenience.
The small towns of Italy are not to be missed. In one day, we enjoyed espresso and gardens in Radicofani, a spectacular lunch of truffles and egg in Montechiello, art and history in Pienza, and Banfi wine in Montalcino. We drove by countless Italian towns, wishing we could stop at all of them, or at least marking them down so we could visit on the next trip. We returned to Orvieto in the evening, drove down a dark road, and pulled up to Risto-Pizzeria de Zia Graziella, where, as the only diners, we had the full attention of the lovely Zia Graziella. Her full attention led to no less than six pizzas, a slew of appetizers, a digestif, a dessert, and even a private tour of her kitchen. It was the most full I had ever been. Zia Graziella reminded me of my grandmother, especially as she was watching closely to make sure we enjoyed her cooking. It was the most memorable meal of the trip, and that’s something.
The next day, my wife and I woke up early, and for the opposite experience, took a train to the big city of Florence. We were there in just under two hours (that gave me the chance to watch the penultimate episode of “Breaking Bad,” downloaded via wifi at the villa the night before), and when we hopped off the train, we went straight to the Mercato Centrale. We browsed and grazed and marveled at the varieties of mushrooms, dried meats, and produce. During a full day, we climbed the Duomo, walked across the Ponte Vecchio, and ate an amazing meal at 4 Leoni. We walked through gardens, stopped for espressos and gelato, and took selfies galore. The train brought us back to Orvieto that evening, and we were in our bed for a restful sleep.
Small towns, big cities, Benano was perfect.
What’s funny is that we almost didn’t go. My wife and I received an invite to travel with our friends Paul and Karen, the owners, but we already had a holiday trip scheduled to Paris in December for another friend’s wedding. Two trips to Europe in four months seemed a bit much. But after work one day, I was visiting with someone whose opinion on travel (and a lot of other things) is to be respected. His question to me at the time was whether the trip would result in good memories. I said it probably would, and he said then it would be foolish not to go. He even went so far as to say if we had a bad experience, he would pay for my trip. It was the safest of bets. Life is about making memories, he said that day, and he was right.
One year later, we’re longing to go back. We miss the food, we miss the relaxed way of life (va bene!) and we miss the adventures. One year later, the memories are still bringing us joy. So this week, we’ll open a bottle of wine from the region, raise a glass to Benano, and hope that our return trip is sooner rather than later.
I get to talk to lots of travelers who are planning their Italian vacations. With this summer’s guests getting into full trip-planning mode, it’s time to compile my Four Top Tips for planning a perfect vacation.
Tip 1: Start With Any Must-Do’s
I keep track of things to see or do near Rocca di Benano that might qualify for this “must do” list, and I happily add it whenever a guest says, “I’m not leaving Italy without …” . My most recently added item was “finding the little town where the TV show ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ shot several episodes on location.” Our guest found it last year and wrote about it in this blog post.
Rule #2: Mean to Meander
Hit the open road with only a rough idea of what you’ll do that day, know that you’ll probably get a little lost, and trust that you’ll come back with memories of a day you couldn’t have planned. Choose an opportunistic destination, grab a guidebook and a map (or, if you must, a GPS — but they’re not nearly as engrossing) and go see what your day holds for you. From Rocca di Benano, we like to wander:
- In the direction of Siena. We could do this trip for days on end without seeing even a fraction of the storybook hill towns, thermal spas, wine meccas, historic churches, and gorgeous vistas on the road to Siena. Lots of people don’t make it as far as Siena – that’s why I call this “in the direction of …”
- In the direction of Perugia and Assisi. We’ve had guests never make it past Deruta, but they remember that day every time they serve a meal on the gorgeous ceramic dinnerware they bought from one of the artisans in Deruta.
- In the direction of Montefalco and Bevagna. This trip lends itself to a drive by Spoleto on one way and Todi on the way back.
- In the direction of Montefiascone and Viterbo. These are big towns/small cities that many tourists miss, and there are several Renaissance gardens in the area that are also well worth a visit.
- In the direction of Tuscania, Tarquinia and Vulci. A great guide (see Rule #3) could help you learn a lot about the Etruscan civilization while you’re in the neighborhood.
