The Italian place where you don’t eat ‘Italian’ food

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Everyone who travels to Italy knows the drill. A day of culture and maybe a little shopping, followed by aperitivo and piles of pasta for dinner. Or, possibly a pizza – or even risotto. Because that’s what they eat in Italy, right?

The people of Lake Trasimeno would beg to differ.

The nearly 50 square mile lake – wedged into the central Italian countryside, in the region of Umbria but nudging up against Tuscany – is known for its traditional dishes which differ wildly from its neighbors.

Umbria is the only landlocked region on the Italian peninsula – and it’s known for its hearty, meat-heavy food that comes straight from the forested hills: truffles, prosciutto and sausages are among its most famous exports.

And yet here on the lake, the traditional foods eschew pasta and pizza in favor of fish. Not your everyday fish, though – instead of fancy cuts of tuna or sea bass you’ll find perch, pike and eel.

They’re often cooked in an unusual way, too. Take carpa regina in porchetta, one of the lake’s signature dishes. “Carp baked like porchetta” (herb-roasted pork) takes one of the lake’s biggest fishes, slathers it in strong herbs, and roasts it – just as is done with Italy’s classic meat, porchetta.

“I come to Trasimeno for the food – because it’s like nowhere else in Italy,” says Veronica Grechi, a B&B owner from Florence, and regular visitor to the lake.

Visitors might get a shock but the reason that these Italians don’t eat “like Italians” in our collective imagination is that Italian cuisine is hyper-local – usually varying by town.

Lake Trasimeno’s food, which can at first seem incongruous to foreign tourists, is actually what Italians call “zero kilometer” food – in other words, as local as it gets. Not only that, but there’s a reason some of the dishes can seem strange. And there’s a reason why they almost disappeared, too.

The ‘Rimini of Umbria’

Today it's a peaceful retreat, but in the postwar period, politicians tried to turn the lake into a 'beach' resort.

Today, Lake Trasimeno is a peaceful place, square in the middle of the country, far from the madding crowds of Italy’s beach resorts.

But 50 years ago, says professor Daniele Parbuono, an anthropologist at the nearby University of Perugia, things looked very different.

The area was important during the Second World War – it was home to a military airport – and as tourism began to grow in postwar Italy, local politicians saw their chance to redevelop it.

“They wanted to transform it into ‘the Rimini of Umbria’,” he says – Rimini being one of Italy’s best known beach resorts on the Adriatic coast.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, if you came here you’d have found pine trees, pedalos, changing cabins – just like Rimini. So much so that you’d have eaten not lake fish but sea fish.

“Today, if you come to Lake Trasimeno you’ll eat [the lake’s own] fish but it wasn’t like this until a few decades ago.”

Around 20 years ago, he says, the tourism model changed.

“There’s a new knowledge of local resources, of the territory – we talk about slow food, of food and wine.”

That change in the tourism model saved the lake’s unique food heritage.

An economy powered by pike

There was always a divide between fishermen and agricultural workers around the lake.

Today, a cooperative of 70 fishermen work on the lake, says Valter Sembolini, vice president of the Cooperativa Pescatori del Trasimeno. It was founded in 1928, but times weren’t always so good.

Last year, they opened a restaurant – La Locanda dei Pescatori del Trasimeno – where fishermen themselves roll up their sleeves and cook classic dishes of the lake, alongside their partners.

“We wanted to give a [push] to the culinary traditions of Trasimeno,” says Sembolini.

“We wanted to take another step towards enhancing them, and to develop economically but sustainably, for us and the area. We couldn’t survive just by fishing.”

In the first eight months, they’ve already had 20,000 guests, who’ve come to eat dishes like pike salad, truffled carp and homemade gnocchi with smoked tench. Of course, they also serve the Trasimeno classic: carpa in porchetta.

For Mariapia Scarpocchi, whose parents opened Da Sauro restaurant 57 years ago – she now runs it with her children – carpa in porchetta is one of her signature dishes.

