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Read Italy Stop 1: Rome here!
Read Italy Stop 2: Florence here!
Read Italy Stop 3: Manarola (Cinque Terre) here!
Read Italy Stop 4: Milan & Lake Maggiore here!
Read Italy Stop 5: Venice here!
Read Italy Stop 6: Bologna here!

This final destination on our 16 day Italian trip was added by yours truly because the guide book I was using, Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, proclaimed that Norcia out in the Umbrian countryside was the Mecca for food lovers. We would have one final night at a Rome airport hotel before flying out so our single night in Norcia was going to be a good one, I just knew it. Maybe my expectations were a little high? But the book said that this was the place to go in Italy for good food. Truffles. Pig parts. Cheese. Olive oil. Who cares if you drive several hours to get there! The drive is beautiful and you pass countless little towns perched on the verdant hills.

IMG_5290Granted you have to deal with Italian drivers who apparently have a habit of driving ON (or over) the lane lines for no discernible reason. Has anyone else noticed this in Italy? It was very common on our drives. But it was manageable.

IMG_5272We could deal with anything to have our final gourmet meal in Italy. With pig. And truffles. I will mention here that truffle oil is NOT the same as truffles. Smells kind of similar but they don’t use real truffles in it (that’s why it’s cheaper than a real truffle, duh) and it’s in fact simply made using the same/similar chemicals that make truffles smell the way they do. I think truffle oil smells terrible and makes things taste rancid, Chef Gordon Ramsey would agree. I’m worried anytime I see truffle oil on a menu. I’m pretty carefree about most food quality/preparation, but I am definitely a snob when it comes to truffle oil. It’s gross.

IMG_5299The above picture is a little blurry so I will tell you the sign says, “Norcia,” pronounced nore-cha, “State entrando nella zona del tartufo nero pregiato.” Entering the zone of the black truffle! There are also white truffles, for the record, but the really expensive ones are the winter black truffles that can be found in parts of Italy and France.

Eventually we came up to the walls of Norcia as the sun was setting.

IMG_1707This is a teeny little town mostly contained within walls. The image below is taken from right inside the walls and at the end of the street is the town center. Most of the people are Italian tourists or locals, not foreign tourists.

IMG_1709Surrounding the city on every side are farmland and hills.

IMG_0746And why do people come to Norcia? The pig parts!

IMG_1713And the truffles! The aroma of truffles spills out of the shops that are filled with them in many different forms: as a paste or spread, in jars, oil, pasta, chocolates… everything!

IMG_1710How well known are the pork butchers in Norcia? So well known that they are called “norcino” and once trained in Norcia can open a shop anywhere (but in practice, in Italy) called a “Norcineria.” For example, you may see a Norcineria in Rome but that butcher came from Norcia. They are known as the best butchers in Italy. These guys are so well known that even San Francisco has a bar with a meat counter called Norcino.

IMG_0748I tried to take a sneaky picture of the norcino but was spotted!

IMG_5302All over Norcia you see Norcinerias most often with legs of prosciutto out to dry and mounted boar heads. I was a little confused about the boar heads but since part of our meal was wild boar I guess that’s why they were there? Used for hunting truffles and eating?

IMG_5300We stayed and dined at Hotel Grotta Azzurra which was recommended by my gourmet traveler book. The room we had was fine, large for Italy. As for the restaurant, in the book, the another revels at how every bite of his meal — he ordered the “truffle menu”– was better than the next and you can’t go wrong here. We figured we’d enjoy our last meal here and headed down for dinner. My husband was amused that there was a mace, an axe and more taxidermy above my head. I guess they were playing up the “Umbria’s oldest restaurant” thing.

IMG_1715I had brought my camera with me to take pictures of the best meal we were going to have in Italy but ended up only taking maybe three pictures as our experience nose dived.

