Cooking Italian is a craftsman’s labour, the work of an Artisan of Flavour.
Something very special Today: as the blog celebrates its first 50 followers (thank you all!) we take a closer look to the unsung heroes of the Italian food, the masters of authenticity and tradition: le Osterie. If you ever travel to Italy, forget the touristic restaurant on the main streets and look up for these hidden wonders.
Cosy and informal, an Osteria is one of the best places to have hearty, home-made food in Italy. Osterie are quite numerous in the north and centre of the country, with the most famous and most characteristic being located in Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Veneto and Umbria.
Despite the simple look, the rather dark rooms and their plain furniture in true period style, these old fashioned venues have now become very popular, somehow trendy, transforming the early concept into something new, without losing the old charm. Once a place for travellers, gamblers and prostitutes, through the centuries Osterie have developed a new appeal to different patrons and have now reached the appreciation of more refined customers: quality food lovers looking for a down-to-heart place most likely fulfilled with laughter, toasts and jokes.
Although most of them still retain their very easy-going atmosphere, some of them are targetting wealthier pockets and nowadays in the best Osterie most of the courses can be as expensive as in restaurants, while the wine selection swings from the classic affordable house-wine (usually good cask wine from local producers) to premium bottles.
The quality of the food is likely to be very high: the key characters of the proposal are the strong bonds with the territory. Menus are short but with plenty of typical dishes of the local heritage as pasta, dried meat, cheese and grilled meat (mostly pork and game).
The service is usually as hearty as the food, for most of the genuine Osterie around Italy are still family-run businesses with the husband, the Oste, taking care of the innkeeper’s duty and the wife directing a small kitchen.
The Oste himself is most of the times a very distinguishing character: a good-natured man with deep passion for the food and the wine he serves. You will find the Host is always ready to entertain customers with a joke and he probably will not refuse to seat with you and have a word in front of a glass of wine if the Osteria is not too busy.
A bit of History…
The forefather of the Osteria could be identified in one of the Roman taverns, the enopolium, although the two concepts differ enough to rule out a direct bond, if you ask me. What is certain is that the word Osteria has its roots in the Latin language: hospitem, which can be translated as host but also as guest. Ambiguity translators and lecturers have learnt to deal with.
The first Osterie were probably established in the late 1300s in Bologna (Emilia-Romagna), in the North-East of Italy. Since then, they transformed as the society itself did. Osterie were born as a place for travellers, to whom they would offer some refreshment and a room for the night. It is no surprise then that these have sprout mainly in the key areas of the medieval life: near the market places, the churches, the main intersections, the crossings, the bridges and the stables.
More than anything else, Osterie suddenly became a place for social life. Male attendees would play cards or dice while enjoying wine, extremely simple food and possibly some ladies’ company – as prostitutes would run their business in the rooms of the these taverns and the dark alleys of the surroundings.
Later the Osteria changed again earning social importance and turning gradually into a place for conversation and debate, were local artist as writers and musicians would gather for a glass of wine. University students started to attend, to get away from their academic duties to sing their songs (usually about women, which were not allowed in the Osterie until after the 1950s) and of course, indulge in wine.
Wine has always been the core and most distinctive element of the Osteria through the ages. Today the house-wine is still served in small thick traditional glasses which date back centuries and almost never changed much in shape or dimensions from the old medieval cups.
Some 15th and 16th century Osterie still exist in Bologna and Ravenna: if you have the chance they are definitely worth a visit, for the food and the atmosphere.