I love reading menus. Whenever we travel and are staying in town to eat I make it a habit of reading as many menus as I can when walking passed restaurants. Just about every town has at least one dish that shows up on every menu. In Verona, it’s bigoli pasta, one of my favourite shapes, a spaghetti on steroids about 2.5 mm in diameter.
Bigoli is a pasta to be cooked from a freshly made dough. The thickness of the pasta means a dried version would be overcooked on the outside with the inside too al dente. Freshly extruded pasta bigoli cooks perfectly with a uniform chewiness and density. This makes it a perfect shape to tackle any ragù and with its rough brass extruded surface can pick up pesto of truffle or basil beautifully as well as lighter sauces.
Hostaria La Vecchia Fontanina
Verona streets are lined with restaurants offering all sorts of good food from street food to very high-end plates. All we were looking for was a place with interesting food at a reasonable price and that’s when I walked up to the menu at Hostaria Vecchia Fontanina in Verona. It only took a quick scan of the menu and I knew I wanted to eat there. The menu is simple, to the point and was obviously being cooked from the heart. Bigoli headlined the primi section and everything sounded wicked.
“This is it!” I declared turning away not to spoil the rest of the menu like a movie trailer. “We’ll eat here tonight!” And without pause continued on our way.
Fight our way in the door
At eight that evening we returned to fight our way in the door to a packed room. The staff looked under duress and it didn’t look like we would get a table. The back dining rooms were packed and there were at least eight people waiting at the bar. Seeing an opportunity I quickly ordered a couple of Aperol spritz, to secure our position. Seconds later another group pushed their way in the door but we had taken the last spot of the night.
Where to put us
The only problem was where to put us which was quickly fixed by emptying the table beside the kitchen door and across from the bar. A private table nestled in its own corner cut off from the bustling noise and mayhem of the dining room. The table where the owner could sit and pay his bills during the day and have staff meal when closed. Tonight the table was filled with the baggage of a film crew that was tying up a dinner service that was struggling to begin.
Waiting for things to calm down
We sat patiently with our drinks waiting for things to calm down and the film crew to exit. Never missing an opportunity I slipped the English speaking server, Donatella, a Cook Not Mad sticker letting her know what we were up to with camera and questions at the ready. Instantly she ran to the kitchen and returned with the Chef who was very excited that another Chef, from Canada no less, was there to eat his food. Shaking his hand I noticed the film crew bearing down on us and before I knew it I was standing in front of the camera being asked a few questions about why I was there, in Italian (of course). It was all good fun and I even got a plug for ACNM squeezed in.
Our private nook
Spotlights off and cameras gone, we settled into our private nook with our first dish of warm pear flan covered in shavings of Monte Veronese cheese. To dip our foot in the local wine we ordered a glass each of Corvina and Ripasso to taste.
Next up the dish that caught my eye earlier in the day, bigoli with horse ragù and for Nat bigoli with nettle pesto and smoked ricotta. The pasta was cooked perfectly and worked wonders with both sauces.
Enjoyment and appreciation
Our enjoyment and appreciation were translated back to the kitchen and before we knew it Chef Marco reappeared holding another large plate of sliced horse sirloin with truffle bearnaise sauce and polenta with a paper thin slice of lardo melting on top. The combinations were rich and deserved more wine, time for a bottle of that tasty Ripasso.
What a night
What a night at Hostaria La Vecchia Fontanina, we came for simple pasta and got a superb complimentary dish and an interview with a film crew but before we could swab the last bit of truffle sauce off the plate another was put down. Beef cheek braised in Amarone wine plunked on a pillow of polenta. It was decadently rich but apparently just a warm-up for the small dish of pearà that Chef Marco brought out again personally to check in and see how we liked everything.
Best and most honest food
Fuelled by drinks and good wine my response was enhanced but accurate as being some of the best and most honest food we had eaten in Italy. He understood that I knew how passionately he worked as a cook. For him, and luckily for us, he enjoyed cooking for an appreciative audience, that’s why he thought we had to try his pearà. A hardcore cucina povera dish from this area, it’s a slow cooked reduction of strong meat broth and bread crumbs. Cooked for hours, lubricated with the odd shot of wine to keep things wet enough, it eventually cooks down into a smooth purée, enhanced near the end with grated Parmigiano Reggiano. It’s a traditional accompaniment to bolito misto and the most amazing savoury pudding ever.
