Through The Pass

Osteria La Civetta in Falmouth

By / Photography By Brett Longworth | October 14, 2012
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Italian restaurant Osteria la Civetta

Emilia Romagna is a wedge-shaped region in Northern Italy, encompassing the fertile plains south of the Po River, mountains, and the Adriatic Sea coast to the east. This is home to the cities of Bologna, Modena, Ferrara, Parma and Reggio. It’s where balsamic vinegar was born, and where Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano originate.

It’s also where Sara Toselli and her husband Andrea Poggi are from, and they’re owners of Osteria La Civetta on Main Street in Falmouth. The five-year-old restaurant is Northern Italian through and through, from ingredients to décor and staff.

An osteria is a type of Italian restaurant with a bustling atmosphere; the tables are close, the volume is often loud, and customers can also buy groceries such as oils, nuts, cheeses and the like. La Civetta refers to a tiny owl, which in the owners’ home region symbolizes good luck. It’s also an attractive motif that’s repeated throughout the dining space.

Sara takes no credit for the décor, deferring to her parents, who bought everything in Italy. “They knew how they wanted it to look and they went and got all the different pieces, and we shipped everything over. My mom picked the plates, and picked the lamps,”  and presumably all the vintage advertisements, the metal grillwork set in the walls, as well as the charming menu covers of antique patterns of fruits, vegetables and nuts.

You’d expect to find grandmotherly types running the show, but certainly not a slender young woman with a lip ring and her lean, bushy-bearded husband. In fact, the whole staff is downright young: bright eyes and bushy tails abound here, supporting an almost reverential, unapologetic adherence to tradition. In a country where we’re always chasing the next big thing—What’s hot? What’s next? —embracing of tradition can be a relief, once you get over the itch and surrender yourself to it.

Sara and her parents started coming to the Cape when she was young, and gradually spent more and more time here. The family bought land and built a house, all the while cooking food from their town of Cento in Emilia Romagna for friends and neighbors. One thing led to another, and it became clear there was a fan base for this brand of Italian food. So after university, Sara went to culinary school and trained in her home region’s cuisine.

She explains that the food of Emilia Romagna is not only very different from Italian-American food, it also differs from food in other areas of Italy. Northern Italians, for example, use very little garlic. “Where we’re from we tend to use more onion, and we probably use a pound of garlic a year for the whole restaurant. We don’t eat it. We’ll use it to give oil a little bit of flavor, but then we’ll toss it.” There’s much less use of tomatoes in sauces and traditionally butter was the cooking fat of choice, though olive oil has gained ground in recent decades. Pork is indisputably king of the meats—think preserved sausages and meats, and real Bolognese sauce.

All the restaurant’s wines are from Italy, as are the cured meats (prosciutto, speck, bresaola), cheeses (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano) and more. And Osteria La Civetta’s commitment to authenticity gets even better: not only are the owners, the ingredients and the menu from Emilia Romagna, but so are the cooks.

“We are all from the same region, but we’re from different towns. From town to town the cuisine is different,”  Sara explains. “The way we make the meat sauce in Bologna is different than from how Fabio [Pozzati, Executive Chef], who’s from Ferrara, makes it, and we know there are some things that only Max [Zarotti] can make, because he’s from Bologna.”

Even their dialects are different. Because Sara and her husband are from Cento, between Ferrara and Bologna, “we understand both dialects, but it’s funny when they start speaking in the kitchen; one is screaming at the other that he has no idea what the other is saying, but these towns are only thirty miles away from each other.”  Only Italian is spoken in the kitchen. Sous Chef Ben Bianchini was born in Italy but grew up in the U.S, “But he’s definitely, hmm…” she ponders it for a moment, “eighty percent Italian at this point because his dad is Italian and he’s been working with us for two years.”

The menu lists traditional Emilia Romagna dishes, recipes made the same way for so long they’re identified with the region. In fact, it’s easy to find the same preparations in a good cookbook on Emilia Romagna: Bresaola Di Manzo Con Rucola E Grana (bresaola, baby arugula and Grana Padano cheese); a contorni (side dish) of Caponata (sautéed eggplant, tomatoes, pine nuts, capers and celery); and of course one of the region’s shining stars, Tagliatelle al Ragu (handmade egg pasta ribbons with Bolognese meat sauce).

While the Northern Italians are masters of preservation—all that wine, cured meat and cheese—there are some things that do not travel well. Osteria La Civetta gets all its fish and seafood from The Clam Man in Falmouth, and takes advantage of the weekly Falmouth Farmers’ Market for produce. Sara notes that Mike Scafuro, the bartender, is probably at the market as we spoke. “When he gets there he’ll call us, and we’ll tell him what we need.” Sara also quickly showed off the small garden at the edge of the parking lot behind the restaurant. The tomato plants are over eight feet tall, and the cucumbers threaten to top the hedge. The garden is busting with zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and all manner of herbs. As the “great experiment of 2012,” it seems to be going well.

Mike arrives with bags from the farmers’ market: summer squash, tomatoes, pea greens, hot peppers, purple basil and flowers. He hands the bulk of it to Sara, but keeps the tomatoes and purple basil for this week’s Market Cocktail, a Bloody Mary he just decided upon. Last week it was a blueberry and basil creation, and he’s inspired to use cucumbers a lot. The restaurant uses local raspberries and blueberries in season, and dried fresh apricots for the pork tenderloin dish—Filetto di Maiale con Albicocca e Speck: pork, the apricots and speck alongside a layered potato and fontina torte.

