I found Robin Locker on Twitter and started following her blog, My Melange, about discovering and appreciating European culture. Although Robin doesn’t have kids, she’s an Italophile. We have something in common … I thought it would be fun to invite her to do a guest post on a few of her favorite meals in Italy.
Robin’s post really captures the essence of the warmth and joy of the Italian dining experience … I love it! – Amie
I guess I have never really labeled myself as a foodie. But, when I travel, it truly excites me to eat my way though a new area, a new culture. Much can be learned about a place by the food grown, the way locals prepare it and the way they serve it. And Italy is no exception.
But in Italy, it isn’t always about the food, which is of course, fresh and delicious. Sometimes it is all about the experience.
C’mon, let me show you two of my favorites.
Tucked somewhere in the labyrinth of calle behind the Guggenheim in Dorsoduro, we strolled into Ai Cugnai, a family owned trattoria with no distinct signage announcing the fact that a little gem was hidden behind an otherwise typically Venetian façade. We were warmly greeted by the owner’s son and lead to the back patio, which was open to the cloudless sky save for the laundry dangling on a precarious clothesline above our heads. The postage stamp-sized dining area was composed of three tiny tables. A local family at one, a couple from London at the other and ourselves. The star of this restaurant was not the food (which was good Venetian fare) or the decor (which was rather bland at best). The star was our hostess, who I will affectionately call Nonna.
Among the evening’s most memorable frivolities was Nonna trying to convince my vegetarian boyfriend to eat meat, Nonna pouring the wine at the Londoner’s table and taking a generous swig for herself from their glasses and Nonna parading each dish exiting the kitchen by all nine diners before finally serving it to the intended party, as if to say “See how good this looks and aren’t you sorry YOU didn’t order this?”
By the end of the evening I was enamored of Nonna. I leafed through my phrase-book and practiced asking her in Italian if I could call her Nonna.
As she brought us the check at the end of our meal, I smiled and blurted out in broken Italian, “Ti chiama nonna?”
She approached me, slapped me ever so gently on both cheeks with open hands, looked me right in the eyes and said enthusiastically, “No, nonna … Mamma, Mamma!!”
She then insisted that the other diners snap a photo of the three of us-a photo I still have and treasure. When she left the room, the London couple confessed to frequenting the place. “Not so much for the food, but more for the show!”
We decided to make reservations to avoid the mob that surrounds Il Latini before opening time. We arrived an hour or so before our reservation to queue on the inevitable line. Pushing, shoving and line-cutting were often committed by otherwise well-mannered people as the doors opened and diners were hand-picked out of the crowd in order to strategically fill open seats at communal style tables inside. Would-be diners were more animated and violent as it became increasingly evident their chance of being picked dwindled. It seemed the reservations we had made did not matter. I’d hate to see what would have happened if you didn’t reserve!
Ham-hocks hung from the ceiling, Chianti produced on the owner’s Tuscan farm was served in a magnum-sized fiasco (the classic straw-covered wine bottle), the place was loud and filled with the happy voices of hungry diners.
The best part about Il Latini is never knowing if you’ll be seated next to locals or travellers. Our party of two comfortably became a party of four thanks to the Australian couple we shared our table with (though the tables were so close it felt more like sharing a bed).
There was no menu here. Our pleasant Egyptian server just brought course after course of what was fresh, local and deliciously Italian.
Prosciutto and melone, bruschetta, caprese salad, bread, wine and water were out first. Then came gnocchi, ravioli, Pasta Bolognese and more wine. Next up, Bistecca alla Fiorentina and more wine. Finally, out came a cheese plate and we all said, “basta!” We were full!
But not too full for dessert – panacotta, cantucci and Vin Santo. And because we had sufficiently chatted up our waiter, he introduced us to our first bottle of Moscato d’Asti (compliments of the house), which we successfully polished off!
After more conversation and laughter, we realized that not only were we the last ones in the restaurant, but we were in need of some serious stomach pumping due to the amount of food we had consumed.
Four, yes four, hours later we asked for the bill. Our waiter stood at the table with a pad and pen, trying to remember who ate what. After calculating a number in his head he pointed to our table-mates who ate meat and gave them a price. He then looked us over, considered the vegetarian in our party, and announced the food and drink that could otherwise feed a small country for a week, was €60, which at the time was $72. A ridiculous bargain, for which I would have gladly paid five times as much. You can’t put a price tag on those memorable moments. Or, should I say memorable hours?
Ah, Italy. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Robin is a freelance writer and travel consultant with a passion for France and Italy. She lives in the beautiful Hudson Valley region of New York with her pseudo-husband and adorable Westie, but hopes to one day live in her beloved Italy. You can drool over her travel photos, feel her love of all things European, find helpful travel tips and relish in the excitement of her upcoming trip to Rome on her blog, My Melange. Follow @MyMelange for her updates on Twitter.