Just as Tuscany’s name comes from the ancient Etuscans, Umbria is named for the ancient Umbri tribe that inhabited the area. The Umbri tribe and the Etruscans were enemies, and as the Etruscans sought to expand their power, they invaded Umbri lands. After the Etruscans captured some 300 small Umbri villages along the coast, the tribe fled to the Apennine Mountains. Here, they lived amicably as neighbors with the Etruscans and became some of the first Roman citizens as the empire spread its influence northward. During the Roman Civil War (between Marc Antony and Octavian), the area sided with Marc Antony. With Octavian’s victory, Perugia, the main city of the region, was reduced to rubble. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Umbria was invaded one after the other by the Ostrogoths, the Lombards, Charlemagne, Napoleon, the Pope and the Kingdom of Sardinia. It joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 and became part of the Italian Republic in 1946.
As one of Italy’s least-populated areas, Umbria has remained true to its roots. The region still has less than 1 million inhabitants, and, as such, is something of an unspoiled gem in the Appennine Peninsula. Hundreds of small medieval towns are scattered around the area, each of which is largely based on local agriculture and tourism. A soaring church steeple dominates nearly every town’s skyline, which serves as a reminder that these pastoral scenes have endured the onslaught of centuries.
The food in Umbria is largely traditional. Families concentrate on fresh and natural flavors and Umbrian cuisine stresses the importance of pasta. Three local specialties: strascinati, umbrici, and ciriole ternana, are held dear. They are all made of similar ingredients, but their shapes are individual. Strascinati are flat, square-shaped noodles that are often allowed to roll back on themselves as they cook. Umbrici are long, thick spaghetti-style noodles. Ciriole ternana are very thick noodles that vaguely resemble Japanese udon noodles. Apart from its pasta, Umbria is famous for black truffles from the area of Norcia. Finally, Umbrian lentils are prized the world over. Small, green, and full of protein, lentils from Umbria might be considered the best in the world.
Although Umbria has two DOCGs, it is most known for its Orvieto DOP. The two DOCGs are Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG and Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG. Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG is produced from 100% Sagrantino in the area surrounding the town of Montefalco. These wines may be dry or passito-style, and are always at least two and a half years old by the time they hit the market, characterized by sweet, dark fruits, intense ripeness, and great ageability. Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG is produced from a minimum 70% Sangiovese, in the area between Torgiano and Perugia. At the time of its release, the resulting wine must be at least three years old. These wines are famous for their vinous gaminess that smoothes with age. Its refreshing, easy-to-drink white wines made from a combination of Trebbiano and Grechetto from the Orvieto DOP are one of the area’s great prides. The famous physicist Enrico Fermi was from the town of Orvieto, and, upon the first successful nuclear reaction, offered a toast with the eponymous wine.