In our country a family restaurant usually (but not always) wants to expand. It's a part of our national psyche. It takes a different culture, a different lineage and a different society to support the family restaurant in an out-of-the-way place. That place, thank the great God of 'mangiare', is Italy. Here a family 'Trattoria' means just that; a family run restaurant, and they survive because the local population understand their importance as a part of the fabric of their culture. Food, God, wine.
In Italy a good cook, trained by his family, is willing and happy to remain in his family Trattoria all of his life. His (or her) income is therefore limited by and dependent upon local word of mouth, on reputation, and finally on consistently good food.
Il Cavallino was a chance find. We'd done our usual Garmin-assisted wander around Umbria. We take off, drive where we feel rather than where we plan, and when the hunger hits, we begin looking for a restaurant. Sometimes this works, sometimes not, and we found ourselves in the tiny village of Calvi when hunger hit, with not one open restaurant at midday. We decided to head towards Narni, where we knew of a good eatery, but stopped 2.4k from Narni in Testacchio when we saw an old restaurant with covered outdoor dining and - (our failsafe evaluation system) more than 2 tables already occupied.
The outside area was cool and shaded, and a light breeze blew into the patio, cooling the one-o'clock summer heat.
The menu was comprehensive, with two sections for secondi piatti - normal and chargrilled in their ancient hearth. Desserts were the usual tirimasu and panna cotta but with another half dozen mysteries ready for exploration.
We ordered a mezzo litro of frizzante vino bianco and a bottle of naturally carbonated (frizzante) Nepi water to begin. It arrived immediately with the bread as we chose our dishes. Cassie chose the Pollo Al Diavolo (roast chicken with fagiolini (beans) cooked with lemon and olive oil. I chose a simple spaghetti carbonara and insalata verde mista - assorted green salad.
My pasta arrived first, the chicken within minutes. The cabonara is a dish I like to compare because although it is a simple one, a good carbonara is hard to find. This was simply excellent.
It has been said that carbonara was invented by a chef who was a member of the Carbonari , the group of revolutionaries who fought against the Austrian occupation of northern Italy, active between the end of '700 and Guarro Italian independence.
Another suggestion dates back to 1945 when U.S. troops entered Rome at the end of World War II.When they were asked in the Roman trattoria for lunch eggs, bacon and noodles, the typical Chinese noodles, then much in vogue in America than Italian ones.The Romans of the chefs met their request to serve bacon, fried eggs and a plate of spaghetti and therefore plain tasteless.To remedy this situation the American soldiers all mixed to create, without their knowledge, the ancestor of the famous dish.
A good carbonara only just cooks the egg so that it completely coats the pasta. The bacon should be smoked and full-flavoured and the cheese should be a mild young pecorino.
That's the theory, but the experience is still unique. My insalata had also arrived and I was faced with a serious choice. Do I stop enjoying my Carbonara to enjoy my crisp, fresca slightly salty olive oil tossed insalata, or do I return to my carbonara? The choice was difficult but hey, I managed.
Cassie's Chicken was a large portion of leg and shoulder very well cooked with a light seasoning of fresh herbs. Her fagiolini was typical Italian style; probably overcooked for Australians, but still delicious with the olive oil and lemon sauce.
There's another problem when you discover a good eatery. The experience ends. Of course there is a way of overcoming the problem: keep eating, so I ordered the Tiramisu, Cassie the PannaCotta with frutta di bosco - fruits of the forest.
I've now had so many excellent Tiramisu in Italia that it's difficult for me to judge, especially in the state of rapture that I achieve with a really good one. Cassie's Pannacotta was, she exclaimed, simply the best she had ever had.
The bill for the vino, the water, the meal.. 40 Euro.
Umbria is full of secrets like this. The longer we visit the more we learn. They are not given easily, simply because the locals don't actually think they are special - which says something of the quality of life they lead. Il Cavallino is only 9km from where we are staying at Paradiso Integrale so it was no big effort to make it home for our mandatory afternoon snooze.
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