“Did you say, ‘Priest Strangler?” I asked.
“Yes. That’s what this pasta shape is called.”
“That is totally insane,” I said, shaking my head.
I was within the walled Italian city of Urbino in Le Marche, which clearly was the inspiration for many a fairy-tale children’s book. The Palazzo Ducale proudly stood in the sun, its spires on full alert. Narrow cobblestone streets carved themselves through Romanesque buildings. Shop owners hovered in their doorways like guardians to secret passageways. I expected someone in renaissance clothing to pop out from behind a roman brick and say “Hear Ye! Hear Ye!”; or better yet, the cast of Monte Python’s Holy Grail to materialize singing “Brave, Sir Robin… Brave, Sir Robin.”
It would’ve been easy to get lost in this renaissance mind-loop, searching for the standard turkey leg to gnaw, along with some jousters having an ale; but no. I wanted to see this amazing Urbino–underbelly and all–and I only had half a day.
As usual for me I arrived hungry, which meant that before going off to the palace (I can’t even believe I’m writing that), I wanted to eat. I had heard that the region’s cooks produce a fantastic rabbit stuffed with herbs and pancetta, but it was hot, and it was summer; and I wanted to investigate the cobblestone streets, not sleep in them. Thus, I perused the menu looking for something lighter, but unique.
It is here where I found this new and unfamiliar pasta: Strozzapreti, meaning “Priest Strangler” or “Priest Choker.” Now, if you come across a name like that in your first, full-blown, medieval city, you just have to eat it. Legend produces a number of stories for the name of this pasta, from jealous husbands who cursed the priests for eating their wives food, to medieval housewives shouting out their misery against the church as they “strangled” the pasta into shape, or finally gluttonous priests who ate too much of a good thing and died. No matter what you choose to believe, my culinary trip into Urbino was definitely becoming more interesting.
Here’s where it gets even better. My strozzapreti was being served with a very unique cheese named formaggio di fossa or “pit cheese.” Slightly “blue cheese” in flavor, this aged cheese was born out of civil disobedience. Thirteenth century citizens of the newly formed Church State didn’t want to pay taxes for their cheese. So they hid it in porous rock underground, only to find it aged and tasty later. I’m calculating…. yes… that means this cheese has been made for over 800 years. Wow.
How fitting to be introduced to a medieval town through its ancient food, before seeing the sites, before walking the streets. I was getting an idea about the people who lived there centuries before, regular people having to deal with the powers that be. I’m not sure if this particular pasta-cheese combination was paired together at that time, but it didn’t matter. I had good company, good food and that is always a blessing while traveling.
After eating my fill, I saw the sites. I went to the Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace) and climbed its travertine steps. I lit up in excitement in its underground palatial belly,which had once been the palace kitchens, bathrooms and stables. I learned about the grand duke with the not-so-grand nose, Federico da Montefeltro, and his love for great thinkers and writers. I then found out that the palace’s great library now sits in the Vatican. What a shame.
By late afternoon I had taken in Urbino’s streets. I had resisted the urge to go into a wide-open door of an apartment for sale and just “look around.” I had sat languidly in the shade of a sturdy column, eating gelato and watching a bike race whiz past the piazza’s borders. I had hung out in a book store wishing I could read more Italian in the worst way. It was a good day.
I didn’t see everything. Who could in an afternoon? I didn’t go to the Duomo. I didn’t explore the University–which is renowned for its philosophy department. I didn’t have the opportunity to learn more about all the writers, scientists and philosophers that hailed from inside Urbino’s walls. I wasn’t there for a major festival or musical event. I didn’t sleep there or go to Raphael‘s famed house. Yet, I found Urbino to be interesting, thoughtful and laid back–even while eating “priest stranglers with pit cheese.”