This was the fourth year attending I Primi d’Italia here for me, a citywide festival in nearby Foligno featuring “i primi,” or first courses, that are representative of all regions of Italy. Instead of the packed streets that are the norm for evenings at Primi, Paola and Leonardo chose a Saturday afternoon trip to see the offerings and avoid the usual crush after dark at this four-day event. We purchased our “tasting tickets,” €2.50 each (about $3.20) for any samples we wanted to try—risottos, gnocci, polenta and all shapes of pastas with the traditional sauces of their regions.
After a quick look at the map to see where the tasting areas were set up, we were off walking along the streets of Foligno, with the city outfitted in festive colored flags to represent the neighborhoods we were passing as we walked. Not only do the flags add color and interest, but the walkways were also decorated for the event with many black and white photos taken from vintage Italian movies—all scenes of actors and actresses with pasta.
One photo, however, was of my friend Nazzareno, who closed his restaurant in Spello last year. (Heartbreak! His restaurant was absolutely one of my favorites for introducing friends to excellent Umbrian cooking—and just across the piazza from me.) Apparently he and his brother Duilio (both in the photo, one which had been hanging in the Spello restaurant) were serving pasta—but the line was so very long I could not get close enough to see them at work and say hello.
The entire town of Foligno prepares for the Primi event. There were many diverse street vendors, including one selling roasted corn that was difficult for me to resist, and not a common food here in Umbria. Some stands sold braids from the fresh crop of onions and garlic from Cannara, nearby, where the Onion Festival had concluded the weekend before this one. Windows in shops had bouquets and creations made from various forms of dry pasta, and there was a display of pasta-shaped jewelry (designed by Paola’s niece), and available in the colors of the Italian flag.
We made our way through the streets and the vendors there, and finally came to the big tent where samples were abundant, and where we have always spend a good portion of our time (and our money) looking at the exhibits of meats, cheeses, seasonings, sweets and breads. Leonardo rarely gets out of the tent without a porchetta panino, and Paola and I both bought powdered licorice root, to see what we could do with it at home. For me, the “call of the carbs” meant about €6 of bread from the region of Puglia, risen slowly over many hours and then baked in wood-fired ovens—huge loaves, nearly four feet long, but with the salt that Umbrian bread always lacks (for me, part of the flavor of bread IS the saltiness—which was not apparent to me until I began to find only tasteless unsalted bread).
I only purchased two tasting tickets, and that translated to a sample of a Tuscan risotto with porcini mushrooms, and later a trofie pasta with pesto sauce from Liguria (seriously undercooked pasta, and tough to eat—not a good choice). I am slowly learning that having squads of volunteers cooking massive amounts of pasta, risotto and gnocci for long lines of people means that the quality of the samples suffers—and I can do better at home. I Primi d’Italia is a big street party, with musicians and celebrity chef demonstrations and street vendors and action everywhere, but the primi plates are not what attract me there—it’s the festive atmosphere and the displays of specialty food items from all over Italy, collected into one place to sample and enjoy.