Posted on 17 April 2012.
Eating out is one of my favourite things to do. When I’m in England I scan Trip Advisor and press reviews before we visit a new restaurant, wanting to make sure it’s an evening to remember for all the right reasons.
Here in Italy my approach is completely different….in our village (2,000 residents) there are no shops, but five restaurants, between them capable of seating around 1,000 diners at a single sitting.
All the restaurants serve pretty much the same local specialities. But we always receive the warmest welcome at La Gavarina D’Oro – opened more than 20 years ago by my neighbour Francesco and now run by his children and their families.
So deciding where to celebrate James’ birthday last week was easy.
The Gavarina doesn’t have a menu (well there is one somewhere, just in case ‘strangers’ ask for it, but it doesn’t list half the dishes on offer).
The first time we came here, speaking no Italian whatsoever, we were invited to try the local speciality, panigacci. Not wanting to offend, we agreed with trepidation in case it turned out to be some unspeakable part of an animal.
In fact panigacci are a kind of flat bread, cooked over a huge open wood fire in the corner of the restaurant. They are served with sauces, or salami and cheeses, or even nutella. You can have a three course meal based entirely on panigacci – and many people do.
As James’ birthday falls on Easter Monday the restaurant is crammed with 200 guests of literally all ages, mostly seated on family tables of up to 20.
Baskets of panigacci fly around the restaurant. The waiting staff rush in and out of the kitchen with plates of roast meat, steak and pasta, weaving their way around four and five year olds wandering up and down.
Children are clearly more than welcome but there are no special kids’ menus here, no packs of crayons or placemats to colour in. A baby of eight months at the most is fed a plate of chopped up spaghetti bolognaise from the kitchen. Toddlers munch on panigacci with salami and gorgonzola.
As the evening goes on, many of the younger guests fall asleep on their grandparents’ laps. Older children play outside on the restaurant terrace.
(We have been here also on quieter evenings, when one end of the dining room has formed an impromptu goal mouth for Francesco’s four year old great-grandson, Goielle and his friends’ game of football).
A single baby of just a few weeks gets fractious, but nobody minds when his father walks him up and down the restaurant floor – the noise levels are so high that you can’t hear his crying anyway.
Even though the restaurant is packed to the gills, Clara, Francesco’s 73 year old wife, who still runs the kitchen, comes out to say hello, with open arms and a kiss for us both. Their son, Massimo and his wife Sonia chat while we drink a farewell glass of limoncello.
A couple of years ago, the Gavarina received a visit from an English family, with their bodyguards. Francesco was upstairs having a nap at the time and didn’t know anything had happened until two weeks later when his cousin announced she’d read in the paper that Tony Blair had eaten at there.
‘It just goes to show,’ Francesco said with a shrug when he told me about the visit, ‘Everybody likes panigacci.’