Snag one of the tables on the outdoor balcony and find yourself hanging above a fairy-tale landscape that stretches downward through vast fields of sunflowers, well-spaced olive groves, and rows of grapevines that struggle up and down the rocky hills like grooves on a warped record. If the day is not too hazy, you can make out Tuoro on the opposite shore of Lake Trasimeno, shellacked into a narrow valley between two ridges. It was the site of a grim battle in 217 B.C., when the Carthaginian general Hannibal charged down the mountain, some say astride an elephant, to mow down 16,000 Roman legionnaires cowering in a swamp at the north end of the lake. The mass graves are still being excavated.
This stunning landscape might cause you to pause over a forkful of guinea hen trying to spot the villages of Sanguineto (“place of blood”) and Ossaia (“place of bones”), but the massacre is of recent vintage compared to the Etruscan underpinnings of the menu at Masolino. Located just above Piazza Umberto I in the hilltop citadel of Panicale, the restaurant is entered from a narrow stone alleyway that dates to the 14th century. The first room features a bar where locals gather for pungent fruit gelatos or a shot of espresso so concentrated it makes Starbucks seem like walnut water. Next door is a dining room with a dozen tables, four on the balcony. When I first ate there a few years ago, the tablecloths were plastic and the illumination painfully fluorescent, but a recent renovation has left the place tricked out in rustic fashion with whitewashed walls, exposed beams, and stone trim.
The local specialty, faraona al crostone (8 euros), is so good, I’ve eaten it a half-dozen times and never stop craving it—a simple plate of sautéed guinea hen mounted on buttered toast and heaped with a grainy sauce of chicken livers swimming in garlic, rosemary, and olive oil. It’s not the world’s most attractive dish, but one I defy you to walk away from until you’ve pulled the last morsel of salty flesh from the game bird’s bones. Other secondi include strips of local steak done medium rare over a wood fire and drenched with olive oil and salt, veal medallions heaped with truffles, and pork loin smothered with fresh porcini mushrooms.
The faraona is typically part of a three-course meal that begins with an appetizer like Norcineria (3.10 euros), a collection of sliced local charcuterie named after the mountain town of Norcia, the pig-butchering capital of Umbria. The selection often includes lean prosciutto, a coarse salami tasting of fennel, and fat-veined, meltingly tender coppa ham. The bread salad pansanella is another good choice, made with the area’s strikingly saltless white bread, said to date back to a salt tax imposed by a medieval pope. The salad combines moist bread crumbs with onions, cucumbers, basil, and tomatoes at the height of sweet red ripeness.
That leaves only a choice of primi, or second course, which, according to local custom, is invariably a bowl of fresh pasta. One of my faves at Masolino’s is cappelli (“tiny hats,” 7.20 euros), irregular wads of pasta stuffed with ricotta and bathed in butter laced with fresh sage. Another is papardelle, wide noodles topped with a wild boar sauce. On the other hand, since the primi is an excellent opportunity to increase your consumption of the inexpensive truffles excavated in eastern Umbria, you might try the round gnocchi, made with wheat flour instead of potatoes. It’s dressed with so much truffle that you’ll feel like you’ve died of pleasure. Much better than being run down by Hannibal’s elephants.