Sunday we landed in Rome and drove by bus through the Umbrian hills to
Spoleto. Traffic soon gave way to rolling green hills and fields of sunflowers.
Neat rows of olive trees bordered with rocketing cypress trees ring the
lower slopes of the Apenine mountains. A native Umbrian described the
region as "wilder" than polished-up Tuscany, and we found the
ancient atmosphere of the town to bear this out
Spoleto crowns a mountain, rising up in a series of piazzas, or central
squares ringed with shops and offices. We drove into town, climbing higher
and higher through narrow streets lined with 15’ high grey stone
walls. We dropped a few of our party at the Hotel San Luca, a new four-star
hotel. The rest of us disembarked at the Piazza del Liberte and trekked
uphill through this ancient Roman town over square black basalt cobbles
under arches dating back to two centuries B.C. An arched street to the
left led to the Piazza del Marcato, or market square. We continued up,
spying lovely planted terraces and arbors which peeked over the sturdy
After a good leg-stretching we reached the
Hotel Palazzo Leti. Anna Laura Bartocci and Giampaolo Bartoli, the
owners, converted this private villa into a gracious and intimate 14 room
hotel, and it retains the warmth and spirit of a home. We entered through
a masonry arch to a neat formal garden planted with boxwood hedgerows
and dotted with bright red geraniums. Perched on the edge of the mountain,
our windows opened to dramatic views of the valley below. Up the mountain
to the left was the housing for many of the musicians performing in the
Festival — as evidenced by the sound of scales drifting on the air.
Monini treated Doug and Roselyn to the ‘Honeymoon’ quarters
– a private duplex at their own end of the garden.
In the afternoon a few of us wandered the streets in search of gelato.
We were not disappointed. The depth and range of flavors — melon,
pistachio, tiramisu — caused us all to commit to the mission of
eating as much as possible during our stay.
Spoleto is a unique mix of worldly shops and ancient habits. As the historical
seat of the Bishop, it has a wealth of lovely churches, including the
dramatic Duomo — a simple Gothic structure on the outside, a treasure-box
of art on the inside.
That evening, as the sun bathed the Roman aqueduct that landmarks Spoleto,
we enjoyed fresh strawberry punch and prosecco (a sparkling Italian wine
which is drunk young) in the garden. The antipasta table featured Monini’s
addictive artichoke-and-olive spread, and of course, a spread of truffles,
the signature dish of the region.
During our al fresco dinner, an aerialist in town for the Spoleto Festival
del Due Mondi dangled from an arch in the aqueduct that passes through
town. It was a dramatic accompaniment to the crescionda, a thin layer
of dark chocolate, milk-and sugar on an amaretto cookie crust. It is a
dessert served only in Spoleto, and worth the trip alone. We enjoyed it
with Limoncello, a liqueur made from lemons, sugar, and magic.
On Monday, we visited nearby Assisi, touring the Basilica of St. Francis
and the Church of St. Clare, where St. Francis’ cross is hung. We
found an olivewood shop where artists carved beautiful objects from the
We returned to Spoleto that evening for dinner at Ristorante Panciolle,
overlooking the valley. Barnswallows looped through the air above us as
the sun set.
After dinner we walked to the Duomo for a Festival performance by the
Juilliard Jazz Quartet. Listening to ’Round Midnight as the stars
came out over the Duomo was unforgettable.
Tuesday we toured the Monini plant, learning how regional varieties of
olive oils are selected, sorted for quality, then blended and bottled
The office floors of Monini are laid in olive wood, with its beautiful
variegated patterns of light and dark. The faint scent of olive permeates
Just across the way, the olive trees that yield the fruit for Amabile
ripen in the bright Umbrian sun.
Tuesday evening we were invited to the home where Zefferino Monini, President
of Monini, and his sister Maria Flora, head of Marketing, spent their
childhood summers, and still entertain.
Dinner al fresco began with a glorious array of antipasti—fried
zucchini blossoms, grilled vegetables, and the famous Monini artichoke
and truffle spreads.
After dinner Zefferino presented the custom-blended olive oil to Doug
Child, our contest winner. He described it as a rich oil, to give Doug
the polyphenols he needs for his active lifestyle, with spicy notes to
suit Doug’s love of strong flavors, and a fresh green note for his
favorite vegetables and salads.
The label created for the one-of-a-kind oil evokes the mountains of Umbria,
whence comes the oil, and the mountains of North Carolina, whence came
On Wednesday we toured a winery in the Montefalco region, famous for its
Sagrantino and Grechetto vines. Rocca di Fabbri was converted from an
old fortress, and today, two sisters, Roberta and Simona Vitale apply
their winemaking skills to the production of a line of robust regional
The rest of Wednesday was spent exploring Spoleto, shopping, hiking the
hills, and eating every conceivable flavor of gelato.
But all the climbing still left an appetite for dinner at Tric Trac, in
the Piazza del Duomo. Their speciality is native truffles.
Bruce Johnson and Rob Bogner, the chefs on our tour, couldn’t believe
the size of these fresh summer truffles, dug just that morning. These
beauties are huge—bigger than baseballs, with a deep wood aroma,
reminiscent of an ancient forest. The owner shaved generous helpings over
We finished the night with a concert of Russian monks performing a capella
liturgies in an ancient Roman church adjacent to the Duomo.
Thursday we tore ourselves away from the warmth of Spoleto and journeyed
on to Rome, with a quick stop at an Italian cashmere outlet.
Our hotel, the Hotel Imperiale, is right off the Piazza Barberini, the
"Dolce Vita" section of downtown. Marco led a group on a ‘quick’
five-mile tour of the tourist highlights: Trevi Fountain, The Pantheon,
Piazza Navona, The Palace of Justice and The Spanish Steps.
Dinner that night at La Carbonara was a festive, family-style feast, with
the signature pasta prepared with egg and bacon—but no cream. The
rosemary infused lamb chops were served with sauteed chicory, a regional
Friday we met for a private tour of the Vatican and the Basilica of St.
Peter. Our guide, Paula Barbanera, was well-versed in history, art, and
architecture, and gave us as much information as can possibly be squeezed
into four hours—barely enough time to comprehend art that one could
study for a lifetime.
That afternoon was spent shopping, touring the coliseum ruins, and wine
That night we scattered for our own explorations of the city — some
to the artist’s quarters, others for authentic Roman pizza, and
some to the most exclusive dining in town.
Then home...but a few coins in Trevi fountain guarantee we’ll be