I just had the best meal of my life. The family and I were just looking for a good place to grab dinner when I stumbled across Hostaria Il Granaio on Google Maps, saw the good reviews and thought, why not give it a try? So we set our GPS and headed for Coltano, a tiny town south of Pisa, nestled in the Tuscan countryside.
When we first pulled into town, I thought there must have been a mistake. The place looked like it had been evacuated. There wasn’t a sign of life anywhere. We pulled up to the restaurant, parked our car, and approached the doors.
Sure enough, locked.
A sign mounted to the glass door said that they would open at 7:00. It was already 7:03, so we figured our attempt had been a bust. While we stood there discussing what to do next, the bell jangled and the owner peeked outside. As it turns out, while they technically open at 7:00, most diners don’t show up until 8:00. Except for us Americans, that is.
Our waiter seated us in a beautifully decorated dining area glowing with dangling lightbulbs suspended from the greenery-adorned ceiling. Various bottles of wine resting in mounted crates dotted the walls, along with intricately detailed wood burnings depicting each variety.
To start off, the waiter brought out a small cake-like item, covered in white sauce, and topped with a sprinkling of bright green brussel sprouts. I don’t remember what this creation was called, but it tasted like some sort of light-as-air, whipped cheese, with all the savory goodness of a roasted steak and the decadent richness of sweet cream butter.
After that, we decided to share an antipasti platter which came with an assortment of locally made cheeses, wild berry compote and local honey; a set of large, handmade croutons and breads, one topped with pate, one with artichoke and meat, one with mushrooms, and one with sauted red cabbage and cream; creamy thin prosciutto; salami; and thin slices of iridescent white lard.
In French, they use the word “amuse-bouche” for this kind of pre-meal delight. Literally translated, this means an amusement for the mouth. That’s exactly what the antipasto was – an amusement for the mouth and the senses.
Even better, it was a great family conversation starter. It was interesting to see which ones the kids liked and which ones they balked at. Some really liked the pate (which surprised me) and no one but me was willing to try the lard (which did not surprise me).
After this came the primi and secondi, which we ate together (as some of us had ordered a primi, and others a secondi – breaking with tradition). These were typical Tuscan foods like rabit risotto, gnocci in meat sauce, ravioli with formaggio and walnuts, and wild deer with croutons.
In between each course was a nice, long, leisurely pause. Nothing was rushed. There was nothing to do; nowhere to go. No one was on their phone (except to Google the occasional Italian phrase). Seeing which family conversation topics blossomed out of these pauses was the best part of all. The conversation wound slowly, naturally, in the most interesting and unintentional directions. I knew I liked my kids, but experiencing their humor and intellect in this way was an absolute delight.
To finish the meal, some two hours after our arrival, we split a dolce of frutti di bosce cheesecake (frutti di bosce means fruits of the forest – not to be confused with frutti di mare, which is assorted octopi, shrimps, and scallops) and an arancino desert which tasted like a cross between gelato and whipped cream infused with orange flavor and topped with dark chocolate pieces shaped like pine needles.
When we left, it was well past 9:00 p.m. The rest of the diners, all locals as far as I could tell, were just getting started, settling in for a long evening of luxurious food and delightful family conversation.
This way of dining, which is built to inspire conversation, shared experience, and sheer delight is a cultural gem that I very much hope to keep. Our family of five already spends a lot of time together, even moreso over the last month. Yet that amazing meal showed me that, even after all this time, we still have a lot to talk about, even if our youngest did fall asleep at the table.