FIT FOR ROYALTY
“You haven’t ever eaten at “La Collinetta”? You have to go there!”
Mercedes was very enthusiastic, to say the least, about this trattoria where she and her friend dined every Saturday afternoon. “They treat us like princesses.”
I thought, “Who doesn’t want to be treated like a princess?”
Well, a prince, I suppose.
“Just where is this restaurant?”
“In Martone.” A hill town on the Ionian side of the Province of Reggio Calabria, Martone (accent on first syllable) neighbors Gioiosa Ionica and Rocella Ionica just northeast of Siderno, to give a few points of reference to those with some familiarity of Calabrian geography. As for the town, much of its history was dominated by feudalism, and its people and their dwellings have suffered through an inordinate number of earthquakes – pretty typical for Calabria. Luckily for us, however, recipes have survived, along with hospitality skills that apparently make patrons feel like royalty.
THE TRATTORIA LA COLLINETTA
We parked a stone’s throw from the door of a non-descript yellowish building. A homey wooden sign, swinging under its own little tiled roof, indicated the entrance: “La Collinetta” with two mushrooms in place of the T’s. We were arriving on the late side for lunch, but the place was very much buzzing with activity, with a large group sitting at long tables filling a good bit of the restaurant’s interior.
Settling down, we really didn’t have much ordering to do. My friends recommended the appetizers of the house and I had already agreed to the special lamb dish that had to be requested in advance. They said that it was best to leave yourself in the hands of the chef, barring any allergies or strong dislikes. So that’s just what we did.
The cold appetizer plate was delightful and a bit unusual in the selection and preparation of the vegetables. I don’t recall ever having eaten such a light coleslaw. The cucumbers were equally fresh as was the spinach, which was cooked but hardly wilted.
The local pecorino (sheep’s cheese) elicited a bit of discussion. Its rind took on the purple hue of a red wine wash. Was it the light or were the two cheeses different? It wasn’t the light. While both were young, the slightly yellower cheese was a bit firmer, more mature. The whiter, softer pecorino retained its closer association with the milk, gently yielding to the tooth and releasing its subtle flavor as it melted on the palate.
The peperoncino dip at the center of the platter was tasty, and perhaps if I ate there every day, I might experiment more in combining its spiciness with the many other flavors of the antipasti. However, on that visit I was content in savoring the offerings as they were.
For me, the chard and potato dish topped the hot appetizers. Admittedly, I’m a fan of leafy green vegetables, but this creamy concoction would have gone down smoothly even for those averse to eating their greens. And despite its down-home appearance, the velvety mixture, served in a chipped clay crock, was surprisingly sophisticated. Other hot appetizers included a peperonata (a traditional peperoni dish with tomatoes, onions and garlic), a spicy potato pancake and several fried items.
Much to my dismay, we were served two primi – two delicious first courses. I wanted to finish every crumb on the table, but I had to pace myself. Speaking of crumbs, in addition to the semolina bread, there was also a tasty, fried, puffy bread, another traditional food from the area.
The rice and pasta dishes were presented family style: a simple risotto with mushrooms and herbs, and paccheri, a pasta shaped in large tubes, served with a broccoli and bacon sauce. Now when you see a serving platter approaching the table with a piece of bacon draped over it, you think, “That’s going to be a heavy dish,” but au contraire, it was delectable and rather light with just a subtle flavor of the cured meat.
Of course, I could have stopped eating at that point. As a matter of fact, there were many moments in which I could have unreservedly indulged in the dish I was consuming, polished off every morsel on the particular plate, and finished the meal then and there with, “Basta!” (Enough!) But to deny oneself such pleasures isn’t easy. And then, before I had a second to think, the waiter had appeared yet again, ready to move on to the next course.
My camera was poised on the table, as big as a no-no as it is to hesitate before digging in while barring others from disturbing the presentation before a picture is snapped. However, such is the onerous task of a blogger. In this case, taken unawares as I was still basking in the primi, I suddenly realized that the second course was being unmasked, literally, in all its glory. As I hustled to take a few photos, it dawned on me that they weren’t going to do the situation justice, so I switched to video mode to capture our meal as it unfolded before our very eyes. (Click for Lamb in Calabria video.)
