“This chicken has barbecue sauce on it,” I say to my wife.
We’re eating take-out for lunch, a few chicken legs, roasted potatoes, some bietole, and grilled zucchini. All this for 20 euro from a place in Santarcangelo. I also picked up a bottle of Sangiovese for 5 euro from a street vendor. This weekend is Festa di San Martino. The whole town is an outdoor market. I love this place.
“I don’t think so,” she says.
“I think it is. What’s this red stuff?” On the skin, a light red, or more accurately, a vaguely reddish stain offers at least the visual indication of something BBQ-ey. If it’s barbecue sauce, it’s subtle. So subtle as to be something quite different. Lacking in smoke, Lacking sugar. Lacking in all the crucial ingredients that make barbecue sauce barbecue sauce. I know just the idea of barbecue sauce grosses her out.
“It’s sauce,” she says. “But not barbecue.”
The boys had barbecue the other night at Osteria Fofo, I tell her. We were out with friends. Right there on the menu, in English, the word barbecue.
I say, “Barbecue must be becoming a thing over here.”
She says I’m just trying to annoy her. All right, I am. Because I know full well this chicken is baked, not grilled, and at the rosticceria where we bought it, I saw the server ladle a tablespoon of sauce over the container; a light tomato sauce that probably consisted of only chicken fat, a little olive oil, and tomato. That’s all it is.
She peels the skin off, pushes it to the edge of her plate, says not to me but to no one in particular, “It’s really good.”
Is it ever.
Probably every town over here has its rosticceria (roast-EACH-er-EE-ah), bigger towns more than one, cities a bunch of them, enabling you to eat in without having to cook. You eat in as well as you eat out, at half the cost. Up the street from the hotel where we stay in Florence is a rosticceria that beckons me every time I walk past it. Years ago down in Rimini, on Via Pascoli, Tizi’s cousin took us to a place that had, as they say over here, tutto il bene di Dio, all the good God has to offer, which in practical terms means all the good an Italian home cook might set on your table. Rabbit roast? Are you kidding?
Typically when we arrive in Italy, we indulge in 4-5 day orgy of restaurant eating. That gets expensive. And we eat too much. Then comes eat-in from the rosticceria. Then home cooking. Today is Tuesday. Just outside our apartment door, Marco Stancchini will set up his fruit and vegetable market, 7:00 – 1:00 p.m in the piazza. Tomorrow I’ll cook, for sure.
In this region, when it comes to sauces, less is more. Around here they believe good food with good ingredients speaks for itself. The primi piatti you see are not inundated in heavy sauces. Meat is meat, fish is fish, side dishes of vegetables and salads that are fresh and local do not need any help. If there’s a theme in the cuisine, it’s simplicity.
When the server in Santarcangelo hands me the bietole, a kind of chard, she tells me they are “scondite.” Meaning not seasoned. When I get them home, I’ll dice a few cloves of garlic into olive oil, lightly saute the greens, and add a little salt. Bene.
Scondita (scon-DEE-tah). It’s the second time I’ve heard that word in two days. The other night, Tizi sent me into a restaurant to find our server after we’d ordered to make sure her salad came without dressing. The server said, in so many words, no worries, the insalata would be scondita. It always is. That’s why you find olive oil and balsamic on the table. Do it yourself, as much or as little as you want.
In Italian the s- prefix makes a word negative–condita, scondita. You see the cond, you can think “condiment” in English. Your food will not arrive slathered with a dressing or sauce you do not want. If not scondita, then only lightly condita.
Wait, an exception–
Last night, at a pizzeria in Rimini called Montecavallo, we split an order of polenta al ragu. (Split–it’s part of the eat-a-little-less program.) Polenta, a corn flour mush, is wet, and they most definitely DO slather it with sauce, in this case a meat ragu. You eat polenta with a soup spoon. We can and must eat polenta, a cold weather food, when we are here.
But Tizi’s salad last night arrived scondita, except for a little honey that was part of the mix. There was local extra virgin olive oil on the table. At one point, she looked up at me and said, “Olive oil and honey. Remember that.”
What pizza did we have?
We did not order pizza, except for the fornarina (shown above), a thin bare pizza they bring to the table in a basket. It’s like bread. Well, it is bread.
In this pizzeria (osteria) you have other choices. I had a boneless (disossato) rabbit cooked with apple, prunes, and speck. With the rabbit, a glass of “prugneto,” a local Sangiovese of which the winemaker or someone remarks, “In bocca, la freschezza si unisce a tannini morbidi e note di viola, ciliegia e prugna, con un retrogusto speziato e persistente.” I do not much like winespeak, but in Italian it is nothing if not seductive. Soft tannins, notes of violets, prune, and cherry, with a spicy persistent finish.
And finish it I did.