- A drive around Lake Bolsena. There are any number of inviting stops on a circumnavigation of Europe’s largest volcanic lake.
Rule #3: Engage Great Guides
I feel strongly about this one. Great tour guides have enhanced our trips so much over the years that now it seems a little silly not to take that extra step to assure that we get the most out of whatever we go all that way to see. I don’t doubt that I could achieve a similarly high level of understanding with an excellent guide book, careful attention to detail, and a real commitment to understanding everything the guide book has to offer. But when I’m on vacation and the site is important, I would rather have a knowledgeable and skilled guide and storyteller at my side.
Do your best to get a great guide. Italy is pretty careful about regulating guides in its tourist areas, but we’ve still managed to stumble over a few bombs. I keep track of great guides and will happily put you in touch with a great one or two. Here’s an example of some of the tours Emanuela Visciola has developed for our guests.
Think about it: you went to a lot of trouble and expense to stand in front of whatever you’re standing in front of. The more you understand about what you’re seeing, the better you will appreciate it and the more memorable it will be. So hiring a great guide is a smart investment in the memories you’re creating.
Rule #4: Be Willing to Get Off the Beaten Path
Many of our guests tell us that their most special memories of their visit to Central Italy is of “discovering” small, out-of-the way towns and their people. I love the way “Not Just another ‘Dolce Vita” expressed this in her “Things to Consider When Planning a Trip to Italy” post: “Don’t go somewhere just because you’ve heard the name.” Because there are valid reasons that tourists beat those well-trod paths to famous sites, you’ll miss a lot if you stay off the beaten path entirely.
So I encourage our guests to carve out some time for exploring out-of-the-way places. For example, I send people to the “tufa towns” of Southern Tuscany: Sorano, Sovana, and Pitigliano. There, they’ll find few crowds, little glitz and flash, an old town historically known as “the little Jerusalem,” inviting shops, and an unspoiled 12th Century church. More important, they’ll find a much more authentic Italian experience than what they will see in other, justifiably celebrated and very heavily touristed Tuscan towns.
This post is another wonderful guest’s answer to the ever-popular “what would a week at Rocca di Benano be like?” question. I like his answer, particularly the “discovery” of Anguillara Sabazia on the shores of Lake Bracciano. And don’t miss the last shot, when he and his family had to leave Benano.
Thanks very much, Mike. We’re looking forward to having you back to Rocca di Benano!
It has taken a while but I’m finally writing about our perfect week this past August in Benano. Since our son and daughter-in-law live in Florida it was longest all five of us had been able to spend together over the past few years. It was a wonderful trip and I’d like to share a few highlights.
To make the most of this trip we hired Francis for the entire week. That could not have worked out any better. Driver and interpreter, tour guide, photographer, historian and storyteller. He even helped with grocery shopping.
We visited many of the same cities and sites that other Benano guests have experienced. However, we would like to highlight a couple of places we visited that others might be interested in reading about. We arrived in Rome on Saturday morning. Since official check-in isn’t until 4pm, we used the time traveling between Rome and Benano to visit the city (or is it a village?) of Anguillara Sabazia. It’s just bit north of Rome and sits on the shore of Lake Bracciano. If anyone is a fan of the television show Everybody Loves Raymond you would recognize it as the site where they shot their two-part episode in Italy.
Our family is a fan of that show and we can remember seeing that episode for the first time and thinking how nice it would be if someday we could visit a place like that. Well, that someday came. Of course, the town was spruced up a bit for the filming but it’s still as picturesque as it is in the show.
Another site we visited was the Florence American Cemetery. It’s just off the A1 Autostrada south of the city of Florence. This is one of two American World War II cemeteries in Italy. This is the resting place for soldiers killed in the later stages of fighting in Italy, after the Allied liberation of Rome. The other cemetery is near Anzio.
We left Benano early for the drive north, spent some time at the cemetery and then, rather than go into Florence, made our way back toward Benano and spent the rest of the day in Siena. The campo in Siena just happened to be set up for their famous horse race, the Palio, which was going to run the next day. Since we did not see Florence itself we have one more reason to someday return to Benano. Actually it was such a wonderful week all around I don’t think we need any one single reason to come back.
