La Capanna: a tavern with a kitchen

The lands at the delta of the Po River are a creation of man and if it weren’t for the water pumps that pump water incessantly day and night here there would be no fields and embankments, but valleys and the sea. Children in this area learn at a young age to come to terms with a fear of the river that is more than justified by history and they grow-up with the idea and awareness of a ceaseless fight. Man versus nature. Land versus sea. But also among men: one only needs to recall the legendary stories about the clashes between guards of the valleys and “fiocinini”, the smugglers that in the darkest nights would navigate their way into the waters of the Comacchio valley (map) to get hold of eels and sea bass to feed their children back at home. Often these men, who would fight against each other, shared the same family: they were cousins, brothers, friends. It was destiny, and often hunger, which would create these divisions. To understand the trattoria “La Capanna” we need to bear in mind this idea of destiny, of the intimate belief that these lands, but especially these waters, are life and death merged in one. They hide everything and yet give everything.

The menu, from here on, is the story of a journey that crosses the sea and valley passing canals, embankments, groves of reeds, fields lined with majestic poplars, houses lost in the middle of nowhere. Every environment creates its products and the men and women of the Soncini family, ever since this land started to be a human environment, have specialized in shopping, markets and opportunities.

What flavors this wisdom is an idea of catering that gives great importance to service, with a touch of the splendour of the 1970s, so a world where waiters are soldiers and the restaurant comes across as a battle field. A deeply-rooted and authentic Italian cuisine, based more on a production line than creative ideas, a shape left intact out of respect for what we truly want to be and we are still desperately reclaiming. The mayonnaise in the sauce boat (where else?) becomes a symbol of solidity and respect, of an artisan production where things perfectly made are the standard. There is a lot of Cipriani  in all of this, there are liberties denied all too often in the current world of restaurants. Pierluigi Soncini greets clients with a smile and a fried moleca , if the fishermen have set some aside. It is very soon obvious that is not the client that decides the game here.

The smile also tells you that it’s not them commanding either: what’s in charge is a capricious and extraordinary production line. For example only for today there might be giotoli  that have been perfectly fried and there might also be schille or lagoon shrimps. The first are grey, the second are red. They are often mixed, as it should be. They are served with a white polenta typical of the Veneto region.

The granseole (European spider crab) which arrive from further up in Friuli move the soul further northward. The top part of the Adriatic and a southern border that never stretches further south than the Comacchio Valley are the boundaries. It’s wonderful that Maria Grazia Soncini and her brother Pierluigi have never given up on this very pure identity. They have never even chosen between game and fish: these are the two mother tongues of this territory and they cannot be betrayed. The “risotto of the valley” – coots, common teals, mallards– is a great local classic recipe, creamy and full of flavour. One can travel from here by positioning oneself in a barrel or seeking the briny and salty waters of these borders. A squid seared in an old iron pan, or a plate of raw products without any frills (especially canestrelli, small scallops very popular in the northern shores of the Adriatic sea), a fresh pasta that smells as good as ragù (made with fish, but also with duck meat), a fried platter that recalls Sunday lunches of the past sacrificed to memorable eating sessions.

One eats al “La Capanna” with freedom and joy. Slowly you will forget all things occurring outside, whether it’s the terrible winter fog or the heat that sizzles the summer fields, the mosquitoes, your own troubles or commitments. Reality here becomes an accomplice; it curls up under the pergola and allows you to enjoy a magic experience. The Soncini family do not care who you are: they know how to accompany you on a two hour experience of pleasure, knowing all too well that life can be very hard, but that life, from time to time, also means escape. Sometimes: as long as the fog and the mosquitoes allow it.

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