VARIOUS TAVOLE CALDE or SLOW FOOD FAST
Like my father with the trattoria, my experience with the tavola calda began in Rome, where I spent several months at different times studying Italian. Looking for a nutritious, economical lunch, I ventured into a number of such eateries.
At peak hours, however, catching the server’s attention proved a challenge. On a few occasions I was forced to seek sustenance elsewhere when it seemed my turn would never come up. I eventually got the hang of the Italian “line.”
Upon moving to Locri, in Calabria, I discovered a couple of places that practically made cooking for myself superfluous. One was a polleria (poultry shop) that roasted the most delicious chicken, prepared incredible stuffed chicken parts with ingredients du jour, and served it all up with equally tasty oven-baked potatoes. I had a British colleague who literally ate their roasted chicken every day.
While the polleria was right on Locri’s main thoroughfare, the tavola calda was a few streets back away from the sea. It was a tiny place, which suited me just fine, as there was precious little space to jockey for position. Always sure to be in the midst of a frenzied bustle as mealtimes approached, it employed sturdy, hairnetted women to carry the steady stream of large, stainless steel trays piled high with the offerings of the day to and from the serving area. Meats, vegetables, pastas, etc. that had been prepared in the sizable kitchen in the back filled and refilled the limited counter area, only to be quickly scooped into aluminum takeout containers for the eagerly awaiting customers. I got hooked on their melanzane alla parmigiana (eggplant parmigiana). Although paying by weight (and no doubt about it, it’s a heavy dish), I never seemed to hand over more than five Euros for a portion that served for several meals.
TAVOLA CALDA IN REGGIO AND A PIZZERIA OF THE FUTURE
When I moved to Reggio, I once again began my search for good homestyle food – a quick, hearty lunch that I didn’t have to cook myself in an establishment in which it wasn’t too intimidating to work my way up to the counter. I found it in “Il Gastronauta,” a tavola calda and pizzeria rolled up in one, and conveniently located in the center of town on Via De Nava a block past the Archeological Museum.
While it could be quite crowded during the mealtime rush hour, the servers were attentive to the most timid of customers so there wasn’t any risk of walking away hungry. The only thing difficult about Il Gastronauta was its pronunciation, but I just had to remember that every vowel was pronounced individually (gas-tro-na-oo-tah). I at first just figured it was a word I hadn’t heard, but upon looking at their business card that sported an image of the world with the phrase “…naturalmente nel futuro” (naturally in the future), I surmised that the name was the blending of “gastronomo” (gastronome or gourmet) and “astronauta” (astronaut).
These details were only important to me as my favorite pizza happened to take the name of the place, and with the menu plastered up on the wall, I wasn’t able to simply point to the item in question, but had to force my American lips to form the vowels in as pure a manner as possible.
So just what was this pizza of the future? The “Gastronauta” was topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella, Gorgonzola and green apple. That’s right – a little unconventional, but a delicious combination of savory and sweet. Frequently, I’d enter with plans of ordering one of the many other options, as the tavola calda had a wide selection, but I’d think about that pizza and more often than not, change my mind. It wasn’t a reflection on the other choices – I just liked the pizza.
TAVOLA CALDA – THE CHOICES
I ordered the round, individual-sized pizza, the classic sort presented in Italian pizzerias. There was also pizza by the meter (3.28-foot long rectangle) or by the squared-off slice, also a common form for a quick bite on the go. Many patrons enjoyed the sandwiches and what we’d call panini, which is just the Italian word for sandwiches, as well as the arancini, or fried rice balls. To me, their calzones occasionally appeared a bit pale, leaning towards a golden color, different from the pizza dough shade I was used to seeing in the US. Interestingly, when I asked the amiable server, she told me that they often used butter in the dough of their calzones. People gobbled them up, but I never tried them. As I said, I liked the pizza.
The other offerings at this tavola calda in Reggio included various pastas, casseroles, vegetables, meats and fish. The menu varied daily, but on Fridays you could count on stoccafisso (stockfish or dried Norwegian cod), a traditional dish often prepared with potatoes. Most patrons got takeout, but a number of office workers regularly came in for a customary two-course lunch, perhaps beginning with a simple penne pasta served with a tomato sauce with eggplant followed by a breaded veal cutlet and a side of escarole, or on another day maybe just a hearty dish of legumes.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
My favorite treats were their bergamot cookies, made from the marmalade of the uncommon citrus unique to Calabria. Not often available, these little gems had that simple, homemade taste. Champions of the bergamot, the proprietors hail from the town of Pellaro at the heart of the coastal area of the Province of Reggio Calabria where this distinctive fruit flourishes.
Il Gastronauta is a family-run place: father and son cooking in the back and daughter serving at the counter. The mother, who usually manned the cash register, told me they had been in the restaurant business “da una vita” (for ages). A few months ago on my last visit to Reggio, I sat down to talk with Paolo Campolo, the family patriarch and head of the business. He spoke of his plans to open up a new restaurant and pizzeria near Reggio’s soccer stadium. Called R2S, which stands for Ristorante delle Due Sicilie (Restaurant of the Two Sicilies), its focus was to be on food from the kingdom’s historical area, in other words, Southern Italy.
Chef Campolo spoke passionately about his plans to share the recipes of his culinary friends from other regions and his ideas for hosting themed events – projects that certainly merit a further look. I’ve heard that the restaurant is now open for dinner. After enjoying so many meals at their tavola calda/pizzeria, I look forward to visiting their new establishment on my next visit to Reggio. Maybe I’ll be able to eat my favorite pizza at two locations.
UPDATE: Unfortunately, particularly for those looking for a good place to eat near Reggio’s Archeological Museum, Il Gastronauta has closed. I’m going to have to search out one of the other tavola calda in Reggio Calabria on my next trip there. The family continues service at R2S near Reggio’s soccer stadium at Via Stadio a Monte, tr. VIII – #11.
Would you like to read more about life in Calabria? Check out Calabria: The Other Italy, my award-winning nonfiction book that explores daily life, culture, history, the arts, food, society and tourism of Calabria, Italy.
Do you enjoy food? I’ve eaten at many a tavola calda in Reggio when living there and on my many visits. Here are a few blogposts describing meals I enjoyed to the max – Trattoria: La Collinetta in Martone, Lunch at a Neapolitan Trattoria and Trattoria in Cosenza – and don’t miss The Bergamot: Calabria’s Incredible Citrus.
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CALABRIA: THE OTHER ITALY makes a great gift!