We were on the go every day. We visited Orvieto twice, Civita di Bagnorigio, Assisi, the sagra in Torre Alfina (along with return visits for dinner and gelato), Pienza, Montepulciano, Siena and a full day in Rome capped with an evening dinner on the beach in Fiumicino. We still found time to enjoy Benano, too, with a couple of evenings grilling on the terrace and a special Creole dinner on our last night there.
We had a wonderful time in Italy and at Rocca di Benano. It was the trip of a lifetime. At least until we’re able to go back!
Now that TIME magazine has named Pope Francis its person of the year, it’s official: I’m not the only one with a little crush on Il Papa. So it’s time to tell the story of the night I fell for him.
I happened to be in Benano with my good friend Aileen when the Papal Conclave began. Aileen, good Jewish girl that she is, was enraptured by the papal election. Having studied the process fervently, she determined that we should watch the first vote from the comfort of Rocca di Benano and go to Rome the following day.
I loved watching the papal election from Benano because I had watched the U.S. election returns from that same position just four months earlier. There were differences, of course — take, for example, that instead of results being conveyed from local Boards of Elections to a TV studio with fancy touch-screen graphics, smoke signals from the chimney atop the Sistene Chapel — and the helpful Chimney Cam — transmitted the news.
And so it was that we went to Rome on the second day of the Conclave. As luck would have it, our friend and favorite photographer Gianni Fantauzzi went, too. You’ll understand if I let his photographs do most of the talking. We realized later that we were pretty close to each other in the Square that night, and he is graciously allowing me to use his photos of what we saw.
We took an early train to Rome and walked the couple of miles from the apartment of our dear and very hospitable friends John and Karin to St. Peter’s Square. It was a cold morning, and the precipitation varied between a drizzle and a light rain. The sky was grey. And it was cold. We arrived just after a brilliant display of black smoke (signaling that the cardinals had failed again to elect a pope), so the Square was empty except for the journalists still finishing up their reporting.
We had time to kill, so we started by wandering the Square and getting a sense of Vatican City during a Conclave. There were trinkets to be had, and I wasn’t alone in snapping up a few Pope Benedict tchotchkes.
Late in the wet, cold afternoon, we returned to St. Peter’s Square to begin our wait. With thousands of our new best friends, we settled in as the drizzly evening descended.
At least the people-watching was unbeatable.
One of the miracles of the evening was that John and Karin found us in the crowd when they arrived after their workday.
Throughout the evening, the crowd’s hum seemed ebullient, prayerful, excited, and respectful — all at the same time. Suddenly, the volume of the hum increased, and within seconds, that hum crescendoed into a full-throated roar. This was IT! The election results were being announced.
Amid the commotion, I found the chimney in the distance. It was, indeed, spewing smoke … of an indeterminate color. It finally became clearly white smoke — billows and billows of bright white smoke. At the same time, the huge bells on the left side of St. Peter’s rolled back and forth and rang out joyously. Maybe the bells aren’t inherently joyous, but the crowd certainly was.
There were lots of “Vive la Papa!!” cries, which struck me as kind of strange because no one knew exactly what we were celebrating — just that the Cardinals had elected someone as pope.
Then began another very long wait interrupted briefly by a marching band (does the Pope get his own theme song?) and Swiss Guards parading across the piazza in formation.
When the upper floor of St. Peter’s exploded in bright light, the crowd went wild. We cheered excitedly whenever a curtain on the door to the balcony as much as fluttered, so when the doors opened wide and the cardinal came out to announce the Habemus Papam (we have a Pope), the crowd went berserk.
But that was nothing compared to the exultation that erupted when the new Pope stepped onto the white-light balcony. We cheered throughout his brief address — for his humble presence, for his request for our prayers for his work, and finally for his warm goodnight and “good dinner.” I didn’t get it all, but I caught the gist of it (my Italian is good for gists, but not details.) I loved that he spoke in slow and beautifully clear Italian. The crowd was hanging onto his every word, too — and certainly for reasons more profound than his lovely diction.
We wanted to stop on our way back to the apartment at a favorite restaurant. Oddly, it was the only one we saw with a line coming out the door. Aha!! The name of the restaurant is “da Francesco.” Folks were lining up raise a fork of pasta in honor of Papa Francesco long before yesterday’s announcement by TIME.
