As I travel around Italy and across Europe, the most difficult thing for me is picking the perfect restaurant. I am always determined to find the most perfect local meal in the few days that I have at each place. This can be kind of a difficult mission, as restaurants in Italy tend to be closed on random days and/or hours of the day and of course the food might not be all it was advertised or reviewed to be. In the event that any of these factors prevent me from having my good meal, I am sad and dejected for the rest of the night. Childish? Yes, I am aware. Incredibly annoying for those associated with me? Perhaps. But I am happy to say that the opposite was true for Cum Quibus, an amazing little restaurant in San Gimignano. In fact, it was so good that it is one of my most memorable meals in Italy to date.
The food was quintessentially Tuscan-Sienese: incredibly simple, made with a few fresh ingredients; inspired by local produce and meat, such as wild boar (cinghiale), beans, lard, and ribollita, or “leftovers” soup originally made with day-old bread and vegetables by Tuscan peasants.
We arrived at precisely 8pm. We had actually spent the hour before wandering the frigid town with nothing to do– we had already shopped the entire main road, climbed to the top of the tallest tower, visited a cafe, took a million pictures–and kept looking at our watches until it was the proper Italian dinner hour. We were the first ones there. This is usually a cause for concern because you are not sure if it means the restaurant has become terrible and subsequently abandoned by everyone in town, but the atmosphere was homey and endearing, with exposed brick, plenty of Italian floral still-life and market-scene paintings. Plus we were starving and relieved to escape the cold.
My friend and I were admittedly more willing to spend money on food than on tours and museums when traveling, but luckily everything at Cum Quibus was reasonably priced if compared to an Italian meal in the US (primi are about 10 euros, secondi range from 13 to 18 euros). We shared three dishes.
Via San Martino, 17 San Gimignano, Italy 0577 943199
The ribollita was a chunky and traditional combination of bread, Tuscan beans, garlic, tomato, and a wide variety of local vegetables, including kale, carrots, and cabbage. The soup was born out of necessity as peasants in the Tuscan countryside were constantly looking for ways to prolong the life of their food. Fortunately, they had the skill to transform day old bread and leftover vegetables into a filling, all-encompassing dish for us to eat today. At Cum Quibus, they added a rosette of thinly shaved raw red onion for a sharper bite as a contrast to the soothing flavors of the soup. However, they are shaved so thinly that the raw onion mellows out a bit in the hot soup and balances all of the ingredients.
I’ve had ribollita in Florence at Il Latini, and noticed several differences. At Il Latini, the soup was well blended and had a stronger flavor that was more focused on the taste of kale. It was also not garnished with raw red onion. Although Il Latini’s ribollita was good, I preferred this version of the soup, particularly in that it retained the original textures of the ingredients and had more balanced flavor.
Pici alla Montalcinese, fresh thick spaghetti with white ragout of beef and bacon
There isn’t much to say about this dish. Just please look at the picture below.
Pici is a thick, homemade spaghetti that is typical of the Siena province of Tuscany. I, for one, am a big fan of large, chewy al dente noodles, regardless of cuisine (i.e. Japanese udon noodles, or Taiwanese hand-cut noodes). I’ve had pici with red sauce, but the simple white ragout brought out the freshness of the noodles. I really loved the simplicity of the dish and of course the dreamy combination of butter, beef, and bacon. Extra points for presentation too.
Controfiletto alla griglia con lardo agli aromi (Grilled sirloin of beef with aromatic lard)
One of my favorite Italian food discoveries is lardo agli aromi, or flavored lard. Before you judge, let me just tell you that it is absolute perfection. The lard is seasoned with many herbs, such as sage, rosemary, and pepper, and is bathed in a marble basin with garlic for at least six months. It is sliced so thinly that its outer layers melt, leaving just a small, salty lump of amazing flavor.
The steak was covered with the flavored lard (also known as Lardo di Colonnata), which was seasoned further with additional fresh herbs. The meat itself was perfectly cooked but the lard single-handedly transformed the great steak dish into what I considered to be food enlightenment: lard is good. Lard can be flavored and can make everything better. I could not believe that US customs would ever protest my bringing a huge chunk of lard to share with my fellow Americans. I would be a hero.