s Matteo zoomed in and out of freeway traffic with a stiff arm on the steering wheel, Sergio twisted his body in the front seat to face us and calmly explain the history of the osteria.
Ages ago osterie on the outskirts of Rome were rest stops for horseback travelers who stopped for supper and a place to sleep as they came and went from Rome. Jaunt outside the Eternal City to the surrounding hills and you’ll find osterie that prepare flavorful, hearty food that hundreds of years of cooking and eating have inched close to perfection. There are restaurants that dare to call themselves osterie in Rome, but the food and the prices can’t match what they are in the countryside. Romans know this.
Sergio served up this slice of Italian culinary history on the fly one Saturday night as Matteo swerved his four-door compact and the four of us through heavy traffic to have dinner in Frascati. The tiny town, one of 13 dotted in the hills just south of Rome, is about 12 miles out and is stuffed with small restaurants known for casual but dynamite meals. Romans who want to escape the chaotic capital, if just for a few hours, dash to Frascati and drink the area’s famous wine alongside local Frascatani. The osterie send Romans home thinking — while they sputter and lurch back to the city in late-evening traffic — about what just happened to them at dinner.
Sergio didn’t mention, rightly, that long ago osterie were also the preferred locales for last breaths. Hospitals were distrusted, and diseased drifters and wounded soldiers often chose to spend their last hours and eat their last meals in osterie. These early hotels accepted ailing travelers partly as a Christian gesture and partly because innkeepers knew they would “inherit” all possessions when the sick finally succumbed.
Frascati, a city of 10,000 residents today, was first mentioned in papal documents in 847 AD and was ruled by either the Vatican or noble families, exchanging hands several times. In the 16th century Frascati became a choice getaway for Roman cardinals and nobles, who built lavish Renaissance and Baroque villas. The rest of Rome began day tripping to Frascati for its food and wine in 1856, when the first train line connecting the two cities opened, one of the first railways in Italy. The Allies bombed Frascati in September 1943, leveling much of the town.
Frascati’s osterie are no secret. Parking was the evening’s most difficult task. For many minutes Matteo expertly sped through narrow cobblestone streets for a space, to no avail. He finally wheeled in to the pay-by-the-hour lot, which was swiftly filling up. Much of Rome, it seemed, had also driven to Frascati for dinner, and had arrived before us.
After the drive in from Rome and the unsuccessful laps through the center of this ancient town, we were ready to eat. It was pushing 9:30 p.m., prime Saturday night dinner hour.
We stopped outside one of the first osterie we spotted and peeked in. There was no one eating inside; we paused. Two men were milling about. Were they open? We asked. “If you guys brought your hunger, we can prepare you something to eat,” replied the younger, slender one. We didn’t feel like pondering the issue, and one by one we ducked our heads under the restaurant’s low doorway and entered La Tana del Cinghiale
Immediately after we sat down at a large wooden table, Matteo lit a cigarette, pulled on it and in a smoky breath said, “Smell the air here? It’s so much cleaner.” He leaned back in his seat, stretched his arms out and enjoyed a cigarette away from smoggy, choking Rome.
The osterie in Frascati and other small towns in between bigger burgs were the forefathers of today’s Italian hotels and pensioni. The osterie catered to different classes of travelers. Some fed and lodged people of respect; others stooped to host mercenaries and travelers of no repute.
Weary Renassaince-age travelers, unlike today, were presented with a curt menu when they walked in the door. Dishes were few and simple. For instance in 1544 an osteria in San Giovanni in Marignano, a central Italian town with 7,000 residents today, offered menestra de tagliategli, a broth with thick pasta noodles.
In Frascati, Stefano Cataldi and his son Paolo opened La Tana del Cinghiale, (The Wild Boar’s Lair) three years ago in a former tavern on Via G. Fontana, a narrow, quiet street tucked away but still in the heart of old Frascati. Beer placards still cover the walls, but people don’t come for the décor.
On this Saturday night, La Tana‘s menu was extensive compared to the 1500s. Some dishes listed weren’t available, and some available weren’t listed. As Paolo filled in the menu gaps we weighed our options, nodding our heads, exchanging glances and mumbling a few words until we were ready. It didn’t take long to decide.
We started with a communal antipasto, a huge plate meticulously arranged with small mounds of meats and cheeses: thin slices of venison and boar salami, a soppressata di manzo e maiale (a soft salame of beef and pork), fresh ricotta, Greek feta and brie flavored with porcini mushrooms.
After we cleared the appetizer plate morsel by morsel, out came the main courses, which included orders of pennette tricolore for Sergio and me: al dente small penne pasta topped with diced green olives, small cubes of mozzarella and simple tomato sauce all arranged to resemble the Italian flag; the red sauce included bits of celery, parsley and carrots. Matteo chose gnocchi di patate: potato gnocchi topped with a rich beef sauce. Enrica went with cubo di manzo: A cube-shaped cut of beef cooked in red wine and ground green pepper, with a side of potato puree made with red wine instead of milk. The bread, made with white flour in the nearby town of Genzano, was cut into small ready-to-eat pieces. A liter of house red wine.
A sort of gastronomic ecstasy spread around the table, and without exchanging words we instinctively began sampling one another’s food. Arms, hands, fingers and forks crisscrossed the tabletop and moved from plate to plate. We didn’t rush when we ate, but we didn’t linger either. We ordered too much.
But Enrica, a tan blonde and the only woman at the table, paused. She was not happy with her main course. Stefano, a rotund chef, heard Enrica’s unhappy tone from across the tiny restaurant. When he arrived at our table to see what was wrong, he was visibly concerned. Enrica told him the cube of beef was cooked with too much pepper.
Stefano, the capo of the osteria and a former policeman, sent gentle signals that belied his incomprehension. He held his hands in the air to try to understand, to grasp the why of Enrica’s dissatisfaction. He shifted on his feet, causing his bowl-like stomach to move with subtlety.
But he didn’t attempt to counterpoint, an enormous diplomatic gesture. He said he would prepare Enrica another dish but did not take her plate when he returned to the kitchen. After the rest of us tried the beef, we appreciated Stefano’s even composure under Enrica’s criticism. It was tender, peppered strong enough to make you consider the spice, grilled to perfection, a damn good dish worth every cobblestone thump we absorbed while circling for parking.
Maybe Enrica wanted attention. The three of us guys shrugged off the episode. To finish, we asked for La Tana‘s homemade green apple, blueberry and honey after-dinner liquors.
After hundreds of years of practice by osterie up and down the Italian peninsula and in Frascati, there seemed little room for improvement that Saturday night, though Enrica may beg to differ.
We loaded into Matteo’s sedan and drove home to Rome and reflected on what just happened to us at dinner. Unlike osterie diners of a few hundred years ago, we were confident we would live through the night and that we could return any time for another outstanding, simple dinner. We knew it wasn’t our last meal.