Food Tales

Being and Nothingness in Umbria

by Carolynn Carreno
All photos by Carolynn Carreno

If you were lucky enough to have a friend who loaned you her house in Italy, your lazy and pizza-filled life would look like this. When Los Angeles food writer Carolynn Carreno was offered a chef's house in Umbria, she jumped.

UMBRIA, Italy – For the last few years, I have had the luxury of having a friend whose house in the Umbrian countryside sits vacant most of the time. For years, when I talked about wanting to get away, Nancy would tell me, "Go to Italy! Use my house!' One summer, after finishing the manuscript for a cookbook and turning 40 collided on me, I took her up on it. I grabbed my dog Rufus, a free ticket that I had paid for in interest on an American Express card, and flew to Rome. There, I rented a car, and somehow drove as straight as you can through winding Italian roads to a town called Panicale.

"There are two entrances to the walled town," Nancy instructed me before I left. "Inside one entrance is the only bar in town. It has a name, but everyone just calls it Aldo's." She told me to go to Aldo's and ask for Giovanna, the housekeeper. "She doesn't work there, but they'll go get her, and she'll give you the key to my house."

And so began my introduction to this town and to a way of life.

Nancy, by the way, is Nancy Silverton, owner of the Los Angeles restaurants Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza. When I spotted this sign on a day trip to the south, I had to stop and take a picture. (See above.) She ended up using it for her staff's holiday cards. Regrettably, I didn't travel the 1 kilometer up the hill to see the town. 

Every year in the summers since, I've tried to spend as many weeks, and sometimes months, as possible in this lonely house. When people ask me what I do there, my usual response is: "Nothing. It's a good nothing, but you have to like nothing." Some people might be bored by a life where walking 100 yards into town to sit at a cafe in a tiny piazza constitutes the morning and evening social agenda, and where driving an hour or more to get lunch because you heard they do something great with ragu or wild boar or a suckling pig is your idea of a wild adventure, but this is my speed.

Add to that a comfortable place to stay, friendly townspeople who know me and my dog by name, and a train that takes you to Rome or Florence in an hour. In a word: perfetto.

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