Nonantola, Italy, tasted on March 25, 2004 — While we were
planning our trip to Italy, my mom read an article in a magazine
about "the best pasta restaurant in the world". Honestly, I've
decided I'm bad at judging which restaurants to go to based on
recommendations from various websites and publications. My success
has been pretty inconsistent in picking which sources to trust and
which not to trust. But something about this article told me to go
Osteria di Rubbiara, and I'm glad I did. More than a restaurant,
Osteria di Rubbiara is an institution
founded in 1862 and continuously run since then by the Pedroni
family. Today it's run by father and son,
I arrived on time at the restaurant, but our travelmates were nowhere to
be found. Italo, the father, reputed to be a bit of a sourpuss seemd to
live up to his reputation. I've forgotten what it was in response to,
but his first word to us was "no". With every minute that passed we
worried that he would throw our asses out of there as our friends hadn't
arrived. Apparently having your cel phone ring in the restaurant is
grounds for permanent dismissal. Our friends finally showed up super
late blaming mid-day traffic jams. We wouldn't have believed them but
Italy is such a weird place. People drive like maniacs, but everyone's
late. And if you're worried about getting somewhere on time
accidentally, don't worry, at any moment the truck drivers will go on
strike and block roads by parking their semis in the middle of highways.
This was the excuse our friends used. Needless to say we were just happy
that Italo Pedroni tolerated our presence and their lateness. We'd come
a long way to try this pasta, and we weren't going to turn around now.
The menu was fixed and the food served family style.
Just the way we like it. First up was a heaping tray of
Ricotta and Herb Filled Tortelloni. These were beautifully butter,
not geasy. The were super light and packed with savory ricotta. They
were like puffy light cheese clouds - big but light. And of course, they
gone in a heartbeat.
We got more of Italo's attitude on a couple of fronts.
He made a point of serving the men first. When
Lauren said she was a
vegetarian his response was: "it's not that you can't eat meat, it's
that you won't." The pasta was so good that we didn't dare step out of
Strighetti with Meat Ragu was our next dish. We got "mountain
parmesan" from Casa Selcatica near Berceto on the side. It was still
white and creamy even after two years of aging. The ragu sauce was good,
not superb, but definitely good. However, the pasta itself (independent
of the sauce) was pretty fantastic. It was light, delicate, and butter.
Quite simply it was some of the best pasta I've ever had. It was light,
present, and flavorful. I'll admit I've never had that kind of an
experience before where the pasta itself was so uniquely special that it
made such an impression on me. But this pasta did just that.
Next up was a big 'plate-o-meat'.
Chicken with golden crispy juicy skin, pork ribs, pork cutlet, and
pancetta, were all heaped together. The food was rustic, hearty, juicy,
savory, and just yummy. I don't know why we were surprised that they'd
deliver such great roasted meat given their reputation for pasta, but we
were. Needless to say, our surprise was a pleasant one. In some ways I
was even more psyched with the dish full of
roast potatoes also adorned with pancetta and it's respective yummy
oil. There was a picture up on the wall of some vinegar. Peyman asked
Italo about a picture of vinegar on the well. Misunderstanding his
question, he went off, retrieved some of the (famous) house vinegar and
then returned to drizzle it generously all over our potatoes. I'm
embarassed to say that it never would have occurred to me to drizzle
balsamic over roast potatoes and bacon, but it came out incredibly. Just
tart, and roasted, and fatty (in a good way), and smokey. The potatoes
were herby and soft and super.
Some more observations. We got some
bread. It was the same dry floury crap that we got in most places in
this region of the country. An epiphany I had was that in Italy olive
oil is basically like ketchup in America. They put it on everything. And
it usually makes things better.
When dinner was over out came an
array of homemade liqueurs. These were laid down matter of factly
one after another. The included blueberry, walnut, ortiche, archibugio,
apricot, and orange. Peyman
liked the apricot. Alex
liked the orange. Dessert also arrived. The
cheese/sponge cake was sweet and dense but light and moist. Most of
all it was good. The
walnut meringue cookies were super walnuty, crunchy and good. The
coconut brownie was extra moist and also quite good. At one point Italo
yelled "cafe" out to the kitchen we almost dropped our brownies. It was
at this point that I wondered if Italo's attitude was a shtick. Later
when we took pictures with him and his son he softened and seemed to me
like a sweetheart. I was pretty positive it was all part of the Rubbiara
Speaking of the Rubbiara experience, it wouldn't have
been complete if we hadn't tried their complement of house vinegars. I
don't think we realized how renowned their vinegars were until we got
back to the states with our luggage chock full of them. Their
commercial quality vinegar was raisiny, sweet, and sharp. Super
basic (blue) tradizionale vinegar (this and the following ones are
regulated by the local regional authority) was 12 years old, and had
elements of prune. It was sharp and bright. The
gold level was 25 years old and was half way between the two we'd
tried but viscous and somehow smoother. There was also the 'Cesare'
named after Giuseppe's great great grandfather. Fifty years old and $175
per bottle with only 100 bottles produced per year. I own one and still
haven't had the guts to open it and try it with anything.
We walked out of there bags filled with vinegars and
liqueurs. But most of all we walked out really happy as the food was
truly special and somehow just the right amount. I admit, that when I
think about our trip to Italy this is one of the restaurants I miss the
most. There was something so natural and simple about the quality of the
food that made it an incredibly genuine experience. Having eaten at
quite a few restaurants over the past few years, simple and genuine high
quality experiences can be few and far between. When you find one, enjoy
every minute of it.