Last September, I took my first international trip. I spent 2 glorious weeks in Italy and had one of the best meals of my life. When I planned my trip, I decided to spend the majority of my time (nearly a week) in Tuscany. I thought that with my love of food, Tuscany would be the place where I would have my “aha moment.” Don’t get me wrong; I loved everything about Florence. I explored the Mercato Centrale and ate porchetta at Nerbone. I cried at the beauty of The Birth of Venus and got turned on by David. I walked atop the wall around Lucca and noshed on panforte in Siena. I met some lovely people and ate some great food, but I never found that space where I clicked. I never felt truly at home. And then I left Florence and headed to Bologna. This was my town. It’s a city with one foot in the blue collar world and one in academia and both planted firmly in the kitchen.
I was on a budget, so rather than stay in the center of town, my hotel was tucked away in a little side street a few short blocks from the train station. When I got there, I asked the desk attendant for a recommendation for dinner. He told me that a new restaurant had opened next door and he had heard it was amazing. We talked a bit about food and I trusted he knew what he was talking about so I decided to try it.
When I exited the hotel later that evening, I saw a couple heading toward the restaurant. They pushed the button for the doorbell, the garage-style glass-paned door slid open and I followed them inside. They had a reservation, but I didn’t. Happily the host told me not to worry. He stepped down into a tiny sunken dining room next to the host stand and pulled apart two tables that had been set up for a four-top. He sat me at one of the new two-tops and I was suddenly overcome with a sensation that this was going to be a momentous occasion. The other tables in the restaurant were already seated or had reservation signs on them. I had this feeling I was entering an insider’s hidden gem. Goose-bumps sprang up my arms and this zing of excitement scampered throughout my body.
I sat looking up into the waiting area, which was great for people watching. It was set up like a living room with a sofa, a coffee table and built-in bookshelves. There was a second larger dining room on the other side of the host stand and at first I was disappointed I was not seated in there, but that feeling quickly subsided when the host returned with menus and organic prosecco and treated everyone like they were guests in his home. Whether seated right away or made to wait, everyone was poured a glass of prosecco to start.
I learned that Flavio was much more than a host, he was the owner with his partner, Chef Tommaso. And here’s the crazy part: Flavio told me that they had opened their restaurant the day before I arrived! Tommaso and Flavio had owned a restaurant in Zocca, a mountain town in the Province of Modena, but had closed it to open this one in Bologna.
And then the chef’s antipasto plate arrived.
This was a delightful little plate with a slow roasted tomato, some fresh cow’s milk cheese topped with a crispy prosciutto chip, chopped pistachios and the whole thing was drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. The creamy butteriness of the cheese was perfectly in balance with the sweet tomato and salty prosciutto. I loved the surprise addition of the pistachios. It took all of my will power to not lick the plate.
After talking with Flavio, I opted for the more regional dishes. I wanted to taste new and authentic dishes I never before had the opportunity to try. When my first course came out, I was immediately hit with the aroma of rosemary. This dish was so beautiful and I just sat there for a minute to inhale the rosemary and appreciate the beauty of what was in front of me. The dish was called Calzagatti al forno con gola stagionata di Grigio del Casentino. Calzagatti is a regional cake-like patty that is made with polenta, beans and pancetta. Tommaso topped these bean and polenta cakes with a regional cured pork, shaved paper-thin, that literally melted on my tongue. I have since found a couple of recipes on the web and am determined to recreate this dish.
When Flavio described the next dish to me, gnocchi di patate e rapa rossa su vellutata di zucca e scaglie di Parmigiano, he did not know the English translation for rapa rossa – beets! I had never had beet gnocchi before, and they were quite lovely. Surprisingly light and not as sweet as you would think. The bite of the shaved Parmigiano was in perfect balance with the sweetness of the butternut squash puree.
For the third course, I opted for the special: Bocconcini di coniglio fritti nella pancetta con friggitelli. These were little rabbit meatballs wrapped in very thinly sliced pancetta and served with fried green peppers. The crispy pancetta protected the rabbit and kept it moist while adding a salty, porky flavor. And the textural contrast of the crunchy exterior with the tender interior was wonderful. I am a huge fan of the Spanish peppers, pimiento de padron, and these friggitelli were the Italian equivalent. Superb!
Flavio also brought me some traditional Modenese bread: le Crescenti tra le Tigelle di Grano Marzotto. These breads were simliar in style, but not flavor, to the English muffin. The bread was crunchy on the outside and soft inside and perfect for making a sandwich for lunch the next day with the leftover rabbit and peppers.
For dessert Flavio brought me a plate of traditional cookies and a glass of late harvest dessert wine. It was the perfect end to the perfect meal. Not too sweet, completely traditional and completely new to my palate. The cookies were made with cornmeal, but had the texture of a Scottish shortbread. The textures and flavors surprised and delighted.
I was in absolute heaven that night and couldn’t stop raving about the food. So, before the dessert course, Flavio walked me through the other dining room to the tiny kitchen and introduced me to Tommaso. This was my first time getting to go to a kitchen to thank the chef for an amazing meal. It was a dream come true for this girl. A night I will never forget.
Flavio and Tommaso are all about the slow food movement and their food is a glorious testament to the beauty and simplicity of traditional food done extremely well. I often think about that night, and look at my photos and recreate the flavors in my mind. Now I just need to figure out how to recreate the flavors in my kitchen . . .