Trattoria Il Fantino, Via Donzi, 7, 41121 Modena MO, Italy
Trattoria Il Fantino: The term 'life-affirming' gets thrown around and I wish to lob it with some force, right into your frontal lobe- this was one of the best meals of my life
Gnocco fritto has been a major part of my life since discovering it far too late a little over two years ago. It wasn’t even like I started off with an average example- it was at the glorious Marmo in the summertime when it’s all dapple interspersed with moments of disbelief that you’re actually in England. Usually draped with mortadella or salame rosa, I owe quite a bit to that restaurant for shaping some of my eating habits but also giving me exceptional examples of dishes that became the standard by which I would judge future iterations.
‘Just find a side-street trattoria for the best food’ says literally every unhelpful berk when they know you’re off to Italy, but that’s easier said than done. Luckily, this is yet another expedition curated by Andrea, to his hometown of Modena, of balsamic vinegar fame. Even before arriving at the restaurant, we stop for an aperitivo round the corner where Andrea asks the owner for gnocco fritto especially, because ‘the Englishman loves it more than football’. Pulling that same approving face as Stanley Tucci whilst uttering something like ‘perfecto’ like he does and heads to the kitchen to oblige. Returning with three fat and crispy airbags blanketed in rosy mortadella, this is just the start.
It’s graduation in Italy and we see girls wearing wreaths of fake bay leaves a la Caesar in brightly coloured clothes amongst throngs of fellow students. A big group of them on the opposite side of the restaurant are already 7/10 pissed, raucously cheers’ing one another to the tune of an air raid siren. The owner/ our waitress fixes them with a sharp side-eye and I absolutely don’t blame her; in fact, I like a bit of world-weary surliness in a member of staff- there’s none of that plastic artifice. “Three weeks, then, holiday” she says quite flatly, her notepad and teeny biro at the ready.
Andrea takes the wheel. He’s brought us here specifically because of my preoccupation with gnocco fritto. Like the Italians I’ve met so far, he’s A) surprised I even know what it is and B) that I’m as mental about it as I am. He dutifully explains this to the woman who gives me an animated response of disbelief and joy, obviously knowing what I’m about to receive.
A chilled bottle of Lambrusco is put between us and the food train begins. First the Mortadella, prosciutto, coppa, salame and pancetta are brought to us all fanned out on a board like a Jacobean ruff of pig.
A basket of crescentina fritta, swaddled in a napkin for warmth descend from the heavens. Crisp, golden brown little pucks, scored around the edge to ease their parting in two. A little bowl of seasoned whipped pork neck and the fat resembles sausage meat and practically melts inside the steamy heat of the crescentina fritta. There’s also a ramekin of stracciatella for good measure which we spoon in over the top- it’d be a shame not to.
Another basket piled up with gnocco fritto is placed right on top of the crescentina’s and I’m suddenly deaf to everything around me. They’re sizeable mottled pillows that I could easily accommodate a large baby for the nap of a lifetime. Sod a plastic bag in an updraft-this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
A bowl of pork ribs that have been soaked in Lambrusco and then roasted to within an inch of their sticky, fatty lives hit the table and the first one I grab sheds all of its meat in one purely through gravitational pull. There’s a pool of fat at the bottom and whilst nobody is looking, I sneak in a split crescentina to get busy soaking up all it can.
A dish of cubed potatoes follows close behind, humming with garlic and rosemary. Simply roasted in olive oil, some edges have caught the heat more than others but all are fudgy with stock inside. This is food for working the fields in winter single-handedly, not at the height of summer where the most exercise is getting up and walking to the next place to eat and drink.
At this point, I’m loading and folding a gnocco fritto lengthways like I’m rolling a huge joint, even licking it down out of habit. If Andrea is a Teletubby, then I’m that weird baby in the sun- giggling like an idiot and beaming all the while. The term ‘heaven’ gets bounded around too much, but this is it. RIP me. It's one of the only meals I’ve not been able to finish in my lifetime and hopefully, you can appreciate why. That said, we’ll be coming back for round two. In winter.