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Classic Bolognese Sauce

One of the things that amazes me every time we travel in Europe is the way that “fast” food is interpreted. Now, I don’t mean “fast” in the sense of something one would pick-up in a drive-through and eat in the car while driving from one errand to another. I do mean lunch in its most routine sense — the lunch that an average Joe or Josephine would eat on a workday. My latest example brings us to a fabulous bolognese sauce.

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As I mentioned in a previous post, we went somewhat off the usual beaten path for tourists during our recent trip to Tuscany and visited Pistoia, a lovely town known for its lively street market. Then, we took a scenic route back to Lucca by first driving up into the hills and then back down, to finish our day with a stop in Collodi —  named for the author of Adventures of Pinocchio for a visit to the charming Pinocchio Park.  We were hungry as we left Pistoia, and we were planning to stop for lunch en route.  But the villages along this route are very, very small, and they just don’t see a lot of nonresident traffic in the winter — that quickly became very clear.  So the few restaurants we saw tended to be closed.  We drove for maybe 40 minutes, and then we saw it — an old building containing a bar and a pizzeria, with an “open” sign and foggy windows that spoke volumes of how warm it was inside.  Did I mention that the weather on this day was overcast and windy?

We enter the restaurant, where no one seems to speak English, and the other patrons’ uniforms suggest that they are all local utility workers on their lunch break.  Every one of them was seated facing a television which seemed to be airing a local news program. And they were eating pasta with this gorgeous, homey-looking sauce. When my husband received the Ravioli with Bolognese that he had ordered, I quickly recognized it as the sauce that the locals were all eating on their pasta.  It looked and tasted delicious! Looking around, it seemed as if this lunch was as “everyday” to the locals as stopping at for a sandwich at Subway might be in the U.S.!  Imagine that!

When we returned to the U.S., I kept thinking about the bolognese sauce.  After comparing a number of recipes, I decided that this recipe seemed very close to what we had in Tuscany. As I made this sauce, I remembered that on my last day in Tuscany, as I visited the string of stores in the village center to gather ingredients for dinner (butcher shop, produce shop, bakery, etc), I found myself making the loop directly behind the same woman, such that we both chuckled as I held the door for her at the last shop. That day, I saw each of the items she purchased, and I am now absolutely certain she was making bolognese sauce! It was so much fun to cook this Bolognese sauce in my kitchen and imagine that Italian woman doing the same in her kitchen so far way! I’ll never know her name, but I feel certain I’ll think of her each time I make this recipe!

Christmas Lunch 2010

In our family tradition of international travel over the Christmas holiday, we generally read as much as we can about our destination in advance so that we are aware of options and historically important sights, but we leave most of our itinerary in the hands of spontaneity.  The one exception is that I identify one “fancier” restaurant in advance for a lunch reservation on Christmas Day.  This provides some insurance that we’ll have a festive holiday experience on the actually holiday, a day on which most shops and restaurants are closed in European countries.  This also gives us a chance to experience a traditional holiday meal, local style, something we always enjoy.

Prior to this trip, I understood that Italians, especially in southern Italy, celebrate Vigilia di Natale (literally, the vigil of the birth of the baby Jesus) with a Feast of the Seven Fishes. Then, a traditional Christmas Day meal, while somewhat variable, is likely to include antipasti, a stuffed pasta served in a meat broth, and some sort of roast meat (note:  this is as far as can be from the American roast ham!), and a panettone (light, buttery sponge cake) for dessert.

My search for restaurants serving a special Christmas lunch in the area surrounding Lucca (where our apartment was located) revealed a number of interesting options. We chose Restaurant Le Repubbliche Marinare Pisa, a restaurant in Pisa (site of the Leaning Tower) that was offering a special fixed price tasting menu.  When I sent an email to request a reservation, they offered a to prepare a simple pasta dish for our daughter.  I thanked them but suggested that she would likely enjoy the tasting menu as already planned.  We really want her to have the opportunity to experience the richness of the cultural fabric when we travel, and chicken nuggets and french fries would obscure that pretty completely!  We thought the menu included a choice of dishes at each course, but upon our arrival, we learned that we were going to be served each of the dishes listed, which amounted to 9 (yes, 9!) separate tasting plates, each so beautifully presented as to leave us awestruck.

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