The restaurant was already almost full when we arrived, pink-cheeked after the brisk 20-minute walk from home. Our table for two was tucked in between one with three young chaps dining together and one with two well-padded couples in their late sixties already attacking their antipasti. Mr Blue-Shirt had booked the table back in November, but we had no idea what the format for the evening would be. The staff clearly did, though. The second we were seated, bottles of water appeared and a pitcher brimming with red wine was plonked on the table, a few drops slopping onto the pristine white linen table cloth. We barely had time to fill our glasses and take in the fact that no menus were in evidence before our first course arrived. A generous plate of cured meats – the same as on the neighbouring tables. As it was well after 9pm we were really quite hungry, so soon cleared our plates, which subsequently transpired would be a major tactical error. We had worked out that it was a set meal. And this being a very traditional restaurant surely meant antipasti, primo, secondo and dolce, right? Wrong. So wrong…
Next up was a savoury pancake filled with a heavenly, mousse-light cheese sauce topped with flakes of earthy black truffle. Still labouring under the misapprehension that this would be the second of four courses, we again cleared our plates and Mr Blue-Shirt even accepted an offer of seconds – the fool.
So, we had had our antipasti and primo, albeit a slightly unorthodox one: while still carb-based, it wasn’t exactly pasta – which could mean only one thing. Next up would be the main course, and the star of the show: the new year classic, zampone con lenticche – pig’s trotter with lentils. Although we both consider ourselves to be pretty unfussy food-wise and will generally give most things a try, there are certain animal parts that for us cross a culinary line. When in Brunei, fish-head curry and grilled chicken’s feet were on the wrong side of that line, along with stewed parson’s noses and grilled ox vein skewers. Closer to home, what might be termed ‘advanced offal’ crosses, the line, as do animal extremities such as ears and tails. And trotters. We discussed how we might manage to avoid having to eat any of the meat without making it too obvious, and more importantly, without making a huge cultural gaff as well as insulting our hosts. The swing doors from the kitchen burst open and the team of five waiters processed into the restaurant, each bearing at shoulder height a platter of steaming something. Barbara, the chef’s daughter and head waiter approached our table with a determined look in her eye. We mentally rehearsed our “Just a little for me” and “No that’s plenty, thanks” as she presented her platter to us with an almost audible ‘ta-dah!’. “Tagliatelle con ragù al cinghiale” announced Barbara. Tagliatelle with wild boar sauce? Was this a second primo? Or a first secondo? But in that moment the distinction was immaterial. The main thing was that we had been given a stay of execution: still no zampone. And in our relief, we failed to say “basta così” – that’s enough, thanks – as Barbara coiled onto our plates great mounds of golden pasta laced with nuggets of dark tender meat in a deeply-flavoured sauce scented with juniper. Comfort food alla Marchigiana and one of our favourite dishes.
Our contented reverie was cut short as once more the doors from the kitchen swung open, and once more the procession of waiters entered the dining room, bearing their latest batch of steaming their platters aloft. We craned our necks to see what Barbara was serving to the other tables. Was it finally trotter time? “Tagliata di manzo” she announced. Wafer-thin strips of medium-rare char-grilled sirloin steak – and, in normal circumstances another of our regular choices. Here and there around us we could make out the occasional reluctant “ Mi dispiace, non posso” – sorry, I can’t – which made it slightly easier to ignore Barbara’s disappointed gaze as I also declined the slices of tender meat she gently gripped between her tongs. Mr Blue-Shirt restored her faith, though, but even he managed to say “un pochettino” – just a tiny bit – this time.
Several diners had already pushed their chairs away from the table, leaning back as if to ease the growing pressure on their waistbands. Others were tugging on coats, preparing to go for a cigarette in the starry cold and creating an unofficial interval before the second act. We speculated how this might play out as there was still over an hour to go before midnight, but since there was no sign of any kind of any dancing or live music, the only possible conclusion was that it would involve yet more food.
The interval over, the smokers returned to their tables, seats were pulled back in, red linen napkins returned to laps as the doors swung open and the procession of waiters took to their stage yet again. First up were lamb cutlets, and then came porchetta (rolled roast pork stuffed with herbs), both of which Mr Blue-Shirt naturally found impossible to resist, and then finally the blessed relief of something green: platters of grilled vegetables and bowls of tingling fresh salad, which I actually managed to pick at briefly. The clock was ticking down and the TV had been turned on to an outdoor New Year concert in Rome. Barbara and her team were now going from table to table offering “Spumante secco o dolce?” – dry or sweet fizz? “Secco,” we responded above the bustle and buzz of expectation that had suddenly filled the dining room. Our fellow diners were on their feet again, checking the time on watches and phones. We followed their lead and reached for the glasses and bottle of fizz that Barbara had plonked on the table. Someone had turned the volume up on the TV. “Dieci! Nove! Otto!…” Foil caps were removed, bottles held aloft…. “Tre! Due! Uno! BUON ANNO!” A volley of corks ricocheted around the dining room and within seconds, we were all clinking foaming glasses with one another, shaking hands and exchanging kisses.
Magically, amid the tangle of arms and raised glasses and bottles and hugs and impromptu dancing, the zampone con lenticche finally made their appearance. And remained largely untouched, except by a handful of elderly arch-traditionalists who gamely chewed away on the pink, rind-rimmed discs. So having wrestled with our cultural consciences all evening, it seemed that zampone may be to Italians what Brussels sprouts are to the British. And having forgone this classic dish, we had not made a gaff, but had in fact earned a cultural gold star. Not a bad way to start the new year.