Our friend and travelmate Brendon remembers a day at Rocca di Benano:
We’ve been back from Benano for about a month now, and I’m still thinking every day about this wonderful, first trip to Italy. I’ve given up my afternoon coffee and replaced it with a shot of espresso, though I’ve been unable to find spremuta, the delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice that’s everywhere in Italy. I’m still trying to relax, and instead of running from meeting to meeting, I’m trying to talk to people with a more Italian-style, less rushed attitude. We found farro at the grocery store, and though it’s scarcer, there are a few good gelato options back home. Bottom line, I’m not there, but the week has stayed with me in very tangible ways.
But when I think about a day in Italy that I remember the most, it was Sunday, our second day. It was the day of l’incidente.
The day started out with a rough sketch of a plan, which is all you really need in Benano. Get in the car and go explore all the amazing towns nearby.
That day, we started in Castel Viscardo, where we met the two lovely grocers Serena and Marta. We browsed their “superstore,” which is about the size of a Jackson Hewett tax preparation shop in the U.S. The food is stacked high and they stopped to talk to everyone who dropped in. And not just the “buongiorno” that is the appropriate way to greet people. They stopped to talk, ask about their families, ask what they were looking for—it was incredible. It was like shopping in your neighbor’s pantry. A truly wonderful experience.
From there, we returned to Benano to drop off our food, and then went on to Castel Giorgio, nearby to Benano. Something was afoot. There was an unusual amount of activity outside the café, and we soon discovered there was about to be a Madonna processional. Pastry and espresso secured, we settled in to watch the townspeople walk through the street to celebrate as the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) was walked through town. A lovely celebration. We made our way back to the car, intending to go to Civita di Bagnoregio.
And then, the teenager. As Paul was about to turn into a driveway, an eighteen-year-old kid in his mother’s Citroen rear-ended our car. We turned perpendicular, and he went off the road. Everyone was fine (except for Karen’s glasses, which could have used an airbag.) We were in front of this gorgeous house, and within seconds, all of the residents of the house had poured out to check on us—with chairs, ice, water, and offers to use the restroom. An unnecessary ambulance, which had been attending to the Madonna festival, raced over. The carabinieri showed up to investigate (though we suspect they spent most of their time talking about where they would get espresso that afternoon). And the kid’s mother showed up—turned out she owned a lovely restaurant in the town–and encouraged us to take her son back to America with us.
Just to be on the safe side, we called Alex, who lives in Torre Alfina with his lovely wife Olga. They take care of Benano and the guests and are terrific resources for Benano visitors. Alex was at the scene of l’incidente in an instant, offering us help communicating with the police and advice on how to sheepishly call our rental car agent. He was a tremendous help—especially when he muscled our bumper off of the car so that it wouldn’t drag on the road.
Because we were pressing on. We weren’t going to let un piccolo incidente ruin our day. So we drove off to the ruined city of Civita di Bagnoregio. We opted for a higher octane espresso, this time adding in some sambuca, so that we had what’s called a café corretto. That righted our ships.
After lunch and another walk around the dead city, we headed to Alex and Olga’s house for a mid-Sunday snack. And this is why our Sunday will be cemented in my memory for a long time. We sat in their lovely kitchen, around their dining table (not huge—probably typically for four, but we sat close, with six) as Olga brought out cheese with incredible homemade marmalade (pepper and pear was amazing), a cake, and of course, wine. And then the limoncello, fennel and “cherry” liqueurs. Alex and Olga are amazing. As our conversation shifted back and forth from Italian to English to Italian, I found myself thinking about how special it was to be seated in the kitchen of this family. They were about my age, living in rural Italy, thousands of miles away. Yet we were connecting about family and food and life.
Growing up with an Italian family, Sunday afternoons were all about crowding around a table and sharing food and laughs. To do that, this time in Italy, was beyond special.
One more word about Alex and Olga. There are people who do their job and there are people who care. Clearly, Alex and Olga are the latter—they are passionate about the guests who visit Benano. You are welcomed as part of the loosely defined family that exists in Umbria. It’s so comforting to have that safety net on a trip like this, and Benano visitors are blessed with two of the most wonderful people to lean on.
