Monday, July 03, 2006

Lunch in Arezzo - Osteria l'Againa

This was my first visit to Tuscany and how appropriate it was that we would consume the best meal of the entire trip. And this is saying a lot because every meal we had during our stay in Italy was at minimum very good and in several cases outstanding.

Arezzo is one of many wall cities in Italy. It is located on a hill with a castle at the top which we visited after lunch. The views were stunning. But let's get to the really important stuff - the meal!

We dined at a tiny pedestrian looking trattoria called Osteria l'Againa (pictured above along with my friends Tony and Marie Francoise). It looked cliched - like some American tourist's idea of an Italian restaurant with checkered table cloths. But its modest appearance was a deceptive cover for what turned out to be a keeper (one of many) of the culinary heart and soul of Italy. Nothing fancy or unusual on the menu. Just basic everyday Italian (real Italian) food with of course a Tuscan accent. The experience - nirvana.

I ordered only two courses. The first, a taglialini with wild boar was so intense in color, aroma and flavor that it literally touched my soul. This was food that a loving grand mother cooks for their favorite grand child. The smell brought me back forty odd years to my Aunt Fil's house in South Philadephia. She never cooked anything with wild boar, but still her 'gravy' consisting of meatballs made from ground pork and veal and a hand-made pork sausage procured by my Uncle Charlie from the Reading Terminal market produced a similar bouquet that has stayed with me for these many years.

So when the plate was presented before me - fresh thin yellow noodles just like the "home mades" I used to get at my Aunt Fil's. I nearly gasped - it's effect resonated so deeply within my core. And this was just the smell! One taste and I was transported back to those long lost days that are the foundation of my food appreciation today. They even put out a bowl of freshly grated sharp cheese - no doubt a Tuscan pecorino that just amplified the nostalgic experience.

I took my time eating this pasta dish, savoring every whiff and each delightful bite. I had ordeed a caraffa of vino rosso and it was fruity with nice body and went very well with the mythical dish I was consuming.

My second and final course was a insalata Caprese. This is one of the simplest dishes of the Italian cuisine and one that can be literally tasteless if the ingredients are not right. But there was no danger of that here. This Caprese provided a transcendental moment - the tomatoes - a greenish red variety were sugar sweet with immense character. The mozzarella was milky and sweet. It was accented with arugala and a rich and flavorful olive oil. I've never had a Caprese like this and I dare say I probably never will again unless I go back to this culinary temple of all that wonderful about everyday Italian food.

And this is one of the stunning revelations about eating in Italy. The quality and flavor of their everyday cuisine - what typical Italians eat - bread, pasta, vegetables, coffee, wine etc. was simply extraordinary. Take bread for example. I have eaten a lot of good fresh baked artisan bread in my day but I have never tasted anything like the bread I consumed in Italy. And the quality, even in the supermarkets was outstanding! Wonderful- incredibly crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside. Some of it has semolina because of a light yellowish color. One cannot resist eating far more bread than normal when it is of this quality. A lesson is that the quality of everyday food in Italy is beyond even up-market gourmet shops in the States.

This bread was so good that I consumed several pieces soaking up the wonderful tomato olive oil and salt remnants of my Caprese. There is nothing like this!

As I sat waxing nostalgically after this wonderful feast , I remarked to my friends that this food had to be prepared by an Italian grandmother. As if on cue, not 30 seconds later , a rather stout , youngish but still no dount a nona woman emerged from the kitchen!


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