I’ve been crossing the Alps from France into Terra Italia for over 30 years. But, it wasn’t until a smart and savvy editor handed me my first copy of “Osterie d’Italia” that I started to understand what I was missing. This guide was a game changer. It lists restaurants in tune with Slow Food. It’s my go-to resource for places and people that support local farmers.
This year, as I started my drive through the Alps to visit that editor (who ended up becoming my best friend for life), I could not help but feel a surge of immeasurable gratitude.
She taught me a valuable lesson: With a bit of research and the right manual, you can enter into a gastronomic movement.
Live to eat
Maybe it’s just me, but I feel ripped-off when I waste hard-earned dough on mediocre meals. It’s super easy to eat well in Italy, but, have you ever wondered where Italians go when they want a fabulous meal? I’ve passed them before, wishing I could join them: They’re dining alfresco, huddled around a communal table in the middle of a cobbled stoned street passing big bowls of fresh greens and pouring local wines.
Slow Food, which got its start in Italy, is a global, grassroots organization whose goal is to preserve traditional food cultures. For me, it’s like stepping into my childhood on the farm, where unpasteurized honey and dairy products were everyday staples. Foraging was called blackberry and pecan pickin’. Smoked sausage, wild game and fish (fresh-off-the-line) made up our list of edibles. A world where practically everything was house-made, even the cane syrup.
I suppose that’s why I live to eat, instead of eating to live.
What’s awesome about Slow Food is that it brings together people who are passionate about food origins. That’s how I met Italian wine maker Alessandro Bellio from Ronco Margherita, in Pinzano al Tagliamento, located in North Eastern Italian province of Friuli.
Since both the Slow Food and Michelin Guides listed Osteria da Afro in Spilimbergo as excellent; I decided to show up early and stay late, ordering a full menu over a long lunch. The owners appreciated my enthusiasm.
Lucky for me, Alessandro was featuring his indigenous organic wine collection to the owner that afternoon. Our shared enthusiasm for the terrior made us all quick friends. Before I knew it, the enologo invited us to tour his winery.
Bellio’s estate, Ronco Margherita is run by Alessandro and his wife Malgorzata (Margherita) Wieczorek. I just adore this couple. Their collection of rare native grape varieties offer an amazing repertoire for the consumer to try.
They are a devoted couple and you can practically taste the romance in their wines. Margherita assists her gregarious husband with logistical support, while Alessandro honors his savvy elegant wife by gracing selected labels with her moniker.
They supply to several slow food restaurants and were happy to clue us in on Trattoria Da Ivana e Secondo. Here, the food is traditional and ingredients are zero-source local. The owners back local farmers and search out the best quality possible. The house-made specialties are a little taste of heaven on Earth.
Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca said that luck is when preparedness meets opportunity. I was unwittingly favored by fortune on that trip. I was in town taking a short course on mosaic art at the acclaimed Spilimbergo school when my art instructor mentioned that her family owned a slow food restaurant in the remote town of Pinzano al Tagliamento. “Trattoria Da Ivana e Secondos: it’s nestled into the mountainside with a verdant view of the valley. It’s out of the way, but always packed.” I said without thinking.
She flashed me a surprised glance.
I had unwittingly taken a deep-dive into real Italian culture. And that’s how I made a friend for life. As chance would have it, my art teacher’s mother works at the winery and her uncle runs the family restaurant. I found myself submerged in a wondrous Italian macrocosm. And let me tell you, it is sorprendente.
These folks know their terroir and are happy to share their way of life, whether its taking a quick break for passagata by relaxing at a café that specializes in chocolate manufacturing Pasticceria Cioccolateria Peratoner or inviting you to Ronco Margherita’s open house where wine flows and the evening is filled with music and dancing.
It’s this level of immersion with the amazing convivial people that makes Italy my number one go-to happy place.
I still can’t believe my good fortune all started with a simple reference guide.
Which underpins the point that if you love amazing food, then the slow food movement may be for you. You’re guaranteed to find people passionate about creating dishes with fresh-from-the-farm ingredients.
Perhaps that is why the founder of the slow food movement Carlo Petrini was named one of the people who could save the planet by The Guardian.
Read more about Italy here in Dispatches’ archives.
Alice Verberne is a contributing writer for Dispatches Europe. She has worked in print journalism and magazine production in the United States and Europe throughout her career. She currently resides in France where she enjoys visiting former French speaking colonies and discussing history with the locals.