I was going to write this post a few days ago. But then I thought that following the U.S. supreme court’s terrible decisions regarding abortion/privacy rights and gun control laws, it just seemed superficial. On the other hand, this post isn’t just about tourism, it’s about the friendships we make along the way, even if they’re fleeting and our time together lasts for just a couple of hours once a year.
The scene is the Piano Grande di Castelluccio. It’s a glacial plain up in the Apennines, the mountain chain that forms the spine of the Italian boot. The Piano is an amazing place, a huge basin, the kind of geological feature that you don’t often see in Italy—especially if your vision of the country is quaint villages, big cities with museums, and picturesque coasts. It’s a wild place, where sheep graze and where you can ride a horse Western-style and pretend you’re in the Wild West. Lots of European vacationers with campers congregate there, forming their own kind of little village as they set up camp and watch daytrippers like The Spartan Woman and me wandering around.
We’ve been going up there for years; it’s about a two-hour drive from our mountaintop. Timing can be crucial for one event, the annual outburst of wildflowers and some blue cultivated lentil blossoms. This fioritura brings a big splash of color to an already stunning tableau. It takes place around the end of June and beginning of July and on weekends, the place is insane. The crowds have gotten so bad that you now have to register online for a parking space and a shuttle to take you to the Piano and the nearby village of Castelluccio.
Unfortunately for Castelluccio, it was nearly leveled by two successive earthquakes in the autumn of 2016. And that’s where this story really starts. Before then it was a friends and family ritual to visit the Piano, then head to the Taverna Castelluccio for a decadent lunch. The Taverna was in a building on the edge of town, and if you sat outside, you had a great view of the expansive lentil fields below. (Castelluccio lentils are small, brown, and don’t dissolve into a brown mush.)
My friend Doug and I first went to the Taverna about eight years ago. We were seated next to a woman with a teenage daughter who was apparently teaching the daughter about good food and wine. She talked to the kid about the dishes, they sampled a bunch of them. They tasted some good wine, and at one point we began talking to her. She’s a pretty well known food blogger and TV personality based in Rome and I wish I could remember her name. At one point, she ordered an incredible dessert wine, and she insisted that we have a taste.
That visit was the first of a few annual visits, with both daughters and one year, with our daughters’ friends. We loved the location, and the food was traditional with a twist, with pasta like homemade spaghetti alla chitarra with the local lentils and fresh ricotta. And since we were near Norcia, the culinary capital of truffle-dense Umbria, a lot of dishes came with the prized black funghi. More than the food and wine list, though, were the owners. The wife in the mom and pop pair would take a seat at the table and chat for awhile. Hearing our accent, she was curious about where we’re from. Not a whole lot of Americans know about the Piano Grande and its delights. We always came away from lunch sated and happy that we made a human connection with the proprietors.
Disaster struck in 2016, with two successive earthquakes. The first was on August 24, and that caused some damage to Norcia and its surroundings, including the hamlet of Castelluccio. I texted the restaurant and asked if they were okay. They said yes and that the restaurant was intact, save for a couple of cracks. They were just waiting for the authorities’ okay to go back. But the second, on October 30, was devastating. Norcia’s cathedral was almost leveled, with only the façade remaining intact. Castelluccio was another story; the town was destroyed and was declared a no-entry red zone. The Taverna and all the other businesses were history.
Or so we thought. I’d seen that it had set up a temporary tent, but for one reason or another we never went. But this year, a friend posted to Facebook that she had eaten there at the more permanent setup outside the wrecked town, and that it was terrific. She urged people to go. So we went—after a few days at home I was eager for another road trip, even if it was to a place I’d been quite a few times, and that’s a couple of hours away, taking us on winding roads through mountain passes in the area called the Valnerina.
Being pensionati, we were lucky to be able to go on a weekday; even on a Thursday the Piano hosted lots of people there for the fioratura. The flowers weren’t in full bloom yet, but we saw enough colors and textures to keep us happy. That, and a run by a couple hundred sheep kept things lively. But lunch was the day’s main attraction for us. The Taverna is in one of two containers outside the hamlet that host a bunch of restaurants and shops. We found the Taverna and we shown to an outside table, as requested.
It’s weird to say that the new site has a better view and is nicer than the “real” restaurant. At least objectively. Subjectively…. here in Italy, nothing is better than saying that something is originale (I think you can figure that out). Unlike the neighboring French, who tend to plaster over cracks and holes in stucco, for example, Italians will leave the signs of aging and use, either to show authenticity, or just because they think it looks better.
If the container was new, the filling was as it always was. The Taverna still trades in slightly creative, upscale versions of local dishes with “km 0” (farm-to-table) ingredients, and we were happy to indulge in a plate of local pecorino cheeses, including one that resembled Brie. The Spartan Woman went real roots and had lentil soup, while I happily indulged in the local pasta, stringozzi, showered with tons of local truffles. She had the truffles atop her trout, while I went off our usual meat-free diet because I had this weird craving for Umbrian sausages. We had some sauteed wild greens, almost like spinach to go with it, and a small pitcher of local wine.
But more than the decent food and the beautiful view were the Taverna’s people. Our young waiter heard our accent and asked where we’re from. When we told him New York he smiled and said the Italian equivalent of “wow.” He kept watch over us the whole time, apologizing for a lag between courses because a large party had the kitchen in caos. The owner came by to chat, and we told him that it was good to be back. “We’ve been here since 2019,” he said. We replied that with Covid, etc., it was impossible to come. No, we said, we were patrons of the original Taverna, and he shot us a big smile.
Before I went up to the counter to pay the bill, I rifled through my phone’s photos to find some of the old place. I showed it to the owner when I paid, and he got teary eyed. “Look, look at the pictures,” he said to his employees, and passed around my phone so they could see what it was like. Still, a little weepy, he gave me a little hug and patted me on the back. “Thanks for looking out for us, and coming back. Please come back soon.”
We will, promise.