Traditional Umbrian food: 12 dishes you need to try!
Written in collaboration with Andrea Torcivia
Rolling hills dotted by castles and olive fields, beautiful castles and amazing medieval villages. If you’re thinking about Tuscany, allow me to let you in to a secret: Umbria has all of the above in the same quality as its more famous neighbour and minus the hordes of tourists! But Umbria’s attractions don’t stop there: Truffles, lentils, focaccias (and admittedly a lot of pig-derived charcuterie and meat) are real specialties of this marvellous region in the heart of Italy. So come with me and let’s dig into this authentic treasure trove that is Umbrian food!
This article will run through both vegetarian and non-vegetarian specialities of Umbrian cuisine as well as give you a little insight into where the origins of the various dishes!
Vegetarian friendly food in Umbria
While it is true that the region is known for charcuterie and the concept of vegetarian might seem a little strange to locals, rest assured you will not go hungry in Umbria as a vegetarian. Food in Umbria is focussed on fresh, locally sourced ingredients which – thanks to the talent of local chefs – can be transformed into a finger licking vegetarian meal in no time. Below 5 dishes are usually a safe bet to try as a vegetarian, but just to be sure always make sure to ask if the dishes are vegetariano (vegetarian).
Just to give you a few extra options, read up on these vegetarian dishes in Italy that are not typically Umbrian but can be found in most local restaurants.
The Arvortolo is a type of fried pizza typical for the region of Perugia, most commonly eaten during the traditional village feasts. The name means flipped in the local dialect, as the pizza is flipped continuously on either side to ensure a proper cooking. What is this fried pizza made of? Nothing could be simpler: Flour, oil and salt. This traditional Umbrian food also exists in a sweet version, in which salt is substituted by sugar.
Bandiera means flag in Italian and if you’re familiar with the Italian national flag (Il tricolore) you’ll understand why this traditional side dish is called so: Green bell peppers, onions and tomatoes make up this not exactly light recipe. This patriotic referral notwithstanding, the Bandiera’s origins are forgotten in the mist of history: As is the case for most of the food in Umbria, this dish is in fact extremely old. Back in the day farmers would put together the ingredients of their orchard on top of hardened bread (a sort of old style bruschetta), to this day the dish is still best enjoyed with a side of bread.
Farrecchiata di roveja
The difficult name of this recipe needs to be broken down in two to better explain this dish. Farrecchiata is a method of preparation, in which a legume or a grain gets dusted with flour and then cooked as Polenta. Roveja, on the other end, is the name of one of the typical legumes – belonging to the family of peas – from Umbria and in fact can only be found in this region and in the neighbouring region of Marche. The Farrecchiata di roveja is basically polenta with peas, just better! The cook adds a stir-fry of oil, garlic, anchovies and sage to the polenta & pea mix. Let me tell you, when these get mixed together, it’s a real feast! If there is one traditional vegetarian Umbrian food you need to try on your this, let it be this one!
Torta al testo
Torta al testo is the traditional focaccia from Umbria, which can be found throughout the region. When I say traditional, I mean it: testo is the name of the stone plate used by the Ancient Romans upon which focaccia was cooked. It comes in many different varieties, but the favourites of most locals remains the traditional one: local ham (Prosciutto di Norcia) and local cheese (Pecorino Umbro). Fret not, this dish can easily be transformed into a delicious vegetarian alternative by simply replacing the prosciutto. Ask for a vegetarian alternative to this traditional Umbrian food in any location that sells Torta al testo and they will be happy to oblige!
Impastare in Italian means to knead and indeed there is a lot of kneading in this age-old Umbrian food! Traditional and with a long agricultural history, as is the case for many of the dishes in this list: This mix of Polenta and Borlotti beans was in fact one of the many ways that farmers used to address their chronical lack of meat. Thankfully for us their ingenuity gave us a delicious, healthy and nutrient winter recipe that will warm everyone’s heart!
Meat-based Umbrian food
Pasta alla Norcina
It would be impossible to write a guide on food in Umbria without mentioning the ever-present Pasta alla Norcina. This joy for the (carnivorous) palate is made with a sauce of onion, garlic, pork sausage, ricotta cheese, black pepper and local black truffle. It is the quintessential plate of Norcia, which is renowned for its Norcinerie (shops focused on pork-based charcuterie) and truffles. Walking through the little town – unfortunately very much still destroyed by the 2016 earthquake – you’ll encounter dozens of them, a real risk for your wallet!
