ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
As I’m scribbling this in the final throes of December, with New Year banqueting still to come, I thought I’d reflect on the more mundane experience of eating out! While it’s true that this might strike those brave slaves of the kitchen as a total disconnect with reality, I can only hide behind the historical comfort zone of too many excellent festive blowouts provided by friends, and my own good wife who has a spectacular talent for inventiveness, and the production of formidable festive meringues.
Needless to say, I am not allowed one of these to myself, despite an ability to devour the same when given half a chance.
To return to the subject in hand, I have had one or two occasions to resort to a Christmas or New Year’s dinner under professional management, and though they cannot be underrated, are not quite the same, being devoid of the gregarious sociability of uninhibited family and friends, thereby lacking the happy factor of Elysium. Of course, with the right sort of friends, they can be decorous affairs maintaining a well-behaved, genial atmosphere. Right on.
Before I begin, I have to cast my mind back many years and confess that in the past the matter of ‘microwave mastication’ had intruded too heavily on ones enjoyment. The United Kingdom it seemed had abandoned the idea of a local cuisine and been inundated with Chinese, Indian, Lebanese, French, Greek and yes, Italian restaurants, to say nothing of bistros, kebab parlours, rotisseries, pizzerias, and the inevitable MacDonald’s. Thus was the fate of the good old fish and chip shop, with its Fleet Street broadsheet wrapping, cast into oblivion. Not that it stayed there. It had merely jumped ship, landing in Italy. I kid you not. Barga in Tuscany has its very own English style ‘Fish and Chip’ festival – ‘Del Pesce e Patate’ in July and August. Despite this, you can take it that I was long out of sorts with microwave and fusion cuisine.
In retrospect, it was on my first venture into Italy that I discovered old traditions die hard and still existed in the modern world. Albeit, as it turned out, I was just ahead of the gun. In Italy, you could then still come across the real thing; small family run restaurants going by the name of Osteria or Trattoria. The owner generally hosted them with a son or daughter to hand, along with his signora in the kitchen. Almost invariably they were a jolly crowd. They could also be disconcerting. If trying to make head and tail of the menu, you would find that the glorious lista delle vivanda, was mind bending, and something of a fantasy, so that after lengthy deliberations over this heady list you were just as likely to be told that it was only an idea, an indication of what was possible, not what was probable. In desperation you threw up your hands and left it to his good offices. You nearly always ended up with an excellent meal. You also learnt to ask for the house wine which came in a jug, was inexpensive and more reliable than many a bottle, until you finally knew your Sangiovese from a Merlo. Very often the hostelry had the hammer and sickle nailed to a post near the entrance door that pronounced they were of a particular temperament, so it sometimes came in useful to have a Russian nonno among your relatives, though Toasting the Queen along with the Primi Piatti tended to be a little risky!
Such was the gastronomic learning curve. Having finally settled yourself with a roof over your head ones experience of the neighbouring restaurants was gradually, and sometimes expensively, learnt. One of the elements of this experience was to rely on someone else’s experience in the first place. You might end up in the back and beyond having traversed some rocky white road to end up on a farm with a restaurant annexe in the barn, but they weren’t going to break your bank, even if they murdered the suspension of your car. Having a donkey lean over and snaffle a little salad from your plate can be very disconcerting, but added a lot of colour to the future historical chat of a raconteur!
However this is not going to be a lexicon of Tuscan slow food establishments, as endless tomes have filtered on to the market and crushed those paragons of cuisine to death by including the disreputable and counterfeit among their ranks. All good things are turned into bad it seems. That being the case I’d rather let you stumble upon two examples that you would only find by accident, never having intended to push the boat out as far as expectations were concerned.
Florence has some splendid restaurants if not so many rustic ‘nosheries’ as once could be found hiding down dingy narrow streets. Given the staggering cost of commercial activity in this market where tables define taxes even when there’s no bottoms on the seats, it appears that going down market means going out of business. Twenty years ago it was quite different even in this great city, and eating out didn’t necessarily cost an arm and a leg. However, if you find yourself at mid-day in need of sustenance and a little short of the wherewithal, such a place does still exist. Lunch you may have, but dinner not. The reason will become obvious as you read on.
