After eating a delicious lunch in Florence, Paolo told the chef that we were on our way to Modena. We were making a pilgrimage of sorts, off of our planned route, to visit the celebrated Osteria Francescana. The chef nodded and winked, knowingly. “OK, that’s fine,” his expression seemed to suggest. But then he narrowed his eyes, and said “You must go to Amerigo. It’s a trattoria in Savigno. A special one. Near Bologna.”
Two days later, we hopped in our tiny Fiat and raced past the archways of old Bologna, then through the industrial outskirts of what might be Europe’s most beautiful city. The sun was setting, and soon we wound into the hills in darkness, passing shadows of grapevines that produce the sweet, bubbly Lambrusco. It was just a degree or two above freezing, and as we circled back down the hills into Savigno, a stag jumped across the road. It was huge, and muscular, and it stared right at us. We met the stag at the road’s next traverse, and the one after that. We lost sight of him as we entered the town – whose sign proudly proclaims “Savigno – Citta’ del Tartufo (City of Truffles)”
Now, Savigno isn’t a city. It’s a village, in the hills of Emilia Romagna, where farmers with dirt-caked fingernails drink at a bar called Free Beach. When we parked at 7pm, the streets were eerily empty. The restaurant lights where we had booked were off. And so we drank Campari at Free Beach, where fizzy white and red wine are on tap, and where they serve potato chips and hot dogs for appertivo hour.
But Savigno’s pride – beside its wines and truffles – is a remarkable trattoria called Amerigo. In all my life, I can say it’s one of the best restaurants I’ve eaten in. Part of it might have been the chill in the air, and the wood smoke, the changing of the seasons, the silence – but the restaurant knows that, and it captures the essence of it all. You cannot separate Amerigo from Savigno – one thing is not possible without the other.
Our meal began on the second floor, as radiators clunked and the waitress poured us glasses of local Sauvignon Blanc. Then came a string of dishes – earthy and deep, rich with what was outside – that had Paolo and I grunting with pleasure. There was a first course of polenta enriched with pecorino, topped with thin slices of headcheese whose fat and gelatin melted into the grains beneath. And Paolo’s white bean soup topped with fat, pan-seared porcini mushrooms.
We decided to stay in Savigno for the night, instead of driving back to Bologna, after the first course. We ordered more wine, and our waitress booked us a room in a local inn (the restaurant has rooms too, but they were full). I suggest, if you ever go to Amerigo, you do the same. Eat and drink deeply. Intoxicatingly. Then sleep.
What came next was a pile of feathery black truffles, completely obscuring the fresh pasta beneath, which had been simply tossed in butter and black pepper. And then another pasta course, hand-made ravioli filled with aged parmesan cream and sautéed with smoky ham. It was like macaroni and cheese from a sacred realm. Paolo ate a lasagna with layers of green sauce, venison, and wild mushrooms. “It’s the best lasagna I ever tasted,” he said, between shakes of his head. When I took a bite, my thoughts returned to the stag, walking through the forest, searching for somewhere to sleep.
By the time the mains came – a veal cheek in red wine, and a massive cut of black pork, simply grilled and served with chunks of fat – we had already eaten too much. Dizzy with food and wine, we worked our way through the meat, then stumbled across the street. I woke at dawn, in a room so cold I was unable to sleep. A crucifix hung above the bed, covered in purple glitter, sparkling like Lambrusco. The vines outside were starting to turn yellow. The mist was lifting.
We dressed, and left.