Culinary tradition and creativity intersect in ancient town made famous by Dante and Shakespeare.
VERONA, Italy — It was a chilly Tuesday afternoon in a giant shopping center in Verona and there was a feast before me: a plate of tagliatelle strewn with saffron, spec and mushroom; oversized raviolis packed with scampi and artichoke. The raviolis on my friend’s plate were stuffed with polenta and ossobuco. It was disorienting to be in a mall because this was some of the most excellent pasta I’d eaten in recent memory.
You might scoff, but remember: This is Italy, where the only thing fast about the food — even in a food court — is its ability to please. The eatery, across from a picture-perfect display of produce in a country-style supermarket, is one of 23 Giovanni Rana quick-service restaurants scattered throughout the country. In standard food-court fashion, we waited in line to order at the counter and watch short-order cooks prepare dishes in a small open kitchen. There wasn’t much standard beyond that.
The raviolis, each a dimpled parcel of intense flavor, had that delicate pillowlike quality that tempts you to dig in with a spoon, as if poking it with a fork would be abusive. The pasta could easily pass for something an aged Italian grandparent prepared, adroitly yet swiftly, thanks to decades of practice. In a funny way, that’s sort of the case. I was drawn to this eatery because I’d heard that the facility where the pasta is made is mere miles away, so in a way it felt like drinking bourbon in Kentucky or eating Prince Edward Island oysters on the Canadian bay.
Popular man in town
If it sounds silly — sacrilege, even — to talk about a pasta factory in Italy, one that sends its goods to dozens of countries around the globe, no less, consider this: Giovanni Rana, the almost 80-year-old patriarch whose smiling mug is all over the pasta’s packages, is hardly just a figurehead. One woman who worked at my hotel told me he’s the most popular man in town, after the pope. His company has its roots in his entrepreneurial grit when, as a teenager after World War II, he made tortellini out of his family’s home.
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This was stuff I learned the prior day when my friend and I took a pasta class at the facility, a reminder of how much practice it takes to turn flour, water, salt and eggs into lunch. Later, when I was wandering through Verona’s medieval cobblestoned streets of the city, it struck me how fitting that story is to this city, where tradition and creativity intersect. Verona, you might say, is one of the more modest of Italy’s cities, easily overshadowed by the energetic swagger of Rome, the mythic splendor of Florence, the romance of Venice, or the high-style elegance of Milan. What Verona does have is a palpable fortitude and wisdom, evident everywhere, especially in the architecture. The city itself is a UNESCO…