The service was disorganized and we experienced the most rushed meal in our whole trip (most meals are slow paced, calm and take hours, this one felt rushed and took just over an hour!). The food was practically cafeteria style– poorly executed dishes that were underwhelming either in the flavor department or because they weren’t cooked properly. Raw wild boar that’s burnt on one side? Mushy pasta? We relied on drinking table wine throughout our trip and except for one other time were pleased. The table wine here was dreadful and when we asked for white wine received red despite asking for it in Italian and English. I apologize for so many complaints but it would be one thing to have a good meal when you expected stellar but to have a bad meal was very disappointing.

And how did we like the truffles? Firstly, I’m glad that both of us didn’t get the vastly more expensive truffle menu. Secondly, they taste like mushrooms. They smell like more pungent mushrooms. Now, maybe the quality of the restaurant was what left us scratching our heads and asking, “What’s the big deal?” But in doing some online research (read: Googling) after our trip I saw that others had the same reaction. I will leave you with one picture from our meal (and not the one of the mushy pasta). This was my husband’s first truffle course which was cured wild boar and a truffle spread on bread.

IMG_1716The food wasn’t all bad in Norcia, though. We sought out a little bakery that was also noted in the book when we arrived. We picked up a few pasties including a ravioli which a pastry filled with fruit and often dipped in red wine (instead of milk!), something we learned during our cooking class in Bologna. The little shop was run by the most awesome nonna (grandma) lady. She was adorable. She spoke no English but had a cheat sheet of Enligsh phrases so she could tell you what was in each pastry. Though when she meant “cream” she would tell you it was “scream.”

IMG_0751The bakery was so good that my husband and I stopped by again before leaving town so we could bring some pastries home with us. As soon as we walked back in she recognized us and insisted my husband try a slice of what looked like ricotta pie? I don’t know. He inhaled it before I could even try it. Yup, that good.

IMG_0750With a very full bag of a bunch of pastries we headed back toward Rome to end our trip.

IMG_5306As we wound got outside of Norcia’s ancient walls, we stopped our tiny blue car to take in the countryside one more time. Here I am in the car while my husband took some photos.

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We did the drive back through the countryside toward Rome to drop off the car and enjoyed the views along the way as well as a stop at the ubiquitous Autogrill. These things are like the McDonald’s you see along highways throughout the US. Except with better food. And believe me, if you have to tinkle and stop at any old gas station, you just may find a hole-in-the-ground type “toilet” instead of a Western toilet.

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Back in Rome the very unhelpful staff at the airport Courtyard by Marriott checked us in and we set off with no insight of where to return the rental car. We eventually figured it out and found more unhelpful rental car staff before boarding a shuttle back to the hotel. With that done, we enjoyed appertivo in the hotel bar surrounded by other Americans spending one last night in Italy before early morning flights.

 

IMG_1721The above is somewhere over France and below, a view as we were descending into our London layover.

IMG_1723While Norcia was a bit of a disappointing way to end our trip, we were still glad we drove out there and experienced the beautiful countryside, picked up some great souvenirs (like truffle pasta and chocolate with truffles in it), experienced a “truffle meal” for ourselves and met such a nice baker. I think my expectations were a little too high for our meal but aside from that we had a great stay.

I can’t speak for my husband on his over all impressions of Italy after our trip but when someone asks me what I thought I can easily say the more rural parts of the trip in Bologna and Manarola were my favorite because the countryside was beautiful and the people were so nice. I also was so thankful that we live in Northern California were we have some awesome quality food, amazing views, nice people, and places to visit just like Italy! I hear so many people who are blown away by Italy and ready to move there but for me, while I enjoyed Italy, I am quite happy where we live already and would never want to move to Italy when we have so many things where we live already! I definitely would recommend Italy as a destination to see on your own.

Below are the links to all of the stops we made in Italy. Enjoy!

Read Italy Stop 1: Rome here!
Read Italy Stop 2: Florence here!
Read Italy Stop 3: Manarola (Cinque Terre) here!
Read Italy Stop 4: Milan & Lake Maggiore here!
Read Italy Stop 5: Venice here!
Read Italy Stop 6: Bologna here!