“Everything I have ever eaten here, from the simple gnocco fritto topped with the most fragrant of lardo, handmade tortelloni with sage and butter, green tagliatelle al porcini and perhaps the most decadent of all, crispy slices of Zampone with savory zabaglione.”- Chef Mario Batali
It is virtually hidden in the back of a 400-year-old Salumeria and is only open for lunch. We were taken on a delightfully circuitous walk through the shop and the kitchen. After greeting the chef and his assistants, we walked down a couple of steps and entered a charming small dining room.
The dining room only has four tables. Reservations were essential. Walk-in customers didn’t even see it unless they were ushered through as we were.
I knew we were in the right place when I noticed a shelf with eleven empty Ch. Petrus (1967 – 2002) bottles. They were anchored on each side by an empty Chartreuse Liqueur and a 1974 Ch. Latour bottle. Our waitress, the owner’s granddaughter who spoke excellent English, told us that her brother, the chef, has an annual dinner for friends. Each guest must bring their favorite vintage of a selected wine. Ch. Petrus was chosen for a previous dinner. I
asked begged her to please convince her brother to invite me to the next dinner. Fat chance!
She guided us through a selection of Modonese favorites and recommended a very nice 2014 Lambrusco di Sorbara D.O.P. “RITO” from Azienda Agricola Zucchi. It was dry and medium bodied with deep, concentrated flavors of raspberries or pomegranates. It had a pleasant bouquet and a fine pink frizzante that faded a bit more quickly than I expected. It was served at about 50-55 degrees F and was a perfect foil for the dishes we selected.
We began our feast by sharing Gnocco Fritto con Salumi tipici. This is a classic regional antipasti and was recommended to us by a Modenese friend from San Diego. Small rectangles of dough are deep fried into crispy air-filled pillows and cloaked with very thin slices of prosciutto, lardo, and mortadella. The gnocco are hot enough to melt the lardo. They reminded us of the sopapillas that we have eaten in New Mexico except sopapillas are usually honey-drizzled and served for dessert. When we mentioned this to our waitress, she told us that her grandmother often cooked baskets of gnocco for all-day family parties and served them with cured hams or salumi as a primi piatti and then with fruit and honey for a dolci. Small world.
We ordered Maccheroni al pettine al sugo d’Anatra and Tagliatelle al ragù di Vitello battuto al coltello for our pasta courses. Maccheroni al pettine are ridged egg pasta tubes, named for the comb-like board (pettine) upon which they are rolled. The ridges absorb the shredded duck sauce and give each bite a delicious flavor.
The Tagliatelle are long pasta ribbons, freshly made and cooked perfectly al dente. Roughly chopped veal with a little tomato and some diced vegetables (battuto al coltello – think mirepoix in France) is slow cooked in veal stock to a thick, rich, veal ragù with tons of flavor. The two dishes were so good that it was hard to decide if the pasta was meant as a vessel for the sauce, or vice versa.
Next, we split an order of Cotechino fritto con lo Zabaglione. Cotechino is pork sausage that originated in Modena in the early 1500s and is closely related to a type of salumi called Zampone. It is boiled for three to four hours, sliced into thick “wafers”, coated with breadcrumbs and quickly fried. The sauce is bright yellow Zabaglione, a rich and eggy custard flavored with Lambrusco with a consistency somewhere between a custard and a mousse. The idea of using Zabaglione, something traditionally sweet, with a savory dish, initially threw me but it worked and was richly decadent.
We shared a deep, dark Budino al Cioccolato for our dolci. The chilled dessert, similar to a smooth chocolate mousse, is served in a martini glass and has a bittersweet, intense flavor It is finished with a dusting of good quality cocoa powder. Cool chocolate with hot espresso made a perfect finish to a perfect lunch!