Last week at a bountiful spread laid out by Nancy Silverton and her "Italian staff" in Panicale, Umbria, one of the guests, this guy Steve, said "It's almost impossible to not get a great meal at a restaurant in Italy."
I'm thinking 'Where's this guy been the last several years? The SHU at Pelican Bay?'
For me it's been an effort to get a great meal at a restaurant in Italy, in general, and Umbria, in particular. We just can't walk into any restaurant and get a good meal, let alone a great one. You can get a decent meal,. but, damn, who craves decent unless you're talking about someone's character?
Not counting a stunning lunch at Dario Cecchini's butcher shop in Tuscany, last week was a dining disaster. One lunch, at Perugia, was so awful i told Tiffany Fox that I've had better meals in custody., (The sloppy Joe at Wayside is particularly tasty). If you know Tiffany, ask her about the Scottish Prawn tartar appetizer I foolishly ordered. Extra veins, per favore.
To get a good meal. we need to have a recent recommendation ( chefs seems to move on fast here ) from someone we trust (Fearless Faith Willinger is the best ) or cross reference a few guide books ( we like I Ristoranti d'Italia 2014, Le Guide de L'Espresso ) Even then, satisfaction is not a sure thing.
So it was way more than satisfying, it was a thrill even, to eat yesterday at Villa Roncalli in Foligno, an ancient town in east central Umbria founded in the 8th Century b.c. .
Villa Roncalli was the best restaurant meal we have had in Umbria and I'd very easily put it in my the top 20 all time dining experiences in Italy. (For the record, yes, I've been to Vissani, the highest rated Umbrian restaurant in most guidebooks) .
It was all-star house guest Hourie Sahakian, Nancy and myself for dinner. We drove there on the recommendation of chef. Gino Angellni, the purest Italian chef in Los Angeles, and a 15.5 rating from our L'Espresso guide..
We arrived at this place, an hour from Panicale, without the sorry-ass aid of GPS, which I fuckin' hate. (Ask Tiffany or Debbie Michail.) We arrive at Villa Roncalli thanks to a lady on the streets of Foligno who gave me directions from a quiet neighborhood. "Turn left here, then turn right, then turn left, then turn right. Don't go toward the cemetery, go to the traffic circle, take the first exit, then go to the next traffic circle take the second exit and go about 100 meters. And there, tucked in behind a mini forest, was Villa Roncalli. That's my GPS, That lady.
Before we get seated, I meet chef Maria Luisa Scolastra. heading back from her garden, a fistful of vegetables in her right hand. Yeah, I toss out the "Gino Angelini is a friend of mine" line. She beamed when she hear's Gino's name.
We order two antipasti, ( frittata and prosciutto ) two primi ( porcini risotto and Chiannia beef meatballs) and two mains. ( lamb and guinea hen.). But, when the dishes come, they come for all three of us. When they bring my risotto, for example. I got the Lion's share, but Nancy and Hourie were both given a plate with smaller portions.
And the quality of that risotto. That porcini risotto could drive to a risotto convention and there'd be a reserved parking space for it right by the entrance.
Plus, dishes we didn't order came. The third course served was a bean soup. This green soup was so delicious, so thick with cooked-down beans, and ideal croutons and small pieces of meat that it made me say "It's over." Any doubt that this would not be a tremendous meal was vanquished by that soup. Was that soup the best soup I ever had? Ummm, I don't think so. .
Ten slices of salami that were extraordinary. Chi Spacca has a more-than-worthy rival. Nancy said this meat would be illegal in America because it wasn't cured long enough. Then came superb Chianina meatballs,
i took a break and walked to the Villa Roncalli courtyard where there are five Italian guys taking a smoke break from their 10-top. . i looked at them, nodded and said "hey, buena sera" and one of them, the oldest, about 65, he says to me in shattered English "Where you from?" Believe that shit? He asks me where I'm from. Fool, that's my line I say L.A. i was about to add "motherfuckers" . but t just say "L.A.". The guy, Roberto, says, now through his interpreting son, Lucca, that his cousin is a chef in L.A.
"Who?" I ask, thinking he's probably some obscure cook. "What's his name?"
We hug, I lead these five guys back to our table. Hourie sees me leading the pack before Nancy and says to her "Michael just made some new friends.".
Indeed. We talk for a while. Fortunately, the time between course at Villa Roncalli is long. I like that here. More food comes. Gnocchi we didn't order. The lamb, the guniea hen.
For dessert is plate of watermelon.
Villa Roncali wins the award for best restaurant in Umbria. I have two more weeks plus here. We will go back.