This was the day I was waiting for with great anticipation. My great grandfather Francesco DeMarco immigrated from Monteleone in the late 1800s, and was one of the founding members of the Monteleone Society in Trenton, NJ. If I had much chance of finding family members, this is where it would be. I had printed out several pages from the online pagine bianche using different family names. There was Venanzi (my great grandmother), Perleonardi (the husband of my father's aunt Rose) and Iachetti, which is the Italian spelling of Jachetti. My father has always talked about our relation Father Peter Jachetti, who was one of the first Italian catholic priests in New Jersey. Father Jachetti was also related to his cousin the Cardinal, Egidio Vagnozzi.
We got in the car and headed south from Perugia, passing by any number of hilltop towns including Assisi, Spello and Foligno. There were signs for truffle vendors all along the way. Truffles are one of the local crops in Umbria. Just before getting to Spoleto, there is a tunnel (which we took) that connects the main valley with a valley known as the Valnerina, a beautiful valley region with wineries and other local delicacies. Here we had a choice - take the shorter but much windier road directly to Monteleone, or take the longer route through Cerreto di Spoleto and Cascia. The folks at the car rental agency had recommended the winding road, so we followed their suggestion.
The road was narrow, and was very curvy. The views were beautiful, but we were a little concerned in that it was quite remote, with only one tiny church town on the entire length of it, which was about 20 miles. It ascended rapidly - Monteleone is over 3000 feet in elevation - and we started seeing patches of snow. These got bigger and bigger until finally the road was completely covered. There seemed to be no end to it, and we had slowed down to a crawl to avoid sliding. We were getting very nervous, but we finally came over the ridge onto a much flatter, straighter and wider road from which we glimpsed our first view of our destination:
That's it, on the little hill just to the right of center...
We struck up a conversation with the woman you see, whose name is Celeste Iachetti. Turns out she is related to Father Peter Jachetti and Cardinal Vagnozzi! Her son, Girolamo (Gimmi) runs the market, and it turned out he had visited Trenton himself, and eaten at the Roman Hall, which is the establishment that my great grandfather had helped to build. They spoke no English, and we but poor Italian, but were able to get on famously. Celeste bought us a coffee at a bar across the street that was run by a fellow who had worked the Princess Cruises in southern California for many years, so we were able to increase our communication a bit.
I asked about strascinati, as I had in every town before this. Noone yet had heard of it, but Gimmi's eyes lit up as he told us that we were to eat with him and his family that afternoon, and we would have strascinati! He was very excited that we were there. He told us where the cemetery was, and how to find Peter Jachetti's grave. There was still an hour or so before lunch time, so we headed out on our own for awhile, and decided to check out the cemetery to look for possible relatives.
We looked at every one - found 2 DiMarcos, a bunch of Venanzis and several other family names. These were mostly more recent than the time when my great grandfather came over. There were older ones in the ground in the courtyard itself, but almost none of them were marked.
Finally we found Father Peter Jachetti, who had been brought back to Monteleone fairly recently.
Then came the food - what a feast! We started with the best strascinati I've ever had - turns out they use a little pancetta as well as Italian sausage in it. The sausage was so good and so fresh you could eat it raw, and they had us try some. Amazingly sweet! Gimmi then pulled out a three page history of strascinati, complete with recipe. See History of Strascinati.
Next up was rabbit - I quipped that it was chicken with four legs ;-) To accompany there were french fries and salad, and of course wine and water. For sweets, there was a mincemeat tort and brandied raisins. Then they pulled out some of the local specialities, including pecorino cheese and salami de Norcia. Norcia is the city where they specialize in pork products, with a special way of preparing and curing the pork that goes back several centuries. It is only 2 towns away from Monteleone.
After two and a half hours of enthusiastic conversation, we finished with an espresso, and accompanied Gimmi to the bank, where he made copies of the family genealogy, the history of strascinati, and a commemoration from 1980 of the centennial of the emigration of the Monteleonese to Trenton! The bank didn't charge us a centessimo.
Finally, it was time to leave, and Elaine took this shot of Gimmi and me:
As a going away gift, they gave us a bag of farro, which is the original non-hybrid wheat that is the same as that used in Roman times, with a big label saying "Product of Monteleone di Spoleto."
Upon returning to Perugia, we ate a small dinner at Lo Scalino in the form of a pizza with ricotta, soup and the copa speziale, which was farro, kernels of corn and chopped avocado in a mayonaise sauce, which was surprisingly refreshing and delicous!
We were glad we had increased our cold weather wear, as Monteleone was quite cold!