Sunday, August 7, 2011

Dinner in the Selva

Photo: Tamara Dean           

I had dinner in the Selva contrada tonight. For those who don’t know, Siena has 17 neighborhoods, called “Contrade”. Each is named after an animal, real or mythological, or a symbol. There is the Oca (goose), the neighborhood in which I’m staying, as well as Selva (forest), Civetta (little owl), Nicchio (seashell), Chiocciola (snail), Bruco (worm), L’aquila (eagle), Torre (tower), Drago (dragon), Giraffa (giraffe), Istrice (porcupine), Tartuca (tortoise), Pantera (panther), Onda (wave), Leocorno (unicorn), Lupa (she-wolf), and Valdimontone (valley of the ram). I walk through the streets of Siena each night (since apparently it never, ever rains here), and try to explore a different contrada each time. So, last night it was the Selva.

I have a guide book, Rick Steves' (can't help lovin' that man), and it recommended a little place to eat called Osteria Nonna Gina. I looked at an old-fashioned paper map, then at new-fashioned Google maps for walking directions. It’s in the part of the city near the Duomo (cathedral) of Siena. The map took me toward a little alley-like street I had not been down before. It was, for the first time on one of my walks, a little scary. Quite dark and narrow, I noted many little niches and places where a ne'er-do-well might hide along the steep stone steps. I walked slowly, cautiously. This felt strange, really. I can’t recall ever feeling as safe walking alone at night as I do in Siena. But this spot . . . there’s something about it that’s creepy. It’s the kind of little nook where you can imagine the Black Plague would hang out. You know, the one that between 1348 and 1352 wiped out about half of Siena’s population. I can hear it there in that dark corner, snickering and whispering, “Hey lady . . .hey . . . come ‘ere. I wanna show you something . . .”. No, grazie, signore, I’m trying to get somewhere. I hasten my step. I hear the sound of water bubbling and gurgling, and as I walk it gets louder until, no longer in the stranglehold of the narrow alley, I reach a little fountain in the open, evening air, and exhale.

The fountain has a little statue of a rhino in it, beneath a real tree that has been pruned and sculpted with care. This is what reminds me that I’m in the Contrada known as Selva, as the rhino under a tree is its symbol. I have not been in this part of town before. I walk along the back sides of the buildings that line the piazza near the duomo, in an area that is lower than the piazza, so the buildings look quite tall from this side. There is a vista here of part of the city, and of some open fields and countryside. I look down onto a terrace and see another rhino statue--this one bigger--under another sculpted tree’s canopy. I know I’ve left that Black Plague fellow behind, as this area feels good. It’s open and peaceful, and as I walk uphill along a curving road behind the duomo's piazza, and behind the Ospedale Santa Maria della Scala, I see to my left a grouping of medieval buildings and walls; a jumble of windows and balconies, odd angles and textures. But to my right, I see that this road I walk is also on top of a wall that overlooks green fields and olive groves. Climbing green plants with delicate white flowers tumble over this wall like a floral cascade to the fields below. I’m thinking, This is nice. I will return tomorrow in the daylight. I’m guessing that Black Plague guy sleeps during the day.

      Up the curving hill on the narrow road, it opens into a small piazza-like area, where multiple streets meet. There it is--Osteria Nonna Gina. A smiling waitress greets me and I ask, hoping I’m saying it correctly, “Ho bisogno di un prenotazione [do I need a reservation]?” She looks at me like I’m a little crazy (she’s apparently pretty perceptive), says “No, no. Un momento. . .” then leads me through the front room, through another little cavernous opening, into a pleasant back dining room, painted in a cheerful yellow, with various paintings, photos and artifacts on the walls.
The menu is handwritten in a European script that is, at times, difficult for my American eyes to decipher, but I manage. I ask the waitress about two dishes that strike my fancy--Gnocchi alla Lelle, and Pici alla Dado. Lelle and Dado are, I think, the owners or chefs. I’m told that the Dado sauce is like a pesto with cheese and a Bolognese ragu. It sounds a little odd to me, if I’ve understood her correctlty. Then I’m told that the other dish has big gnocchi stuffed with cheese, and the Lelle sauce is “uh . . . . a secret.” I laugh at this, and try to get her to reveal even a little of the secret.

