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Italy's Slow Cities

I walked down the Corso Cavour, the town's main street, until I found Antica Cantina, a simple restaurant specializing in Umbrian cuisine that had been recommended by one of Orvieto's Slow City organizers. The owner, Lucia Gismondi, poured me a glass of local red wine and quickly conjured up some regional delicacies.

Over a plate of lardo di Colonnata, thin slices of herbed pork fat served on toast; a selection of local prosciutto; and a crespolino, a pancake of leeks, cheese, and béchamel, Gismondi told me her secret: "I use only artisanal products," whether local or from other regions. She rattled off a few core ingredients: "Chicken, rabbit, boar. I go to each farmer to ensure that I get the best." She knows the source of everything she serves, and that it is fresh, organic, and not genetically modified.

While Orvieto's food has enjoyed its reputation for generations, only recently have the locals started celebrating their wines. Long associated with vapid lightweight whites, the region has begun producing quality reds that rival those of its Tuscan neighbors to the north. I visited the Barberani vineyard, one of Umbria's top producers. Bernardo Barberani, the wine maker's son, arrived early to take me to his family estate nine miles outside town. As we drove in his Land Rover through the damp, green countryside, Bernardo told me how his grandfather had run three cafés in Orvieto and started making wine to serve to customers. Bernardo's father, Luigi, took over the business in the late 1970's; disillusioned with local growers' emphasis on mass-market whites, he decided to revive long-neglected regional grapes, such as Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, and use only organic farming methods.

He also rediscovered Calcaia, a sweet, almost forgotten wine first produced by the Etruscans, who inhabited this region in pre-Roman times. The Barberanis learned that the Etruscans had planted grapes on a hillside facing Lake Corbara that was blanketed by thick fog on fall mornings. This encouraged the formation of the mold Botrytis cinerea, the "noble rot" essential to a great dessert wine. Barberani's Calcaia is a more refined, less sweet version of its Etruscan predecessor. After showing me around, Bernardo produced a half bottle, two large glasses, and a handful of biscotti. It was only 9:30 in the morning, but I found his hospitality--and the honey-colored liquid he poured--impossible to resist.

On the way back to town, I asked Bernardo what he thought of Slow Cities. He told me he felt the movement was injecting Orvieto with a new sense of pride. Today's young Orvietans, he said, don't feel the same pressure to move to a big city as he himself did when he was in his twenties. "More and more, they understand the importance of staying on their land. And they realize that now they can make the same money here that they can in the big cities"--by getting into the high-end wine and food industries--"but with far less stress."

News travels fast in Chiavenna, a town high in the Italian Alps--just north of Lake Como--with a mere 8,000 inhabitants. Whether it was because I had talked to the mayor about the Slow Cities movement, or whether the hotel had tipped someone off, by the end of my first full day there I found myself sitting in a café facing a reporter for the Chiavenna paper. "People are coming here to write about Slow Cities," he said with a mischievous grin, "but we don't really know what it means. Can you tell us what it's all about?"

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