On a chilly January evening, you ride to an uphill street. A dirt road that has no name, and there are no signs and no lights. This is a street that does not exist on any map. Go up a little further, past a swift curve and you will find a small, unassuming tavern. Surrounded by trees and with a perfect view of the sky and stars. You could easily drive past this road if you did not know it was there. But if you find the tavern and open the door, you will be opening upon a remarkable spectacle of real Italian food. We are in the south of Italy, an hour by car south of Naples, in a small medieval hill town called Guardia Sanframondi.
This is Pelona — a small trattoria that doubles as a social club. It is casually set up with paper tablecloths and napkins, pictures of surrounding towns on the walls. There is a cast iron stove with a roaring fire on a cold night and copper pots adorn the ceiling. You could be at a relative’s house. You will see groups of men, gathered around watching a soccer game on TV — there’s almost always a soccer game on TV in Italy.
These are local, mostly single men ranging from their 20s to their 60s. Most of them have jobs that involve local agriculture; harvesting grapes or olives and keeping care of the land. They sit at a table, sipping the house red wine, enjoying a plate of prosciutto and cheese, while talking and eyeing the game. Occasionally you will hear a loud “Ahhhhhhhhhh!!” for a goal, or an exasperated “Ughhhhhhh” for a missed pass or ugly foul.
Ida, the chef, knows everyone by name. She is your Italian aunt. She has a pretty face with expressive brown eyes, short black hair and an infectious personality, and when you meet her for the first time, you can’t help but love her. She will come out and give you a kiss and a hug. She will bring you a plate of food before you even order anything, perhaps stuffed peppers or her fresh baked Baba Rustic, a savory cake made with parmigiana and prosciutto, a specialty in the South. As the evening winds down, she will pull up a chair and sit with you.
What you eat here at Pelona are classic, mostly Southern Italian dishes. Pasta Scarpariello — spaghetti with fresh cut baby tomatoes that are tossed with pecorino and just enough pasta water to make the tomatoes cling to the pasta and create a velvety sauce. Polpettone con piselli, a spiced pork and veal meatloaf stuffed with prosciutto and provolone, served with buttery peas. Stinco di Maile, pork shank roasted in the oven till it falls off the bone, served with rosemary scented roasted potatoes.
On a recent evening, my family and I went to Pelona. The feast begins: A cheese and meat plate of fresh, thinly sliced prosciutto and pancetta, bocconcini and chunks of parmigiana. A vegetable frittata. Green olives. Spicy chopped pumpkin salad. Sautéed cabbage with onions and pancetta. Next, Sugo di Cinghale, which we had specifically asked Ida to prepare. Cinghale (wild boar) is quite expensive and not always easy to find, but she found it. We were presented with bowls of creamy, cheesy, golden polenta topped with the sauce. Ida arrives with a bowl of more of the wild boar ragu. Next comes the roasted chicken wings. Crispy and perfumed with rosemary, thyme and oregano. Last but not least, homemade torta, a homemade pastry topped with cherry marmalade (the marmalade is homemade, too, from cherries gathered and preserved in the summer) and crushed amaretti cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar.
We have fallen into our after dinner trance and sit quietly taking everything in; the men are shuffling in and out, eating, watching the soccer game and braving the cold weather to grab a smoke. Even though the place is crowded and it’s somewhat loud (especially when regional top division team Naples scores against seemingly perennial champions Juventus), there is a feeling here that is lacking at most restaurants, that is never even possible in most. It’s casual. It’s comfort. It’s real. It sounds cliched, clearly, but you feel like you are dining with family. You break into a random conversation with a guest and by the end of the evening, you’re enjoying a shot of limoncello together.
Everyone plays their part in making Pelona what it is. No story is complete without its characters. As the evening calms down and the game comes to a finish, some of the men begin to leave, some stay behind and discuss the outcome of the game, and Ida makes her final rounds passing out coffee. All in all it was a successful evening; after all, Naples won.