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  • Friendly Lunch at Il Ciancino

Near Lucca, “il Ciancino” Lives On

Date: December 20, 2011 - categories: - Leave your thoughts

Ciancino sign

Ciancino sign

Head west from the walled Tuscan town of Lucca and you’lll come to a non-descript village, San Macario in Piano. Look on the right side of the road for the huge wooden wine cask with vino sfuso (“wine by the liter”, the house wine) – the “f” is msising – painted on it, and above the rotund cask, a white sign lets you know that you’ve found it: Osteria Il Ciancino. The specialties of the day are on the sign, too: on a recent Thursday, roast chicken and picchiante were headliners. I’d never heard of picchiante and wanted to try it. “Mi dispiace, tutto finito”, our server told us. “It’s one of the favorites”, she told me and then explained how to make this “stufato molto saporito” (“very tasty stew”). When I learned it was made of various cow organs, no regrets that there was none left.

You have a better idea about the origin of the piatti del giorno if you look left as you enter the restaurant: the adjacent macelleria came first. A butcher opened his shop here many years ago. The present-day chef/owner of Il Ciancino is his great-grandson, a third-generation butcher, guaranteeing the top quality of all Il Ciancino’s meat dishes. As you walk in the door, hand-painted mural on the entry wall welcomes you to this Tuscan osteria (“inn”): “Benvenuti al Ciancino dove si mangia bene e si beve il bon vino” (“Welcome to il Ciancino, where you eat well and drink good wine”) is the inscription, surrounded by bunches of grapes.
In the Lucca area, “il ciancino” was a light meal – a hearty soup or bread, cheese and prosciutto, for example – enjoyed with the house wine. This ciancino has the same spirit of simplicity, good hearty fare.

Orange-clad acqueduct workers

Orange-clad acqueduct workers

The tables covered with paper tablecloths (no frills here) are filled with hungry workers, chatting businessmen, and young people who know that good food is here at 10 E for a fixed price menu. On the Thursday we were there, the backroom had been taken over by a group of Lucca acqueduct workers in their orange uniforms, celebrating the birthday of co-worker with a Ciancino feast.

Service is rapid and the menu is simple, straightforward. Any wait is short – and worth it.
Five or six young waitresses agiley dodge each other as they zip between tables and the swinging doors of the kitchen, dishes piled up and down their arms, wrist-to-above -the -elbow, delivering tortellini in broth, lasagne, gnocchi, huge Florentine steaks and stews to diners.

Signora Laura takes a break from cooking

Signora Laura takes a break from cooking

“Butcher-chef” Andrea was hustling in the kitchen but his mother, Signora Laura was “on break” from the burners, spreading out paper tablecloths on rapidly-cleared tabletops in the dining room. When I asked advice on the piatto migliore, she smiled and told me “every single one because we cook come una volta (‘as done once upon a time’)”. Laura learned from her mother who learned from her grandmother, both with una grande passione for food, for the kitchen, for cooking. She explained, “I had to learn all I could because I just have to eat well. I can’t help it. Sono un buongustaio (“a lover of good tastes”, i.e., a gourmet) – and my mother-in-law taught me lots, too”.
Still today family is behind the success of Il Ciancino. Andrea’s wife takes part, too: Francesca works at the bar near the glass case of sweets, pouring the coffees, aperitivi, and digestivi with one hand and tallying up the bills with the other.

Around her, young servers scurried amidst the tables, up and down a couple stairs, in and out of the swinging door leading to the kitchen. As soon as your order is in, a caraffe of the house red or the house white joins a basket of bread on the table. Server Silvia was at the huge steel cisterns which hold three local wines: using a hose attached to the cistern spigot, she was filling up pitchers with the local red wine. Prices of the wines – which are also sold by the liter for home use – fit any pocket: 1.8 E a liter for vino rosso tavola, 1.6 for vino bianco and the price jumps a bit for the rosso tavolo superiore: a whopping 2. 8 Euro a liter..!

Andrea presents with pride a bistecca all fiorentina

Andrea presents with pride a bistecca all fiorentina

Andrea came out of the swinging kitchen doors, using his elbows to push them open: in his hands, he balanced a sheet of brown butcher paper holding a huge raw bistecca alla fiorentina (T-bone steak) to show to a diner: “the customer has to see it before it’s grilled”. At a table near ours, one of the servers, Silvia, showed massive bistecche to a group of four older men, advising two steaks for them, not one. She was right.

On the tables, the silverware flanks the menus: laminated plastic cards listing the full array of Ciancino goodness, though not all dishes are served each day. Black magic marker rings the dishes offered.
I wanted to try the pasta calabrese (with beef, olives, hot red pepper) but like the picciante, “tutto esaurito.” I opted for the tasty rosticciana in umido (ribs in spicy tomato sauce with local black olives) while Pino and friends made good work of the boiled meats special: beef and tongue served with pickled red onions and a caper/ancovy sauce on the side. Desserts enticed as much as the main courses: zabaione semifreddo, profiteroles, fruit tarts, to name a few.

At Osteria Il Ciancino, Andrea, Laura, Francesca and their staff live up to their slogan: “From mother to daughter…from daughter to son, until you can top tradition and reach the apex of culinary traditions.”

Click here to read about another great eating place, in the tradition of simplicity.

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