“ . . .di pomodori [of tomatos]?” I ask.

“Uh . . . no,” she says.

“Um . . .di pesto?” I say.

“Uh . . . no. No pomodori, no pesto, no carne [meat]. Is bianchi. . . and secret.” she says in her best English.

I smile and say, “I’ll take that, then, “ along with an order of fiori di zucca fritta (fried zucchini flowers).

I also consider a glass of wine, but don’t see wines by the glass on the menu. I see bottles and half bottles. As I’m dining alone, I ask her, “Do you have any red wines by the glass?”
She tells me she has ¼ bottles, which is like two glasses. I tell her I’ll skip it, as that’s too much for me and I won’t be able to find my way home if I drink that. Even in my sensible shoes, I trip on these stone streets a few times a day, so I doubt that over-indulgence in vino would help matters. Later, when she brings the bread and my water, she also brings a bottle and pours me a glass of red wine, saying, “I give you. Is OK.”
And I have to agree. Is indeed OK. More than OK.

The main attraction that prompted me to even write about this evening arrives looking not white, but yellowish. It has little specks within the sauce that make me think part of this secret involves mustard seeds. The sauce is . . perfect, really. But hard to describe. Not spicy as I would have expected mustard to be. It’s more sweet, subtle, almost elegant, I’d say. A bit like an uptown girl out with her working-class gnocchi boyfriend. Coy, coquettish, a starlet from an old black and white movie, sultry and burning, but never giving itself away completely. It’s there before you, plopped on that plate, as all you want to do is devour it, but it says, “Hey, I know what you want. You diners all want only one thing--satisfaction. I’m not going to have you just engulf me. . . what kind of sauce do you think I am? I’m complex. You’re going to want to really know me before we’re through. I’m sweet and rich, with a hint of that mustard you guessed at. I’m gonna make you really notice me, so you can still respect me once dessert arrives.”

  Oh, I do respect you, Mustard Sauce. I do! In fact, I already know we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other. This will be a fine romance, as I’ve already mapped the route to the restaurant on my phone and everything. We were clearly meant for each . . . . hey . . are those the fried zucchini flowers? Mamma mia! Ciao, Bella . . .lookin’ tasty over there!

    OK, so I’m fickle. But still, you see what I mean? This was no ordinary sauce. It was the sauce that dreams are made of. I polished off the dish, slowly, lingering over each bite. On a crazed impulse, I even tilted the plate to look underneath to make sure I didn’t miss any of the sneakier gnocchi. No such luck.

For dessert I'm hoping for panna cotta, and they don't disappoint. They had three or four different flavors. I can’t decide between caramel or strawberry, so ask the waitress what she’d recommend. Caramel it is. It arrives in a sort of old-fashioned fancy dish, thin liquid caramel poured over the top. As she sets it down she says, “Panna cotta and . . . a present . . .” and grabs two bottles off a nearby stand. She sets before me a bottle of grappa and a bottle of amaretto, along with a little empty glass. Apparently, I can help myself. With the grappa, I have some experience, and it’s mostly not good (with the notable exception of Nardini Cedro), so I only have a sip before moving on to the amaretto. Tasty stuff, and perfect with the caramel panna cotta. But I’m wondering if these people are trying to make sure I don’t return, given that earlier I had said I couldn’t handle two glasses of wine. Killing me with kindness, for sure.

But what a perfect way to go--smiling, with a belly full of gnocchi, beneath a starry Italian sky, horizontal on the stone streets of Siena.


  1. Wonderful, Dan Brown better take note of competition. Really enjoyed it, I found it intriguing, humorous and full of fun right to the end when I left full, a little unsteady with laughter and almost tripping over those cobbles. More please

  2. Jen, I loved your article! It brings back so many nice memories of Italy. I just pulled out my photos. I can;t wait till your next writing.


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