Chowfind in Modena, Italy (long)
We had made our reservation (required) and it was time for lunch but we couldnt find Hosteria Giusti. There was Salumeria Giusti (operating for 400 years, according to the sign) and Caffé Giusti, but no sign at all of Hosteria Giusti, even after exploring the alleyway behind the salumeria and caffé. So we went into the salumeria and asked the signora where the hosteria was. Do you have reservations? Yes? Oh, are you the ones who called this morning? Welcome! I will get my son to fetch you in. The son arrived, shook our hands, and took us behind the counter, through a tiny doorway (even I had to duck and I am not tall), past shelves of ripening cheeses, down a short corridor and into a small dining room with four tables. We had arrived at Hosteria Giusti. There are no signs, no menus, only four tables, lunch by reservation only and fabulous food.
A very nice young woman (daughter of the house? probably) went through the antipasto and pasta offerings for us in English. We decided on capon salad and gnocchi fritti (both to be shared). The capon salad had large chunks of breast meat (shredded, not cut) on a mix of predominantly bitter greens with a lovely sauce of drippings and aromatic vegetables, all sprinkled with pine nuts and drizzled with heavenly balsamic (we are in Modena, remember). It was a wonderful mix of richness, bitterness, saltiness and sweetness. The gnocchi fritti turned out to be puffy pillows of fried wafer-thin potato shatteringly crispy with local prosciutto or lardo draped over them (one of each per person), melting in the heat of the hot potato. Delicious, airy treats without much redeeming nutritional value but highly addictive nonetheless. Oh well, there was lettuce in the capon salad, right?
We elected to pass on the pastas, although all four of them sounded wonderful. Uniquely among all the meals we ordered during our three week trip, our nice waitress seemed confounded by this not that she was being pushy, almost more motherly but how will you get through the afternoon without your pasta? but she politely moved on to list the secondi. The first one out of her mouth was the cotechino we stopped her there, didnt even listen to the rest. Man, was that good little circles of porky lusciousness, so rich that if you werent careful your lips would stick together, accompanied by sinfully buttery puréed potatoes that somehow were the essence of potato-y-ness and small pink kidney-shaped beans in the rich sauce in which the cotechino had simmered. She was tickled at how much we loved the cotechino which she told us was the first of the season (first week of October). It does torture me a little to think what else may have been on offer but then I think of sharing that cotechino instead of having it all to myself and I move on .
Desserts were an amazing sour cherry tart in a short, buttery crust and an eggy crème brulée with intensely flavorful grapes embedded in the crust. The wine list was verbal but quite adequate from what I could judge, although I think not the focus of the enterprise.
Two of the four tables were seated when we arrived; the fourth filled up shortly after we got there all Italians but us. Two Italian ladies who showed up at the kitchen door without reservations were turned away despite much pleading. (Half the time the door between kitchen and dining room stood open, allowing me to spy on kitchen activity which I loved.) The dining room looked very old (rough plank doors, thick walls) but was gracious with lovely linens and silver. The ambience was that of being welcomed into someones home and given the best they had to offer extremely hospitable, dignified rather than formal. By the same token, this was not cutting-edge cuisine, but rather traditional local cooking, lovingly prepared from perfect ingredients: the meal you would have had at Grandmas house if she were the very best cook in a town and a region full of great home cooks.
Departing, we were led though the now-closed salmeria as they raised the metal shutters to allow us out. A unique experience and terrific food highly recommended be sure and call ahead. And if you have your wits about you (which we, unfortunately, did not) you can shop at the salumeria before lunch and have a lovely picnic for dinner.
Hosteria Giusti, Modena. Tel 059/22 25 33. About 50 euros pp, before wine.