There were numerous tourist attractions within an hour’s drive of our rental house in Castiglione del Lago, on the Umbrian-Tuscan border in Italy. Prime destinations like Florence, Siena, Orvieto, Perugia and Assisi are all less than 75 miles away. And there were also numerous sites of interest for wine enthusiasts like me: Montepulciano, Montalcino and dozens of “castle wineries” in the Chianti Hills. So, why would I spend one of my vacation days in Panicale, a small village of about 6,000 people that is overlooked in most tourist guide books? Well, first of all, I have this theory that every small village in Italy has three attributes that make them worthy of a visit: A picturesque town square, a beautiful church and because food is such an integral part of the Italian way of life, a great restaurant. In addition, Panicale has a marvelous view of Lago Trasimeno. And maybe it’s just my sense of travel elitism, but I really do enjoy visiting out-of-the-way towns that few people know about.
Panicale is a small medieval village in Umbria at the foot of Monte Petravella. Because of its strategic position near Lago Trasimeno and the Nestor River, the nearby towns of Chiusi and Perugia sought to control the town. In spite of this threat, in the 14th century Panicale became one of Italy’s first independent communes. As for the beautiful church, there is the Collegiata di San Michele Arcangelo, which dates back to the 11th Century. As for the picturesque square, there is Piazza Umberto I with its 15th century fountain. And as for a great restaurant, there is Ristorante Lillo Tatini.
Patrizia Spadoni, from a family of restaurateurs and hoteliers, wanted to establish a great restaurant in Umbria. Her husband, Vittorio Boldrini agreed and they decided to open a restaurant in the store that his grandparents owned, which was located in the most beautiful spot of the old town of Panciale in the Piazza Umberto I. Utilizing a cuisine firmly rooted in tradition, taking advantage of the local produce that is readily available and using historical recipes, they established Lillo Tatini, which is the nickname given to Vittorio by his grandfather.
My instructions to Vittorio and Patrizia were simple, we wanted to experience the cuisine of Umbria (every region of Italy has its own cuisine) and start our meal with a selection of local specialties; afterwards we would order individual selections off the menu for our main course. We were not disappointed with their selections. We started with an assortment of Umbrian appetizers, which arrived from the kitchen one at a time as they were ready. There was Cercando Sotto Terra (Potatoes, lentils and truffles with melted pecorino), Ricetta di Baiocco (cauliflower and pecorino), La Sfida (grilled bread with cauliflower) and Coniglio con Fagiolina del Lago Trasimeno (Local beans with rabbit). While amazing on their own, the accompanying wine (a white table wine from Cantina Nofrini, a producer on nearby Lago Trasimeno) raised everything to an even higher level. Which is hardly surprising, since food and wine are meant to be enjoyed together.
For my main course, I chose Il Preferito del Podesta, local beef that is braised in Sangiovese with peppercorns. But the soup of the day, Castagne e Ceci (chestnut and chick pea), also caught my eye. I’ve never had chestnut soup before and since I may never see one again, I decided to order that too. The soup was phenomenal, the beef tender and flavorful and the wine a perfect accompaniment to the food. The wine was a red table wine also from Cantina Nofrini. All their desserts are homemade and all sounded very enticing. For my dolce, I chose Rocciata di Assisi, an Umbrian fruit “strudel” dating back to medieval times and usually prepared in the autumn and winter. This was followed by an obligatory espresso.
Did I have any regrets in spending a day in Panicale? None whatsoever. Was it worth a trip basically just to have lunch? Absolutely. From beginning to end, my meal at Lillo Tatini was perfect: The food, the wine, the service, the ambiance and most of all the relaxed feel of the lunch. If you only have a few days in Italy, by all means concentrate on the major tourist destinations. But if you have the time (and we were renting our villa for two weeks), villages like Panicale are definitely worthy of consideration. And after visiting the bustling tourist meccas of Florence and Siena, it’s nice to throw away the guide book (and not worry about trying to squeeze in two museums before the duomo closes) and take a side trip off the beaten path for a leisurely feast. And while Panicale may be well known to locals, for an American tourist like me it was not just a pleasant change of pace, but a hidden gem.