We returned home, relaxed, and then had a simple dinner, prepared with the food we purchased that morning (though it seemed like weeks before), laughed plenty about our adventures, and played some games.
Benano is like that. I thought about how we would have reacted if we had a car accident in the U.S. We’d have probably busted up our entire day, choosing instead to call friends, posting pictures to Facebook, and then dealing with the bureaucracy of insurance, etc. Benano is different. Was it the café corretto? Was it the BVM? Was it Alex’s quick help? The expectation of Olga’s cake and limoncello? Probably all of that and a little more. It was just an Italian experience, one where you just let the day take you where it wants to go. And it was amazing.
The first time we rented a villa was on a vacation we took with another couple to Positano, on Italy’s beautiful Amalfi Coast. The view from this 2-bedroom / 2-bathroom apartment was just as spectacular as advertised. Breathtaking, really. Very, very romantic. Everything was perfect … except for the tiny detail that the second bedroom could be accessed only by going through the first bedroom. We had rented a beautiful two bedroom apartment with an incredible view and zero privacy.
We want the surprises awaiting guests at Rocca di Benano to be good surprises — like how inviting, restorative, and relaxing an Italian villa vacation can be.
From the moment prospective guests contact us, I describe the villa and the area as accurately as I can and offer to provide all the personalized help they need to make their stay at Rocca di Benano a trip of a lifetime. I know how important this trip is to them, and I love to pass along tips that can make the difference between it being a project and a vacation: time-tested advice on flight itineraries, transportation to Benano, how and where to rent cars, international drivers licenses, and the various forms of trip insurance to consider; user-friendly information on getting to the villa (taking into account that said users might be jet-lagged) and everything they’ll find when they get there; and tips on all the “don’t-miss” attractions, vistas, tours, museums, trattorias, gelaterias, shopping opportunities, and cultural experiences guests would want to know about — whether they be found at Benano’s doorstep, in one of the lovely hill towns that dot Umbria, Tuscany, and Lazio, or on guests’ day trips to larger cities like Rome, Florence, and Assisi.
In helping our guests prepare for their villa vacation, I’m mindful of the experience we had renting another Italian villa in a rural part of Puglia. It wasn’t until we had driven around for what seemed like hours that we realized that the directions and hand-drawn map to the villa were wholly insufficient. We were relieved to reach the English-speaking villa manager on her cell, but she was at a soccer match and couldn’t get away to help us. She advised us to stop and ask for directions. Soon a group of men had spilled out of a bar and were leaning over our car’s hood studying the incomprehensible map, also to no avail. Finally, one of them hopped on his ape and led us for several miles in a totally different direction, to a place he thought the villa might be.
It was quite an adventure just to find the villa we had rented. The memory of the helpful Italian barflies is great to recall, but the episode made for an unnecessarily stressful afternoon. We are determined not to subject our guests at Rocca di Benano to any such drama.
I give our guests good directions to our villa and how they’ll get the key, but I don’t stop there. We realize it takes a lot more than directions and a key to achieve our goal of making sure our guests enjoy the best that our corner of Italy has to offer. I want them to unlock more than just a beautiful villa. I want them to unlock their trip of a lifetime.
I always offer to help our guests plan their trips, and I’m happy when they accept some help. And when my friend Katie accepted my offer, I was thrilled.
Katie had agreed to act as her traveling party’s activities director, and they hit the jackpot when they assigned her to the role. She read everything I sent her, pored over this blog and Rocca di Benano’s Pinterest Board (which is sort of ironic, since she was the one who taught me the wonders of Pinterest), then drafted an itinerary that we worked on together.
Here’s the itinerary Katie has proposed for her group. Although there’s not one agenda that will work for everyone, this is one great way to spend a week at Rocca di Benano.
Read to the end to see just how good Katie is. (Hint: she even researched gelato!)
DAY 1 (Friday) — ARRIVE IN ROME
Francis Surman will meet us at the airport and take us to Hotel la Residenza (€130/night). Take a hop on/hop off double decker bus tour of Rome and/or stroll around the neighborhood. Villa Borghese park, Spanish Steps, and Piazza del Popolo are all within easy walking distance.