This a rather simple one, but a list of Italian dishes without mentioning a typical pasta shape would not be complete! Strangozzi is a pasta from Spoleto, similar to tagliatelle, and almost exclusively freshly prepared. To get a true feel of food in Umbria, order strangozzi with either truffle from Norcia (Umbria is famous in all of Italy for its truffles) or with the Norcina sauce.
The names of this typically winter plate is difficult to understand, even for an Italian, therefore it deserves an explanation, actually two. Fricco’ could either come from Latin or French and it refers to the different manners of cooking meat. Eugubina means from Gubbio¸ the foremost example of medieval city in Umbria and a must see in every trip through this beautiful region. So in short, this traditional Umbrian food is a stew of white meat (normally either lamb or rabbit) both stewed and seared served with potatoes and vegetables and sprinkled with the ever-present aromatic herbs. Nothing better to withstand the cold winters in the Umbrian hills!
Crostini alla spoletina
Food in Umbria was traditionally not only absolutely delicious, it also served an important purpose of providing energy for the populous. A prime example of this can be found in the Crostini alla spoletina. Spoleto is one of the most beautiful town in Umbria, with a stunning castle overlooking the entire medieval city and its valley. The city is built on a vertical axis, with plenty of steps and steep streets. Walking up and down was a very tiring affair, it goes without saying that the inhabitant needed a filling meal to replenish their energy – cue Crostini alla spoletina: Grilled bread with black truffle, anchovies, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice. The unusual combination of the strong flavours of both the truffle and the anchovies makes for a rather unique but delicious taste and – trust me – it is addictive!
Not to be missed while trying Umbrian food: Desserts
Torcolo di San Costanzo
This typical dessert from Perugia is traditionally prepared for the day of Perugia’s patron-saint, Saint Costanzo on January 29th and has a long list of popular tales linked to its origins: One story says the shape refers to the beheaded neck of Saint Costanzo, others link it to the gems-laced necklace the saint used to wear, others still say – in a more prosaic fashion – state that its hole was simply used to hang the dessert during the city’s celebrations. Regardless of the origins of this Umbrian food, what is sure is that this dessert was donated to Perugia’s single girls who used to go pray in front of Saint Costanzo’s image hoping the image would wink back at them – a sure sign of an impending wedding. If the statue wasn’t inclined to perform this less-than-ordinary gesture, the girls would receive the dessert as consolation prize.
Now, let’s dig into its actual composition: The Torcolo di San Costanzo has its origin in popular cuisine, hence its humble – but delicious! – ingredients: Water, flour, lard, sugar and sweets like raisins, pine seeds and anise. It’s shape (hence the name Torcolo) is the one of rolled dough
From Perugia to wonderful Spoleto, the city of flowers. From religious celebration to a pagan one, Crescionda is in fact typically prepared for Carnival. This dish dates back to the middle ages and does not have just one single official recipe. As with much of the food in Umbria, the dish has at least 3 recipes: A three-layered one (amaretti and flour, egg-based cream, chocolate), a lighter recipe containing apples and the Poretta, lemon-based recipe. Regardless of the version, there are a few common ingredients: An anise liquor, rum, lemon zest, vanilla and cinnamon. A real delicacy worthy of Carnival’s extravaganza!
The Rocciata is a typical sweet delicatessen from Assisi – the city of San Francis – which might remind you of the Austrian Strudel, due to its rolled shape. This shape of this typical Umbrian dessert carries the secret to its name: The word roccia in the local dialect means “rolled”. The Rocciata’s dough is very thin, with a crunchy texture, stuffed with a filling that is made from a delectable mixture of walnut, apples and dried fruit. To top it off, the dessert has a characteristic red hue, which it thanks to the light glazing of Alchermes (an Italian liquor used mainly in dessert and made of alcohol, sugar, water, cloves cinnamon, cardamon, raspberry, rose water and red colorant). Enjoy!
Umbrian food in a nutshell
I hope that this small culinary journey through the specialities of Umbrian Food has inspired you to visit the region. Its restaurants alone are worth a visit, even if without considering its architectural beauty and its breath-taking landscape. When you pair these together, you’ll find yourself wondering why tourists don’t flock in troves to Umbria. And, more importantly, why you didn’t visit before this – still relatively unexplored – gem. So pack-up, ignore your jeans’ threats about not fitting anymore and come indulge in the slow, beautiful pleasure that Umbria has to offer.
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