Monday, March 20, 2006

Slow Food and the secret to country cuisine

I try not to utter religious metaphors when eating fabulous Italian cuisine. It's not polite to speak with food in your mouth. And, to reference the Lord mid-mastication, well, that's just doubly wrong. But this past Saturday night I was commiting all kinds of sins, breaking all kinds of rules as I savoured my linguine con coniglio and praising my new bible, the Slow Food's restaurant guide "Osterie d'Italia 2006".

Dining out in Rome is fine. But it's not until you get out into the countryside where the cooks dote on you, and the portions are suitably substantial (in case you have to work the land the next morning), that you begin to appreciate proper Italian cuisine. It's country food or cibo dei contadini, as the locals call it. It's usually a fraction of the price of your Roman fare and the helpings are gut-busting. It's usually high on value, but not always on taste. But, there are a few trattorie that tick both boxes. And when you find them, the meal can be nothing short of a religious experience. But these special roadside shrines to degustazione are difficult to find. Hence, the need for the squat red guide book. How difficult are these restaurants to locate senza the guide? I have now discovered over a dozen fabulous restaurants scattered throughout the hilltowns around Amandola that have changed my opinion entirely of the local cuisine. And all thanks to this guide book. In fact, without this book I would have no idea these villages even existed.

So, hats off to The Slow Food people. They have been doing this for years, scouring Italia for little establishments that meet their criteria for specially prepared dishes, cheeses, olive oil, breads and wines. The emphasis is on local ingredients and local recipes and local libations. For example, your waiter will tell you not only which town the wine is from but whether the vineyard is set on a hill that faces southeast and thus you get a mental image of a sangiovese grape soaking up the sun, sugars dancing, alcohol content bubbling higher.

This weekend Xtina and I found another gem in the tiny town of Ortezzano, an obscure hilltown in the Val d' Aso, halfway between the sea and Comunanza. Ortezzano has two restaurants currently in the guide and a third that received special mention in another guide. Making this all the more improbable is the fact that this town seems to have a population of only out-of-towners coming to sample the incredible dishes prepared by these genius chefs. It's not for the faint of heart, however. The walk to the restaurant -- this time of year, anyhow -- is an eery affair: the streets are desolate, filled only with your doubts that there is any commerce conducted in this backwater whatsoever. But then you turn a corner and there's a glowing light and some fabulous smells and you begin to consider the presence of the divine in this world.

What did we have?
A starter of linguine con coniglio or...linguine with rabbit in a hearty meat stock replete with Ascoli olives and pomodori. For the piatto secondo, it was grilled lamb on the bone cooked over a wood fire. Dessert was a chocolate tort with braised bananas that must have been smuggled out of a Parisien bistro. The wine was a local Rosso Piceno, from the can't-miss cantina Cocci Grifoni.

Stay tuned for the next adventure in dining.

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