Sunday, 21 July 2019

Enough (Part 1)

Almost thirty years ago I first visited a restaurant, Antica Osteria L'Agania, in Arezzo.

I have written before on this blog as to how it was my favourite restaurant in the whole world, and it was.

It had the look of a typical Italian Trattoria. Dark wood half panelling on the walls, with emulsioned walls above decorated with photographs of famous visitors or testimonials from famously satisfied customers. Together with sepia portraits of past padroni. 

Rickety chairs and tables, the latter covered with red chequered tablecloths with cutlery and napery already in place. You couldn't book and had to turn upon a first come first served basis but the treat ahead justified an early arrival or a long wait for a table.

The whole establishment was presided over by a formidable signora who, even when I first visited, was already of a certain age. She would take your order from a a menu that, despite having a virtual infinity of combinations, consisted of a much photocopied single sheet of A4, with dishes added or deleted according to the season. Antipasto, that was all. Della Casa. Which it would have been a crime to omit. Brushcette, local hams and cheeses, small torte, perhaps a miniature frittata which you suspect varied day to day according to the mood or inclination of the chef. But that was, of course, only the appetiser.

As for the pasta? Six choices, all fatta in casa, together with a similarly numerous choice of sauces with which to combine them. But the discerning diner passed on them all, for, at this stage, the real treat was zuppa. Minestrone or fagioli or...............ribollita. Ribollita to die for. More, truly, a vegetable stew than a soup, for liquid, other than soaked into  the vegetables themselves, was hard to come by. All topped with a single raw young onion, stalk and all, not to be consumed in its entirety but nibbled to refresh the pallet.

And then? The secondi. Roasts or grills or stews of almost bacchanalian choice. But with two personal favourites. Funghi, huge, "portobello" mushrooms grilled or more likely fried in a pan matching the dimension of the mushroom head itself  and...........coniglio in porchetta. Rabbit, stuffed with chopped egg, surplus rabbit meat and every herb known to mankind, all bound together by twine around fennel stalks and then coated in olive oil to keep it moist and so slow roasted you suspected they may have first placed it in the oven while you were still back in Scotland.

And contorni? Di stagione of course but I always opted for the fagioli bianchi. "Butter beans" that did actually taste of butter and were improved even further by the local olive oil.

And while all this was going on? The signora would take your order, nodding, or occasionally frowning, at your choice and, as you ate, inquire "tutto bene?" at polite intervals. If any dish went unfinished only "posto" was an acceptable response. Even about the onion.

I don't ever remember seeing a wine list. The wine was always simply Rosso or Bianco although you always got the impression that anybody opting for the latter would mark them down in the signora's estimation. I always passed that test.

For the dolce?

Frutta or Macedonia certainly, but personally I always opted for Panna Cotta. Those who know me will also know I am a creature of habit in that regard.

And with coffee and (of course) an amarro, the meal was done.

And then for the bill.

The Osteria was five minutes walk from the provincial court in Arezzo's main square. So it became quickly apparent midweek that many of your fellow diners included judges, lawyers and policemen with business there. You would therefor assume it would all be done by the book. Formal invoicing and receipts.

Only it never was. At best, a price would be written on a scrap of paper. Commonly, the signora would simply whisper it in your ear. Always far less than you expected and, equally always, ridiculously cheap. And, without saying, only to be paid in cash.

Hopefully, by now, you will understand how much I loved this place.

I also love, very much,this part of Italy. So much so that I visit it more or less every other year.

Andi and I had been there two years ago but had never got to Arezzo on that occasion.

So we returned this year for the first time in three years.

The place looked the same but even an early arrival found it strangely empty.

There was no signora and while the young man who served us seemed perfectly pleasant we were rather taken aback to be given menus not of the A4 sheet but rather laminated pre printed card. The dishes seemed the same but, ominously, also featured English translations. A wine list was also handed over from which the continued survival of a house wine had to be carefully worked out.

The antipasto consisted of, on the one hand, nothing that you couldn't have bought in Lidl in Kilsyth but even then in meagre quantity disguised by half a plateful of Panzanella.

Andi opted for a mushroom as a primo. She actually got several small mushrooms that would, to be fair, have provided a reasonable garnish to a full Scottish breakfast. I had the ribollita, which was alright but under seasoned and the whole onion bulb and stalk had been  replaced with a quarter of.....a raw onion.

Andi's roast duck was utterly tasteless while my coniglio was lacking stuffing of any sort and over roasted to the point of tasting, and having the consistency of, sawdust.

As for the fagioli bianchi? I suspect they came out of a tin.

All brought to us efficiently but indifferently, even when it was clear we had eaten so little of the main course.

But, almost more to the point, the whole establishment, where people used to queue to get in, remained no more than half full throughout. And those who were eating were almost entirely tourists, lured, one suspects, by historic tripadvisor reviews. The local lawyers and the like were clearly well gone.

The "new management", which we had only now encountered, was obviously already well known to them.

There was a proper bill and, to be fair, it wasn't expensive, although still more than in years gone by.

From the street the establishment looked the same but it wasn't the same. In truth nothing like the same. I doubt if I will ever be back.

I'm really quite upset about that.

Now, you say, why does a guy who writes mainly about politics write about this?

That's what the (Part 1) in the title is about.












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