Homemade heaven in Italy

David Downie discovers a piece of homemade heaven in the Italian mountain village of Lorsica, savoring the wild boar stew and other delights of a tiny restaurant called Circolo ACLI Bar.

By David Downie
Published July 21, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Speedboats screamed across the northern Mediterranean. Seaside ristoranti served $100 plates of sea bass to the Italian Riviera's tanned and beautiful.

Ten miles inland from Portofino as the seagull flies, the clack of a centuries-old loom echoed down hilltop Lorsica's cool stone alleys -- alleys scented by jugged hare, wild boar stew and homemade fettuccine writhing under pungent sauce, all served at the village's sole trattoria, Circolo ACLI Bar.

Italy is a country of great contrasts, and none is more startling than that between the sun-washed Riviera and mountainous Lorsica. This Appenine village has about 600 inhabitants, many of them elderly. A single, chase-your-tail road coils up 1,000 feet from the Fontanabuona Valley, through terraced olive and chestnut groves, then dead-ends here. The back of beyond.

But there are two reasons to visit Lorsica. The first -- and for most people, the more compelling -- is the presence of the De Martini family weaving workshop. For about 500 years, Lorsica had hundreds of silk and cotton weavers. Domenico Colombo, Christopher Columbus' father, was a weaver, and some historians claim that the family came from hereabouts. The De Martinis are Lorsica's only remaining weavers. A handful of connoisseurs of damasks, brocades and Shantung trek to their workshop from all over the world, place their orders and wait several years for a delivery.

Some of these intrepid silk lovers arrive at feeding time. They wind up, as I did, at the Circolo ACLI Bar, Lorsica's second draw. Now when I go it's for the sow's ear, not the silk.

Lorsica is small, its stone houses chased into the rocky hillside along stone-paved footpaths. But you won't find the Circolo ACLI Bar unless you ask for directions. It has no sign outside and doesn't seem to be a restaurant at all. It looks like -- and is -- the kind of wood-paneled place where Good Old Boys smoke smelly cigs and boast about huntin' and fishin'.

For good reason: The woods around Lorsica are overrun by wild pig and boar, hare, pheasant, mountain goat. The Lavagna and M`lvaro, two mountain streams, still have trout and perch.

It's not that the locals are unfriendly. They're just unused to outsiders. So when my wife and I had finally found the presumed eatery and stepped inside, silence fell. A rare experience in Italy.

We asked the couple
behind the bar if this was in fact a restaurant:
Circolo means social club. Maybe we'd gotten
it wrong. The woman acknowledged that food
was available. She led us upstairs from the
dark, smoky bar. Surprise: a vast dining room.
Wooden tables and chairs. A mountain chalet
feel. And the place all to ourselves.

To call the owner "voluble" would be an
exaggeration, but she did warm to us when we
told her how hungry and relieved we were to
have found a trattoria in such an isolated
village. The word "isolated" worked like the
corkscrew she wielded on a bottle of local red
wine: No sooner had we said it than she began
telling us about life in Lorsica over the last
thousand years or so. Since we'd just been
reading about the subject, we prompted her
and went along for the ride.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the
Barbarians invaded Italy, she said, serving us several pounds of
homemade cold cuts and head cheese from a
huge platter.

So the coast dwellers moved en masse to
mountain villages like Lorsica, she continued.
They hoped that the Goths, the Lombards, the
Franks, the Saracens and a few dozen other
invaders would pass them by.

She hovered over us, pleased to see that
we appreciated the ham, salami and head
cheese she'd made from wild pigs and boars.
There were so many of them, she said, that
they'd become an environmental hazard. She
removed the platter and retreated to the
cupboard-sized kitchen. The mouthwatering
smell of sauce and stew wafted into the dining
room where we sat.

Around the 13th century the silk weavers
arrived, she told us a few minutes later, while
serving -- and then re-serving -- mountains of
homemade fettuccine sauced with wild
mushrooms and ground meat.

The silkworms were raised nearby. The
weavers worked all day, producing only a few
feet of precious cloth, the same way the De
Martinis do today.

She cleared our dishes and poured more
wine. We were stunned by the quantity and
deliciousness of the food. Before we could
protest, she'd returned from the kitchen with
enough wild boar stew to feed an army of
invading Barbarians. It smelled of clove and
spices and was studded with black olives,
celery bits and carrot. We breathed deeply and
tucked in.

Lorsica, like dozens of other mountain
villages nearby, had shrunk over the years.
"Thousands left from around here," she noted
with a shake of the head. "Hundreds of
thousands." Now there are more wild boars
than people. Wolves have been spotted in the
woods nearby.

She watched us savor the stew and
smiled. She pointed to the window and asked
if we'd noticed the memorial at the bottom of
the road, in the Fontanabuona Valley.

We had. The statue is dedicated to all
those who emigrated to the Americas. To seek
their fortunes in Argentina, Brazil, California. I
told her I was from San Francisco and she
nodded. A lot of locals wound up over there.
"Everyone has a cousin in San Francisco," she

But now the opposite was happening:
Moroccans, Albanians, Gypsies from Eastern
Europe were landing in Italy. Poor, hungry,
homeless. Some had even made it as far as
Lorsica, she said. From the dining room
window she scanned the mountainsides and
alleys below with an atavistic eye. But we were
the only invaders to be seen.

We begged her to spare us seconds and
dessert. Reluctantly she obeyed and brought
us two black espressos. We each had two
more, but risked her ire again by refusing shots of
grappa. We asked for the check: 30,000 lire
she said -- about $18. What you'd pay for an
appetizer on the coast. I gave her 60,000 lire
for the two of us and she gave me back
30,000. I'd misunderstood. It was $9 each, for
two hours' worth of homemade heaven.

We walked out of town on the main street,
an arm-span-wide alley. A primitive sculpted
stone head jutted from a stone wall, looking
like it had been there for a thousand years.
The clacking of the De Martini's loom echoed
across the valley. I looked up at the woods
and wondered if wolves, boars or immigrants
were watching us. The Riviera, just beyond the
coastal hills, seemed 30,000 miles away.

David Downie

David Downie is Salon Travel's correspondent in Paris.

MORE FROM David Downie

Related Topics ------------------------------------------