I’ve been to some novel locations for drinks parties over the years; Martinis on a carousel on Santa Monica Pier (stirred, not shaken), spirited onto a Russian tanker in Banjul Harbour for vodkas with the captain and crew (before perestroika) and a midnight trek to a pocheen tasting in a hidden bothy in the Islay hills. The latter was hosted by a blind artist who was still painting some stunning local scenes for the Island’s pubs and hotels, entirely from memory.
“Tell me Lachlan, do you think the pocheen has had anything to do with your affliction?”
“Och no, not a’tall, but it does clean the brushes up a treat.”
The great thing about these kind of parties is that there’s always something to talk about, even if you don’t know anybody….no tip-toeing round the social man-traps of politics or religion in an effort to keep the conversation going. So, when Maria informed me that Cristina had told her about a weekly aperitivo evening we should go to, I naturally asked where.
“You know that butcher’s you like, the one on the street up from the museum.”
“Oh, it’s near there is it?”
“No, it is there.”
“ You mean actually in the butcher’s?”
“Yes, why, something wrong?”
“No, not at all.” This is going to be interesting, I thought, I’d better start looking up the Italian for different cuts of meat so we can take a butcher’s at the butcher’s. I knew the shop she meant as I’d looked in the window once and commented on the vast and well presented display of fresh produce, much more sophisticated looking than most of the purveyors that I’d seen before. “Must go in there one day.” I’d said at the time.
Giovanni Remo’s Enoteca Gastronomia is indeed located just up and around the corner from Reggio’s famous museum, in Via Demetrio Tripepi, and when we walked down the street about 9.00 in the evening we could see that the party was already in full swing. The shop had put out high tables and stools under umbrellas half way across the street so that it looked more like a well-appointed wine bar than a butcher’s shop. At Remo’s that evening it seemed as if all the great and good of the city had turned out with the women particularly managing to look effortlessly elegant in their usual stylish but casual manner. We managed to squeeze through the throng and into the shop itself where Cristina and some of her friends had formed a circle round one of the tables at the far end of the shop. Maria greeted the group, most of whom she knew, so introduced Daisy (my daughter) and me in rapid-fire Italian, making it virtually impossible to pick up people’s names and occupations without having to spend the rest of the evening apologising and asking once again who they were. I was instructed to go and get the drinks while Maria caught up on the gossip. As I queued at the ad hoc bar, really just the top of the glass meat display cabinets, I looked round to take in my surroundings and began to appreciate the reason why the evening was all so logical. “Why haven’t I seen this before?” I thought. “All those people who’re told to “think outside the box” and find a unique selling point probably just think too hard.”
Remo’s is the marriage of two passions, an alliance of two quality products together in the same shop. O.K it might not be the first combination to jump into your head, but it makes perfect sense. A purveyor of quality meat and fine wines, the very best of both I may add. “ Could the sommelier suggest an appropriate wine to go with this fillet steak I’ve just bought?” or “An excellent choice of Chianti sir, perhaps the master butcher here can suggest a good cut that would bring out the subtle flavours best.” It is important to remember that, in Italy, food and wine are interdependent and that the object is to savour the sensory pleasures and not merely to consume.
“Buona Sera (good evening) I’m Franco, What would you like to drink? Red or white?” enquired the busy but gregarious man behind the counter. “Um, I’ll try the white, three glasses please.” I replied, thinking that it would be nice to have a change from the more common choice of red in Calabria and at home. “Help yourself to aperitivi, they’re all out own produce.” He offered, “The pork pieces are slightly piquant and will go well with the wine.” Armed with plastic plates of food and juggling three wine glasses I returned to the table and was relieved of my burden by the girls who promptly handed the drinks round the company. “I’ll just go and some more drinks for us then.” Giving Maria an old fashioned look. Back at the counter I gazed at the array of beef, chicken and pork while I waited until masses had been refilled. The display was enticing. All forms of meat, at least half already prepared in some fashion; stuffed rolls of thinly-sliced steak, skewers of pork loin and peppers soaked in oil and lemon, Milanese coated in fine breadcrumbs and parsley, all manner of sausages, chicken breast stuffed with ham and mozzarella and rows of joints ready for slicing into carpaccio. I was beginning to feel very hungry and imagining how difficult it would be to make a choice when I came for the weekly shopping. I know a little about meat from my catering days and you get to tell very quickly when a product is good, when the butcher knows what he’s doing. This was most definitely good..the colouring, the marble, the texture of the fat, they were all top grade. Franco returned, “More wine? Already?” You’re not Italian!” It was definitely a statement and not a question. I thought whatever excuse I gave (honest, I gave it to the others) it was going to be treated with suspicion. I was wrong, he was delighted, even enthusiastic.
