There were numerous tourist attractions quite near the villa that we were renting in Castiglione del Lago, on the Umbrian-Tuscan border in Italy. Prime destinations like Florence, Siena, Orvieto, Perugia and Assisi were all less than an hour away. And there were also numerous sites of interest for wine enthusiasts like me: Montepulciano, Montalcino and dozens of wineries in the Chianti Hills like Castello di Brolio and Castello di Tornano. So, why on Earth would I spend one of my precious vacation days in Panicale, a small village in Umbria which is virtually unknown to overseas visitors and is overlooked in almost all of the tourist guidebooks? Well, first of all, I have this theory that every village in Italy, no matter how small and no matter which province the village is located, has three attributes that make it 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, a large lake in Umbria that is surrounded by many medieval villages. And maybe it’s just my sense of travel elitism, but I really do enjoy taking friends and family to out-of-the-way towns that I have discovered over the years where English-speaking visitors are a rarity.
Panicale is located in Umbria at the foot of Monte Petravella, about 12 miles northeast of Città della Pieve. Because of its strategic position near Lago Trasimeno and the Nestor River, the nearby towns of Chiusi and Perugia were always seeking to take control of the town. But in spite of this ever-present threat, in the 14th century Panicale became one of Italy’s first independent towns. As for the beautiful church, there is the Collegiata di San Michele Arcangelo, a Renaissance church (with a Baroque interior), whose foundation 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 Lillotatini.
Patrizia Spadoni, who is 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 Piazza Umberto I, the most beautiful spot in the old town. Utilizing a cuisine firmly rooted in the traditions of the region, taking advantage of the local produce that is readily available and using family recipes that were handed down from generation to generation, they established Lillotatini, which is the nickname given to Vittorio by his grandfather.
Being a guy that likes to plan things out in advance, especially my meals, I decided to contact the restaurant a couple of weeks before our arrival, not only to be sure that I could get a reservation for our group, but to make some suggestions about what we would like for our lunch. My instructions to Vittorio and Patrizia were simple, we wanted to experience the cuisine of this region of Umbria (every region of Italy has its own particular variation on Italian cuisine) and start our meal with a selection of local specialties; afterwards we would order individual selections off the menu for our main course. This methodology has two purposes. First, we’re all able to sample a variety of local dishes and secondly, I cut down on the number of decisions that need to be made, which is always a good thing when traveling with a large group. Also, it eliminates any confusion for our server, as all of us will be in sync for our meal. (In Italy, they get easily confused about when to serve dishes, when Americans skip courses or order food out of sequence.)
We parked our car outside the city gates and after a quick tour of the village and a stop at the church to admire The Annunciation (a fresco attributed to Masolino da Panicale) we headed over to Lillotantini for our lunch. After a short conversation with the owners we settled in with some wine, a white table wine from Cantina Nofrini, a new producer on nearby Lago Trasimeno that is part of the Agriturismo Casale il Picchio. Our assortment of Umbrian appetizers arrived one at a time, delivered from the kitchen as soon as they were ready. We were not disappointed with their selections, which included: Cercando Sotto Terra (Potatoes, lentils and truffles with melted pecorino), Ricetta di Baiocco (typical Umbrian grilled bread with cauliflower and more pecorino cheese), Dopo la Pioggia (snails cooked in wine and mint served in a cream sauce with white beans, and porcini mushrooms) and Coniglio con Fagiolina del Lago Trasimeno (local beans with rabbit).
For my main course, I was debating between Il Preferito del Podesta, local beef that is braised in Sangiovese wine and peppercorns and the soup of the day, which was Castagne e Ceci (chestnut and chickpea). The beef sounded fantastic, but I also wanted to try the soup as I’ve never had chestnut soup and who knows if I will ever see it again. But why limit myself? So, I did the sensible thing and ordered both. The soup was phenomenal, the beef tender and flavorful and the wine, a red table wine also from Cantina Nofrini, was a perfect match to my food. All their desserts are homemade, and they all sounded very enticing. For my dolce, I chose Rocciata di Assisi, an Umbrian fruit “strudel” dating back to medieval times, which is usually prepared in the autumn and winter months. This was followed by the obligatory coffee.
Did I have any regrets about spending the day in Panicale? None whatsoever. Was it worth the trip basically just to have lunch? Absolutely. After all, we were in Italy, where a great meal is in itself a great attraction. And from beginning to end, my meal at Lillotatini 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 of the region where you are staying. 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 the guidebook out the window (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 known to locals, for an American tourist like me it was not just a pleasant change of pace, but a hidden gem.