Cheeks were amazing!” I proclaimed to the server which she put down to the Amarone wine in the sauce and relayed in Italian directly to the kitchen.
Alone again with an empty table after a wave of food. The end of our bottle now in our glasses. The generosity and kindness of our host and Chef Marco had blown us away along with the rest of his staff. The mood was upbeat and lively. The action at the bar combined with the busy Chef in and out of the kitchen made for quite a scene.
In the kitchen
Seeing my chance I stood up to pop my head in the kitchen to say thanks and was treated like the winning quarterback in the locker room. Huge fans of Canada and heavily rocking the buzz of a big night, the boys were kindred spirits. Leaning over the big pot of pearà. We all laughed like witches as Chef Marco picked up a huge spoonful from the pot to show me how reduced it was, explaining how it was tended to carefully so it would not scorch. We had just enough time for a couple of pictures before an incoming order had me retreat back to the table while they went to work.
Because you like the Amarone
Lingering over our wine and laughing at the fun we were having our server slipped yet one more plate on our table.
“Because you like the Amarone. Amarone risotto with black truffle” laughing as she walked away.
The steam from the hot risotto with freshly grated truffle filled our little corner. The colour of the rice was dark red from the Amarone wine and the flavour was an over the top pairing with the funky truffle. What a final blow for our sixth dish and final demise of the Ripasso.
Being full would not adequately describe it, yet there always seemed to be room for just one more bite and because saying no to cookies is just wrong we continued. These frosted little shortbreads were accompanied by a small bunch of Amarone grapes, dried on the vine to an intensely sweet burst of grape. A basket of the addictive Amarone raisins was near the cash and we had noticed the staff indulging by picking a few as they worked.
A sip away from being finished
Once again Chef Marco popped his head out of the kitchen to see where we were at and make sure we were enjoying ourselves. Seeing the wine a sip away from being finished he said that we must have his homemade cantuccini dunked in a little Amarone wine and rushed off without waiting for an answer. We saw our chance to stand and followed him to the bar mistakenly thinking we would just pay and be on our way.
A plate with two cantuccini was put down and then he poured three half glasses of Amarone instructing us to first dip the cookie in the wine. The combination was surprising with the deep ruby red wine soaking into the almond filled cookie. The wine itself was sublime and as we slowly finished it off Chef Marco was still in go mode and quickly placed another larger plate in front of us. “What are you doing to us?” I laughed.
Not to worry
He told me not to worry and replaced our glasses with two delicate sherry glasses. From below the counter, he unmoulded a small semifreddo that he cut in two and plated with a couple of spoonfuls of cherries in syrup. To go with it a couple of glasses of his homemade cinnamon liqueur. The semifreddo, a partly frozen meringue preparation with the consistency of frozen mousse was delicately flavoured with elderberry flower. The liqueur was strong and sweet brimming with the taste of cinnamon.
Down the rabbit hole
We were down the rabbit hole now and Chef was the mad hatter. As we tipped back the end of our glasses, yet again, to brace ourselves against the cold walk back Chef Marco slipped away into the kitchen giving us a chance to pay our bill.
Now we were ready and started to say our goodbyes to the server and staff but before we could make a move Chef Marco returned holding a Mason jar. “From the kitchen!” He laughed loudly with a few servers moaning their apprehension. Much stronger this was the kitchen grappa, with a bunch of those dried Amarone grapes suspended in jet fuel. Nat backed down from her own shot but I fell on my sword in honour of the kitchen. With that, the bond was made and our night dissolved into a flurry of hugs and handshakes as we bid farewell and slipped out onto the cold and empty streets of Verona.
“That was insane!!” I howled while laughing almost uncontrollably.
“What just happened?” Nat asked jokingly.
“I’m not sure, but it sure was fun,” I replied as we staggered our way home across the uneven cobblestones.
We returned the next day to drop off a t-shirt for Chef Marco.