Yesterday, my husband, Alle, and I accompanied his sister and her family and another friend for lunch in le colline di Canossa, the foothills of the Apennine mountains which surround the Canossa castles in the Reggio Emilia province.
We left home around 11:30, under grey and gloomy skies, with a mist drifting around the tops of the palazzi of our neighborhood. As we drove out toward the hills, Alle and I chatted about the scenery, how nice it was that the colors of the trees had turned and not fallen immediately, and how I am strangely appreciative of the grey, cold weather. As we approached Puianello, the fog began to break and allow the first hints of sun to shine through.
We drove on through the outskirts of the town where a small market was open for the coming holidays. It seemed that everyone for miles around was coming to sample the wares on offer, but we continued on our way, following his brother-in-law's car as it bypassed the town, continuing for the hills.
Soon enough, we were ascending narrow, steep roads which made my ears pop and my sinuses press uncomfortably against my skull (not the best idea to travel these roads when one has a slight cold, I've duly noted). Some of these roads are barely wide enough for two cars to pass one another without "kissing" (which is how some call it when the rear-view mirrors on the driver's side doors touch), some are, in fact, not wide enough, which forces one driver to back up to a wider spot in the road so the other can pass. Luckily, Italian drivers are, as a general rule, skilled enough to manage this, even on the twisting mountain roads.
I usually just close my eyes and pray while Alle maneuvers the car in these instances.
We climbed ever upward and the panorama spread out below us in rich browns, reds, yellows and the last vivid greens, until the scene faded into the fog still covering the plains. The switchback roads in many areas of the hills are amazingly steep and tight turns, leaving little or no room for error, and frequently leading to motion sickness for passengers regardless of where they sit in the car.
Naturally – inevitably – I found myself a tad woozy, but there was no opportunity to go slower as we were trying to keep up with the other car. I found my bearings soon enough, and for a while the roads smoothed out and followed the ridges of the hills, jumping from one to another, rising, falling, swooping and climbing along until we had covered nearly thirty kilometers and had passed alongside the Canossa castle ruins, skirted the area surrounding Castello Rossena, and then, around one p.m., we found ourselves in the tiny town of Vedriano. The roads into Vedriano are fairly straight, especially compared to those we'd traveled to get there. However, they also plummet quite straight down from the crest of the hill, toward Pietranera, which was our ultimate goal.
Or, rather, Trattoria Pietranera, was.
The restaurant was busy – almost fully packed – and our group of six people was seated immediately. The service was a tad slow compared to many other places, but I can only say this:
The wait – any wait – was worth it, here.
Our meal was simple, really, but didn't feel as though it was. Everyone could order individually (some places offer "family-style" meals, with a common serving dish), so we got to sample a wider variety of dishes – and every dish was shared.
First dishes included: cappelletti in brodo, tortelli verde (ravioli with green filling made with spinach and Parmigiano Reggiano, mostly), tortelli di radicchio, and pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale (wide flat pasta with wild boar sauce).
The pappardelle were mine – and the sauce was the best ragù I'd had in a long, long time. I could have eaten another plate of the pasta, easily. Having been slow-cooked, the boar was tender and so savory I wished I'd set aside more of my bread so I could get every last drop of the sauce. Alas, I had to leave some behind on my plate.
Second dishes included: cinghiale in umido (stewed wild boar) and faraona arrosto (roast guineafowl), with salad, deep-fried zucchini and potatoes on the side.
At this point, I thought I'd cry "Uncle!" – or, should that be "Zio!" – but then the desserts were offered. I chose torta cioccolatino (that's not an error, that's what they called it), a moist, almost wet chocolate cake with powdered sugar and a rich chocolate sauce drizzled over it. Alle and his sister both chose the torta di tagliatelle, a cake made with almonds and, yes, the pasta in the name. Her husband chose the zuppa inglese (English soup), a layered dessert with chocolate cream, egg custard and a sponge cake layer which has been soaked in a dessert liqueur called Alchermes.
We sat and talked after our meal, some of us having a small glass of nocino (a walnut-based liqueur), the others simply drinking water and allowing ourselves to digest before we had our caffè and made our way home.
As usual, we stood around outside, enjoying the cold air and allowing it to further invigorate us. Even in the hills, evening starts setting in early at this time of year, so we chatted and let the three-year-old work off some excess energy before packing ourselves into our vehicles and making the long drive home.
We wound along a different route this time, one a little more direct and slightly less inclined to induce motion-sickness. As we descended from the hills, the fog reached out for us once again, and our new route took us along the river, through Ciano d'Enza, skirting the hills, now shrouded in early evening mists. By the time we got home, it was nearly dark, the fog now swirling ghostlike around the streetlamps when we got out of our car and went inside for good.
I found myself at the window while I brewed some tea, watching the night settle, the headlights of the cars fanning out ahead on my street, people bundled up against the cold and damp while they walked their dogs or strolled home.
Every year when the long nights come I fall in love with this place all over again. I can't help myself: this is when Italy is at her most beautiful, for me. The sumptuous meals, the jovial conversation, the brisk, refreshing air – what more could I possibly ask for?
If I ever think of something, I'll be sure to let you know.