(CNN) — Umbria is “the green heart of Italy. Not a jealous heart, but a fertile one,” Stanley Tucci said as he drove through central Italy.
This small rural region is often overshadowed by its more famous neighbor, Tuscany, which borders the region to the west. But Umbria’s history, wild beauty and traditional cuisine make it a hidden gem.
With the highest consumption of pork per capita, Umbria is a carnivore’s dream. Local farmers, hunters, chefs and butchers have been preserving this region’s rustic food culture for generations.
One of the popular dishes in the region is porchetta — a pig rubbed with salt and stuffed with herbs, then roasted for hours in a wood-burning oven until the skin is crispy.
“It’s pork with pork inside and pork on top,” Tucci joked. “Giorgio’s loving preparation of the very best fresh ingredients, not least the pampered pig itself, and the alchemy of the slow cook oak of the wood fire have turned this dish into something really quite special.”
Barchiesi wasn’t shy in describing how he felt about his own recipe, loudly saying, “Yum, yum, yum!”
“I surrender. Literally, I surrender to the pork,” Tucci said, laughing.
WILD BOAR RAGU
Tucci then joined Italy’s first all-women boar hunting group for dinner. This band of hungry hunters feasted on a family recipe for wild boar ragu, a hearty winter dish.
The local wild boar is full of flavor thanks to the animals’ diet of roots, acorns and an occasional truffle. The meat is slow-cooked with herbs, lemon and a little vinegar, then minced in a blender and combined with tomato sauce and green olives.
The boar is served over pappardelle pasta.
“I think if Umbria itself had a taste, this dish would be it,” Tucci said, describing the dish as rich and comforting.
With medieval armor on the door and a “Brancaleone da Norcia” emblem carved into the wood counter, it’s like you’re being transported back in time inside this specialty store. They sell cheeses, beans, pasta and wine, but the shop is known for their cured meats, including salami, prosciutto and sausage.
“The salami here really is incredible,” Tucci said. “The combination of wild herbs foraged from the forests and the fresh mountain air takes it all to another level.”
You cannot visit Umbria without sampling the decadent truffles. The region is one of the biggest truffle producers in Italy.
Tucci visited a truffle farm with 21-year-old trees. The plantation trees are laid out in a perfect grid and treated with a special technique –creating the ideal conditions for truffles to grow in the soil around them.
Farmer Carlo Caporicci said these harvest truffles, which take about six years to produce, taste exactly like ones that are foraged in the wild.
“It’s like having dinner in the middle of the woods with your eyes closed,” Caporicci said as he ate the pasta dish.
As for Caporicci’s farmed black truffle, it tasted woody, nutty and luxurious. Tucci said you’d never know it was farmed not foraged.
A group of friends opened the shop because they wanted to create a youthful and vibrant environment with authentic food.
Tucci sampled it all: Crudo ham, salami, artichokes, pecorino cream, sundried tomato cream, blue cheese and truffle.
“The food is as good and authentic as I’ve had anywhere in Umbria, but service and setting are just a bit cooler,” Tucci said.
In the hilltop town of Orvieto, pigeon is one of the signature dishes and any self-respecting local can recite the recipes for pigeon forward and backward.
Because pigeons can be tough, Santanicchio cooks the bird two ways to make it moist and flavorful. Half is braised in the traditional style, and the rest is marinated in soy sauce and cooked in sous vide bags.
No part of the pigeon goes to waste. Everything goes into the pan, including the heart, liver and kidneys.
Then carrots, onions, thyme and celery are added and then cooked on low heat for up to four hours. This makes the pigeon meltingly tender.
“Wow!” Tucci said as he tried the pigeon. “That’s so good!”
And instead of ending with dessert, we are ending with vegetables. But these vegetables are taking center stage.
Tucci’s friends, Colin and Livia Firth, run a 60-acre sustainable farm on the Tuscan border in Citta Della Pieve. The twins have been experimenting with cross-pollinating long-forgotten varieties to create supercharged new vegetables.
Their goal is to show vegetables can be just as showstopping as the proteins on the dinner table.
They had a rustic open-air-feast, and Tucci tried one of their specialties: eggplant caviar. It’s roasted eggplant, with garlic, olive oil, salt and tarragon.
An outdoor feast with raw ingredients — a perfect wrap on a visit to rural and grounded Umbria.