The pasta must be made fresh as well, and that’s done every day at around lunchtime, when Fabio works in front of a wooden counter in a room off the main kitchen. His shaved head and gold hoop earring frame a face that is quick to light up with a smile or laugh, and his movements are easygoing and sure. He cuts off a hunk of pasta dough prepared earlier and passes it through a massive electric pasta roller, folding the dough into thirds, turning it, and putting it through the roller again, explaining that this makes the dough smooth and strong. He folds and rolls a few more times then gradually adjusts the machine to make the dough thinner and thinner with each pass.

When he deems it thin enough (He laughs, “In Bologna, they say that when you can see through the dough to San Luca, the highest church in the city, that’s the perfect thickness for tagliatelle.”), he turns off the machine and picks up what looks like a small, two-wheeled pizza cutter. This he uses to cut the dough into rows of squares about three inches on a side. He fills a pastry tube with a mixture of butternut squash, nutmeg, Parmesan cheese, salt, a little sugar and breadcrumbs, and applies a blob to the center of each square.

He’s interrupted by a guy who comes in to deliver duck and pork. Fabio greets him in Spanish; it turns out he was working at a restaurant in Spain before he heard about the La Civetta job from Sara through a mutual friend nearly three years ago. Fabio went to culinary school in Italy, and before that, as a teenager, worked summers at restaurants on the Adriatic Sea.

The provisions stored, Fabio turns back to the pasta squares. One by one, he folds each into a triangle, and twists the corners around and together, and voila! A tortelloni! It will be served with a butter sage sauce, one of the signature dishes of Emilia Romagna. But it’s more complicated than that. “Even the same pasta in different regions can have different names,” explains Fabio. “This is called tortelloni in Bologna, but the same thing in Ferrara is called cappellacci, and in Modena, they call it tortelloni too, but it’s tortelloni alla Modenese, the same filling, but they add amaretti cookies.”

And there’s more. They fold their tortelloni differently in Bologna. Fabio calls Max over from the kitchen, and the two men make a few pieces and then try to point out the very subtle differences between the two folding methods. It has to do with the combined effect of the final cooked textures of the flat part, the filled part, and the thicker joined part, and though the differences are small, it makes sense. And it’s wonderful.

The mass of golden dough for the tortelloni is made from organic eggs (in Italy, Fabio explains, there are special eggs just for making pasta) and flour imported from Italy—from just a few miles down the road from Sara’s hometown, in fact. Well, until this week. “This actually is not the best flour. The other one, they could not ship it today because it came from the earthquake area.” In May, two earthquakes shook Emilia Romagna, in the region near Cento. At least 14,000 people are displaced, and apartment buildings, factories, schools, bridges and railways, not to mention centuries of culture, were destroyed. Earthquakes are not common in this area; the last time a quake of similar magnitude struck there was in the fourteenth century. Sara returned home for a month to help with relief efforts, and her mother is still there helping family and others in the community. So no preferred flour this week, but that pales in comparison to losing homes, businesses and culture.

In another corner of the worktop is the machine for making the extruded pastas like rigatoni and trofie, a short flour-and-water-only pasta that looks like an S in cross-section. Fabio pours flour and egg into the top, and switches the machine on. It churns the mixture around for a few minutes, and while it’s still dry-looking and crumbly, he declares it ready and starts the machine pushing dough through a die like a Play-Doh factory, cutting off the rigatoni to the appropriate length as they come out. He inspects them for tears and holes, tossing the rejects back into the machine, and spreads the pasta on screen-lined flats to dry. “I don’t know how a country can not have pasta. It’s kind of weird.”

This pasta, plus the tagliatelle, the lasagna, the ravioli, are made fresh around lunchtime and are ready for dinner, when the kitchen heats up, the Italian volume gets louder, and brisk service starts. A table is moved to act as both barrier for anyone trying to get into the tiny kitchen and pickup place for the night’s antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni and dolci. Max, Ben, Sara, Poggi and the others dash to and fro, up and down the stairs to the dishwasher and stores, and Fabio oversees all, expediting and ringing a tiny purple bell to signal when a new order has come in.

In summer, they’ll serve 150 people a night, seven days a week, plus lunches Wednesday through Saturday. Once September comes, they’ll close on Mondays and maybe take enough of a breather to go squid fishing in the darkness after work, freezing the ink sacs for use in pasta later on. In the winter they may host some wine dinners and a cooking class or two, and the menu will shift to the harvest comfort foods of Emilia Romagna.

At Osteria La Civetta you can satisfy your nostalgia for something you might not ever have actually known. Give it a try. Be un-American. Embrace the traditional. Bring some friends and block out a few hours for your meal. Ask the dumb questions and mispronounce the names, without fear. But be prepared for the pasta to haunt you.

Osteria la Civetta, 133 Main Street, Falmouth
Open 7 nights a week for dinner, 5:30-9:30 pm,
Lunch Wednesday-Saturday 12:00-2:30 pm

In addition to being copy editor and contributor for Edible Cape Cod, Jessie Gunnard is a freelance writer and editor for scientists, businesses and nonprofit organizations. She loves writing about and helping promote local food and agriculture, and has been messing around lately with making home-brewed sodas.

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