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Anne's Travel Notes - Captivated by Lake Bolsena

Anne Robichaud

For over 25 years, we've escaped summer heat with frequent jaunts to Lake Bolsena, a short distance west of Orvieto and in the region of Lazio (or Latium), which borders Umbria. We started going to the lakeside town of Bolsena, hugging the western shore of the lake, thanks to the invitation of dear Roman friends who have a summer home there. Love at first sight. Enduring love.

Lake Bolsena, northern Lazio

Lake Bolsena, northern Lazio (photo by Claudio Tini)

The charm of Bolsena? It is completely unchanged over the years (alas, not to be said about many spots in Italy). The Castello Monaldeschi of the 13th century towers over the lakeside town below and the meandering medieval alleys of upper Bolsena (called il Castello by the locals) radiate out from the Castle and lead down into the town below. The medieval homes are built of charcoal-colored volcanic rock (tufo) and their characteristic medieval doors with pointed keystones open on to cobblestone alleyways. Dangling wash and hanging terra cotta flowerpots of pink and white petunia, bright red geranium ivy, and potato vines, festoon the facades of the tufo rock homes. Lake Bolsena was formed in a volcanic crater and the ancient volcano spewed its lava and other volcanic detritus far and wide: nearby Orvieto is built on a tufo rock plateau.

A walk through the labyrinthine back streets of il Castello leads one quickly down to the single shop-lined street, the Corso, site of the evening passeggiata (town stroll). In one direction, the Corso leads to Trattoria Il Picchietto (no better place to eat in all of the Bolsena area!) and in the opposite direction, the Corso ends at the Basilica di Santa Cristina, dedicated to the early Christian martyr who just refused to die: when thrown into the Lake by her Roman torturers, legend tells us she came floating to the top on a volcanic rock - which is now venerated in her Basilica. The fascinating Basilica also houses catacombs and a Longobard cemetery and Della Robbia maiolica masterpieces lighten up the severity of the gray volcanic rock facade.

Trattoria Il Picchietto

Trattoria Il Picchietto is named after the grandfather of the present owner, Mario. "Il Picchietto", or little woodpecker, was the nickname given to perky Giuseppe by the local Bolsenesi in the early 20s upon his return from America where he had gone to make his fortune. With his American earnings, Giuseppe bought an old osteria (inn) where flasks of local wine were sold and the old men of the town gathered to play bocce and cards. Giuseppe's wife, Maria, made simple soups to accompany the cheeses and flasks of wine served to the few customers. Maria started cooking tripe on Saturdays, gnocchi on Thursdays (Thursday is still potato dumpling day in many a Lazio trattoria) and the fish Giuseppe caught on his outings at the Lake. Her daughter, Lidia, (mother of present owner Mario) eventually took over and cooked until the 1970s.

Trattoria Il Picchietto

Mario (named after grandmother, Maria) transformed the osteria into a trattoria (small simple restaurant) about 30 years ago, when his Mamma retired and handed over the ladles, pots and reign of the kitchen to Mario's wife Anna and later, their daughter-in-law, Monica. They are helped (commandeered?!) in the kitchen by the ever-present "Zia" Caterina, "who isn't my aunt at all", says Mario, "but she has always lived with us and always worked for us. She is part of our family and SHE has been the commandant in the kitchen for 60 years!" Mario told me that if the fish they purchase is not what she wants, she sends it back. Zia Caterina goes daily to Peppe, the green-grocer to personally choose the vegetables and fruits and if he doesn't have what she wants, she lets him know and calls on a local farmer to bring in needed produce. "She doesn't just work here, she RULES here!", says Mario proudly. Mario, his son, Emiliano and his "distant" niece (it's all in the family!), Maria Teresa, serve at table. The photo above shows Monica, Anna and Zia Caterina.

Pino and I eat at Trattoria Il Picchietto at least once a day when we head to Bolsena for a week-end at the lake (now, just Pino and myself - but our children sometimes go on their own, taking Umbrian friends to introduce them to this charming lakeside village). My favorite item on the menu is cavatelli alla barcarola, a pasta similar in form to the Genoese trofie, that is, a sort of folded scroll-shaped pasta, served "boatman style" - with a delicate sauce made of coregone (Lake Bolsena's delicious whitefish), tomato, pinenuts and black olives. Pino always chooses either the coregone in caper-parsley sauce or the lake perch filets. I generally resist their wonderful house dessert, called "come viene, viene" (it turns out as it turns out!), a zabaglione/creme chantilly wonder. I want to save room for gelato at the Gelateria Santa Cristina, down the street, just on the other side of the main piazza.

Gelateria Santa Cristina

Gelateria Santa Cristina

The Gelateria Santa Cristina, owned by Giulio and Cristina Casoli, is not far from the Basilica di Santa Cristina. Giulio was a butcher for years, then added wines to his butcher shop, eventually turning it into an enoteca. Then Giulio developed a passion for gelato. He hired a gelataio to train him and teach him creamy secrets. His prize-winning ricotta/cannella (starring ricotta and cinnamon) ice-cream is a true wonder (3rd prize for gelato in Italy and high award from the Italian SlowFood organization). Shamefully, I stop in for late morning AND late afternoon ricotta-cannella gelato whenever we are in Bolsena! The photo shows Anne with Giulo and Cristina in front of their award-winning gelateria.

Sometimes, Cristina and Giulio's young son, Arnaldo, is playing soccer cards with his friends on the floor at the back of the tiny gelateria/enoteca as his mother, Cristina, serves up cones of the creamy creations while her husband Giulio advises customers on the best local wines. Arnaldo was a baby when we discovered ricotta-cannella gelato. He has grown and changed. Not much else in Bolsena has. Grazie a Dio!

Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2006. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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