One of the pleasures of an Italian summer is the town sagra. It almost always involves food, and centers on one ingredient. Think Gilroy (California) Garlic Festival with some Italian verve thrown in. The sagra serves a few purposes. It’s fun; the towns get to show off; and they raise money for public projects—not to mention for the the next year’s sagra.
We set a personal record this summer: three. Well, four, if you include our town’s Palio, during which the small medieval core was turned into a decently sized outdoor restaurant. The first one was in Ripa, a walled circular town with a big outdoor space outside the walls. The main ingredient: black truffles. Then we went to a neighboring town, Pianello, home to the parents and business of our friend Angela. Pianello did mushrooms.
I’ll admit I cheated in the headline. We went to the frog one in Capanne last year. My bad. That’s the frog one, and we didn’t eat the frog. Instead, we feasted on the other big attraction, umbricelli with a spicy tomato sauce. Umbricelli are these thick, round, chewy handmade noodles of wheat and water—no eggs.
The big daddy, though, had to be the Cannara onion festival this past weekend. These things can get pretty crowded, but this one turns that up to 12. Cars streamed in from all directions and, we were told, from outside Umbria, too. We had a VIP pass that got us a great parking space. And yeah, I’m being vague about that spot on purpose.
The star ingredients may all differ, but there’s one thing in common. They are really well-run. I laugh when people call Italy chaotic or, at best, disorganized. These critics obviously haven’t been to a sagra. Or any big food event here in the Bel Paese. It’s all a question of priorities, you see. You want people to stand obediently in line for mediocre coffee? Then don’t leave home and go to Starbucks. You want the trains to be on time to the second? Go to Switzerland. And stereotypes sometimes are just wrong, as anyone who’s been through the madness of Frankfurt’s airport can testify.
There are two basic models for these: the checkoff form and the restaurant model. With the checkoff one, you find a table, and jot down its number. Get a couple of friends to save the seats. Argue about who’s getting what. Send a couple of people to stand in line, submit the order, and pay. Then go back to the table and wait.
Cannara did the restaurant model. We had to wait behind a little barrier, for something like 45 minutes. We passed the time teasing each other and drinking an illicit (non festival) beer. Our party was called, and we felt like celebrities as we were escorted to our half of a picnic table. A festival dude took our order and with astonishing speed, the town’s kids brought our dishes out, in the proper Italian meal order: antipasti, primi, secondi, dolci.
This scenario was played out throughout the town. Like I said, this is the mother of all sagras, and they had four or five big restaurants spread throughout the town. One of them featured a menu by a Michelin-starred chef, no less.
I’m not gonna play restaurant critic. Did that for 10 years and it was enough. But oh boy those gnocchetti with an onion-cheese cream sauce. And the schiacciata with onions. The onions in agrodolce (sweet and sour) weren’t bad, either. I somehow ended up with a free half-bottle of wine, too, courtesy of the guy who took our order. All he asked for was for us to give the kid-runner a decent tip.