Our cosciotto di agnello nella creta (leg of lamb in clay) was being released from its terracotta shell, and other restaurant patrons were beginning to gather, wondering as to the spectacle and intrigued as to what was housed inside the clay casing. The waiter had already given the exterior a few whacks with his spoon before I pressed “play.” Smart phones flashed as the server removed the broken clay and peeled back the parchment paper. One woman began to bellow, “Why didn’t we see this on the menu? Are you more special than we are to be served this? We’re from here. You aren’t, and you rate better than we do…” My dining companions calmed her by offering to share. “Grazie, grazie!”
I can’t blame the woman. It was a mouthwatering piece of meat, beautifully colored and glistening on the plate. Its welcoming moisture beckoned with each slice of the waiter’s knife. The interior revealed a mixture of finely chopped garlic, rosemary and sage, together with a piece of pork rind that had been inserted into the deboned leg. All generously rubbed with butter and sprinkled with oregano and coarse salt, the lamb had been wrapped in parchment and then encased in clay. With a little water the argil was closely molded to the leg’s dimensions, taking care to eliminate any air pockets. The clay-ensconced leg was then baked in a very hot oven (350 ̊C or 662 ̊F) for a couple of hours and allowed to rest in anticipation of our arrival.
This method of cooking had most likely been passed down to Trattoria La Collinetta’s Chef Giuseppe Trimboli through the area’s Greek ancestry. And judging by the wealth of ancient ceramics that have survived into modern times, these venerable peoples clearly knew their way around a potter’s wheel. Luckily, they had clay left over for cooking.
Gastronomically, this culinary technique does wonders to hold and enhance the seasonings and flavor of the meat, which in this case, was divine. Served with a sauce of herbed olive oil, the lamb was tender, succulent … an exquisite dish. A crisp salad with lettuce, radicchio, apple slices and walnuts accompanied the second course.
CONGRATULATIONS AND CELEBRATIONS
Complimenti allo chef! (Compliments to the chef!) But I couldn’t eat another bite. The tantalizing desserts in a case next to a shelf of locally made liquors couldn’t tempt me any longer. Okay, maybe a grappa for the road.
As we were finishing our meal, the large party that occupied a majority of the restaurant started revving up their entertainment. Out came an accordion and tambourine. Let the tarantella begin!
The group was from the not-too-distant hill town of Cinquefrondi, whose territory lies within the Aspromonte National Park. They were enjoying a Saturday afternoon excursion, a frequent weekend pastime in which the lunch featured prominently, or was perhaps the destination in itself.
An elderly gentleman led the music with a voice that emanated from a time gone by. The high-pitched, nasal timbre hearkened back several centuries. The songs told stories, tales he had learned at the feet of his father or his grandfather who had sung them in the same manner many, many years earlier. The words were surely in their village’s dialect, impossible to understand with the acoustics as they were. The nice looking young man on the accordion followed the patriarch’s lead. There was some dancing and much clapping. (Music from Cinquefrondi video.)
I felt in some way as though I was spying on a private affair, particularly when I picked up my camera to film a bit. I wasn’t one of them, but I had eaten the special meal. As we were leaving, one of the women in the group came up to me and shook my hand. She had seen me with my camera, and the word had gotten around that I had a blog and was going to post the video on YouTube. She thanked me for sharing their culture with the world.
Others smiled and waved. I hadn’t been a spy. I was a welcomed guest at their celebration. And with a little guidance from Mercedes and Anna Maria, my jovial, generous hosts, together with a much obliging chef, lunch had turned into a feast at Trattoria La Collinetta.
Giuseppe and his wife Lucia’s recipe “Cosciotto di agnello nella creta” is featured in the Slow Food cookbook Ricette di Osterie d’Italia, a compilation of 630 regional dishes that represent traditional cooking from all over Italy. See Trattoria La Collinetta on Facebook.
Lunch at Trattoria La Collinetta was an incredible experience. Read more about my time in Calabria, including the region’s excellent food, rich culture and traditions, history, the arts, society and daily life in the award-winning, non-fiction book Calabria: The Other Italy.
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