The restaurant might have had a name; I certainly didn’t notice it as we were walking down an ancient cobblestone street in Piacenza, a small city south of Milan. All I remember is all of a sudden being pulled into a brightly-lit room filled with locals noisily enjoying supper. The tables were small, the walls plain, the ceiling low. It was an intimate place only the locals know.
Our hosts for the weekend had brought us to Piacenza’s old town, in a city and region renowned for its food. Incomprehensible menus were placed before us. Again, we took our cues from our hosts, letting them order for us. We were at their delightful mercy.
Before too long huge plates were placed on our table, filled with cured ham, spiced sausage, and strips of what looked like raw bacon. Names like coppa, pancetta, and salame — at least the last name was familiar, but it tasted like no salami I had had in my life. Intermingled were cheeses, crackers and bread, with exotic names and flavours I had never tried before. Washed down with wonderful red wine that effortlessly matched the food.
And all of it was local — produced a few miles, at most, from the restaurant. All of it the product of literally thousands of years of testing, experimenting, and perfecting what could be done with the meat of the humble pig.
I can’t really describe what we ate next. Plate upon plate of different meats, sauces, pastas. You quickly realize spaghetti and lasagna are the smallest tip of a very large iceberg that is Italian cuisine. I can say, though, that among the dishes was the best horse and donkey meat I have ever tried (and am likely to ever try again).
And it was all mixed together with that most fundamental of spices — human interaction. We didn’t speak a word of Italian, but were soon drawn into the laughter and songs we heard that night. This was a family restaurant, in the old sense of the word — a mix of little kids playing with toys, grandparents quietly enjoying a glass of wine, young lovers courting, and everyone in between having a good, noisy time.
We learned a lot that weekend from our hosts, who lived in a small village outside Piacenza. From their hillside home they pointed to rolling hills spreading far and away. At that one, they said, locals make a kind of blue cheese; another kind was made over there, a few kilometres away. They make one kind of wine on that hillside, and the pizza on that hill is different from the pizza in the valley below.
It was overwhelming and awe-inspiring. Micro-farms and hyper-local producers meant a universe of foods can be explored — foods that you will never find in Canada, or in the rest of Europe, or even in other parts of northern Italy. They are out there, and I would love the opportunity to seek them out again.