A Spello Homecoming

It was like coming home.

Scratch that, it was coming home.

The moment I climbed out of the car—the smell of warm Subasio stones, the dust raised by hundreds of feet scampering through olive groves in quest of young asparagus, the edges of pork caramelizing over flame, and the aura of baking almonds—filled my soul.


Granted, that home feeling soared just by virtue of the fact that we had Nicolas back in the family fold. Scrolling through my photos I can see how important his presence was to our experience—yes, there are plenty of photos of meals and alleys, but most of the photos are of my three children, clearly relieved to be siblings again.

This trip home was categorically different than our last, when Spello threw Il Bel Centro a book party. I was honored beyond my ability to express it, and it made for an incredibly special visit, but this was a beautiful counterpoint. This trip was made of quieter moments. This trip was just about jelling with the Spello pace, wandering the alleys, trailing my fingers against the worn stone walls.

Each moment of the week was distinct from the others and yet harmonized, like a bead in a beautiful macramé chain from Paola’s shop. So I have all of these postcard-like memories I keep shuffling through. I hope you don’t mind if I share them with you…

…That first lunch at Pinturicchio, when we couldn’t stop smiling at how awash with joy we were to hear Italian, speak Italian, order good old-fashioned Umbrian food, inhale ruby-red glasses of Umbrian wine and just sit, as if snug in an Umbrian-shaped cocoon.

…Letizia racing around the counter to kiss us when we arrived.

…Hugging Angelo in his red-sequined bow tie, fresh from attending Marcello’s grandson’s baptism.

…Greeting Ricardo from Pochi, ma Buoni as he hefted a bundle of freshly collected asparagus with the diameter of a generous dinner plate.

….Gabe running into the house with a bag of biscotti the baker had offered him, refusing payment. 

…Hugging friend after friend and watching their loving, accepting faces as they nodded along to our Italian that began the week like solidified shortening but softened into acceptable pliability as the week progressed.

…Walking through the olive groves with Paola—that sinking into the comfort of her friendship. And her admonishment that a week was simply too short.

…Siena brokering a transaction in Foligno in order to buy a sweater. I didn’t even know she ever knew the word for sweater. Celebrating with gelato (mine: beautiful pieces of chestnut and ribboned with chestnut honey, brightened with the merest hint of rosemary).

…Walking into the macelleria to yelps of welcome. The butchers took a selfie with us—macellai and americani, reunited. 

…Hiking along the aqueduct, dazzled by the baroque explosion of poppies framing the crumbling rocks walls. Memories of how those jewel-like poppies threaded our spring in Spello...

…Maura dropping off jars of pasta sauce she made from the greens she collected in the countryside. She brought the gift to Bar Bonci where we were having breakfast, after no one answered the door of our apartment. We didn't even bother asking how she knew where to find us.

…Focusing deeply on the wine at each meal (always from Umbria or Le Marche), inhaling the scent of plum and leather and feeling heady even before my first sip.

…Long pausas of reading, jumping in the hot tub (what a treat!), jumping out to re-read Brunelleschi's Dome and nibble a blood orange and snooze a bit. Repeat.

…Breakfast after breakfast looking out over the dragon green hills, giggling about Letizia’s raucous laughter as she handed Keith the bomba she held back from putting out in her display case

…Gabe walking around with a deck of scopa cards in his pocket. Always ready for an invitation.

...Dinner with Brenda and Graziano at Centro de lu Munnu (dialect for “Center of the World”). We forgot our manners in our quest to sample all the goodies on the antipasti platter, even though it included once cringe-worthy standards like cotiche, lumache, and coratella (along with an assortment of well-loved options like salumi, truffled scrambled eggs, and cheeses). The cotiche was surprisingly our favorite, though coratella still lives on the other side of tasty for us, so I guess we still aren't full Umbrian (even though Gabe loved the snails this time). Lamb hearts and lungs and livers still make me think of pneumonia on a plate.

…Nicolas, our 18-year-old college student, easily reaching to hold our hands.

…our two dinners at La Cantina, both of which found me ordering agnello scottadito. The first time because, hey, it’d been 2 years since I’d had the pleasure (granted, I’d literally had it the day before at Postiglione and it was fabulous). And the second time because it was our last dinner out in Spello, and who knows how long it will be until I get it again??? I did flirt with the notion of getting something else, to which Keith scoffed and asked me why in the world I’d want to do such a thing. This earned him the title “lamb enabler” from Nicolas.

