It was a chilly Tuesday afternoon in a giant shopping center in Verona, Italy, and there was a feast before me: a plate of tagliatelle strewn with saffron, spec and mushroom; oversized raviolis packed with scampi and artichoke. The raviolis on my friend's plate were stuffed with polenta and ossobuco. It was disorienting to be in a mall because this was some of the most excellent pasta I'd eaten in recent memory.
You might scoff, but remember: this is Italy, where the only thing fast about the food – even in a food court – is its ability to please. The eatery, across from a picture-perfect display of produce in a country-style supermarket, is one of 23 Giovanni Rana quick-service restaurants scattered throughout the country. In standard food court fashion, we waited in line to order at the counter and watch short-order cooks prepare dishes in a small open kitchen. There wasn't much standard beyond that.
The raviolis, each a dimpled parcel of intense flavor, had that delicate pillowlike quality that tempts you to dig in with a spoon, as if poking it with a fork would be abusive. The pasta could easily pass for something an aged Italian grandparent prepared, adroitly yet swiftly, thanks to decades of practice. In a funny way, that's sort of the case. I was drawn to this eatery because I'd heard that the facility where the pasta is made is mere miles away, so in a way it felt like drinking bourbon in Kentucky or eating Prince Edward Island oysters on the Canadian bay.
If it sounds silly – sacrilege, even – to talk about a pasta factory in Italy, one that sends its goods to dozens of countries around the globe, no less, consider this: Giovanni Rana, the almost 80-year-old patriarch whose smiling mug is all over the pasta's packages, is hardly just a figurehead. One woman who worked at my hotel told me he's the most popular man in town, after the Pope. His company has its roots in his entrepreneurial grit when, as a teenager after World War II, he made tortellini out of his family's home. As the story goes, more women were working and handmade pasta was starting to seem like a treat, not tradition. Enter: Rana with a secondhand motorbike for his nascent delivery business. Decades later, it's a massive global enterprise with patents on all sorts of pasta-making machinery. It's the stuff of folklore, except when it's true.
This was all stuff I learned the prior day when my friend and I took a pasta class at the facility, a reminder of how much practice it takes to turn flour, water, salt and eggs into lunch. Later, when I was wandering through Verona's medieval cobblestoned streets of the city, it struck me how fitting that story is to this city, where tradition and creativity intersect. Verona, you might say, is one of the more modest of Italy's cities, easily overshadowed by the energetic swagger of Rome, the mythic splendor of Florence, the romance of Venice, or the high-style elegance of Milan. What Verona does have is a palpable fortitude and wisdom, evident everywhere, especially in the architecture. The city itself is a UNESCO Heritage Site because so many ancient buildings endure here. The amphitheater, built in the first century and Italy's third largest today, is not least among them. It's incredible to look at them knowing that the structure was already ancient when Napoleon and his army occupied the city in 1797.
When Dante was exiled from his native Florence in the early 1300s, he found sanctuary in Verona, where he worked to write "Paradiso," the last part of "The Divine Comedy." In it he praises and thanks "thine earliest refuge"; a stately statue of the writer in a pensive pose stands in Piazza Dante. And, of course, Shakespeare set his most famous love story here.
The food in Verona, fittingly, is very much in keeping with Northern Italian traditions, which is to say hearty, stick-to-the-gut fare. (Like I said: fortitude and wisdom.) Broths and wines tend to be favored by chefs over tomatoes, and chopped herbs are the preferred flavoring agent. Nowhere is that more evident than at Bottega dei Vini, though it's said there's been an inn on the site as early as the 16th century. Today it's owned by a consortium of 11 winemakers, who resuscitated the tavern when it shuttered in the summer of 2010. Its cozy old-world charm is very much unspoiled. The walls are lined with shallow shelves crammed with wine bottles as a library's would be with books. Thousands of bottles are stowed in the seemingly endless, labyrinthine catacomb-like wine cellar, which served as a bomb shelter during World War II. (The facade of the building was, in fact, bombed and replaced after the war.)
