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Savoring Umbria's Earthy Tastes

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While the region of Umbria in central Italy is famous for its religious sites, like Assisi, and crafts, like Deruta ceramics), a visit to area is also a chance to taste unique cuisine based on the bounty of the land and years of culinary traditions.

The food of this landlocked, rural region comes from "la cucina contadina" (the farmer's kitchen). These peasant recipes focus on simple, fresh ingredients. Key staples in Umbrian cuisine are olive oil, truffles, pasta and meat from lamb, pigeon and pigs.

Pork is the most popular meat in Umbria and the town of Norcia has been a celebrated town of butchers since Medieval times. Especially at large gatherings you will find whole suckling pigs roasted on a spit, Umbrian pork sausages and prosciutto famous throughout Italy.

Umbria's cuisine has deep roots. The tradition of pressing olives for oil started with the Etruscans, the ancient inhabitants of this land, and Umbrian oil can certainly give its famous Tuscan neighbors a run for their money. Many of Umbria's tantalizing sweets were developed in honor of religious celebrations.

Ready to taste some authentic Umbrian food? Try these two restaurants on your next trip to Umbria:

L'Alchimista in Montefalco, Umbria

Known as the balcony of Umbria for its 360-degree views of the landscape and vineyards below, the charming town of Montefalco is at the center of Umbria's most important wine-making areas. This is where Sagrantino di Montefalco, a premier wine made with 100% Sagrantino grapes, and Montefalco Rosso, typically a blend of Sangiovese, Sagrantino and Merlot are produced. There are few better places to sample the local wines than Enoteca L' Alchimista, tucked in the corner of Montefalco's main piazza.

The main floor of L'Alchimista features a small but well-stocked wine store. In fact, this is one of the few local shops to carry the high-quality productions of Paola Bea, a rising star in Umbria, receiving international acclaim. The enoteca was opened by 20-something sommelier Cristina Magnini who convinced her mother Patrizia Moretti to join her to do the cooking in the intimate downstairs dining area. The two women make a winning team (other family members have since joined the business) offering simple regional cuisine terrifically paired with local wines.

This is the kind of place where you would do well to trust your server's suggestions. You will likely start with a selection of crostini topped with sausage or Pecorino and pear or the famous local black celery. This is also the place to try torta al testo, a traditional Umbrian flat bread stuffed with cheese and proscuitto.

In the middle of wine country, vino is an essential ingredient in many recipes. Don't miss barbozza - pig jowls cooked in Sagrantino wine. Or if the thought of pig cheeks scares you away, be sure to indulge in the gnocci Sagrantino. A few glasses of wine might convince you to try something you wouldn't ordinarily be game to eat - tagliatelle with pigeon. You might be surprised how much you like it.

Tips: Park at the entrance to the town of Montefalco and walk up the steep hill to the center. Along the way, you will pass several shops selling everything from jewelry to serving platters made from olive wood. These make for unique gifts. While in Montefalco, you might want to visit Museo Civico di San Francesco home to the incredible fresco cycle Life of Saint Francis by Benozzo Gozzoli.

Perbacco in Cannara, Umbria

Just a few minutes from Assisi, the small village of Cannara is full of surprises. Cannara's claim to fame is the sweet red onion that carries its name. There's no better place to taste all that can be done with this homegrown prize than Perbacco, a colorful, whimsically decorated eatery in the center of town. Chef Ernesto Parziani opened the restaurant 15 years ago in his hometown after a stint cooking in Rome.

Perbacco is the perfect place for a casual dinner. Parziani prides himself on his list of organic and biodynamic wines, though he also serves some of the popular local conventional wines. Don't miss the delicious onion soup, which is likely to be thicker than any other onion soup you have ever had. The warm chicken liver pate makes for another tantalizing starter.

Consider trying frascarelli - a type of Umbrian peasant pasta, made from flour, water and eggs but with the consistency and size of rice. The chef prepares it with vegetables, cheese and bean sprouts. Parziani offers a number of other fresh pasta dishes including ravioli stuffed with Pecorino and pears and spaghetti with an onion sauce. For secondo, you will find a wide range of selections, including lamb, veal, wild boar, duck and pigeon.

Tip: If you're truly crazy about onions, visit Cannara and Perbacco during the annual week-long Festa della Cipolla in September.

Get a free copy of Dream of Italy's Special Report: Umbria