Fine, simple foods enjoyed in Italy


May 09, 2007|By Erica Marcus | Erica Marcus,Newsday

What did you eat on your vacation in Italy?

This is what friends and colleagues asked me upon my return from six days in Umbria. The short answer is: great, simple food that was both regional and seasonal.

Umbria, the land-locked region just east of Tuscany, is known for its hearty, rustic cuisine, much of it based on game and pork. Accordingly, I ate grilled quail, a ragu of wild boar, and plenty of porchetta, a whole or half pig (minus the limbs and head) seasoned with garlic and rosemary and then roasted.

Umbria is too hilly for cattle, so sheep are the grazers of choice. Thanks to them, I enjoyed terrific lamb chops and pecorino cheese (pecora is Italian for sheep) - both soft and young, and hard and aged.

The most distinctive feature of the Umbrian landscape is the olive tree, and olive oil is used less as a cooking medium, more as a condiment and flavoring. More often than not, salads were dressed only with olive oil and the fruity, peppery taste permeated virtually every dish.

Another less-welcome regional standby was the bread, which is made without salt. But the Umbrians make one spectacular bread preparation, a grilled sandwich called torta al testo. The torta is a thick, flat bread that is cooked on a testo, a disc of stone or metal, then is split and filled with cheese and/or ham and/or greens.

Among the seasonal treats I enjoyed were the early spring harvests of artichokes and wild asparagus, which are thinner, weedier and have an earthier flavor than cultivated asparagus. And because my vacation coincided with the week before Easter, I sampled all manner of Holy Week pastries, such as torta al formaggio, a sort of savory, cheesy panettone traditionally eaten on Easter morning.

Erica Marcus writes for Newsday. E-mail your queries to, or send them to Erica Marcus, Food/Part 2, Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Road, Melville, NY 11747-4250.

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