Though a bit of time has passed since I last visited a gastronomia, the sweet nostalgia of balmy Italian summers spent popping in and out of these vibrant stores remains embedded in my memory. On one sweltering summer’s day in the verdant north Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, my family and I found ourselves sprawled across the sofa of our shaded yet densely humid holiday apartment, following a morning spent sunbathing by the local pool. As the clock struck midday, I dared to utter the question that had been hanging at the edge of my lips since the second we’d stepped through the front door–“so, what are we making for lunch?” A communal groan echoed around the room as we unanimously agreed it was far too hot to bother cooking. My aunt suggested we instead buy a selection of ready-made meals from one of the nearby gastronomie, so we slowly but surely hurled our lethargic bodies off the sofa, and scurried out the door. Found in every town across Italy, no matter how small, and nestled in the heart of Italian culture, le gastronomie are delightfully quaint and colourful food stores that serve an abundance of homemade regional dishes, priced often by weight and ready to be eaten, if not right then and there, after a quick reheating.
After a short stroll through the town’s enchanting cobbled streets, we encountered the simple, radiant beauty that is a gastronomia. Its creamy yellow exterior seemed to mirror the town’s sun-drenched landscapes, and a tiny bell chimed as we entered through the shop door. The same kind lady who serves us each year recognised our faces instantly and welcomed us in with a warm smile, as she, my mother, and a couple of elderly locals chatted merrily amongst themselves. The store’s interior was a wholesome display of rustic wooden décor, infused with a plethora of vibrant produce. There were thick, succulent slabs of cured meat hanging from the ceiling, shelves stacked with neatly-presented jam jars and rows of wrapped sugary treats surrounded by a backdrop of sleek wooden-panelled walls. Delicate floral decorations brightened each corner of the room, and the shop glistened with a soothing elegance.
A glass L-shaped counter exhibited an array of traditional sweet and savoury produce, from portions of soft torta di patate (a type of potato cake popular in the provinces of Parma and Piacenza), to clusters of circular anolini (a meat-stuffed pasta typically served with broth in the Emilia Romagna region), bowls of a poignant-green pesto, an impressive selection of cheeses in a multitude of round, rectangular and triangle-shaped forms, and a pretty collection of intricately-decorated cakes. As my eyes relished each corner of this mouth-watering display, the familiar scent of Parmigiano Reggiano whisked passed my nostrils and lingered through the cool air. But it wasn’t until I spotted the pillow-like squares of oily focaccia, that a pure flicker of joy swept through my rumbling stomach.
Other traditional, not-to-miss dishes on display within the gastronomie of Emilia Romagna include green slices of torta d’erbe–a tender savoury cake filled with spinach leaves and sandwiched between flaky pieces of pastry, often made in the agricultural towns of Parma province–and for those with a sweet tooth a classic crostata di prugne–a fruity homemade tart layered with a thick spread of plum jam, covered by a criss-cross of pastry strips.
But gastronomie aren’t only to be enjoyed during the summer months–thankfully, these bountiful stores usually offer their services–adapted to the season’s offerings–all year round. Varied selections of small savoury cakes, simple pastas or salads, or hearty slabs of cured meat can be the perfect addition to a dinner party with friends or a meal for one.
The many gastronomie I’ve had the pleasure of visiting amongst the mountainous towns of Emilia Romagna ooze with a warm local charm. Their distinct sense of community and authentic readymade meals, crafted using the finest ingredients and traditional recipes, render these petite stores a unique contrast to larger chain supermarkets. One might visit a gastronomia to support local business while encountering the welcoming glow of familiar faces, to search for exquisite homemade dishes that are specific to a particular region, or to purchase pre-prepared meals that require minimal effort to heat up on a lazy afternoon. Le gastronomie are an artful intertwining of practicality, simplicity and culinary tradition.
Picking only a few items seemed an impossible task. I could have spent hours gazing at each piece of carefully-crafted produce in this museum-like haven of traditional Emilia-Romagnan cuisine. As my sister and I had been so indecisively dithering on which meals to choose, my mother decided to purchase a variety of fish and pasta dishes, with a hearty side of fresh, crusty bread. The truth is, she could have selected any of the appetising dishes on display in that heavenly shop, and we still would have devoured it all with tremendous enthusiasm. To me, le gastronomie hold a traditional yet innately unique edge. They are timeless, character-enriched stores, brimming with authentic cuisine and a gloriously warm, friendly atmosphere. Even as time goes by, their authentic produce and joyous charm remain unchanged, and I would forgo a meal at the most starred of restaurants for a visit to the humble, local gastronomia.