By Craig Camp
Wednesday, September 10, 2003
ROBERTO HAS a mischievous look in his eyes. This is not an unusual occurrence. We’re on our way to dinner at a place he has been raving about.
“What’s the food like in this restaurant,” I ask him.
“This is no restaurant,” he replies with a wink and a smile. “It’s more like a bar.” After a second of thought he adds, “Actually it’s not much of a bar either.”
We twist and turn down a narrow country lane and as we approach a small cluster of houses he begins to slow down. Although I’ve been past here many times before, I’ve never seen a place to eat — or to do anything else for that matter. You couldn’t even call this a wide spot in the road, as the narrow street goes right to the edge of the buildings. There’s barely room to walk if a car is passing, and you better not be there when a truck flies through town.
Roberto pulls the car into a narrow opening between the buildings and suddenly we’re in a courtyard surrounded by a few houses and some rundown work-sheds. There isn’t a sign in sight. In the center of the courtyard, however, is a large and boisterous group with many empty bottles of wine on the table. The table is one of those matching green plastic table-and-chair sets you buy for your patio at K-Mart when you’re on a tight budget — a very tight budget. The table is placed in the gravel of the driveway, tucked in between two parked cars. The group at the table are the only people in sight.
Once we find a narrow spot to park the car we emerge from the air conditioning to be greeted by the sounds and smells of a barnyard. The chickens from the large cage in the back cackle loudly and lend their full odor to the surroundings.
While we stand in the gravel in the center of the courtyard, Roberto disappears for a few minutes behind a fuzzy purple string curtain covering a doorway. On the second floor above us we can see into a kitchen. A woman is busily cooking and she calls out a welcoming “buona sera!” to us as we stand not knowing quite where to go.
“Buona sera,” we all chime back.
Shortly Roberto emerges from the fuzzy purple strings followed by a bald, short, pleasantly rounded man. His face has that look of severity that some people have that instantly disappears when their sly grin lights up their face and their eyes dance with an impish sparkle. This is Mimmo, our host for the evening and proprietor of Bar Mimmo.
Mimmo made the trek north to Lombardia from Puglia — one end of Italy to the other — over thirty years ago. Though he left Puglia decades ago, the smells, flavors, and customs of Puglia still live in Mimmo’s bar, though it’s much closer to Milano than Bari. After a quick tease of Roberto and his wife Cristina’s three year old daughter, and a quick flirt with Cristina and my wife Manuela, Mimmo points to a long table next to a shed and we sit down.
Our table is a long, well-worn picnic table that could hold about twenty. The outdoor table is covered by a kind of lean-to with a metal roof that is in some fashion connected to the shed. The walls are decorated with some weather-beaten travel posters of girls in bikinis, and the fragrant chickens are busily clucking just a few meters away.
When asked what we would like to drink Roberto requests vino rosso and a little something to eat. No need for wine lists here as the only red wine served at Mimmo’s is another piece of Puglia he has brought to the north. Every year he brings grapes north from his home region and makes wine — from malvasia nera and a few other grapes, Mimmo’s wines are dark red, still a bit sweet, and with a touch of gas that makes the juicy fruit flavors refreshing. There are no vintage dates on the bottles, but there is no question about which vintage it is: Cantinino Rosso is always the last vintage. The bottles are brought chilled and poured into stubby, well-used glasses. Although fruity and soft with a flavor that begs for gulps instead of swirling and sniffing, his wine sports 13.5% alcohol. Mimmo has dubbed his wine Cantarino Rosso or “little singer.” I’m sure the combination of sweet, easy drinking-fruit and alcohol has turned many of his guests into happy little singers before the evening is over.
Mimmo’s bar is not licensed to serve meals so in a strict legal sense he does not … but you won’t leave hungry. There are no menus, no pastas, no risottos, and no roasted meats or juicy steaks. At Mimmo’s you feast on antipasti.
Shortly he arrives with the first plate, a bruschetta, which you can tell is something special before it even hits the table. No chopped tomatoes here, but a slice of a luscious ripe flavorful tomato laid on top of a slice of crusty garlic-rubbed bread drizzled with some round, fruity, almost decadent extra virgin olive oil that Mimmo brings here from a special friend in Puglia. All is dusted with tiny specks of fresh oregano and chunks of fresh picked basil. The first bottle of wine and the bruschetta disappear simultaneously.
I’m getting the urge to sing.
