Perhaps unsurprisingly, Giancarlo Polito’s career story reads like a love letter to Italian cookery. “My love of food comes from my grandmother, like 90 per cent of all chefs” he tells us, with his warm, baritone lilt. “I studied economics at university in Perugia, and would cook my grandmother’s food for friends on Sundays. Sundays became known as the ‘party at Giancarlo’s’ day and those weekends as a student helped me to realise that food was what I wanted to do in the future.”
Even so, it was some seven years after graduating that Giancarlo decided to realise his dream. Something his wife, Carmen, helped with. “We spent years trying to find the right space to open a hotel and restaurant, and when we found this place we started an incredible new life,” Giancarlo says, “we opened the gates in March 1997 with our wedding.”
‘This place’ is La Locanda del Capitano, Giancarlo’s boutique hotel and restaurant in Montone, a medieval hill-top village in – you guessed it – the heart of Umbria. Montone is a sleepy place; quaint, picturesque and seemingly perched at the very top of a sheer cliff-face, looking out over Umbria’s verdant roaming hills. Within months of opening in ‘97, Giancarlo’s elegant regional cooking had established quite the reputation for quality, a reputation it has maintained ever since.
“In my view, all chefs need to be mature,” he says, thoughtfully. “You need time to truly understand professional techniques, as well as your own concept of style.”
Food is like music. When you first out, everyone is listening to disco music. Then we arrive at rock ’n’ roll, move onto jazz and probably finish with classical music. The food I produce today is the best it’s been, because it is filled with my experience and memories.
— Giancarlo Polito
We ask Giancarlo if he has a signature dish at the moment. His answer is intriguing: “I don’t cook for myself, I cook for you – so what do you like to eat?” He then proceeds to take us through the process of designing a dish for us to enjoy before our very eyes. “Would you like to eat fish or meat? Meat, okay. I’ll do a beautiful guinea fowl for you, rolled with some fois gras in the middle, with a contrast of a particular vegetable like creamed spinach. A drizzle of cold pressed olive oil, and that’s it.” It goes without saying, but we’re hooked.
It’s this intuitive approach to his craft and this generosity of spirit that sets Giancarlo and Il Capitano apart. The next time you’re exploring the heart of Italy, or you’re in search of a quiet, restorative getaway, we heartily recommend that you visit. Moreover, here are some of Giancarlo’s personal recommendations for Umbria that are sure to see you well-fed on your trip.
Giancarlo’s culinary guide to Umbria
If you’re spending time in the region, you must go to Perugia itself. It’s absolutely beautiful and the history there is incredible. The museums are superb (the National Archaeological Museum and the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria are standouts), but really just exploring the medieval streets is very special. You can rediscover the beauty of a time long-passed. The street food is good, too.
For ‘real’ food in Umbria, I always recommend visiting lake Trasimeno. There’s a small trattoria that serves authentic torta al testo, a traditional unleavened bread that’s a signature of the area – and dates back to the Roman Empire. They are cooked on an open fire just a few metres from the restaurant itself, filled with delicous, simple fillings.
Of course, you must visit Montone too. It’s still a very small, quiet place. It’s a place not to discover something new, but to discover yourself. I find it to be very spiritual, here. Come and relax for a few days, stand on the hillside and watch the sun come up over Umbria.
This is incredible truffle country. If you have a few days free to truly discover the culture of Italian food, you can join me on what we call a Weekend with the Chef. It’s a three-day experience that I offer to visitors. We spend one day hunting truffles and one day tasting wine in a local vineyard with a very special cellar. I’ll cook for you live in the vineyard while we’re there, too. On the third day, we can do whatever you like; we might go to a small artisanal farm that prepares cheese with raw milk, or visit an incredible olive oil producer. It’s different. It’s a really fun tour. It gets to the heart of Umbria – and of why I love it here so much.