DAY 2 (Saturday) — MEANDER FROM ROME TO BENANO
Francis Surman will pick us up at the hotel and take us to Benano, touring along the way, including a stop in Orvieto to pick up the rental car.
DAY 3 (Sunday) — AGRITURISMO PULICARO & LAKE BOLSENA
Brunch and farm tour at Il Pulicaro (10 minutes from Benano), then …
… Lake Bolsena and town of Bolsena (1/2 hour from Benano), then …
Dinner: Either stop on the way back from Bolsena at Ristorante-Pizzeria “L Pignatto” in San Lorenzo Nuovo or make dinner for ourselves eat at the villa.
DAY 4 (Monday) — CIVITA DI BAGNOREGIO & ORVIETO
… on to Orvieto (35 minutes from Civita; 18 from Benano), then …
Dinner: Ristorante Zeppelin in Orvieto
DAY 5 (Tuesday) — TUSCANY
Cross over into Tuscany and take Via Cassia up toward Pienza. Other stops could include Bagno Vignoni (hot springs); Montalcino (Brunello!); Sant’Antimo Abbey (check schedule for Gregorian chants); Monticchiello (maybe lunch on the terrace at La Porta?). Dinner options: in Montepulciano (perhaps A Gambe di Gatto?); in Orvieto on way home if we take the freeway back; or at the villa.
DAY 6 (Wednesday) — FLORENCE
Catch an early train to get to there before 10. Spend the day touring Florence. Either stay for dinner there and take a late train back or eat in Orvieto near the train station (Ristorante Trattoria da Valerio or Trattoria da Dina).
DAY 8 (Friday) — FINAL DAY AT BENANO
Lazy day near Benano, including (maybe):
- a long walk through the vineyards and olive orchards right around the villa;
- walk over to Viceno for a caffè at the bar there and a pottery demonstration;
- last visit to Visit Castel Viscardo (the market comes to Castel Viscardo on Fridays);
- last stroll around the castle in Torre Alfina.
Dinner option: Hire Alex to barbecue for us at the villa.
DAYS 9 – 12 (Saturday – Tuesday) — LEAVE BENANO / RETURN TO ROME / DEPART FOR HOME
Return rental cars, then Francis will drive us to Hotel Due Torri (€147-190/night) in Rome, touring and lunching along the way). While in Rome, take in dinner at Il Bacaro one night and at Osteria del Pegno another. Tour the Colosseum, Vatican, and go on a Rome Food tour.
There’s something else you should know about this extensively researched itinerary: Katie found the most highly acclaimed gelaterias almost everywhere they’re planning to go. Here are some of the gelataterias they’re hoping to visit:
Torre Alfina: Sarchioni’s
Bolsena: Gelateria Santa Cristina
Orvieto: La Musa, on the lower end of the Corso (the main shopping street) and Gelateria Pasqualetti. There are two Pasqualetti locations: one is on Piazza del Duomo and the other is at the corner of Via del Duomo and the Corso.
Many thanks to our good friends Kris and Ellen for visiting Benano — and special thanks to Kris for writing this post about our visit with Chef Lorenzo at Ristorante Zeppelin in Orvieto:
If I were to write a book about our recent visit with good friend Karen Smith, I’d call it “Eat, Pray, Cook.” Forget the Julia Roberts movie and bestselling book. Cooking is love when you have delicious fresh ingredients, a beautiful setting, a fabulous friend and family, lots of laughter and a charming cooking instructor. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Last month, for our daughter’s 13th birthday, we paid a long overdue visit to Italy to sample la dolce vita. As part of the trip, Ellen and I traveled to the medieval hill town of Orvieto to rendezvous with forever friend Karen, with whom I had worked many years ago in Cincinnati. Karen had urged us to spend a few days in her version of heaven on earth in nearby Benano. We left the planning to her and had no idea what fun awaited us.
In addition to all the beauty that is Umbria – rolling olive groves, twisting roads that lead to everywhere and nowhere, sprawling vistas with skies and mountains that look beautiful in both rain and sunshine — Ellen and I were treated to a wonderful day in Orvieto as students of Chef Lorenzo Polegri. Karen has known him for many years and recommended we forgo the cooking class I’d found in Florence to experience Chef Lorenzo’s instead. Let me assure you, she knows her recommendations.
