Izzalini, where we stayed for a week, is a hamlet in the administrative district of Todi. On day trips through the "Green Heart of Italy," we visited most of the gorgeous hill towns, going back in time. While smaller and less known than many Umbrian stops--like Perugia, Assisi, Spoleto, and Orvieto--Todi is surprisingly cosmopolitan with fewer tourist traps than most of the others.
There is a straight-forward path to reach Antica. It's just down the street from the Temple of Saint Fortunato. But our GPS wasn't feeling well that day (and anyway, Google warns you that walking directions are in beta), and we were led down narrow streets and alleyways to get to the restaurant. We had read nice things about the place, and wanted to give it a try. The circumnavigation only served to heighten the adventure, giving us a glimpse of the personal side of Todi and we wound our way towards our destination. And then we almost missed it. Antic is a small restaurant with a sign obscured by the awning over an additional outside dining area with a wrought iron fence that is festooned with plants. There are a few tables inside as well, where you are surrounded with original art and Umbrian memorabilia and wine. We arrived well after 2:00 pm, poked our heads in the restaurant, and used the best Italian we could muster to ask if we could please have a table even at the late time of day, pointing to a pretty table outside. There was only warmth forthcoming and we were seated at once.
You cannot easily put words together to describe the dining experience at Antica. There just aren't enough words, in English anyway, that are synonymous with delicious, magnificent, and satisfying. If you read any review to the contrary on Trip Advisor, it's probably written by a jealous competitor or a tourist still suffering from jet lag. Nothing less than superlatives can describe what awaits you there.
To put it in perspective, one of the signature dishes of Umbria is tagliatelli with truffles, a primi that appeared religiously, in one form or another, on every menu we saw. I ate a lot of it. But none could compare to John's execution. To no avail, I even tried to replicate it one night at the apartment we had rented, purchasing fresh ingredients from the market that morning. John just has a magic with food that few are gifted with. I have no idea how his meats are so tender and succulent; his pasta so tender; his sauces so flavorful; his antipasti so compelling; his dolci so special. Some just have the genius that others can only hope for. And I am not just talking about my own limited talents as a home chef. We had some marvelous meals in Italy--a part of the world where the competition for the nod of the gourmand is stiff. We ate at top restaurants in Rome, Florence, and Venice, in towns like Assisi and Gubio, and in the food capitol of Italy, Bologna. I shower those experiences with superlatives as well. But we categorically found that Antica was at the top of the stack.
Antica is owned by John--a British expatriate from Northumbria, and his Italian wife Elena. This hardworking couple in their small, cozy restaurant unfold one of the most memorable dining experiences you can have. John is an extremely talented chef who originally came to Italy to set up a cooking school. His dishes haunt us like sirens calling us back for another repast. John's charming and beautiful wife, Elena, serves their guests with all of the attentiveness and care you would only expect in an upscale restaurant in Rome or Manhattan. But there is nothing haughty about the service. Dining at Antica is like going to your best friend's house, who happens to keep a magnificent kitchen. Warm and affectionate, this couple really wants you to have a good time. And when he can squeeze time from preparing the dishes he individually prepares, John will come out and tell you about their history, and even tell you where else you should go in Italy.
And then there is the wine. We usually order the house wine, trusting that the establishment is putting forth a good accompaniment to its signature dishes. We don't expect the highest quality, but we do expect good flavor and easy drinking. Antica's vino rosso da casa is wonderful and we marveled at the high quality for a house wine. It was only several days later, when we visited Cantina Peppucci, where we discovered some wonderful wine, that we learned that Antica's house wine hales from that vineyard. I suppose that if we stayed longer in Umbria, we might have also come across some of the artists whose works are hung in the restaurant. It all came together in a delightful romance of great food, great wine, great art, and great friends. (So if you visit Todi, also make the effort to visit Cantina Peppucci, a short drive out of town. At the Cantina, Filippo will tell you that Antica's wine is so good not only because it comes from his vineyard, but also because John and Elena know how to care for and serve fine wine.)
One last thing. John makes your selections to order. And while there are plenty of selections on the menu for the traveler who is pressed for time and only wants a light meal, this is not some quick turnaround place with vats of food simmering all day on a steam table in the back of a kitchen. When it's busy, John and Elena need more time to turn out the fare. Be patient and enjoy the cadence of a real Italian meal, and order the wine by the liter.
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