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Creating an Italian Cashmere Kingdom in Umbria

© Christian Kerber The village's Castello di Monte Frondoso.

Photo: Christian Kerber

A nine-day, village-wide medieval street fair held every July sounds corny and is corny, in a good way, with falconry and weaving demonstrations, wine and grappa tastings, art exhibits, concerts, a photography competition, and stalls selling artisanal soaps and exquisite ironwork, like hinges and box locks. Any woman who lives in Solomeo and isn’t prepared to put on a long heavy velvet costume and headdress for the event and suffer the heat and look ridiculous is considered a bad sport. Many simply see the occasion as a good excuse to eat a lot of amazing food: sausage torte baked in the old communal bread oven, goose in porchetta, quadrucci (egg-pasta squares) sauced with chickpeas, panzanella (bread salad), formaggio di fossa (pecorino aged underground), and torcoli (the local biscotti) with vin santo. Some of the village grandmothers who cook for the fair also work in the Cucinelli canteen, where the young guy sitting next to you may be a buyer from Bergdorf’s. Or maybe he designed the pullover you just closed the deal on in the boutique. The subsidized price of a three-course meal is the same for everyone: $3.80. The pasta is often handmade, the meat wood-grilled, the desserts fatto in casa. Only in Italy.

Donatella and Pier Luigi Cavicchi opened Locanda Solomeo, the town’s only hotel and real restaurant, after day-trippers began to appear and it seemed the place had a shot at tourism. “You don’t build a cathedral in the desert,” says Donatella. “If Brunello hadn’t saved the village I wouldn’t be here, and La Bottega—the grocery and bar—wouldn’t exist either. There’s no post office in Solomeo, but there are two furniture stores, each owned by a brother. They had a shop together before and were the symbol of fraternity, and then—kaput! The only other businesses are a beauty salon, plus a hairdresser who just makes house calls, plus two metalworkers. We share a mayor with five other villages but we’re growing.” Still, Donatella reflects, “if you’re an American department store president from Dallas coming to see Brunello—I know, they all stay with me—Solomeo is Lilliput. Brunello produces Michael Bastian’s menswear, and he’s here so often he has his own mattress, which we store for him in the basement. Normally in Italy the big industrialists make their money and take it to Liechtenstein or buy a yacht and villa in Sardinia. Brunello restored our church and built a piazza.”

The Locanda is humble—everything, you might say, a Cucinelli pullover is not. The Cavicchis are wonderfully old-fashioned, unironic innkeepers: a Baci left on your pillow is a Baci left on your pillow, and their 12 guest rooms are sprinkled with antiques and stenciled with flowers. Donatella and Pier Luigi lodged the decorative painter who worked on the church, and when he finished he stayed on to endow the tea salon with Liberty-style scenes of nearby Lake Trasimeno, framed by charming trompe l’oeil pelmets and curtains identical to the real ones at the windows. The hotel’s cooking lacks the gutsiness of Malvarina, but then so does every restaurant in the neighborhood (except maybe L’Ulivo, in Matigge di Trevi; for the crucial torta al formaggio, a brioche-like Easter bread made with Parmesan and pecorino, go to Sandri, in Perugia). On the other hand if you lived in New York and there were a place half as good as the Locanda downstairs from you, you’d be eating there four nights a week. It’s all relative.

Many of the dishes served in the hotel—ravioli filled with mashed chickpeas, rabbit galantina stuffed with forcemeat and pistachios—are also taught in its cooking school, which accepts a maximum of six students per class and is blessedly free of bells, whistles, and anyone answering to “Chef.” Most of the ingredients for the restaurant and school come from Il Mandoleto, the Cavicchis’ agriturismo, set in the open countryside a half-mile away. Five apartments, some slightly more glamorous than the category might imply, sleep four to 15 and offer the autonomy of kitchens or kitchenettes.

Locanda Solomeo’s eventual buyer, should the couple ever decide to sell, is of course Cucinelli. In restoring Solomeo, he says he created 14 houses, not offices, even if that’s the function they fill today. Most have a working fireplace, at least one room conceived as a bedroom, and a kitchen fitted with appliances.

“Nothing lasts forever,” he says, “and that probably includes this company. The important thing is to have done something beautiful and enduring. I’m very philosophical. All the offices can be sold as individual houses, and families can move in tomorrow,” if the sweaters come out of the dishwashers first.

Christopher Petkanas is a T+L special correspondent.

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