FOLIGNO, Italy, Dec. 31, 2009 -- Italy's central Umbria region is home to many beautiful cities and towns; each with their own rich traditions. Todi, Perugia, Assisi, Spoleto all come to mind. But Foligno, on the plain that runs south from Perugia below Assisi, is a commercial town without much charm.
Badly damaged in an earthquake more than a decade ago, you can still see temporary construction efforts to keep some buildings standing. Perhaps the only other important tourist item is that it has direct fast-train service to Rome. Most people visiting Umbria would give Foligno a miss.
But if you love excellent Italian food, there is a very good reason to stop and seek out Bacco Felice, a small restaurant on Via Garabaldi in Foligno's old town.
Salvatore Denaro is the owner and chef. He is an eccentric character with a passion for food. Originally from Sicily, he has adopted Foligno as his home base. From here, he searches the best ingredients from the Umbria region and beyond.
Step into the restaurant and you might be a bit taken aback that his delicious dishes are prepared in such a tiny place. The front room is stacked with bottles of wine, grappa, and oil. So much of the room is taken over with cases that only two little tables can fit.
Walk toward the back and you will pass the tiny kitchen where pots simmer away on the small stove and where, on a wood fireplace, Salvatore roasts chicken and meats. The space is so tiny that no more than two people could fit in the kitchen at once. But because Salvatore does all the cooking, that is not a problem.
Beyond the kitchen is a larger room covered from floor to ceiling with graffiti. It looks a little like the inside of a major city subway car, but the scrawlings are testaments to Salvatore and the food. Old newspaper clippings fill the rest of the space; articles from around the world that praise the restaurant.
Bacco Felice Recommended by Many Tour Guides
No space is left unused; bottles of Obama Hot Sauce, ceramic pots and pans, the decor is as eclectic as its owner.
I don't proclaim to have discovered Bacco Felice or Salvatore Denaro. His restaurant, as I described, has received notations in many guide books. But I was fortunate enough to meet him through a good friend who does food and wine tours in the region. So I have been there on one or two occasions before.
Knowing that my friend was looking for a place to hold a lunch for 10 people on the day after Christmas, Salvatore called her on Dec. 24. The restaurant is normally closed on the 26th, a major holiday in Italy, but Salvatore said he would be delighted to cook for us.
I had to drop friends at the train station that day, so I arrived a bit early. It was miserable outside with a cold rain and wind. The windows of Bacco Felice were steamed up, making it impossible to look inside.
When I entered, Salvatore glanced up and gave me a big smile. I am not sure if he really remembered me but he welcomed me warmly and brought into the heart of the restaurant, the kitchen.
The smells were mouthwatering. Sausages from Sicily were grilling on the fire; dozens of them. The pork with fennel seeds was cooked to perfection, as I soon found out when he handed me a plate to taste.
On the small stove an enormous pot of snails simmered. He ladled out a large quantity for us to sample. They had been simmering for six hours or more. Normally, snails are prepared with garlic and butter ; the French tradition that tends to disguise any taste. But these, he explained, where boiled in white wine only.
He must have used gallons of it. Then he added carrots, celery and a few cherry tomatoes. I had never seen so many snails in my life. He told me that he knows a man who cultivates them in Puglia, the south of Italy, and that it is the only place he trusts.
Bacco Felice is translated as the Happy Bacchus, or the Happy God of Wine, and you can picture Salvatore as that character.
As soon as we entered the kitchen for my tour, I was handed a glass of prosecco, the sparkling white wine of Italy. This was from the Trento region in the north of Italy, Prosecco di Voldobbiadene. It was very effervescent and not too sweet, perfect with the antipasto we were going to have.
Umbria: A Great Region to Explore Wines
The rest of my group arrived and we were seated at a long table already covered with small plates. The large mozzarella looked like a huge twisted taffy that he served with Spanish anchovies.
The tiny white beans in a cold salad were tossed with hot peppers and parsley. The beans, he explained, were from the Bolsena Lake, where they grow in rich volcanic soil. Salvatore proclaimed them to be the best in all of Italy.
He prides himself on doing his homework on both ingredients for his dishes, as well as his knowledge of wines. The tomatoes that he used for the bruschetta were grown near Naples. The small, very red fruit grows in clusters similar to the way grapes grow on the vine. He chopped them finely with fresh oregano and sprinkled the mixture with olive oil.
After everyone had their fill of the snails and sausages, Salvatore brought out the "ribolita," a Tuscan vegetable soup with breadcrumbs to make it a dense, filling bowl of food.
His version had his particular twist; black cabbage that is in season in the winter months. A tad bitter, it gave the soup a dark color and earthy flavor that warmed you from the inside. Ribolita means re-boiled and this is a soup that simmers for hours and hours and is perhaps better the day after it is first prepared.
To complement the soup, he suggested an Umbrian red wine, Rosso di Montefalco, from the Castilgion del Bosco vineyard.
Umbria is a great region to explore wines. Most famous is the particular deep red Sagrantino. But there are also excellent blends from dozens of winemakers in nearby Montefalco, Bevagna, Spello and Cannara. The most famous white from Umbria is the Grechetto.
Next came one of Salvatore's signature dishes, roasted chicken with fresh herbs. The simple dish is cooked over a wood fire and sprinkled with a herb mixture made from what he collects in his garden. It was not too heavy after the filling soup course.
The salad was unique, made with two fresh greens that I have never heard of, that grow wild on the side of the road during the winter months.
One of them would be translated as hare catcher. Its name is owed to the fact that wild rabbits devour it. The second green is called raperonzolo. It's a bitter, small green leaf with roots that resembled tiny turnips.
Salvatore told us exactly the stretch of the back roads where it could be found because it is extremely hard to locate. With luck, you can buy it in local markets if you want to pay $30 a pound for it. The two greens, tossed with a little olive oil and dashed with salt, were fantastic.
A Sweet End to a Delicious Meal
Dessert was presented in heaping quantities despite the fact there was no room left in our stomachs. A local bakery makes the flourless cookies called brutti ma buoni or "ugly but good."
The Italian Christmas bread, panetone, was from an organic pastry shop. The last wine of the day, a sweet Moscato again, from the north of Italy, this time the Veneto region.
When one of us thanked Salvatore for preparing this special meal on one of the few days of the year he actually closes, he dismissed it with a wave. "I do this as my passion," he said. "I am enjoying myself."
As we shuffled out after our three-hour lunch, he wanted to show us a promotional video that he had done for the region's winemakers. In it, you see him driving throughout the vineyards in his tiny little car, one that looks like you could wind it up with a rubber band to make it run.
He scripted and directed the whole video himself, further evidence of his love for Umbria. When I asked him about the car, he took me out front in the pouring rain and showed me the little vehicle parked right by the door with his black Labrador patiently waiting inside.
As we prepared to go, another four people poked their heads in to see if they could get a meal. "Yes, come in," he said, sipping from his glass. "But only if you drink wine."