The pig is an amazing animal ;
an even-toed ungulate to be exact and, an omnivore. Shunned by some, adored by others, this walking porcine miracle graciously provides some of the tastiest eating on the planet. Two words my friends : SLAB BACON. Seriously though, practically every part of the pig can be utilized in a culinary sense: trotters, ears, leaf lard ( which is the fat surrounding the kidneys) for pastry, hams, tenderloin, chops, most of the internal organs,headcheese .This is called “head to tail ” eating – literally not wasting a bit of the animal or the plant you are consuming. It seems to be a recent food trend, with British chef Fergus Henderson, Chris Cosentino and our own Mario Batali as some of the main proponents. This is not a new thing by any means…every culture has some tradition of eating offal, less desirable cuts of meats, and less desirable parts of plants.
To be honest, I don’t normally eat much pork. Growing up in a Jewish family is probably some of the reason, and being inundated with the misconception that “the other white meat” is somehow “unclean.” We were not kosher, happily ate bacon, shrimp in lobster sauce and pork egg rolls, but our hot dogs and salamis were usually kosher beef, and although there were whispers of our ancestors eating pickled pig’s feet, we were not to try these delicacies as they were considered “peasant food.” I’m a turkey bacon aficianado in the A.M., I don’t make my my pie crust the old-fashioned way with leaf lard, and I can’t remember the last time I had a pork chop.
However, when I got an email invitation from my friend David,who lives in Ovada,Italy, to accompany him for a pork-centric lunch in the countryside -and that countryside happens to be in Emilia-Romagna-then Miss Eydie gives a resounding piggy grunt and just says YES. David, a former restauranteur and a major food and wine lover and expert,has wanted to try a certain Antica Locanda Del Falco, a place especially known for its salumi, cured meat products made predominantly from pork. I’m dying for a culinary adventure outside of our Manhattan Transfer meals at the gigs.
So off we go one sunny afternoon-David scoops me up in Piacenza and we head southwest to the municipality of Gazzola,guided only by the voice of David’s GPS, which sounds suspiciously like Joanna Lumley from “Ab-Fab.” I keep waiting for “her” to put a “dahhhling” at the end of every directive to turn right. I’m feelin’ like an Italian movie star as we cruise the back roads, listening to the great music David always turns me on to. This time it’s “Musica Nuda,” an eclectic duo of acoustic bassist Ferruccio Spinetti and girl singer Petra Magoni. They do everything from Serge Gainsbourg’s “Couleur Café,” to Sting’s “Roxanne” to writing lyrics and performing a Bach aire, to….( and this immediately endears me to them ) singing a recipe for “Ziti al Ragu.” on a CD called Jazz Al Dente.
Soon, the Castello di Rivalta comes into view and we enter what seems to be a little village. There is a bar, an incredible looking store with salamis and hams hanging over baskets of fresh vegetables and fruits,wine bottles, and huge blocks of cheese, and the Hotel Borgo di Rivalta. The grounds are lovely and tranquil, and we stroll a bit amid the flowers and shrubs before finding the Locanda. Although the interior is beautiful, we gravitate immediately to the outdoor seating, under the pergola with views of the old stone buildings and the other diners.
Every bit of ordering is put into David’s capable hands and he enters into an instant camaraderie with our waiter Filippo. Suddenly plates start arriving and the beauty of it all is overwhelming. Simplicity is the key, once again with this cuisine. We start with a sampling of the local salumi : a platter of salami, culatello ( which charmingly means “little backside”) from Parma, lardo, and pancetta. Alongside, Filippo places a dish of lightly pickled vegetables. I’m initially not so excited by this, expecting a mouthful of vinegary and mushy vegetal matter…but I should have known better. Peppers, carrots, string beans, eggplant, and zucchini provided the perfect counterpoint to the oleaginous quality of the meat, by being very lightly marinated in white wine and vinegar and yet still retaining their crunch and vitality. Instead of just tasting the vinegar, the essence of the vegetables come shining through. Bread and olive oil complete the picture.
I’m singing that evening and so cannot indulge as richly as I might wish in the local grape offerings, but David has come to the rescue and orders the perfect bottle for this summer afternoon. Cold, slightly frizzante, with a delicate perfume and a picture of what looks like The Little Prince on the label. In Italian the name of the wine is “Terrafiaba” which in my skewed Italian seems to mean “earth fairy tale.” Or could it be heaven on earth? To say it slips down easy and elevates the already transcendent afternoon, would be an understatement. A lunch like this without wine….would be tragic.
We both agree that a second plate of salumi is in order.This time we agree to a more aged salami and definitely more of the culatello. The salami arrives with a greyish-white, almost moldy looking crust and a more earthy flavor. The word “toothsome” comes to mind. I can’t believe my good fortune to be sitting in this beautiful courtyard with full aware mind,body and grateful heart. David tells me that he and his wife Cinzia have been looking through maps of Italy and discovering interesting small town names that are funny sounding to the American ear. My favorite was a town called “Friggitini” which is a cocktail waiting to happen, so I immediately adopted the name for my bergamot martini, ( see”Miss Eydie-An Experiment Gone Horribly Wrong”) which you, dear reader will be happy to know I have perfected,by finding some pure Bergamot syrup in a local specialty shop in Manhattan.
By now, most of the food has been happily and thoughtfully consumed. Fingers crossed, I’m hoping there is more, and sure enough, not one..but THREE pastas arrive at the table in quick succession. There is a glistening homemade tortelli filled with spinach and ricotta,which literally melts in our mouths. Following that, some tagliatelle with fresh porcini. But surprisingly for me, the piece de résistance was the pasta fagioli or the “pasta fazool” as it’s called colloquially called in NY. This dish was divine simplicity ….borlotti beans and small, chewy tubes of pasta in a light tomato sauce. I’ve mostly seen this dish in the U.S. as a soup, but there are clearly many different regional versions . I never knew that just beans and pasta could be so divine.
Theafternoon passes in quiet conversation and delicious mouthfuls punctuated by laughter and the poetry of birdsong. Believe it or not…we order dessert. True to everything we love about Italy, dessert arrives in the form of a large ice- filled bowl containing perfect doughnut peaches and ripe Morello cherries. Strong espresso rounds out the meal, and we linger over the last of the wine as people leave to get back to work (?) or back to take a siesta. We’re the last ones left, but there is no one to rush us out, only the gracious Sabrina Piazza, the owner, chef and part of the family who has been in the food business for over 30 years. David spills the borlotti beans as it were, and reveals I am an MT singer. When I return from the ladies room I am required to sign various pictures which I gladly do,all the while eyeballing a seductive freshly baked fruit tart cooling on the sideboard.
I know….I’m incorrigible.
David and I reluctantly ooze back to the car and start the lazy drive back to Piacenza and reality. My porky interlude has come to an end, but the memories of culinary camaraderie, exquisite execution and the gentle passing of the hours remain with me….and now are hopefully shared with you.
Coming up for Miss Eydie? Traditional Chicken Francese with lemon pasta from Positano ( thanks Barb!) as per my son’s request for his first home cooked meal after me being on the road for 3 weeks, making lunch for two Rabbis and an NYU psych professor and a return birthday trip to the amazing Basement Bistro in Earlton, N.Y.
I leave you with this quote from Voltaire until the next time….
“Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.”
ANTICA LOCANDA DEL FALCO
CASTELLO DI RIVALTA