It’s rare that I have a dish in the U.S. that takes me to my travels in Italy and to some of the amazing food I’ve had there. But that déjà vu moment just happened for me, at a place within blocks of my house. It was at Forno Osteria & Bar. Forno is the new passion for downtown Cincinnati’s Via Vitae Chef Cristian Pietoso, a native of Florence, Italy.
I consider Florence (not Rome) the cultural mecca of Italy, and arguably the WORLD! There’s the engineering marvel of Brunischeli’s Duomo, Michelangelo’s David, and the Uffizi Museum, just to name a few of Florence’s gems. It’s sort of funny that Via Vitae translates as the ‘Way of Life’, because Chef Cristian’s restaurant Forno is more about the Italian way of life than Via Vitae is. I think Via Vitae caters to fat-walleted American businessmen at the risk of being inauthentic. It’s wonderfully upscale and chic, for those looking for that in an Italian restaurant.
But it’s the unassuming Forno which really distills the essence of Tuscany and the simple way of life of they practice. Tuscans have a worldwide monopoly on the mastery of savoring everything. There is an Italian phrase which sums up their outlook, “La Dolce fa niente,” which means the art of doing nothing. I want to hang that phrase in red neon on my backyard fence. It has a deeper meaning than the surface translation. It’s not actually about doing nothing at all – it’s about stopping to smell the roses and savor the simple and important things in life. It’s about living a truly artful life and enjoying love, friends and family, art and food.
Forno is more rustic than Via Vitae. It’s more about Chef Cristian’s childhood in Tuscany, and I think the most authentic Italian restaurant in Cincinnati.
It was Chef Cristian’s ‘Pappardelle Cinghiale’, or beer-brased wild boar ragout, that took me back to my trip through Tuscany in 2009. It was on this trip that I learned how to live like an Italian. Chef Cristian’s dish reminded me so much of a very special dish I had at the Café Polizano in the Tuscan hill town of Montelpuciano. It’s a beautiful centuries old town built over even older Etruscan site, whose tunnels can still be accessed today. It’s also where the teen angst vampire movie Twilight: New Moon was filmed, posing as the village of Volterra, which is about an hour northwest of Montelpuciano.
On this trip we were staying with the owners of Café Polizano, Claudio and Davor, who both were artists and also owned the local theatre. Their home is this fabulous 15th century villa with larger than life unscreened windows that overlook the beautiful Val d’Orcia to the south, and the towering city center of Montelpuciano on the north. Their villa has no air conditioning, but the cool night Tuscan air flows in and cools the thick stone walls. Bats live in symbiosis on the shutters, acting as natural bug repellant. Claudio is a poet and actor; Davor a painter and director. Claudio’s masterpiece is a compilation of food poetry called “Poessi sessualment appetibili” which means ‘poems sexually appetizing’. Basically it’s food porn – poems that sensualize favorite dishes. One of the most amazing of these poems is about the dish ‘Cinghiale in cocciolato’ or wild boar in chocolate sauce. This dish is one of the oldest dishes in Tuscany, having been served there since the Renaissance days of Leonardo and Michelangelo. It’s a deep flavored, very masculine dish, that’s popular at Christmas. Claudio read this poem to us in Italian, in his deep bass voce and then translated. It’s definitely one of the most amazing food soliloquies I’ve ever heard. Everyone who has a passion for food or even a favorite dish can relate. I was so moved by the poem I had to taste its inspiration, which was served at their café.
So, one night before going to the opera, we were given ‘soigne’ reservations at the café on their amazing balcony. I ordered the boar with chocolate sauce, overlooking the valley below that is home to over 200 producers of the wonderful Sangiovese grape. Think of the view of the long windy road scene in Under the Tuscan Sun. It’s lined with tall narrow cypress trees and fields of sunflowers and vineyards, backlit by the setting sun. We shared a bottle of locally produced Sangiovese red wine that ignited the dish. The boar had been slowly braised in red wine and a variety of deep spices like coriander, peppercorns, and others. The fatty meat had rendered and made its own tasty ragout and the meat had accepted all the wonderful flavors of the prunes, raisins, onions, garlic, carrots, celery and tomatoes. The bittersweet chocolate was just there enough to add a thin layer of even more flavor onto an already masterful symphony. The thick pappardelle pasta, acting as sauce sherpa, was freshly made and tender, but not chewy; soft, but not mushy. A flurry of freshly ground unpasteurized Italian pecorino cheese was made to snow onto the dish. Every bite was a 300 piece orchestra playing the finale of a Verdi opera, accentuated with my deep moans of satisfaction.
It’s funny how vividly food memories are cemented into our brains. I was reminded with one bite, of the wonderful opera we saw after that amazing dinner, in a 400 year old theatre as old as opera itself, made up of nearly all personal boxes. I was reminded of how the hot Tuscan summer air sublimates the evergreen essences of the cypress trees, and how good the peccarino cheese tastes, how stylish even the Italian nonas or grandmas, are, and how strong the expresso is, and, and and…. One taste of Forno’s boar ragout took me back to that moment in Montelpuciano, where I was tanner, thinner, younger, and dumber, and reminded me of that simple philosophy I’d nearly forgotten, “La dolce fa niente.”