“What did you think of the white then? It’s a new one I’m trying, a good price for something before dinner.”
“Great!” I lied. “Very light with a good after-taste…when it comes. The others would like to try some now.” Maria came over with Mimmo (who I found out later runs a famous designer’s boutique in Reggio) to find out what was keeping me.
“Hey Maria!” exclaimed Franco. “Glad you could come at last. You know each other, yes?”
“This is my husband, always taking too long. So yes, I know him.”
“Wonderful! This man knows his wine, I’ll come over and join you in a minute and talk some more with him. Maybe I can educate him about Italian wines.” Franco winked and handed me three more glasses before he returned to the other party-goers who were, by now, beginning to gently tap the bar with their empties.
The warm evening, the warmer company and the buzz of the atmosphere were as intoxicating as the flowing wine and superb food, so much so that it took me a little while to realise that this was going to have to be paid for at some point. Daisy and I had taken a little break from the efforts of translation to look round the shop and register the wine stock on the shelves. This was no ordinary selection, this was for a discerning palate and an unconcerned pocket.
“Maybe we should go a little steady.”
“No problema amore, it’s only ten euros for whatever you want, we pay when we leave.”
As business promotions go, this was class. A photographer roamed around the guests, looking for those high society shots for some glossy perhaps, Daisy and I ducking out of his way just in case. By now we were out in the street to get some air and allow the smokers a little comfort break when Franco joined us with a bottle of prosecco ( Italian sparkling wine) and made me finish my half-full glass of dry white in one gulp. “Try this and tell me what you think.” He implored, while getting the rest of our group to do the same. We followed his lead and drank. “I think this is as good a prosecco as you’ll find anywhere, perhaps better than a medium priced French champagne…at a fraction of the cost, don’t you think?” He was spot on. “Give me a minute, I have an idea.” He said, leaving the bottle with us. “Is Franco the owner then?” I asked those around the table. “No, that’s Giovanni. Franco’s the sommelier.” Said Mimmo. “Anything you want to know about any wine, he’s your man.” Franco returned in a few minutes with more bottles, he’d obviously taken a shine to me and was determined that I sample half of Italy’s wine output in one evening. Our company was delighted and began to encourage him, after all when the bottle was opened it had to be finished. “Why don’t you get him to try that special reserve Merlot Franco.” They suggested. “Oh and what about the Franciacorta.” (Italy’s champagne equivalent). They understood Franco’s passion for his subject and were going to make the most of it.
By midnight the great and good had long-since drifted away leaving an amalgamated group of diehards, about ten strong, feeling extremely relaxed and convivial, the jokes getting more risqué and the laughter considerably louder. I started to feel guilty about the remaining staff and the exhausted photographer who had obviously been told to stay till the bitter end. “Maybe it’s time we went.” I said to Maria, “we don’t want to outstay our welcome, and I’m all wined out.” We tried to pay for the three of us, though we probably should have been paying for thirty three, but Franco would only accept 20 euros for me and Maria. “It’s your daughter’s holiday.” He smiled, “I hope she enjoyed herself.”
Enoteca Gastronomia has been holding these evenings for some time and their popularity has grown to the extent that they are trying different locations to accommodate the interest and keep the idea fresh. Most recently they occupied Lido Calajunco, adding tall palms and the soft surf to sensory joy. I look forward to going to the shop and to the aperitivo evenings now, whether to enjoy the hospitality or simply buy some carpaccio and a bottle of Sicilian red. I raise my glass to their knowledge, imagination and good old-fashioned customer care. Support your local butcher….if you still have one left.