New Years Day, January 1, 2012. The beginning of a new year and the end of our family time together.
The day before New Year’s eve, Tim, my mother and I were driving the hills above the villa in search of a local restaurant. We were lost and cranky. The restaurant was nowhere in sight. But suddenly we saw a sign for Ristorante Forte Mace’. This was not what we were looking for, but we thought we should check it out. We drove up to what looked like a fortification, set deep into the ground, atop a hill. Which is exactly what it was.
The restaurant was closed, but we peered in the window and soon a young woman and her mother came out. We explained, in broken Italian and a bit of Spanish, that there were 8 of us and we were hoping to have dinner on San Silvestro. They told us that they were full for San Silvestro, but could serve us on the following day, lunch at 1:00. A quick tour of the restaurant, a change of plan, and we gratefully accepted.
Ristorante Forte Mace’ sits tucked into the hillside, high above the Gulf of La Spezia.
Built in 1889, the fort provided land defense for the entire region. It was in total disrepair when purchased 14 years ago by the present owners. The have turned it into an extraordinary family restaurant and it was there that we spent New Year’s Day.
What we did not know was that the family opened the restaurant exclusively for us. We were the only diners, and they prepared a very special meal for us.
The son of the family, the business manager for the restaurant, speaks some English and was able to guide us through our meal. We started by ordering delicious local wines and began our way through the extraordinary menu, starting with the Antipasto Desgustazione.
We all shared plates of:
- Bruschetta al lardo
- Cipolline in agrondolce all’alloro
- Crostini con acciughe
- Torta di farro
- Torta di zucca gialla
Our little Italian phrase book didn’t help with the subtleties of this menu, but we were able to get the gist of most things. Each taste was unique and special. The Cipolline (baby onions) in a slightly sweet sauce, the fresh anchovies and the Torta di faro (a hearty kind of grain) were especially memorable. The Bruschetta al lardo was amazing, soft and buttery. We were only a bit shocked when we looked at the menu and realized that it was lard.
For the pasta course we each had a choice:
- Ravioli all spezzina al ragu di carne tradizionale
- Gnocchi di farina di castagne con crema di zola
- Gnocchi aromatizzati all zafferanao con speck e radicchio rosso
- Pansotti con salsa di noci
- Tagliolini al ragu bianco di granchio
We all shared around tastes of each dish. Meghan’s gnocchi di farina di castagne (chestnut flour) were really surprising and delicious, as were the gnocchi with red radicchio that Lewis had. While in La Spezia we have found a number of dishes that use red radicchio. I love the slightly bitter taste and burnt colour that it adds. I ordered Pansotti con salsa di noci, which were lovely fresh little stuffed pastas in a subtle and soft nut sauce. Amazingly delicate.
For Secondi Piatti we chose from:
- Salsicce con patate al forno
- Tagliata con scaglie di grana e rucola
- Filetto di maiale al marsala
- Coniglio fritto con melanzane grigliate
- Acciughe fritte con insalata
We searched through the phrase book and placed our orders. A lot of us had the Tagliata con scaglie di grana e rucola. Thin slices of rare beef, mounded with shavings of Parmesan cheese on a bed of arugula. The perfect combination and incredibly delicious. Tim braved the Coniglio fritto con melanzane grigliate, little fried pieces of rabbit with grilled eggplant. They use a lot of rabbit in this part of Italy and Tim said it was marvellous, although not unlike chicken.
By the time that we had eaten all of these courses, there was very little room for Dolce. However, the owners had especially made a nut torte, so I willingly had a bit – light and airy, it was the perfect way to end the meal.
Well, not quite the end. When we found that the grandmother of the family makes homemade limoncello, we knew that we wanted to cap off the meal with a glass (or two).
Then the father of the family came out from the kitchen saying “Come. Come” to my mother. As he began to guide her out the door, Tim & I followed and he took us on a full tour of the fort. He is the one who has done the bulk of the restoration work, by hand, and we were shown a slideshow of the renovation process. This is more than just a little family restaurant. The daughter and her mother do most of the cooking and we saw a sign for the Italian Cooking Academy on the wall. They serve the specialities of the Ligurian coast and do it with grace and symplicity. The son does the business side and was our host for the afternoon since he was able to speak English.
This is a family that has poured their hearts into creating a unique experience for everyone who comes there. This was more than a meal. We were welcomed into their world and we felt incredibly privileged to be there with them.
By the time we left we were hugging and introducing our children as “Alessandro, Magdalena, e Luigi”, something which I suspect will go into family lore and which Tim & I won’t be able to live down. Laughing until our faces and sides hurt, we rolled down the hill, along the ancient path, to the villa. It was an amazing way to usher in a new year.