I got the sense that the sepia-toned dining room's wood benches have born witness to centuries of travelers' rowdy chatter and lovers' sighs. The pub-like warmth of the place was one thing, but when I tried the risotto all'Amarone, one of the region's signatures, it was easy to understand why it's known to have been a stop for everyone from Hemingway to Berlusconi and why people were up in arms when the place closed in 2010.
A waiter told me they have a saying in the region: rice is born into the water and dies into the wine. If a starch has to die – and in Italy, it certainly shouldn't – there are worse ways to go than by Amarone. The wine, made a bit north of the city, is known for its rich sweetness, the result of the producers drying some of the grapes for months – nearly to raisins – to concentrate the sugars. It yields an intensely aromatic wine with opulent fruit notes such as berry and plum and a high level of alcohol (about 15 percent), all of which makes for intriguing use in the kitchen. Cooking off the alcohol mutes the sweet fruitiness, giving the rice a tang and depth of flavor. The robustness warmed me more effectively than my down jacket on this freezing winter night.
But that meal could have been considered "light" compared to the next day's dinner at Locanda Castelvecchio. Opened as a delicatessen in 1831, today it has the air of an antique collector's drawing room, with portraits of noblemen on the wall, cherubic sculptures perched in corners, bulky drapes, and ornate candelabras and crystal decanters strewn throughout. There's a ceremonial aspect to the proceedings here: everyone at the table was given a small plate of fettuccine, made with "egg, flour, and hands," our waiter informed us. Four sauces – rather, accoutrements – were placed in the middle so we could dress the nude noodles ourselves – peas and carrots, chicken livers, ragu bianco, and a simple tomato sauce. But that veneer of propriety and restraint fell away when the trolley of roast meats arrived tableside. It featured enough protein to feed an entire NFL team, and probably the water boys and physical therapists, too. Roast beef, roast veal, oven-baked Prague ham and boiled shoulder blade of beef, calf's head, tongue au naturel, cured tongue, and a few more. There was salsa verde in a pewter gravy boat, horseradish sauce and apple chutney. This is what the Veronese call Sunday dinner. I call it a week's worth of leftovers.
The staff – working with a solemnity well beyond their youthful ages – exhibited quiet focus as they sliced and arranged each person's serving to his or her specifications. As the chef carved the roast beef, the waiter said to me: "See how his head always stays at the same point when he cuts a piece? Just his shoulders move."
Afterward, my friend and I set out on a walk in an attempt to stave off an acute onset of gout. It was wintertime and closing in on 10 p.m., but one of Verona's renowned holiday fairs was still going strong in the Piazza delle Erbe, originally the site of the Roman forum. We bought hot mulled wine, ladled into a plastic cup from a crockpot, and took furtive sniffs of some prized white truffles that a merry vendor kept in a sealed box.
Across the square down a small cobblestoned side street around the corner from a brashly lit bank, a handful of hipsters in leather jackets were smoking outside a glass facade with a door marked "Archivo: House of Craft Cocktails and Beer" in dramatic script. The bar was barely bigger than a quarter of a tennis court. Wafts of orange zest hung in the air, Depeche Mode played, and retro Italian fashion magazines were piled here and there. Cocktails, mostly original, were written on a chalkboard. Tequila, gin, bourbon, and rum recipes were all accounted for. I asked the young bartender for the Campari/Bonal/creme de cacao/rye/coffee cordial/bitter orange drink. He constructed it with surgical precision and handed it over after with a wink, as if to remind me that cocktails transcended our language barrier. It had a stereophonic intensity, with the cacao's sweetness playing off the rye's peppery spice and Campari's distinctive bitterness. They were classic ingredients thrown together in a way that seemed thoroughly modern, not unlike the city itself.
(Liza Weisstuch is the senior editor at Budget Travel.)
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