Our class started with an early morning trip to the open air market, where Chef Lorenzo introduced us to local merchants and explained the difference between various cuts of meat, types of cheese, varieties of vegetables – what an education!
His energy was contagious, and despite the cold, we were engaged (and engorged!) by the time we arrived back at his wonderful restaurant, Ristorante Zeppelin, for the instructional portion of our “class.”
In a kitchen stocked with every ingredient you could dream of, all the right tools and utensils, and culinary students to clean up afterwards (who knew how great this could be?), we developed a menu and started our tasks at hand. Lovely Lorenzo, with his delightful sense of humor and near perfect English, enthusiastically explained how to prepare artichokes for breading and frying (one more thing off my bucket list).
He and Ellen then settled in to make a sensational salad, focaccia and pasta and a delicious citrus custard. Eggplants were stacked and drizzled with delicious sauces created impromptu by all of us as we toasted, tasted, tested and revised.
Who needs a recipe when you can go with your gut, Chef explained. Don’t get hung up with too many rules when you cook. Do what feels right and tastes good. And believe me, everything tasted good. Truly everything.
Ellen enjoyed the pasta prep most, I think, but was also impressed that some of our food was actually served to lunch guests at the restaurant.
She felt so grown up in her white chef’s apron and well-appointed kitchen. She passed on the Prosecco poured for us as mealtime approached but was in a celebratory mood for sure – and so were Karen and I. We toasted each other, Chef Lorenzo and the chance to savor the flavors and experience of cooking, learning and enjoying each other in such a fun-filled way.
I was so moved by the experience that en route home to the U.S. I read Chef’s new book, The Etruscan Chef, from cover-to-cover. As much a memoir as a cookbook, it evoked memories from our trip and our day with Lorenzo. It features recollections of how he learned to make umbrichelli as a young boy and offered recipes for focaccia and many other taste treats that will no doubt remind us of our time together every time we prepare them.
I encourage anyone who is considering a trip to Italy to head straight to Umbria and make good friends with Karen and Chef Lorenzo. There’s so much that’s special about them and what they do there.
For a pleasant day trip from Benano, I’m always happy to take a drive around Lake Bolsena. There are any number of wonderful ways to circumnavigate the lake. Here’s a description of how Paul and I did it a couple of years ago, and the map below shows how Lynn and I did it a couple of weeks ago:
We started in Tuscania, just south of Lake Bolsena and about an hour’s drive from Benano. We parked easily in the lot outside the old city gates and walked around the lovely city center with Jim Flege, the cousin of a Cincinnati friend. Jim lives in Tuscania (lucky man!) and is a terrific tour guide (lucky us!).
There are stunning views of the valley and ancient sites across the valley. These ruins mark the site of the original village that dates back to Etruscan times. The city center moved several times over the centuries to its current location.
We had lunch at Da Alfreda, a small local restaurant near the elevated park. The food was very good and reasonably priced. There is outdoor seating just waiting for the weather to improve.
After lunch, we wandered more of the city’s small streets and quaint alleys without any real chance of getting lost. We love the city, and I know I’ll come back. I hope to visit Jim again, and would heartily recommend the small rental apartment in their house to any Tuscania-bound travelers.
Leaving Tuscania, we headed back to the lake and drove east along the shore. We stopped a few times for photo ops. There are beautiful views of the lake, the islands in the lake, and the surrounding valleys.
Our next stop was Montefiascone, which is on the Via Francigena, the ancient route faithful pilgrims took to get to Rome. What a beautiful town this is! What a setting! What history! The Fortress of the Pope, dating to the 1400’s, is at the top of the hill, and there are great views of a beautiful Duomo from up there.
The very steep center of town is a good place to wander in admiration of ancient architecture while observing the locals going about their daily business.
It would make perfect sense, itinerary-wise, to head straight back to Benano through Castel Giorgio. We didn’t do that, though, because we had a date with the Rome Philharmonic in Orvieto’s glorious Duomo. Uto Ughi was the soloist / conductor of the beautiful concert. But who am I kidding? That explanation is just an excuse to post this photo, taken just before the concert began:
One of the very best parts of having Lynn with me for part of this trip was that she’s a great photographer. These are a few of my favorites: