Feasting in PurgatoryLeaving Gradoli, picturesque Latium hilltown on the western shore of Lake Bolsena, you might miss that old stone ruin on the left, but if you stop – as a friend and I did recently – you can feast in Purgatory.
That is, at Il Purgatorio. Once a 15th-century monastery in ruins (old arches still remain), una cooperativa of five men – co-workers and friends – rented the building from the Comune di Gradoli and opened their restaurant about twenty years ago.
The main dining area has a huge barrel-vaulted ceiling and arched doorways of lavic stone, reminiscent of the monastery refectory but in good weather, diners prefer the outdoor tables lakeside, where ducks a playful nutria or two entertain as you await the feast here at il Purgatorio.Gianni and Roberto serve at table while in the kitchen, Carlo keeps an eye on the risotto di pesce and the clam sauce. But the specialty is Lake Bolsena’s whitefish, il coregone, grilled over the coals under the watchful eye of kitchen assistant Stefania.
You know all the fish is fresh – whether from the sea or the lake – as you watch Angelo, seated at a table outside the kitchen, cleaning a mountain of anchovies.
At one of the lakeside tables, a jovial group enjoyed the grilled coregone and others reveled in a sauce of lakefish eel. We opted for homemade tagliatelle with a delicate sauce made of coregone and garden fresh piselli novelli (“new peas”) followed by a side dish of baked eggplant, peppers and zucchini.
And here at Il Purgatorio, you can’t pass up the fagioli al purgatorio, the small white beans of the lake area, cooked in boiling water with garlic, sage and bay leaf and then seasoned simply with local olive oil, salt and pepper.
The name of these fagioli has ties to a cherished late 18th-century Gradoli tradition still celebrated every year on giovedi grasso (“fat thursday”), the beginning of pre-Lenten Carnevale. On that day, members of la Fratellanza del Purgatorio (“Purgatory Brotherhood”) in brown tunics with purple hooded capes solemnly walk the narrow Gradoli backstreets begging for foods.
When founded in the late 17th-century, the task of the Fratellanza was to succor souls in Purgatory through prayers, the celebration of Masses and good deeds. Their association with il Purgatorio nowadays is a culinary one: the preparation of the traditional Ash Wednesday pranzo del purgatorio for over sixteen hundred Gradoli villagers. Tables are set up in the Cantina Sociale, the area wine cellar, and each diner brings silverware, napkin and placemat. This year, ninety confratelli cooked the feast in less than five hours! The menu di magro (“thin”, i.e, simple and without meat) always includes a risotto made with the broth of tinca, a Bolsena lakefish, fish stews and fried fish – and of course, the tiny white beans of the Gradoli area, i fagioli del purgatorio.
Every spoonful of “purgatory beans” convinces you that you have died and headed to Heaven……..not to Purgatory!