Soon Mimmo arrives back at our table with a fresh bottle and another plateful of what has become in my mind the already legendary Bruschetta di Mimmo. Accompanying the bruschetta is a large plate of grilled salsiccia piccante or what we call in the United States pepperoni, but you never had pepperoni like this in the USA. A rich reddish brown color with not a hint of the bizarre bright red tone you see in American versions, these spicy sausages are full of mouth-filling meat flavors. Each lightly grilled slice tops a piece of the same crusty bread used for the bruschetta. The spicy sausages assure that the second cool bottle of red disappears before the last piece of sausage.
By now we’re as boisterous as the other group that was when we arrived. Roberto leans over and seriously confides in me that this is pure wine and will not leave you with a hangover in the morning — although sometimes you still feel a little drunk when you wake up.
Mimmo arrives with another plate filled with small grilled ham sandwiches. Inside is creamy melted Taleggio cheese and an anchovy all smeared with a bit of chopped roasted red peppers marinated in olive oil. The wonderful combination of textures and flavors makes this a dish that I know I should be able to recreate, but will always fall frustratingly and unexplainably short.
Happily I see Mimmo approaching our table once again with two plates in hand and another bottle of red under his arm. Another plate of grilled salsiccia piccante and a plate of sliced hard-boiled eggs on bread and topped with a large anchovy cured in salt instead of oil. Once you have tasted this version, those in the oil just don’t stand up — or lay down as the case may be. As I wolf down the delicious eggs with the reddish yolks I notice the chickens seemed to be clucking a little sadly. I’m also reminded of how different it is to eat in different cultures as I watch our friend’s three year old daughter, Martina, pick the anchovies off of her eggs … and then eat the anchovies and leave the eggs. Just for good measure, another plate of bruschetta arrives at the table and is quickly consumed. With a plate of local cheeses we finish the third bottle. There’s no room for even a bit more.
When he arrives with the espressi, Mimmo stays on to chat with his obviously satisfied and satiated customers. Roberto comments that his wine tastes exactly the same as it did fifteen years ago when he first tasted it and that it tastes the same every year. Mimmo lookes proud at what he rightly interprets as a compliment. He notes a little sadly that when he opened thirty years ago people only drank red wine, which of course at his bar meant his wine. He observes that now white wine accounts for over fifty percent of his sales and that he has to buy bottled white wine to sell to his younger customers.
The Canterino Rosso of Mimmo will never appear in the Gambero Rosso or Robert Parker’s guide, but it’s fun to drink. Drinking country wines like this is like touching a bit of food history. These are the types of wines that established a daily wine culture in Italy and you can’t ignore how good they taste with simple, delicious dishes like spicy sausages and garlicky bruschetta. Dining by the chickens at Mimmo’s bar, an oaky Super Tuscan would have seemed as out of place as James Bond in a tuxedo. The only trouble with wines like Canterino Rosso is you have to drink them there. They never taste as good at home — just like Mimmo’s ham sandwiches.
To finish the evening our host deposits two open bottles of grappa on our table. Obviously the grappa is to be self-service. The one without the label is his own production. In the grand tradition of contadino grappa it burns its way right through all the food you’ve stuffed into your stomach.
As our wives play catch with Martina, Roberto and I stroll into the bar to take care of the bill. The eight heaping plates of food, three bottles of wine, espressi and self-serve grappa come to a meager €42 for the five of us. Once again money well spent — a common experience when it comes to eating in Italy.
Inside of the tiny bar is a stunning site: Mimmo has been collecting some of the great wines of Piemonte for years and there in dusty bottles on his wall are wines from the finest producers of Barolo and Barbaresco from all from great vintages in the fifties and sixties. These great bottles are not for sale, but are a collection made out of respect from one great winemaker to another.
-Small, very ripe (preferably homegrown) tomatoes, sliced
-1 or 2 large cloves of fresh garlic, peeled and one small end sliced off.
-The best extra virgin olive oil you can find — preferably a big, rich oil from the south.
-Thin loaves of crusty French bread (you want slices close to bite size)
-Fresh oregano finely chopped
-Fresh basil cut or torn into small pieces
-Freshly ground black pepper
Cut the bread into thin slices and lightly toast. Rub the toast with the raw garlic to taste (a latex glove makes this process a breeze, and a fresh one at that). Arrange on a large platter and lightly salt and pepper each piece of bread and top with a slice of tomato. Liberally drizzle all with extra virgin olive oil. Lightly sprinkle with oregano and top each with pieces of basil.