A few month's back there was a discussion over on eGullet about the restaurant situation in Italy. Whenever people talk about Italian eating establishments, be they Italian or not, there always seems to be a contrast between high cuisine and trattorie there. Form there, it was a small step before noticing that the what Italian restaurant scene needs most is... customers. Italians are generally conservative food eaters and classy places often seem scary and way too expensive. In comparison to the UK, France or even Spain, Italian are lousy restaurant goers. Ronald made a great point back then, something I've been thinking about now and again for a time now: is there a missing link bringing trattoria and restaurant? Where are the funky, relaxed places serving cool yet unpretentious (OK change that to only relatively pretentious) food? There are very few "middle class" neighborhood places to be found in Italy if you exclude Rome and Milan, and there even only shyly present. But most of all: does the concept work in a country so split in its eating out habits?
If I doubts about if such places could exist and how original they would be, as opposed to falling into the trattoria or restaurant field,these disappeared after one of the coziest evenings of my recent trip to Northern Italy eating at Osteria del Minestraio in Rastignano, just five minutes away from the city limit of Bologna. I won't hide that I cannot be impartial about this place. Piero Pompili, co-owner and taking care of the front of the house is a friend. I appreciated, though often not shared, his flamboyant opinions on Italian food discussion forums and regularly read the very nice blog he has set up, which I mentioned before, Il Gastronomo Riluttante, titled after Ruth Reichel's reluctant gourmet. Yet seeing Piero work, together with the skillful Arnaldo Laghi at the stove, is a completely different thing. Away goes the "Paris Hilton of Italian Gastronomy" (his own words) and there comes the charming, attentive and warm host.
Osteria dal Minestraio functions on a simple concept. Every month a new menu offers 10 tasting size pasta dishes (tasting size in the Italian sense, not the Thomas Keller one) that can be tried out in succession at 3.50 each, stopping whenever you're full. A real nightmare for anyone on the Atkins diet. It might be worth mentioning that "minestra" in Bologna generally indicates the first course of an Italian meal, primi, and hence the name of the Osteria. For those who wish there's also some nice salumi to pic up as starters or some nice desserts, always preceded by an on the house pre-dessert composed of tiny creme bruleé pots , with an unusual but very nice licorice one among the three served. Although namely an Osteria, this is exactly the kind of place Italian customers would need to discover the fun of eating out while straying from the classic regional trattoria food.
We skipped the salumi but I could not avoid a tasty zabaglione based dessert, even after managing to reach dish number nine in the pasta tasting menu. This were the dishes being served in March:
Crema di carciofi con chips di pane ed olio extra vegine d’oliva, artichoke cream with extra virgin olive oil and bread chips,
Maccheroni al pettine in mousse di mortadella al profumo di noce moscata, comb maccheroni (aka garganelli) with mortadella mousse and nutmeg aroma,
Riso carnaroli mantecato al radicchio rosso e pere, carnroli rice risotto with radicchio and pears (in the picture),
Tagliolino con polipo, broccoletti e patate, tagliolini with octopus, mustard greens and potatoes,
Tortelli farciti di fagioli borlotti su emulsione al peperone, borlotti beans tortelli on a red pepper emulsion,
Lasagnetta gratinata al cipollotto, spring onion lasagnetta, aux gratin,
Passatelli asciutti al ragù bianco su salsa al parmigiano dry passatelli (as opposed to with broth) with white ragout on Parmesan sauce,
Gramigna di semola condita con salsiccia, scagle di grana e riduzione al balsamico tradizionale di Modena, semolina gramigna (a kind of pasta) with sausage, Grana Padano shavings and traditional Balsamico reduction,
Spaghetto all’uovo in stracotto d’asinello e ristretto al vino rosso, fresh spaghetti dressed in donkey stracotto (braise) and red wine reduction,
Triangoli ripieni di Castel San Pietro e mela, trucioli di ricotta stagionata e semi di sesamo, pasta triangles filled with Castel San Pietro cheese and apple, seasoned ricotta shavings and sesame seeds,
Looking at the ten dishes in their complex it is nice to notice how Arnaldo Laghi's dishes often seems to bounce between tradition and creativity. The Maccheroni al pettine in mousse di mortadella al profumo di noce moscata, comb maccheroni (aka garganelli) with mortadella mousse and nutmeg aroma, that made up our second "course" for example played with the classic regional flavors of garganelli and mortadella giving them a creative twist through the transformation of mortadella into a "mousse" (actually more of a cream).
There was also room for a little higher-gastronomy quotation and divertissement: the tortelli farciti di fagioli borlotti su emulsione al peperone, borlotti beans tortelli on a red pepper emulsion, served as pasta course are a take on Fulvio Pierangelini's (chef at Gambero Rosso in San Vincenzo, and considered the best chef in Italy by many Italian critics) dessert ravioli di peperoni e fagioli con crema al peperoncino, pepper and beans ravioli with chili pepper sauce. Apart the two above I particularly liked the simple but clear tasting artichoke cream, the lasagnetta, classic but with a twist, and rich passatelli, real comfort food.
Even If I had not known Piero before, I would have really enjoyed dining here all the same: the service and food our table received was exactly the same as that of every other table. Osteria del Minestraio is the kind of place I would visit often if it were down the road: warm relaxed atmosphere, without being too casual, nice food at very correct prices and a well thought wine choice. You could go there with friends, take your mom there or choose it for a date. It would be right for all of these, though I would only bring my date here if she liked food: eating here is fun, and I wouldn't want anyone spoiling that, thank you very much.