Tuesday, May 22, 2012
One of the saddest pieces of news I’ve had in recent years was when I heard that Salavatore Denaro’s restaurant in Foligno was closing. His Bacco Felice was our favorite restaurant in.......
....I was going to write Umbria. Then Italy. But I’ve come to realize that it was probably our favorite restaurant in the world.
I know this is saying a lot, but it’s true. Although our love of Bacco Felice had everything to do with the food, favorite restaurants are always about so much more than that, right? What made Bacco Felice what it was, was due to the Happy Bacchus himself, Salvatore Denaro.
When I first heard that Salvatore had closed Bacco I was crushed. The restaurant itself was covered in graffiti and photographs - much of it provided by me and my family. Photos of Sophie at age 6. Evan making silly faces with Emma. My sister Robin with her then new boyfriend Phil. Funny drawings, sayings and random thoughts scribbled on the walls. All gone.
But if I thought Salvatore had left the stage, I was wrong. He’s now parked over at Caprai, teaching cooking classes. And he even popped up last summer in Rome, at one of the temporary restaurants along the Tiber.
But the one place that the spirit of Il Bacco Felice continues to beat hard and strong is in Salvatore’s orto outside of Bevagna. Somehow - even though he lost his restaurant and now lives at Caprai - he’s managed to keep his vegetable garden going.
A couple of weeks ago I called my friend Nancy, to see if she would come down from Cortona to have lunch in Todi. I mentioned that I would also see if Salvatore could come too. I should have known that just mentioning the name “Salvatore” would lead to an immediate and magical gathering.
The venue soon shifted from my house to his orto. Not only did Nancy make the drive down, but Salvatore invited a jolly bunch of friends, including Jennifer, Toni and Barbara.
Turning off a dirt road, right past the Bevagna cemetery, the fields are planted in neat rows of wheat, alfalfa and sunflowers. As we bump our way along the rutted road, a kind of green oasis rises up. As we get nearer cars are haphazardly parked beneath a huge mulberry tree. At first the wild mass of green seems no more than an abandoned patch of scrub amid the more carefully tended fields.
This completely uninhibited, overgrown and wild island is Salvatore’s incredibly fertile orto where he holds court.
A wooden table was set up with planks of wood. Temporary benches were unfolded. A grill was going amid the Swiss chard patch and everyone was pouring wine.
The garden itself is magical. In one corner Salvatore’s prize pet pigs hold court. Fruit trees and roses were in bloom everywhere, and last year's chard, lettuces and cabbages had gone to seed and were waving in the wind. As we all grabbed pieces of grilled meat with our hands, dogs scrambled for bones beneath the table and the wine glasses miraculously stayed full.
As always, Salvatore created a meal - an event - out of thin air. It was a bit pot luck. But since almost everyone at the lunch was either a cook or a sommelier, the pot was pretty lucky. Nancy brought a rustic potato frittata. Salvatore had baked a vegetable torta the day before. Jennifer and I - unbeknownst to each other - had baked nearly identical ricotta chocolate crostatas. And Barbara brought a half dozen bottles of Lambrusco from some small producers she wanted us to try.
The main course was a huge pile of grilled meat. Chicken, sausages and tiny lamb chops. But crowning this pile of protein was some squid-shaped things that took me a minute to figure out.
Freshly picked spring onions had been wrapped in paper thin slices of pancetta and then thrown on the grill. The outside was crispy, crunchy, slightly burnt pork while the inside was just-cooked-enough sweet, spring onions.
So while I may be sad about the fact that Bacco Felice is no more, even I have to admit that the four walls of the restaurant was only part of the equation. In the middle of an Umbrian field, with no walls in site, the Bacco Felice is still going strong.
20 slices of pancetta
Make sure the scallions are completely dry.
Wrap each scallion in a layer of pancetta, using your hands to make sure the pancetta is sort of sticking to the onion. Wrap them up until the slight green part of the scallion, letting the greens poke out freely.
Place them in the fridge for a few hours, so that the pancetta really has a chance to adhere to the scallion.
Grill over a medium fire, until the pancetta is crisped and the bulb part of the onion softens.