Having found yourself at one o’clock exiting the Santa Maria del Fiore with a rumble in your tummy pass down the Via dell Orivolo until you come to the cross roads turning into the Via Borgo Pinti and pass along until you arrive at the Via Laura on your left. At the very corner you will see the attraction of what appears, and is, a solitary grocery shop entitled ‘da Siro’ among the regimental lines of tranquil domestic dwellings. Here I must add a caveat. If by chance you have found yourself in the parallel street, the Via della Pergola with its famous theatre the Teatro della Pergola designed by the architect Tacca in 1656 who also busied himself with the creation of scenography – the ability to change scenes during a performance by the use of raising and lowering blinds – then you will surely miss your lunch. No grocery shop will be apparent. In which case turn right, and find it at the other end at the corner of the Via Borgo Pinto and the Via Laura. No doubt you will peer cautiously into its confines via a narrow door and see a signora or two being served with provisions to select from the rows of alimentation in sundry bottles and tins, man sized chunks of Parmesan and Pecorino, or slithers of prosciutto and Spec dangling from the ceiling behind the glass delicatessen counter, choc-a-bloc with daily take-away provisions. Signs of a dining room will not meet your eye. Taking courage, you must enter, raise your hand knowingly to the proprietor, and if you’re observant, will notice an almost concealed entrance at the back where you will find what you expect, tables and chairs. Strangely, you might speculate, such a haunt would not be much used by passing clients, and you’d be right. Many of the regulars are professional people who live ‘out of town’, and can’t make it home for mid-day pranzo. Seated you will be appraised of wonderfully simple food that tastes as it should – of yesteryear Italian standards. The menu will not be wide, but should cover the taste of any gourmand, if not a connoisseur with modern messed about inclinations.
Of course, even the aficionado who has long established the value of eating establishments on their own patch will tend to go astray on unfamiliar territory. In which case, if you do happen to come across the unexpected it is worth giving them five stars and a lot of chatter time with acquaintances. So hereby lies a tale.
Having not seen a friend for many years, it was of some moment to hear the lady had rented the piano nobile of a palazzo on the other side of Florence in the Casentino on the lower slopes of the Appenine range. Now, those who know Tuscany, will recall that it is a very large region, not to be crossed with impunity. Living close to the coast, some considerable way from the Casentino, any meeting place had to be not much more than an hours drive for both, if we were to avoid the huge onset of driver ennui. So on consulting the map we established a point approximately half way just below Florence, a small town that went with the unbelievably long title of San Casciano in Val di Pesa, obviously to differentiate it from the two other San Casciano’s in Tuscany. On the strength of this and courtesy of the internet my better self established what looked like our sort of retreat for lunch, going by the slightly bizarre title of A Casa Mia – At My Home - in an equally unlikely place called Montefiridolfi, and booked a table Thus go the plans of mice and men. On arrival at San Casciano we found they seemed to be digging up half the roads in the town and beat a hasty retreat having got well and truly lost following the re-direction signs. Thanks to the ubiquitous cell phone we contacted said friend and agreed to head straight for A Casa Mia. Only about five or six miles away from San Casciano, the by-way runs through immaculately tended olive groves, and sleepy tidy hamlets with what appear to be unbelievably large churches. Monefiridolfi itself is hardly larger but boasts a very nice Piazza, with that unfortunate habit in Tuscany of dumping inane quantities of metal in the centre purporting to be works of art. And I thought there were laws against fly-tipping! Being so small a village we immediately bumped into our friends and located the restaurant. True to its title it looked exactly what it was – somebody’s home. You couldn’t just peer through any windows at white tablecloths, and make a decision to beat a hasty retreat as they were boarded up with two handsome billboards. All there was appeared to be someone’s front door laced with curtains. In much the same way as da Siro in Florence you opened the door and stepped into the unknown. Actually you stepped into what might have been the front room of a cottage with the walls covered in paintings and that eclectic atmosphere of personal idiosyncrasy. It was small, being able to hold, possibly, fifteen diners at four or five wooden tables of different provenance, with chairs from fifteen different carpenters. It wasn’t crowded, but it became full right on our heels, and it looked the business as far as I was concerned. Snugly seated we listened carefully to the oral menu, somewhat challenging to those whose Italian leaves a lot to be desired. It was not overlong, being a good sign the meal would be well prepared, and its very brevity speeded up the decision. By common consent and experience we settled for a mixed anti pasti, home made crostini, prosciutto and salami, cheeses and trifles of Cecina (chicpeas), crispy peppery biscuits, all of which came served on two large platters. This is standard fare in most Osteria, but depends entirely on being home made, freshly cut, and prepared to order. As such they represent a culinary time bomb as one finds it very difficult to stop ‘picking’ – just one more then! For ‘Secondo’ the ladies preferred Gnocchi, dressed with a sauce of Cima di Rape while I settled for that old stalwart, Spaghetti all’arrabbiata, perfectly prepared and brought to the table in a hot and heavy classical brass handled iron pan. I couldn’t make it up. At this point we realized we didn’t have any extra utensils but on enquiry were directed to the drawer of the table where you helped yourself to whatever you wanted. Wonderfully bizarre, but very convenient. Hardly any plates actually matching provided another unusual feature. A homely aspect if ever there was one. To round it off two more large platters of freshly made patisserie, with a small pile of toasted peanuts in their shells. Then the obligatory coffee in very miniature enamelled cups served on a tray with the Mocca pronto, along with the traditional grappa. Believe me, A Casa Mia is a 5 star experience, providing that magic of ‘Old Italy’.
All I can suggest is give them both a try if you find yourself in the vicinity of Florence. They’re comfortable, inexpensive, and entertaining in their own right. But most important, you eat ‘without ceremony’ as a late friend of ours used to say. Old fashioned, and far from being pretentious.