…Laughter blooming like dandelions in a field of sunshine. Everything just seemed shinier, rosier, more glowing, more dramatic, more emotional, more vivid. I started wondering about why and then thought, “Because Italy.” I stopped wondering.

…Walking into San Lorenzo, the church that has been in reconstruction for at least the last six years. I had no idea that behind that humble façade lay such a lofted and airy place of worship. Keith noted that San Lorenzo being finished meant that the creaking and groaning of the crane, the backdrop to our lives in Spello, was absent.

…Stopping at pivots in the road, open cantinas, and paths guarded by slumbering cats—remember? Remember?

….Wisteria winding its grape gumdrop scent through our days.

…the tastes of our Italy home—Sagrantino passito, salumi, tartufata, red-potato gnocchi in cheese fonduta, creamy gelato, anchovies on bread with good butter, prune-filled biscotticarciofi alla romana (artichokes cooked in olive oil with mint), fig and honey beer, Chino, cold-river trout, grappa that is morbida (soft and round), torta di pasqua (cheese bread) with vernaccia (a sweet, young wine) —both traditional Umbrian Easter foods.

…Our trip to Trevi to dine at Sicilian Angelo’s daughter’s restaurant. I’m still thinking about that fish bruschetta. And that family grin.

…A tug of sadness at the number of people we didn’t get to see because a week, as it turns out, is far, far too short. But I did get a fan-girl moment meeting Letizia Mattiaci, the authoritative and passionate voice for Umbrian gastronomy, who generously offered to join us as we wrapped up our dinner at La Cantina so we could finally meet.

…Wondering aloud if Calimero might’ve passed away, when suddenly we spied him, like an apparition, trotting after us. Keith was so excited he even pet the one-eyed trash master.

...Giorgio and Marcello rushing to show Gabe the framed picture he made for them our last week in Spello.

…Sauro told us that he’ll start planning the Infiorata design next month. I wish we could return for it, but mostly I’m just so grateful we had the experience of being infioratori under this maestro.

…Siena and Gabe darting here and there to check out abandoned properties, “We can buy that property and Daddy can make it not falling down!” Keith was less optimistic about his abilities. But we believe in him. And you can’t stop us dreamers from dreaming.

…Lunch in Bettona with Sante and Conci. My heart melted on seeing Sante waiting for us in the piazza, all dressed up in his Sunday best. He guided us to the restaurant (not that we could’ve missed it, one of Bettona’s prized geese could waddle from one end of the village to the other in about a minute flat) where Conci and Silvano were grinning before we turned the corner. How can I explain the state of my heart on seeing these dear people? I had to write a whole post about it.

…Each spritz, each cup of gelato punctuating the chain of memories.

…A day trip to Orvieto that included mostly a wander and lunch, but traveling within traveling has a special feel—like we’re more than one world removed from our daily existence, further off the map of normalcy. Plus, the guanciale in sage-kissed tomato sauce at our usual Orvieto eatery made me realize how much Umbrian food I have yet to discover.

…A glass of wine with Colleen and Tom in Piegaro, before our friends from Virginia arrived after their horror-show of a flight fiasco. Dinner altogether, capped off with vin santo and cake brought over by the chef’s mother.  

…Gabe spending part of every day hanging out on the wall of our garden, talking to the schoolboys on the other side of the fence. They’d toss their ball over the fence and he’d toss it back. I told Angelo about this over coffee one day and he was struck by the metaphor—the ease with which children cross boundaries to play together. Classic Angelo. It made my eyes smart with tears.

…Last day, last dinner, with Paola, Angelo, and Giovanni at Giovanni’s house. I want to throw a million dinner parties and have them all be just like that one. Excellent food, lots of conversation (much of it about the food—it’s provenance, it’s preparation), and a feeling that Quakers describe as a “covered meeting”. It’s a hard concept to describe, but it’s where the moment thrums and the intention is deep and I feel uniquely connected. To what? Well, everything really.

…Finding my Spello me again. And here I thought she was lost for good. I wish I could resurrect that more resonant part of myself at home, but I can’t—despite all kinds of trying. So for now, I’ll just be glad I know where to find me.

A photogallery of our Spello Trip


Until Next Time...