Friday, January 2, 2009

500 words, 5 senses, La Cantineta della Nonna (Granny's Canteen), Tuscany

There’s a hurried and slightly frantic rush to enter the restaurant before the usual 2pm lunch cutoff. The door slams behind our family of four, scooting us indoors. We hold our collective breath, hoping there would be room at the inn. We needn’t have worried – a far cry from the dour-faced welcome of an English eatery, here a space is quickly made, a table obligingly cleared and with several cheerful shouts of ‘Buon giorno’ we are welcomed with open-armed generosity as only Italians know how.

We are ushered through a dark hobbit tunnel, to the left side of which the rowdy clatter and bang of a steamy kitchen can be heard. Immediately after the kitchen, the tunnel opens out into the bright lights of the second dining room, revealing an Italian crowd gathered round eight or so tables of anything between two to eight occupants: a jolly soap opera scene. Tables of families are immersed in conversation, tucking into hearty meals, sharing deep red wines, or listening intently as waiters enthusiastically describe each separate gem on the menu with dramatic gesticulations and opulent rolling of musical vowels.

Settling into our table and gaining a sense of our surroundings I look around, noting deeply etched faces on all sides, expressions ready carved for an emotional prompt. There is the lively hum of voices without pause, bubbling like a cheerful brook. The occasional melodramatic outburst of an excited voice rises staccato above the rest, accompanied by much waving of hands. Faces are kind, smiling, laughter lines framing chestnut brown eyes and dark curls atop heads. Clothes are the autumnal palette of the Tuscan painter, rich, comforting and cozy.

An endless succession of inspiring plates of food are borne aloft as the waiters waltz past, each trailing tantalizing scents of garlic, herbs, roast meat. English mouths water shamelessly in anticipation of the first Italian meal in months, and eyes widen in glee as we turn our full attention to the important and not unenjoyable task of menu perusal. With all five senses pulled in opposing directions, it’s difficult to keep concentration for long, but I eventually choose the gnocchi con cavalo nero. We decide to share a couple of roast dishes between four – in Italy it is perilously easy to overdo it. The order is taken with many cries of appreciation and recommendation, ‘Gnocchi? Fantastico! Excelente! Buenisimo!’

My attention is caught by free entertainment provided by one family’s little toddler repeatedly tottering off on expedition back through the connecting tunnel, an intrepid and determined explorer. The entire troupe of waiters are at his beck and call: playing games, making faces, and pandering to the little tyke’s every command.

Steaming platefuls of savoury delights soon arrive, mouthfuls of featherlight gnocchi topped in a delicately flavoured, fine sliced cavalo nero sauce. Roast rabbit leg follows – rosemary, salt and garlic juice is licked off fingers just as pork ribs arrive, charred but succulent, mopping up garlicky swiss chard side. Platefuls of delightful treasure troves.

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