Christmas in Milan. Snow settling on the Duomo, flakes on my tongue. Shivering shoppers in cashmere seeking comfort in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. But I left fashionable La Madunina before the clock struck midnight, driving southeast on the last day of the year to San Giovanni in Persiceto, just before hitting Bologna.
The interior is cluttered, clogged with old cooking utensils and cauldrons hanging from the ceiling. It’s like a cottage from a Brothers Grimm fairytale
Thomas was behind the wheel. A craze in his eyes. I was heading for the unknown, but he knew exactly what lay ahead. Manuela and Kaja sat in the backseats, drooling like bloodhounds who’d caught a scent, expectant at the prospect of lunch. It was their bright idea to stop at Osteria del Mirasole, a family-run osteria in the seemingly strange wasteland of industrial Emilia-Romagna. This isn’t the romantic baroque of Emilia-Romagna, though, the cobbled streets of Parma or Rimini, the plaza lined arched colonnades of Ferrara. It is the sleepy sweet spot between Modena and Bologna, a miraculous restaurant in a village that’s easy to miss.
Mirasole isn’t fancy; it’s fancy-less. And it isn’t trendy, somewhere riches come to dine and deposit their spurious wealth. The interior is cluttered, clogged with old cooking utensils and cauldrons hanging from the ceiling. It’s like a cottage from a Brothers Grimm fairytale. There’s a stone fireplace where wood embers crackle and placed above, a hunk of fat-rimmed prime rib entices guests.
There is an English menu available, but they sneer and huff when I ask. Actually, that’s not true. Staff are very accommodating; it’s just my language illiteracy and embarrassment at not yet speaking Italian, despite having lived here for a time and paying regular visits for over two decades. Some words I’ve seared into my memory, though, ones that hold the promise of victual fulfilment, such as agnello and trippa. There is barely a morsel of offal not included within these pages, from livers and kidneys to sautéed brain. While this might be seen as the grisliest, goriest of reading to some, these mouthwatering vittles are true connoisseur cooking to me.
There is that bit of the human brain that deals with taste and appetite, the most primal in our heads
There is that bit of the human brain that deals with taste and appetite, the most primal in our heads, and mine continues to be drawn to the consumption of such functionary organs, just as it did way back with my Neanderthal bredrin. It’s cheeks and toes and the left bollock of a sheep. Nuggets of lamb noses and ribboned intestines. It’s organs and just a little veg. There’s an artichoke and shaved Parmigiano salad, but don’t be fooled, this remains very much terrifically offaly.
Mirasole’s history dates back to 1989, the idea of chef-owner Franco Cimini, who wished to create a rustic, homely offering that resembled his own kitchen. He left Abruzzo and trained in Venice at C.I.G.A. Hotel, the Grand Hotel Principe, Hotel Danieli and Cipriani in Giudecca, but didn’t have aspirations of wealth or shiny accolades – simply comfort cooking. Arriving in San Giovanni in Persiceto, he set about creating a restaurant for enjoyment and making memories, where families celebrate, couples romance and kids dig into bowls of brains. Families have been coming here for decades. Massimo Bottura and his wife Lara are regulars.
With a menu reading like Hannibal Lecter’s smut material, I gave my companions the go-ahead nod of approval and away they went, ordering with zeal. Each organ is treated lightly and with respect with no ingredient overworked. There’s a bulbous baked onion hollowed and stuffed with sheep’s brain, Persicetana bread with chicken livers, veal meatballs and peas in tomato sauce and the honeycomb ribbons of springy tripe. It’s dazzling stuff, brilliant in its simplicity. The menu also lists a poetic sub-heading, titled “From the chimney of wood embers”, and mentions goat and donkey, separately – together on a plate would be a challenge for anyone.
Pasta dishes include Mirasole’s signature tortellini with outcrop cream. The cream is separated from the evening milk and left until morning before it is used to produce Parmigiano Reggiano – the true heart of Emilia-Romagna. The story goes that the secret recipe was the dowry for an ancestor of Franco’s wife, Anna Caretti, whose family founded the nearby Caretti farm in 1928. There’s also a fantastically rich chicken liver ragù di cortile that’s run through ribbons of golden tagliatelle. It was everything it should have been, flavoured with butter and the sex organs and protein-rich filtration system of a now pulverised poultry liver.
This has become cliché food in the hands of many, chefs in a hipster setting ripping off the pioneers of ages gone. However, those in the know can spot the nods to St. John, Etxebarri, Don Julio and Italian offal institutions, such as Flavio al Velavevodetto, Da Cesare al Casaletto and Trecca in Rome, and the more contemporary Trippa and Frangente in Milan. Back at Persiceto, Franco and Anna go about things quietly, dedicated to the craft of quality offal delivery. Every table around me is full of smiling guests; napkins tucked expectantly into their collars and intestine juices dripping from their insatiable mouths.
Desserts are equally brilliant in their simplicity – crème caramel, hot zabaglione with shortcrust biscuits and the classic tiramisu, combining the familiar Marsala and coffee-soaked sponge with lashings of whipped mascarpone. There is a depth of colouring here, the free-range hen eggs retaining their deep-yellow hue and turning the cream golden. The plate is then dusted in cocoa powder. It isn’t pretty, but – Mamma mia! – it tasted good. Nobody was eating a better tiramisu in Italy that lunchtime.
This is proper cooking, comfort food at its very best and hands down the best tortellini and tiramisu I’ve ever had. I had eaten well in Milan and, travelling on from San Giovanni in Persiceto, stuffed myself silly across Piedmont. Still, I realised I’d been to so many restaurants that embellish their menus like it’s some great Teatro alla Scala performance with tassels and inordinately long narratives that I had become desensitised. This wasn’t anything modish or chic, but confident in its simplicity and, on that particular day, full of the happiest people in Emilia-Romagna. C
Osteria del Mirasole, via Matteotti 17 40017 San Giovanni in Persiceto, Emilia-Romagna, Italy