I was a member some years ago of SlowFood, the back-to-basics food movement founded in Italy by Carlo Petrini. The organization supports local agriculture and traditional foods, and rejects industrialized, standardized methods of food production. Petrini founded the group after seeing a McDonald’s open in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna and decided the world needed an antidote to fast food.
I had joined the U.S. branch, but after awhile, I left the group. The Americans seemed to be more interested in luxury food, rather than participating in the then-nascent farm-to-table movement, and I decided that it wasn’t for me.
But it left a legacy: Sandra Cordon and Letizia Mattiacci.
It’s a little complicated, but going through the SlowFood site, I must’ve stumbled onto Slow Travel, which had message boards for travelers who wanted a different experience from the package tours and the usual Rome/Florence/Venice routine. In particular, there was a message board just for Italy. I was fascinated by the kinds of questions people would ask and the ensuing discussions. At some point, I noticed that there was a woman who was really into Perugia, and either asked questions about logistics or answered them for would-be travelers.
Sandra is Canadian and now works for the United Nations in Rome. We got to know her—my memory is vague, but she sent me a personal message. And at some point, we managed to be in Perugia at the same time, and she, The Spartan Woman, and I had a terrific lunch. We told stories and walked around Perugia via our favorite streets and had gelato at Augusta Perusia, the best gelateria in the city (and just maybe, the world). Sandra and I have a lot in common: We’re recovering journalists who once had full-time jobs in that wonderful and crazy and stressed out profession. Our politics are in synch and we like to get out of North America, either full-time for her, or part of the year for us.
Sandra brought us a gift: Letizia Mattiacci. On her posts, Sandra frequently mentioned Letizia, so like any good ‘net citizen, I did some Googling. Turns out Letizia is a cooking teacher and with her husband owns a bed and breakfast in the hills near Assisi, La Madonna del Piatto, a stone’s throw from Perugia. (You can see Assisi from Perugia, and the two cities were bitter rivals until the pope took over the region and put an end to intercity rivalry, and, well, pretty much else that was interesting about Umbria. That lasted until Italy’s unification, and it’s a topic for another post.)
Eventually, Letizia and I got to know each other through social media, but for some reason, we never met. Until Sandra intervened, that is.
Last month, Sandra came to Valfabbrica to check out our country spread. We had a great afternoon drinking prosecco, complaining about the heat wave Europeans dubbed “Lucifer,” munching on snacks and bringing ourselves up to date with one another. She mentioned that she was staying at Letizia’s place, and I told her I’d love to finally meet Letizia in person. By this point, Letizia has attained a kind of stardom—she published a terrific cookbook, has been featured in articles in The New York Times, and has pretty much established herself as the expert on Umbrian cooking and culture to the rest of the world. The next day, Sandra invited us to meet Letizia at her school/B&B.
So it was with a little trepidation that we drove over the mountain to Assisi, through switchbacks and what Italians call a “strada bianca,” an unpaved, narrow gravel track. We pulled up and there she was, along with her husband Ruurd (he’s from the Netherlands) and Sandra. The trepidation was totally unwarranted: Letizia is warm,, welcoming, and funny. She’s also razor sharp—she and Ruurd, in a former life were entomologists who met at a conference in Paris and pursued a long distance romance through grad school and work.
We had so much fun that night. The Spartan Woman and Letizia hit it off and excitedly traded recipes and stories. Letizia and I talked about our Sicilian families. She served us fresh mystery-flavored gelato. No one guessed what it was; it turns out it was a subtle, real licorice from the real plant, not the anise-flavored stuff that often is passed off as licorice. She then brought out her own homemade arancello, the orange version of limoncello. It was strong, sweet and vividly flavored.
Letizia may be warm and welcoming, but she also has strong opinions (and I agree with most of them when it comes to food in Italy). She mentioned that a lot of her American students found the orange liqueur to be too strong—”that’s because they’re so used to watering down their drinks with ice!” In a recent column on an English language Italian website, she weighs in on celebrity chefs altering such culinary icons as carbonara and passing them off as the real thing.
We ended the evening by driving into Assisi for dinner at one of the family’s favorite places, Trattoria degli Umbri, right on the central piazza. We had a table dead center on a very crowded night, and had a simple meal, the best thing to do when you’re in Umbria. Assisi’s an amazing place; it caters ways too much to the pilgrim/Catholic tourist trade with lots of tacky souvenir shops selling statues of St. Francis and the like. Yet at night, after the day trippers have gone, it’s got a party vibe, especially on a warm summer night.