In Le Marche, Golden Serpents, Lace WondersLost in time are the origins of Offida, medieval hilltown of Le Marche, certainly inhabited in the Bronze Age, later by a local Italic tribe, then finally by the Romans. The town’s name might derive from the temple dedicated to the serpent Ophis/Ophite, sacred edifice, where worship took place before a golden snake. Legend relates that the high priest of the temple could miraculously cauterize open wounds and bites by passing his wrist, wrapped with a writhing sacred snake, over the injury. The legend lives on in Offida: il serpente aureo (“golden snake”) recurs again and again in place names of the town: after visiting the nineteen-centruy frescoed theater, Teatro Serpente Aureo, we walked down Corso Serpente Aureo to the Ristorante Ophis (ah, that snake again!)
In the tastefully restored brick-vaulted stall of a 17th-century noble palace, nobility lives on in the cooking of appassionato young chef/owner Daniele Citeroni. He turns out the best of specialita’ offidane: I wanted to try the local favorite pollo ncip nciap (garlic and rosemary star in this savory chicken dish) but Daniele’s taccu’ satiated: homemade thicker-than-usual tagliatelle with a tangy tomato/local pancetta (salt-cured bacon) sauce. Pino’s quadrotti (“little squares”) – chunks of veal simmered in radicchio, garlic, and olive oil, topped with slivers of local pecorino cheesel- tempted: I had to try a bite. No room for more – not even for the famed Offida dessert, funghetti: no, not mushrooms but a small cookie of that shape made with anise, flour and sugar. Our young waiter, also Daniele, offered us their house liqueur before we left, Amaro Serpente (logicamente!)As we left, we noticed the menu in the entryway: it was pinned to a tombolo or “small pillow” – mounted on its tripod (called “prepenna”). The tombolo is not usually pinned with a menu but with bobbin lace intricacies, the exquisite handicraft drawing visitors to Offida as much as the culinary traditions do.
Some local experts cite the fourteenth century as the onset of merletto al tombolo in Offida, others a bit later. in the sixteenth century the intricate lacework first appeared on the collars of personages painted by Marchigiano master Simone De Magistris. On a wooden door of the early seventeenth century St Augustine church, an Angel wears a transparent gown bordered with the delicate – truly angelic – bobbin lace of Offida. By this time, bobbin lace from Offida was in great demand all over Europe and when offidane soldiers headed off to battle, even their armor was trimmed with merletto al tombolo!In summertime, the local signore sit in the shade of the main piazza’s porticoes, chatting, hands and bobbins flying, as they create miracles of intricacy and finery. We visited Offida in the winter and a friend took us to meet the most famous merlettaia, Rosina, at work at the tombolo just inside her little shop, appropriately name “il Gioiello”. Rosina learned to create lace “jewels” from her mother who had learned from her grandmother and has been creating masterpieces since she was ten years old. This three-generation span of lacework artisans is immortalized in a sculpture not far from the shop: grandmother, mother and daughter diligently working, heads bowed over their tomboli. The walls of Rosina’s shop are lined with photos of her masterpieces, including bridal trusseaus for world-famous people. There was even a photo of Naomi Campbell in a short dress made only of Offidana lace! Rich merchants no longer leave Offida, horses laden with lace. Visitors purchase little: Offida laceworks are masterpieces requiring hours of labor. Rosina picked up a delicate little lace little butterfly which she sells for 6 Euro: “lo vede, Signora? Due ore di lavoro. Chi oggi lavora per tre Euro all’ora? Il nostro merletto finira'”
(“Do you see this, Signora? Two hours of work. Who will work today for three euro an hour? Our lacework will end…” She proudly unrolled for me two of her most stunning masterpieces, a black lace shawl, a centerpiece masterpiece. “No one will ever be able to buy these……so I will just keep them.”
Her sons were outside talking with Pino when I came out of the shop. We talked about their idea for a new small museum of merletto (the town does have one), centering this one on their mother’s story and her handwork.
Then we walked down Via del Merletto, passing lace-curtained windows, to our car.
Quadrotti di Vitello al Daniele
(“Daniele’s small cubes of veal”)
(Note / all ingredients approximate – as quantities in Italy are ofteh “q.b”., i,e quanto basta (“as much as you need”)
about 2 1/2 llbs of tender, top quality veal , cut into – 2 -1/2 in. cubes, roughly (- these are the “quadrotti”)
a handful of pinenuts
a head of radicchio, sliced into julienne strips
olive oil / q.b.
salt, pepper, q.b.
Parmesan / 1/4 lb or q.b…shaved into strips
Cover stainless steel deep frying pan with olive oil and heat but do not burn. Put in veal cubes and brown til golden, stirring with wooden spoon. Cook 5 mins, approximately. Add salt and pepper, q.b. Stir in radicchio, cut into julienne strips. Add a handful of pinenuts. Adjust salt and pepper quantities, if needed.Serve with slivers of Parmesan on top.