Enormous sides of beef and pork and lamb hanging on the hook
We’d arrived at Aquapartita restaurant a little late and more than a little frazzled after a frenzied search at our holiday home for Stephen’s wallet. (We later found that he had left it on the beach 40 miles and five hours earlier.) We had been warned that the restaurant was a bit off the beaten track. Now that’s how people round here describe the Ox which can’t be more than a scant half mile from the mighty A27. Aquapartita restaurant was a good vertical 20 minutes from the local through road – hardly a major thoroughfare in itself – and the last 10 minutes involved hairpins and a road surface that might be described kindly as rugged. The directions had been intriguing – the last building in the village, look out for the cars. What did this mean? Had the owner a predilection for vintage Buick convertibles or was there a dangerous confluence of hilly tracks that turned Aquapartita into the Spaghetti Junction of the Marché?
It turned out that there was simply a lot of people there that evening, as there was every evening all year round and lunchtimes as well. This barren desolate spot, two thirds the way up a vast hill, was a mecca for Italians willing to venture away from their own extraordinarily good and cheap trattorias and pizzerias.
There was no menu that night but Jonny’s father, Leslie, is a fluent Italian speaker (very few people speak English in this little known region of Italy not so far away from very English Tuscany) and he interpreted and ordered for us. Before long, hunks of crescia bread (like a flat focaccia) and slabs of pecorino were on the table alongside what looked like half a side of delicately sliced cured ham. Huge platters of ravioli with porcini mushrooms appeared and wide ribbons of pasta tossed with wild boar sauce. Without doubt this was the finest pasta I have ever eaten. We could have stopped there very happily and trundled home replete but the restaurant’s speciality was mixed grills of pork and lamb, and Florentine steaks – in this case basically T-bones without the fillet – from the largest bullock that could ever have grazed an Italian hillside. Each steak fed four people more than comfortably. The vegetarian daughter decided she wasn’t vegetarian after all. The meat came with dainty roasted round potatoes delicately seasoned with fresh rosemary. There were three large jugs of local wine that made everyone except Ted and two very fed up drivers very happy indeed.
At this point Leslie turned to the manager who was passing and asked something in his very fast and fluent Italian. There were smiles, nods and beckoning waves. Leslie turned to Stephen and me: ‘I’ve explained that you are farmers, that you produce all your own organic beef and serve it in your own trattoria in England. They’re offering you a tour of the kitchen.’
I’m ashamed to say that I so nearly didn’t go. I had got to the stage of this extraordinary meal when I had eaten so much that I could only whimper when someone mentioned food. The cartoon ‘full’ sign was across the eyelids and I was contemplating a walk up and down the dark mountain road before I could even think about getting behind the wheel to drive home. I had even stopped eating potatoes. The thought of touring a kitchen towards the end of service nearly pushed me over the edge. But I pulled myself together and followed them meekly through the kitchen door, eyed curiously and enviously by Italians at neighbouring tables sitting over their tiramisu.
We had just time to acknowledge the surprised but welcoming nods of various kitchen staff before we saw it. A vast brick and steel wood burning cooking range fully six feet in length stood at the back of the main kitchen. At 10 o’clock in the evening it was a tame beast – still throwing out an impressively uncomfortable heat, but not the inferno it must have been a couple of hours earlier when the fire would have raged at the back of the stove and the embers would be raked forward every so often to provide cooking fuel for the enormous steaks, lamb chops and sausages that we’d seen issuing from the kitchen door all evening.
I was pleased I had seen it and we turned to go back, but the manager beckoned us on. We peeped in the pasta room with its huge dough mixer, and its immaculate stainless steel worktops, and its rolling machines. Well, this was a fine Italian restaurant, I reasoned – you’d expect them to make their own pasta.
And suddenly we were outside and we were entering another world. We passed the enormous log store on our left and approached a set of rooms reminiscent of a modern morgue. The manager opened the first two doors – enormous sides of beef and pork and lamb hanging on the hook. It turned out they butchered all the meat themselves. In the room beyond, cuts of pork were rubbed and sat in salt for 15 days before they were transferred next door and hung to dry. Further along the food suite we were ushered into the cheese chamber where hundreds of pecorinos sat maturing. (Photographer Ted almost passed out with the smell at this point and had to be thrust to the door for oxygen so alas no cheese pictures.)
I wondered how many people had gone to that restaurant like us, eaten a wonderful meal and driven home without realising just how special an experience they had had. This was no Fat Duck – there was no grand PR machine to ram into your head how many months of effort and planning and sheer graft had gone into this meal. There was no fancy menu – barely a menu at all. (I found a menu later in our rented house – but there was nothing to say on it that everything had been produced there on that hillside; just the word ‘local’.) There were disposable paper tablecloths covering wipeable plastic gingham tablecovers, simple pine furniture, slot machines in the foyer, small children in high chairs at tables and lolling on low chairs with their ipads. Basic scrubbed picnic tables outside.
Oddly enough, after that, we did manage to fit in crème brule and coffee and the non-drivers tucked away a fair amount of limoncello liquer (sigh, also homemade). And we drove away with some ridiculously cheap cuts of cured pig’s cheek (for carbonara sauce) and fresh cheese to bring, tucked into my shoulder bag.
We walked out to the cars exhilarated but sobered nonetheless. Yes, we might grow our own potatoes, raise our own organic beef, lamb and pork, but what about the prosciutto, the pecorino? And oh – that glorious fresh pasta!
The bar has been raised.