In praise of passion

Gondoliers at the bar at La Cantina, enjoying the produce.
Gondoliers at the bar at La Cantina, enjoying the produce.

Wherever you find great produce, you find remarkable people who make use of it.

Cicchetti made to order. A far cry from the usual croquette-type things and bits of ham on bread.
Cicchetti made to order. A far cry from the usual croquette-type things and bits of ham on bread.

The really great thing is, you can find those people in the simplest of places. You certainly don’t need to look in fancy restaurants. I knew how much I loved my latest find when I thought how much I’d like to have a place just like it. La Cantina wine bar in Venice is an extraordinary place. In just six days, we went back three times.

It’s a pretty ordinary looking wine bar. Small but quite atmospheric. The chef/owner ruled the roost from behind the smallest prep station I’ve seen. Every cicchetto (bar snack/tapas) was made to order, and each was a piece of art.

The boss at La Cantinai in his workspace.
The boss at La Cantinai in his workspace.

You didn’t get to ask for anything in particular (beyond asking for a meat snack or a fish one), you got what his inspiration decided, based on what he’d found at the market that day. No two days, or two orders, were the same. He reminded me, if anything, of some of the sushi chefs I saw in Japan, who were men thoroughly in charge of their work stations, ruling like emperors.

Most of the condiments he makes himself. There was a particular pineapple relish that came with a cheese platter that I really want to make.

cheese selection, with transparent slices of apple as a base and a pineapple condiment.
Cheese selection for one, with near-transparent slices of apple as a base and a pineapple condiment.

Simple, he said. Pineapple, sugar and mustard essence. He showed me the mustard essence, which is something I’ve never seen or heard of before – a small dropper bottle full of a clear liquid that smelled (unsurprisingly) of sharp mustard. Now I have to work out where out where to get it from, though I suspect it will be a European source online.

The menu as incredibly limited – cheese/meat/fish platters, cicchetti and something else – a soup or a pasta, again based on what he liked at the market (one day it was a lentil soup with Treviso red chicory, another day it was cuttlefish with spaghetti). They had an interesting series of wines by the glass and some of the best grappa I’ve tasted. Everything was carefully sourced, with a great deal of pride and attention to detail.

Even the prosaic mixed salad looked pretty as a picture.
Even the prosaic mixed salad looked pretty as a picture.

Staff included  Andrea, who was responsible for the home-made beer. He makes it in Vicenza, because that’s where the best water is.

The third of the men worked the floor. friendly, knowledgeable, welcoming and willing to share the best of his inspiration with those who are interested. He had time for every question and chose creatively when asked for a recommendation.

I later checked the bar’s reputation online – (it has been featured in a British travel/food TV show, so it has a fair bit of non-Italian commentary) and seemed to get either five stars or one, usually people outraged by bad service (the chef, in particular, often accused of arrogance). It certainly wasn’t obsequious service, but it was rough and friendly and we found it very welcoming.

Food passion in a panini cafe.
Food passion in a panini cafe.

The second of these places I’ve found on this trip was a humble sandwich bar in Modena. We discovered that the woman who runs the place is part of the slow food movement. Again, everything carefully sourced, from people with a lot of pride in their products. Even though it was just panini, each set of fillings was carefully selected for balance and flavour. When Dave asked her to add tomato to his choice, she agreed but was unhappy.  When he relented, she happily said it was better so. I had buffalo mozzarella with tomato jam and pesto (the jam and the pesto home-made) and it was delicious.

When we started asking questions, she became quite lyrical. This ingredient comes from this particular place, that from another, and it’s special because …

I discovered an unusual (and delicious) sliced meat that was a mix of cooked and smoked ham, one wrapped around the other – pancetta supercoppatta, which comes from Langhirano (in the Parma region).  We left with samples of wonderful flavours we would probably never have found otherwise.

Tortellini in brodo.
Tortellini in brodo.

The third place was a restaurant in Bologna, Osteria Broccaindosso, oddly enough one recommended by our hotel (hotel recommendations can be very hit and miss. Italy is one of the few places where it is often worth asking).

It was there I had the best lasagna and the best tortellini in brodo I’ve ever had (both are dishes that Bologna is known for). I wouldn’t have thought lasagne could taste that good. It had something to do with the lightness of the bechamel sauce, I think, and the perfection of all the ingredients.

The tortellini in brodo was heaven. It’s the simplest of dishes but magnificent when done properly.

The entrees were a particular treat. You order the chef’s selection, and see what comes. There is an outline of what’s included on the menu, but only in broadest terms. What came was a whole procession of dishes, mostly vegetables, most of them different each day.

Perfect lasagne.
Perfect lasagne.

It recalled a place in a little town in Sardinia that still remains the absolute highlight of food for me in Italy. It’s the hotel Antica Dimora Del Gruccione in Santu Lussurgiu. (There is also a wonderful distillery in town – Distillerie Lussurgesi, which makes a fantastic acquavite, my favourite being one flavoured with wild fennel).

The accommodation was a beautiful old stone building wrapped around a courtyard behind a very high wall. Every room, however big or small, was the same price, and never varied through the seasons.

If you wanted dinner, you had to book early. There was no menu of any kind. You got the chef/owner’s amazing selection of entrees –almost all vegetable, all fresh from her garden. Then came the rest. Every mouthful memorable, right to the end of the meal.

Every night we saw scores of people turned away, even if there was room. You booked in the morning so she knew exactly how many people she was cooking for, and that was it. It wasn’t expensive – neither the accommodation nor the meals (a magnificent breakfast). But the memory has lasted years.

We found our way there via a recommendation from the man who ran the hotel where we stayed in Cagliari, Sardinia’s capital. Once he knew we were genuinely interested in food, he suggested it and rang ahead to see if she had any room for us. We luckily snared a cancellation.

That’s the thing that we keep finding in Italy. If you are genuinely interested in the food and the produce, people will go out of their way to be helpful, language barrier or not.

Every now and again we find an old-fashioned place where the waiters take it very seriously – where choosing dinner is a whole conversation aimed at arriving at a perfect balance. We’ve had a surprising number of waiters take us through our portions and possibilities, and then take time at the end to look at what was planned as a whole. Then comes the careful consideration, and the decision: yes, we can go ahead with this, it is good.

And it is.

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