Restaurant experiences can be surreal at times. So much of our response is controlled by our expectations, and the buildup can absolutely deflate any particular dinner. It is rare, I mean truly rare, for anyone to have one of the best meals of their life, but I guess it’s technically possible every day. One can theoretically have a better meal each day of one’s life. Sadly, it seems that exactly the opposite generally occurs. Perhaps I’m jaded, perhaps I need a truly singular experience to excite me, or perhaps I just want life to be simple.
I recently had a dinner that absolutely defined dining for me. It was a dinner served with a smile, ripe with the sensation of dining in a friend’s home, and replete with dishes that defy restaurant cooking. It was a repast that in its fullness must certainly rank as one of the favorite meals of my life.
Is Ristorante Canossa in Reggio Emilia one of the greatest restaurants on Earth? Perhaps not, but the dinner they serve is as complete an experience as any could ever offer.
The culinary riches of the region are easy to enjoy, from Parmigiano Reggiano to Mortadella and Prosciutto. Is there a better way to begin a meal in Emilia Romagna? Is there any other way?
Stuffed pasta is a specialty of the region; while the classic dish might be Tortelli alla Zucca - with squash, I prefer the lightness of the blend of herbs, spinach and cheese used to fill each square of light pasta.
One of the reasons the pasta here is so good is the liberal use of fresh butter in the preperation of each dish. Here the chef, under watchful eyes, gently passes a kilo of butter impaled on a fork over the pasta, creating a light, buttery sauce.
Bollito misto, literally "mixed boiled meats," is a classic restaurant dish in Emilia Romagna, yet finding the ala carte preparation of Ristorante Canossa is a rare treat these days. For variety, roasted meats are also available.
Served with condimenti and Lambrusco, the rustic array of meats includes pig's foot, Zampone, Cotechino, tongue, beef, veal and ham.
Before I get into details regarding the dishes I enjoyed -- and in truth, there are just a handful that one must choose -- let me just lay this out in advance: Ristorante Canossa resembles a New York City deli. The service is casual and the ambience minimal, but in part, this is the appeal. Step through the front door (that is, if you haven’t walked right past it), and you step back into the Italy we all want to remember. The Italy we want to see.
Ristorante Canossa is a family-run operation -- interestingly enough, by a family from Puglia that is dedicated to carrying on an Emilia Romagnia tradition. To put things in perspective here, Ristorante Canossa is in Reggio nell’Emilia, the belly of Italy. I spent my days surrounding this meal visiting artisanal producers of Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, and Aceto Balsamico. I mention this to reinforce the fact that the audience to which Ristorante Canossa plays is one intimately acquainted with the finest, purest, most concentrated form of deliciousness known to man. Stumble over the basics in Reggio Emilia and you might as well just close up shop.
Back to Ristorante Canossa. A visit here is not so much a meal as an experience, a taste of what life was like in the past. It’s why people visit Italy: the museums, the crappy yet charming 3-star hotels, the ruins, the history. The food. This food, this soulful food that simply cannot be found anywhere else. Period. Full stop. That is what transforms a meal at Ristorante Canossa into an experience that helps to change one’s perspective. It is landscape-altering, head-clearing, sentimental, and refreshing. Each flavor is clean and clear, unadulterated, unadorned, unforced, and exactly what I want from a meal.
So, how does one begin a meal at Ristorante Canossa? With a bottle of Lambrusco, of course -- the region’s famous sparkling red wine that carries with it the burden of Riunite. In truth, I didn’t want to think about wine this evening. I didn’t want to think about much at all, in fact. I asked my waiter to suggest a bottle of wine and he did not hesitate to recommend a Lambrusco, which sounded near perfect to me. So, I started on my way with a lovely bottle of simple, refreshing Caprari Bolino Rosso.
Once the wine was settled, I inquired about the menu. It was a simple exchange. “What should I eat?,” I asked my waiter. He responded by asking me if I wanted to see a menu. This is not a menu type of place, I thought to myself. “No, no menu, thank you.” My waiter asked if I wanted a complete dinner, and I said yes. His last question was whether I preferred tortelli verde or alla Zucca. I hesitated, and he began to offer additional choices, but the suggestion was implicit and well-taken. “Verde, grazie.”
So, dinner began the way a dinner must begin in Emilia Romagna, with a collage of sorts: Parmigiano, big chunks of it, cubes of neighboring Bologna’s famous Mortadella, fried chips of fat, coppa, salami, and of course the sweetest, tenderest slices of silky Prosciutto one can imagine. The antipasto was fit for a light lunch. Ok, perhaps not even that light.
Once the antipasto was properly dealt with, and by dealt with, I mean consumed in its perfumed entirety, the pasta arrived. Tortelli verde, which are not green tortelli (or ravioli), but rather tortelli filled with a fresh cheese and herb mixture. As is generally the case with these things -- fresh pasta in Italy being ‘these things’ -- this dish was flawless. If there had been any flaws, the fact that the chef lavishly lacquered the dish with decadently fresh butter, immediately upon its appearance at the service window, certainly remedied them.
A word about this lacquering: Oy. It was performed with what appeared to be a kilo of butter impaled on a fork. The chef made repeated passes over the pasta, bathing each tortelli in pure decadence. The care with which this kilo was passed over and over each tender tortelli, without bruising even one, brought tears to my eyes. Well, no, it really didn’t -- but it was absolutely enthralling to witness!
I was neither stingy nor overly heavy-handed with the freshly grated Parmigiano that was left on the table, finishing the dish off perfectly and setting the stage for the final act as a tray of condiments -- salsa verde, salsa picante, and minced giardiniera -- replaced my still-buttery plate.
This was the act, the moment of brilliance, that set Ristorante Canossa apart from every other restaurant I’ve visited. It was the moment when the past, a past I recognized, was wheeled up to my table in the form of a carello laden with roast meats and the arrayed glory of bollito misto. This is where many of you will become convinced that I am crazy. All of this for bollito misto? Really?
Yes, really. In a day and age when a grape might be an artificially encapsulated ball of beet juice, and meat tastes more of the sauce that covers it (and when we are often thankful for that), in a day when cooking is a challenge of complexity, having an array of simply boiled meats, each tasting exactly as they should and served simply with lightly seasoned condiments, is a salvation. This is by no means a dish for everyone, but if you are bold enough it is a dish that sucks you in and kisses your scarred knees. It loves you, it cares for you, it feeds you body and soul. Hell yes, this was fine bolito misto!
On the plate I opted for Zampone, Cotechino, tongue (the best ever), beef shoulder, veal back, fresh ham, a half of a pig’s foot, and some mashed potatoes. I would have gone on but my plate was full and I was not convinced that I would make much progress with what I had already selected. I managed to cruise through most of my dish. It was brilliant, and the Lambrusco that accompanied it offered the ideal, zesty, foaming, fat-clearing contrast to this stunning celebration of rustic poverty.
And that was it. An Amaro after dinner helped fortify me, but I was in a glaze of glory. I had eaten in a way I had imagined I never would. I had feasted. I was actually drunk -- not on alcohol, the Lambrusco was only 11.5%, if I recall -- but on emotion. I only wish I was able to share the evening with friends. This was the sort of table disputes are settled around. Peace is made here. Having made my own peace, I sallied out of Ristorante Canossa with slow, heavy steps. Sad to leave, full beyond capacity, and planning to return.
37/B, v. Roma
Reggio Emilia, Italy
Phone: +39 0522 454196