About seven kilometers from Gradoli, picturesque Latium hilltown on Lake Bolsena’s western shore, pull in at the 15th-century lavic stone church on the right, San Magno. Park near the church (probably closed) and cross the road to feast lakeside… in Purgatory.
That is, at Ristorante Il Purgatorio. Once a monastery refectory, the dining area has a huge barrel-vaulted ceiling and arched doorways of lavic stone but in good weather, diners prefer the outdoor tables lakeside, where ducks and a playful nutria or two entertain as you await the goodness.
About twenty years ago, una cooperativa of five men – co-workers and friends – rented the building from the Comune di Gradoli, opening their restaurant. Carlo keeps an eye on the risotto di pesce and the clam sauce, Gianni and Roberto team on table service and Angelo might be seated at a table outside the kitchen, cleaning a mountain of anchovies. But the specialty is Lake Bolsena’s whitefish, il coregone, grilled over the coals under the watchful eye of kitchen assistant, Stefania.
At a lakeside table near ours, 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 with garlic, sage and bay leaf and then seasoned simply with local olive oil, salt and pepper.
The fagioli del purgatorio link 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 “fat” donations, such as prosciutto, capocollo, salami. The collected foods are auctioned off; the proceeds assist needy families and will be used for the pranzo del purgatorio on Ash Wednesday.
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 tie to il Purgatorio nowadays is simply 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 communal wine cellar, and each diner brings silverware, napkin and placemat. This past 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’ve died and gone straight to Heaven… (bypassing Purgatory).