Brunello Cucinelli likes his food just as he does his clothing: elegant, simple, and impeccably well made. “I could live on bread and oil,” he confesses with pride as he strolls through Solomeo, the medieval hilltop village that the designer has restored as his company’s headquarters. Granted, that saltless Umbrian bread is made from flour that was milled nearby and served with Cucinelli’s own extra-virgin oil, pressed from a local olive cultivar. But when you’re the king of Italian cashmere, even the basics are beautiful.
Despite his global success – 81 stores worldwide and a recent public stock offering – Cucinelli craves Umbrian comfort food. It’s the fare that his grandmother cooked on his family’s nearby farm, like pasta tossed in a basic tomato sauce, pancetta roasted over a fire, and local fruit for dessert. He shares these favorites and more with his employees every day in what just might be the world’s most historic cafeteria.
Workers lunch beneath high vaulted ceilings in the revitalized Renaissance villa, gazing onto the timeless Umbrian countryside and its spiky cypress trees. The long, dark-wood tables are set with heavy paper place mats printed with the Solomeo crest (tower and griffin with crown; year of founding: A.D. MCCCXCI). There’s no plastic to be seen: the crest-bearing-dishes are china; proper glasses are used for both the mineral water and the wine poured from the half-bottles of local vintages. Handsome bottles of his olive oil are set out on the tables. People line up with their plates to be served by the cafeteria’s three cooks, paying less than three euros for the meal.
“Lunching together gives everyone a chance to socialize, to be together, and to unplug one’s brain from work,” says the designer. “I hope a good lunch promotes creativity and better morale for office workers.” When I visit one summer afternoon, the feeling is that of a giant family, with everyone chatting, then adjourning to the loggia or the Piazza della Pace. Nobody’s in a rush–people are given 90 minutes and are also encouraged to eat at home with their families. Employees can then doze in their offices (which might be in a castle or a 14th-century palazzo), the library, or even the gardens. “I always try to take a nap afterward,” Cucinelli admits. Then again, his villa is steps away.
Every day there is pasta; a main course – roast pork or Umbrian flatbread served with prosciutto and cheese the day I lunch there; and fruit for dessert, with a sweet like tozetti cookies, paired with Vin Santo, once a week. The food is made from scratch by three warm, no-nonsense Umbrian women, Ornella Beccafico, Rosi Riccardi, and Sabina Macchiarini, and there’s nothing institutional about it. “We’re home cooks,” Riccardi explains. “We never went to culinary school.”
The trio begins the morning at La Bottega, the only grocery in Solomeo, to shop for all the ingredients they’ll need. (Cucinelli wants to keep La Bottega in business, for himself and the village’s 400 inhabitants.) Once in the kitchen, the women work together easily and in harmony. Their small space is tidy and well designed, including a four-burner stove with a commercial pasta cooker insert, and even a wood-burning oven, where they occasionally make pizza.
Almost everything is cooked from memory, with well-rehearsed gestures and ingredients measured “by eye.” Beccafico seasons the pork roasts with garlic and fresh rosemary before putting them into the oven. Riccardi and Macchiarini peel potatoes, cut them into wedges, then soak them in a tub of water to eliminate surface starch. Beccafico prepares spicy amatriciana sauce in a huge pot (she stirs in the pasta just before serving, explaining that “the sauce holds onto pasta better, and it’s easier to portion out”). Macchiarini then makes the almond cookies called tozetti, using the only written recipe I see in the kitchen. Riccardi prepares a farro salad for vegetarians, and boils some rice in case someone isn’t well. The food is simply delicious. Cucinelli is having lunch at home with his granddaughter, but a tray with covered plates of the day’s preparations is delivered to his house for sampling. “I always taste everything,” he says with a smile.
Vintage Brunello: Decoding the Cucinelli Brand
THE LOOK: Flying private: understated, off-duty shapes in the most luxurious, neutral-toned fabrics (Mongolian cashmere, silk, suede, shearling) for the inconspicuous consumers who frequent the boutiques in locales like Saint-Tropez and Capri.
THE COMPANY: In 1978, Cucinelli, the son of a farmer, realized there was no colorful cashmere. Today, he helms a burgeoning publicly traded company. Guided by ancient philosophies, the designer practices what he calls an ethical form of capitalism based on respect and moral values.
THE VILLAGE: Since he bought the abandoned hamlet of Solomeo, Cucinelli has restored everything from the church to the paving stones. He has also built an arts forum featuring an amphitheater, the Neo-Humanist Academy, and a 240-seat theater.
WHERE TO EAT: The region of Umbria lies southeast of better-known Tuscany. Solomeo is about two hours from both Rome and Florence. In Perugia, Brunello Cucinelli dines at the modern Umbrian Slow Food restaurant
Osteria a Priori and the classic
Ristorante La Taverna, as well as
La Bottega del Vino wine bar and jazz club. Closer to Solomeo, the eclectic
Osteria Macomà in Olmo is a family favorite. Cucinelli’s young workers frequent
Faliero, a complex that includes a no-frills trattoria whose specialty is torta al testo, or flatbread, cooked on stone disks heated in a huge fireplace and stuffed with a variety of fillings.
WHERE TO STAY:
Borgo Mandoleto Country Hotel offers suites as well as apartments with kitchens.
WHAT TO DO:
Il Teatro Cucinelli hosts concerts and plays as well as a weeklong medieval festival in the summer. And, of course, there’s the Brunello Cucinelli outlet store. Need we say more?
Milanese architect Tomaso Buzzi began creating his vision of the ideal village as a theatrical stage in 1956. Today, La Scarzuola, located on a dirt road next to a former Franciscan convent near Montegabbione, is home to Roman-style villas, buildings modeled on the Acropolis, seven theaters, and much more. The effect is surreal. By appointment only.
Umbria Jazz in Perugia offers ten days of concerts and clinics in July and a few days after Christmas.