There’s a spirited argument going on between the ten members of our group. Are we eating lamb or pork? We’ve fed some to Sam, the almost-vegetarian-who-makes-an-exception-for-lamb, and she’s perfectly content with that decision. That may just be to salve her conscience, though. The rest of us are evenly split, so it’s time to call in the restaurant owner as he twinkles past in his santa hat. He’s immediately up for the game, and won’t give us an answer until he’s quizzed everyone on what they think. He’d make a great EFL teacher. He pretends to be deep in thought before bursting into raucous laughter and revealing that *of course* it’s pork. What, you thought we’d have lamb in December? You’re crazy! We then get a detailed description of exactly which bit of the pig we’re eating, including vigorous pointing at the corresponding part on a human body. Shin, as it turns out. Not that it’s really that important – it tastes amazing, whatever it is. I return to salivating while trying to order my stomach to clear some space for yet more food.
We arrived for lunch a few hours ago, driving up a farm track into what looked remarkably like a building site. A muddy turning circle was already crammed with cars, and for a moment it seemed that we’d have to work up an appetite by walking to the restaurant. Perish the thought! The Italians in front of us were horrified by the very idea. What? Are you crazy? We’re all going to the same place – just block us in and we’ll sort it out later. Which is exactly what we all do. This isn’t the kind of restaurant that deals in airs and graces. They don’t advertise and you can only eat there by booking in advance. Oh, and you can only book if you happen to have the owner’s private mobile number. Essentially we’re eating in somebody’s front room. There are no menus. The only concession to choice is offering vegetarian dishes; apart from that, everyone in the place eats exactly the same, delicious thing.
At the far end of the room there is a large open fire, held in an enormous stone fireplace which takes up the entire end wall. Dangling overhead are stars, made of stiffened gold twine and suspended on strings at just above head-height. There are maybe fifty of us in here this afternoon, which means that there is no space for anyone else. Not even a very small person. In fact, now that we’re crammed into our seats I’m not quite sure how we even managed to squeeze in. Maybe we’re actually in the TARDIS? It wouldn’t surprise me. We certainly seem to have stepped back in time a good fifty years. Everyone is seated at long trestle tables, which are covered in white tablecloths and – most importantly – groaning with food, which just keeps on being produced. I didn’t think places like this actually existed outside of the imagination, but I’m very pleased to find that I was wrong. Every so often the lights flicker and dim – well, this is Calabria. Power cuts are a part of life here. Just so long as the food keeps coming, I’m happy.
And it does. My *god* it does. Antipasti of solid little pork and fennel meatballs, with courgette fritters in a batter so light that it disappears as soon as you put it into your mouth, are accompanied by bowls and bowls of beans, chickpeas, greens and olives. This is swiftly followed by pasta. In fact, five different varieties of pasta, all served in family-sized, mismatched plastic bowls, which are passed around the table for everyone to try. My particular favourite is casarecci in a cheesey sagey sauce, but the spaghetti with pistacchio is also delicious. I’m not sure if the pasta is home made (quite possibly), but it’s certainly perfectly cooked, with a firmness and a springy bite to it. Temporary silence falls around our table, but it doesn’t last long. We are, after all, in Italy, and if there’s one thing Italians love almost as much as eating food it’s talking about it. What’s that one? Are these two the same? How do you think they’ve cooked that? My god, we have to work out how to make this!
There’s a call to arms from the car park. The drivers and the smokers head outside either to be useful and move cars, or to watch and laugh. They’re gone for a while, and the report that comes back is that it’s like playing Tetris out there. Obviously with rather larger, more expensive, building blocks, but the same sort of idea. As soon as one car moves, it blocks in another one. Presumably it’s punctuated by a lot of arm-waving and ten different opinions, all shouted at the top of everyone’s voices. Grist to the mill: they return in high spirits.
The car manoeuvring has given us a bit of space to digest the first two courses, which is no bad thing. Platters of meat are now arriving, and I really wouldn’t want to have to miss this. There are tiny, spicy sausages, red with N’duja, as well as little balls of pork and sage stuffing. Thick-cut slices of pancetta are fried to salty deliciousness and fat pork ribs ooze meat juices which just beg to be sopped up. Oh, and of course there are what we later discover to be pig shins, but which at first are assumed to be lamb shanks. They’ve been slow-cooked with herbs until they fall into bite-sized chunks of meaty, herby deliciousness at the slightest touch of a fork. And despite the fact that we’ve all had to loosen our belts, Domenico asks for another one to be brought to the table, as it’s just too good not to want more.
Most of us have fallen into a bit of a food coma by this point, but there’s still pudding, digestivi and coffee to come. Marco claims that he’s still hungry, but that’s just not *possible*. The man has the fast metabolism of a – well, a veryfastmetabolismedthing. We gape at him, dumbstruck (and, if I’m honest, with more than a little touch of admiration), while he contemplates sandwiches with a big foody grin on his face. My hero.