Carpa regina – Eurasian carp – is an “enormous fish – big in all senses, including taste,” she says. The biggest she’s ever prepared? A whopping 23 kilograms, or over 50 pounds, prepared in porchetta for a wedding.

“It’s a medieval dish,” she says. “Back then, it was thought that carp was like pork, in its looks and consistency. It’s very hard compared to other fish, and kind of bloody. So it’s covered in flour, and then has wild fennel added, plus garlic, rosemary, all the same herbs as [the real] porchetta. It’s served in chunks. If you ate it with closed eyes, you’d think it’s pork.”

Scarpocchi and her family also serve modern dishes, but for her, carpa in porchetta is “historic – it’s always been made like that, and we want to keep it going.”

Fish ‘transformed into meat’

Trasimeno cooks take fish like pike (pictured) but cook it like meat.

Pork-style carp isn’t the only incongruous dish on the menu on the lake. In fact, Parbuono – who was born on the lake – says that the locals historically cooked fish like meat for a fascinating reason.

“The area around the lake was historically one of contadini [peasants, though not pejorative] and sharecroppers,” he says.

The late Perugia anthropologist Alessandro Alimenti described Trasimeno as “an island of water in a sea of land.” There were around 10,000 contadini to around 400 fishermen.

The contadini and fishermen lived wildly different lives. The former’s days were regulated, living by the hours of the sun and the seasons, while the latter had “no set hours, no conception of time – they could be going out at 3 a.m. and would be free by 10 a.m.”

That led to distrust between the communities.

“The contadini didn’t want to have anything to do with the fishermen and vice versa,” says Parbuono.

“A peasant’s biggest fear would be to marry their daughter to a fisherman, and the fisherman’s biggest fear would be the same.”

The divide between the two communities living side by side bled into their eating styles. Fish from the lake was sold in Perugia and as far as Rome, even in ancient Roman times. But those who lived lakeside were less interested.

“There wasn’t a great habit of eating fish – the diet was a base of recipes from the earth, contadino food,” says Parbuono. “They would eat rabbits, chicken, game, pork, but very little fish.”

That’s why, when they did eat fish – perhaps swapping their produce with the fishermen – they “transformed it into meat,” he says.

“They didn’t know how to cook fish, so they cooked it as if it was meat. They cooked carp as if it was pork, or roasted rabbit. They cooked perch fillets over a grill.” Brustico – a dish typical of not only Trasimeno, but also two other lakes, Chiusi and Montepulciano, which lie nearby – is “fish cooked like grilled meat,” he says.

In the postwar period as politicians sought to create a landlocked Rimini, lake fish was “neglected,” says Parbuono. It was even disappearing in people’s houses. “There was that one granny or aunt who made tegamaccio [fish stew] once a year, but it was very, very rare,” he says.

He remembers one restaurant in Chiusi, over the border in Tuscany, that served brustico and tegamaccio, and one place in Castiglione del Lago. But then, slowly, it returned to the menus.

A more conscious, sustainable tourism helped, he said – as did an Italy-wide focus on promoting hyper-local products.

How ‘rabbit food’ became gold dust

Trasimeno's 'fagiolina' bean used to be rabbit food. Now it's a prized ingredient.

Today, Trasimeno is known not just for its food but its “fagiolina:” a small bean, grown by the Etruscans in pre-Roman times. The fagiolina has been awarded a Slow Food “presidio” – or badge of protection, awarded to products from an area that are endangered.

But as Parbuono was growing up, the beans were far from prized.

“A bean costs something like a gold nugget today, but my nonna gave them to the rabbits,” he says.

“When I suggested eating them, she told me, ‘You eat them – I’m giving them to the rabbits.’”

“There wasn’t this idea of sustainability in the 1980s,” he adds.

“Then there was political work done on [prizing] ingredients from their area, and it [Trasimeno and Umbria] recharacterized itself.”

He compares it to the highly prized saffron of Città della Pieve, about 15 minutes south of the lake: “They were forgotten products, rediscovered in the 1990s.”

Quality not quantity