We are grinning across the table. Stupidly, unbelievably, with wide eyes and ‘can you believe this is actually happening’ stares. An opera singer is giving an impromptu performance and fresh tortellini is steaming on our forks. We are holding back laughter, lest we betray even further our absolute delight and extreme foreignness in this tiny restaurant in northern Italy.
We decided to come at the last minute. Driving through Austria we had been spoiled by beautiful cities and awe inspiring mountains. That indulgence had not extended to our stomachs, which had been filled with mediocre coffee, pretzels of varying softness, sausages, good beer and bad wine. We crossed the Italian border into Cortina d’Ampezzo and stopped for lunch, where the wine instantly improved. At a German-Italian restaurant in Bolzano we had a delicious and filling meal, but not the comforting, rich Italian we had been craving. The kind that satiates on both a physical and mental level, and conjures images of an Italian nonna you never even had.
“We could go to Modena tomorrow,” Nathan, my travel companion, said. The Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, nestled into the fertile Po Valley and where Bologna, Parma, and Modena reside, is where some of Italy’s most exported traditions were born. Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto and other cured meats, bolognese sauce, tortellini, lasagna, amaretto cookies, and more come from this hallowed food region. Italians are serious about local food, going so far as to protect it with a Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP, or protected designation of origin) label. Farmers and producers must use local products and follow traditional methods to gain certification, so the label lets you know you’re getting the real deal. Modena’s food carries more DOP labels than almost any other region in Italy. Balsamic made anywhere else can’t have the word “traditional” on the label, for example, because it cannot be traditional if it wasn’t made in Modena. And so we drove, visions of heaping bowls of fresh pasta in our heads.
Last minute research as we arrived in the city center turned up Osteria Ermes. We were just in time for lunch. Stepping into the small, modest restaurant, the owner, an older man with a crinkly face and giant square glasses wearing a blue button-up and white apron, looked concerned when we asked for a table for two, though the restaurant was largely empty. He seemed to think for a second, then pointed to two seats. As we stepped inside, he seized my arm and looked at me intensely.
“Lambrusco o bianco?” he demanded, as though it were the most important decision I would make all day (it was).
He released me with a smile and pushed us in the direction of our table. We were flustered but already happy. Bottles of water and wine appeared on the table within seconds, along with bread and cured meats. We poured olive oil and balsamic, Modena’s treasure, and looked around.
The small dining area fit five tables, two with four seats, three with six to eight. Two were full of what seemed like the regular lunch crowd, construction workers on break, joking with each other across the room. Within minutes the restaurant was full, making our host’s concern seem more valid, and our timing even luckier.
A younger woman came by to take our orders. There were three options of the day: a tortellini with ragu, risotto, or spaghetti with tuna. Due tortellini, no question.
Meanwhile, an older Italian couple had joined our table, taking the last two seats in the house. They were slightly dressed up, out on a lunch date to their favorite local spot, and seemed almost as excited as we were to be there.
Bowls of pasta were carried from the kitchen and passed around the room. The tortellini was bright yellow with egg, pillowy but firm enough to fill to the brim and not burst. The ragu was rich and meaty, with the smallest amount of tomato and seasoning. It stuffed the tortellini and clung to the outside, complementing the pasta but not overwhelming it with sauce.
We all took bites at once and the older man at our table looked up and grinned. “Perfetto” he said.” Then slowly, “it is perfect,” emphasizing the last word. We all smiled and nodded and made ‘mhm’ noises, mouths too full to properly exclaim. There is something so joyful about eating with others who love to eat. The appreciation of flavors, the understanding that some things are meant to be savored in happy silence, or the gusto of sopping up every last bit with bread and without abandon. That joy is enhanced when food has been prepared by someone who loves it and wants others to love it too. No matter how simple the dish, it is never thrown together, but cared for.
The small room filled with convivial chatter across tables, bottles on bottles of wine, and simple yet decadent pasta are the stuff of Italian legend, but here we were witnessing them, enjoying them, savoring them firsthand. This was exactly what we had hoped for when we decided to visit Modena. We were the only tourists and couldn’t understand most of what was happening around us. It was perfect.
Then there was the opera. A man walked in and asked for a seat, but before the owner let him sit he quieted the room and made an announcement. The younger man laughed, blushed, then burst into song. He had a beautiful, boisterous voice that filled the room while he stood, flowing dark hair and scarf, one hand on the shoulder of the chef and the other on his chest.
This is how we found ourselves staring incredulously, giddily, trying not to laugh out of sheer disbelief. Is this actually happening? Are we in a movie set? The room erupted in cheers and we erupted in laughter, swallowing the last of our Lambrusco. “A young Pavarotti!” the old man at our table exclaimed, beaming.
There was a second course, which we were not prepared for but was a happy surprise all the same. Polenta and cod in a tomato sauce, and pork ribs with tomato and green pepper. While we were waiting, the woman next to me took a scoop of parmigiano from the dish at the table, added a few drops of balsamic, and instructed me to put the whole thing in my mouth at once. Tangy, nutty, salty-sweet perfection. “This is the real Modena,” she said with pride.
We sipped espresso, luxuriating in the strength and aroma we’d been missing, and talked to the couple about what to see in Modena. Earlier on, they had us take a photo of them with their tortellini so they could send it to their son who was on his honeymoon in Vietnam. Though he found the country beautiful, he was missing Italian food already. I had to laugh. While living in Rome and craving Mexican food one day, I asked a friend if he ever got sick of eating the same things. He looked at me in shock. “What do you mean? Yesterday I had pasta with tomato sauce; today I am having pesto. It is completely different, and the best food in the world. Why would I want anything else?”
Biting into fresh tortellini, ragu spilling out and over my tongue, or sitting very full and very happy, in the midst of a communal yet intimate moment of hoped for but still unexpected pleasure, I thought back to that and couldn’t find an answer. At that moment, it was the best food in the world. How could I want anything else?
Via Ganaceto, 89 Modena, Italy +39 059 238065