Umbrian Cuisine & Customs

Mario & Michela











Photo: Mario & Michela, my neighbors in Umbertide, at traditional lunch.

Listen to Mario talking about how eating in Umbria is changing.


How Umbrians Eat

If you enjoy spending time at the table savoring good food and wine, you’ll be happy in Umbria.  Everyone is passionate about good food—and eating well.  Lunch and dinner are important times of the day, but breakfast is often rushed, as families head out the door for work and school.  Even on weekends, la prima colazione (breakfast) is light and usually sweet—un cornetto (an Italian croissant) or cookies dunked into caffè latte or cappuccino.  A mid-morning snack is common—a sweet roll or panino (roll) filled with prosciutto.

By custom lunch is the main meal, served around one o’clock.  Whenever possible, people return home from work or school for a multi-course meal.  But the number of workers with long commutes is on the increase—those unhappy folks have a sandwich or plate of pasta near work.  Dinner is served.  If lunch was the main meal, dinner (usually served between eight and eight-thirty) is light—soup or pasta or hearty salads, pizza or bread with cold cuts and cheese or a combination of plates.

Many families still hold sacred the traditional Sunday pranzo (lunch).  Everyone in the immediate family is expected to come.  A classic pranzo has several courses, and each dish is equally important—there is no main dish.  A celebratory lunch can last for hours and feature many courses.  Since you (as a guest) never know how many dishes will come to the table, it is hard to know how much to eat!

In homes, meals are served family-style.  Sliced salt-free bread, bottles of mineral water and wine (often homemade), and sometimes soda pop, are available on the table. The meal starts with an antipasto (literally “before meal”), typically crostini (sliced bread topped with something savory).  Next up is the primo piatto (first plate)—pasta, soup, polenta, risotto, gnocchi.  Grilled (preferred), roasted, or braised meat, sausage, or poultry usually make up the secondo piatto (second plate).  Meat servings tend to be smaller than American portions.  Contorni (side dishes)—vegetables and potatoes—are served along with the secondo piatto.  Salad is served with the side dishes or after the secondo piatto.  A bowl of fruit usually signals the end of the meal, but sometimes cheese and dessert follow the fruit course.  Especially when there are guests, dessert wine—passito or vinsanto—is often paired with the cheese and/or the dessert.  Liqueurs are served to aid digestion.  When the dessert dishes are cleared, espresso is offered—served with sugar but without milk.  And if you smoke—like so many Italians still do—it’s time for a cigarette.

Umbria’s Micro-cuisines

Over the last dozen years of eating my way around Italy—from the Alto Adige at the Austrian border to Tuscany and Umbria in central Italy to Rome in Lazio—I discovered that the cuisine of each region has a distinct personality.

While living in Umbria, I realized that within the region there are many micro-cuisines.  Around Lago di Trasimeno, lake fish replaces meat in traditional ragù.  In Cannara, a town famous for onions, cooks use an inordinate amount of the bulb.  Around Norcia and Cascia, lentils are adored, and in the hills above Foligno squab is commonplace.  In towns near the region’s borders, the cuisine (as well as the language, sense of humor, and demeanor of the people) is influenced by its neighbors. Italian transplants from other regions are also ingredients in the culinary melting pot.

But what is surprising is just how little fellow Umbrians know about the dishes of neighboring villages.  For example, crescionda, a dessert common in Spoleto, is virtually unheard of in my town of Umbertide, about an hour away. To complicate matters, the names of dishes are often in the dialect of the village, not in standard Italian.  So the same dish might go by a different name just a few kilometers away.

It does not appear that recent immigrants, such as those from Eastern Europe and Muslim countries, have influenced the local cuisine.  The biggest threat to traditional Umbrian cuisine is the changing lifestyle—long commutes, busy dual-career families, and a new generation who has less time for and interest in cooking.

© 2010 Suzanne Carreiro. The Dog Who Ate the Truffle: A Memoir of Stories and Recipes from Umbria. Thomas Dunne Books