Luca was very pleased when he saw Taking Care of Business. So pleased that he insisted we come to dinner at his house that very evening. We were very excited at the thought of experiencing a truly Italian family meal, so of course we said yes. The plan was to meet outside Luca’s shop at 8 o’clock that evening, then follow him in his car for about 5 kilometres. Easy, given that it was still daylight at that time, so I would be able to check out where we were going and simply reverse the journey in the dark.
What we had not taken account of was that Luca had invited a host of Italian friends, all of whom turned up late, so it was dark when we finally set off in a convoy of 5 cars. We just about managed to keep up, although there were a few scary moments as we raced down tiny, one-track (but two-way!) lanes with deep ditches either side. Eventually we turned into a gateway and parked between an elegant row of trees.
Friendly introductions were made all round, and we filed into the large farmhouse where a raging fire and a long table set for 15 awaited us. Luca’s brother, Emanuele, was the chef for the evening and he had the bread toasting on the open fire for a wonderful bruschetta appetiser with drizzled olive oil, salami and olive oil and rosemary crackers served with deliciously cold prosecco. You will note that the usual food photos are absent here; this seemed like too personal an evening to pull out the camera, so I hope my descriptions alone can do it justice.
We were invited into the kitchen where Emanuele was preparing the next dish, a mix of 4 grains including pearl barley and lentils, cooked for 2 hours in vegetable stock then drained and mixed with lots of olive oil (and then a lot more), chopped parsley and a little salt. It was delicious; the grains still had a bite to them and the flavour was superb. Yes, I know I am going to run out of superlatives before too long but bear with me…
The table was laid simply but elegantly, with colourful dishes produced locally, bottles of olive oil and vases of fresh rosemary and dried chilli peppers. Bottles of red and white Umbrian wine and chilled local filtered well-water were constantly refreshed. Our fellow diners included farmers, a doctor and a tractor driver and were a real mix of ages. They were chatty and friendly and the buzz of conversation got louder as the evening progressed. Luca was the perfect host and frequently turned to us to explain the conversation when it got fast and furious.
The next course was based on beans with florets of cauliflower and a tomato salsa, beautifully presented and very tasty. By now, the Calabrian contingent from the Italian south were arguing the benefits of cooking with fat rather than olive oil to enhance the flavour, whilst the Umbrians were strictly olive oil supporters from both health and taste perspectives.
Steaming bowls of pasta with tomatoes, broccoli florets and a hint of chilli arrived – a masterpiece of simple flavours, combining gloriously. This was followed by bruschetta with a chickpea puree with rosemary. The talk around the table had moved on to a debate about which town held the best festivals. Those from Bevagna extolled the glories of their annual Mercato delle Gaite festival held each June, celebrating medieval crafts with demonstrations of archery and crafts and a medieval market. The Assisi residents preferred their celebrations of Festa di Calendmaggio, marking the arrival of Spring with medieval costumed parades and theatre and the Festa di San Francesco, a major religious event. More wine, more chat, more buzz.
Luca took us out onto his terrace where we were able to see the hill towns of Assisi, Spello and Spoleto lit up and looking lovely. Assisi won that beauty contest as the basilica and the castle are so stunning when lit.
The final dish was a selection of warm cookies with jam made from the merlot grape. The grappa and coffee also made an appearance at this point, heralding various toasts to the hosts, the chef and the guests. We left shortly afterwards, following one of Luca’s lovely friends who pointed us in the right direction until we recognised something familiar. We arrived home at 1:45am tired but still buzzing about the brilliant night we had had. We felt truly honoured to be invited to share in such a wonderful evening.