Forget the Frescos of Florence and the Relics of Rome, at the Tavola is where you get to experience the real Italy!
I bet you are wondering how I even arrived at this Tavola Reggiana? Most foreigners do not just travel to Italy and get let into THE most exclusive place, la casa Italiana!
So here’s the succo…
Me and Luigi met when we were both on holiday in Barcelona, a woman should never tell her age, so let us just say if we were Parmigiano, we’d have been Stravecchio.
1 cosa led to another, and I found myself booking a flight to Bologna to visit him in his hometown; Reggio nell’Emilia. Honestly, I didn’t know much about the place but if this Reggiano was anything to go by, I was sure it was going to be Molto Bello.
Our gloriously lazy Saturday started with a breakfast stop at the local’s favourite; Bar Bacone on Via Emilia, for caffe and erbazzone. If you don’t know erbazzone, it’s a pastry stuffed with spinach, other greens and Parmigiano Reggiano.
But in this town, everything comes with Parmigiano. I was half expecting my caffe in a Parmigiano cup, made by a Parmigiano Barista! (Ma no, it was just made by your usual Barista, in your usual way, va bene!)
Once we had finished our caffe and herby treat, Luigi tells me that we will next go to his house for pranzo because ‘His mother will be cooking’. (I cannot remember at this point if we were speaking in Spanish or English, but I know for sure not in Italian because my Italian was still only le Uve, not yet il Vino)
And so to my bursting excitement, one of my all-time Italian fantasies was about to be a reality…Andiamo!
We arrive at the apartment to be greeted by Cristina, Luigi’s mother, with a smile so warm and pure, I felt like I was an actual hot chocolate. It was clear that the cooking had already commenced, she was wearing an apron and a pair of glasses holding back her hair for the day’s culinary tasks.
I was also introduced to the man of the house, and then…man’s best friend, who gave one deep bark and ran off. The dog I mean! After this, la bella fratella, a smile as friendly and big as her makers.
Around the table, we spoke a little in English to break the ice. Luigi calmly laid back in his chair like it was any old Saturday lunch, and not this magical moment I was feeling inside, his communion photo decorating the shelf just behind me, like a surreal angel on my shoulder.
Not long after we were seated, Cristina arrives from the kitchen, with a pan and a serving spoon. She happily serves me a dish full of spinach Tortellini in a pastel green sauce that would be a perfect colour for a summer dress, I thought. I guess it was some kind of pesto with cream or ricotta? Whatever it was exactly, it was a piece of heaven!
I think ‘Okay, Pasta, I know this, relax.’, I look to Cristina and before I can say a thing she says: ‘Mangiare!!’
So I do as I am told (because I already know Cristina will show me the way), and I dive for the parmigiano. They look delighted and proud when I say it’s actually my favourite cheese, as if it was their formaggio baby.
Just as I am devouring my last precious piece of Tortellini, which was matching perfectly with the floor tiles, yes I am obsessed with them, a plate of roast chicken joins us on the already busy table, along with vegetables and what I am told is melanzane. These days I am more seasoned in my Italian culinary knowledge, I know this now to be Parmigiana di Melanzane.
I suddenly felt like a guest at the table in Beauty and the Beast, was a clock about to start singing? The whole spread was an edible still-life painting and I shyly asked if this was usual for a Saturday lunch. After this was translated, they all laughed and sang, in their own way, something I didn’t catch, but I guessed that it was something along the lines of; ‘Of course, what other way is there to do it?’
I felt her warm and caring nature without us even speaking in full sentences, and she had just served us a meal fit for Olympic Champions, without so much as breaking a sweat.
So why all of this effort? (Though I am not sure Cristina would call it an ‘effort’, more likely a ‘pleasure’)
La tavola is clearly very important to gli Italiani, this tradition is the glue that holds everyone together, both as a family and as individuals. The closeness and intimacy of eating together, resting, relaxing, is a thing on which they can rely on in the day.
It is a time for a deserved pause, as well as absolute acceptance of yourself and those you are with…La tavola is therapy!