A couple of weeks in Umbria this summer left me desperate for the flavors of Central Italyfor pungent pork products like pancetta and guanciale, for fragrant and bizarrely cheap black truffles still moist from the earth, and for fresh arugula, broccoli rabe, porcini mushrooms, and zucchini blossoms, pooled in olive oil so green it might be mistaken for antifreeze.
A whirlwind tour of New York faves Lupa, Malatesta, and Da Andrea left me only half satisfied. Thank God I stumbled into Gubbio. This nine-month-old restaurant is named after a dramatic Umbrian hill town girt with a medieval wall, looking much the way it did during its 14th-century heyday. The restaurant, too, sits on a promontory of sorts, attained by steep steps from two adjacent Tribeca streets. Darkness looms as you enter, and it's a long flickering walk past iron sconces dripping wax to the dim and spacious dining room. One wall is massed with darkly colored plates made in Gubbio, their sinuous designs featuring nightingales, griffins, birds of paradise, and dragons. On another, grayish photos capture the twists and turns of narrow village streets. While polite and attentive, the waiters have a European aloofness. You might as well be in Italy.
You can score good minestrone anywhere in New York, but try finding zuppa di cicerchia Umbra ($8). Before the arrival of wheat, the Romans ate a grain called farro, and this soup more like a porridgeis a tribute to it. Buoying miniature chickpeas ("cicerchia") and propelled by garlic and rosemary oil, it has an earthy taste that you'll be dreaming about weeks later. Another powerful repository of Umbrian flavors is stracci integrali ($14.75), wide ribbons of nutty-tasting whole wheat pasta dressed with chicken livers and truffle oil.
The waiters will not grimace if you order pasta as a main course, nor object if you ask for a half-portion as a starter and then progress to entrées such as rabbit with fava beans ($18.75) or basil-crusted lamb medallions ($23.75) in a tart sauce spiked with a red wine produced in Montefalco, another picturesque hill town. But by going this route, you'll miss the antipasti and other byways in the perplexing menu. For example, there's rustichello ($8.50), a curious assemblage of grilled summer squash and eggplant sandwiched between two British-style biscuits, which totters in a generous reservoir of white cheese sauce. The sauce is splendid; you'll find yourself dipping bread in it and ignoring the vegetables. The salad repertoire includes insalata di carciofi e bottarga ($12), a startling toss of shaved raw baby artichokes and bottarga, the carmine-colored pressed tuna roe that might be mistaken for Umbrian salami, save for a mild fishy taste. Against all odds, it works.
A few things don't. While gnocchi are made all over Italy from either potatoes or semolina flour, Gubbio uses stale bread, in a manner usually associated with the far northern region of Friuli. Pressed into tiny lozenges and tossed with beans in a sticky tomato sauce, they reminded me of sitting in the elementary school cafeteria fashioning balls out of Wonder Bread. A distinctly un-Umbrian sensation.
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