Upon returning home, it occurred to me that this series has somewhat neglected Italian cuisine so far. I’ve only written about pizza before. This situation had to be remedied, of course; after all, it’s a well-known fact that eating Italian food on a regular basis improves your quality of life. Besides, there are plenty of good Italian restaurants to be found in Maastricht.
After a serious discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of various local Italian restaurants with Matteo Bonnetti, my young colleague in the Finance Department, I booked a table at Vino & Friends (Plankstraat). Its owners aren’t Italian, but they are said to have learned the ropes in Italy. And Matteo says their restaurant offers the best Italian value for money in Maastricht.
Joining us for dinner is Giorgio Castro, who is currently studying at Maastricht University for the second time. As luck would have it, he’s from Sicily. Matteo is from Piedmont, in the northwest, so we have one expert from each side of the country. We decide to go for a full Italian dinner, with each of us having an antipasto, a primo and a secondo, and to all order different dishes.
While waiting for our starters to arrive, we talk about what the future looks like for young, well-educated Italians. It looks bleak. Italy is suffering a brain drain, with many young Italians going abroad to study and then deciding to stay there. This was Giorgio’s initial plan as well, but lately he’s been wondering how he could use his knowledge and international experience to change the situation in his native country instead. He’d love to go back to Sicily and become involved in sustainable entrepreneurship, for example.
All conversation ceases the moment the antipasti arrive. We ordered arrosticini, grilled sheep meat on skewers with roasted vegetables, as well as carpaccio and oven-baked scampi with garlic and red chili peppers. The carpaccio is fine, nothing special, and the scampi are good. But the arrosticini are amazing. Sheep meat has a bad reputation in the Netherlands, which is why it appears on very few menus. If well prepared, it’s wonderfully tender and juicy with a distinctive, pleasant taste – just like these arrosticini are. Before grilling them, the cook seasoned thin strips of meat and stacked them on top of each other, with pieces of pure fat in between to keep everything moist while grilling. He then skewered the meat and cut it into a grid pattern, so that each skewer contains neat, square layers of meat and fat. They go very well with the vegetables: roasted beets and parsnips, nicely gooey and chewy.
The restaurant prides itself (rightly so) on its primi piatti, as all pastas are made fresh. The menu offers three ravioli dishes, one tagliatelle dish and a gnocchi dish. We choose three different dishes again. The ravioli with scampi and lobster sauce are fine, but not particularly interesting. At first blush, this also appears to be true for the ravioli with spinach and ricotta, but first impressions can be deceiving: they’re delicious, especially because of the generous serving of sage butter they come with. It’s a classic dish prepared very well.
The tagliatelle dish with wild boar ragu turns out to be the highlight of our meal. In the Netherlands, wild boar are considered a source of nuisance; they may be hunted throughout the year. Wild boar meat isn’t a Dutch favourite, but Vino & Friends proves people wrong with this culinary tour de force. The ragu has a subtly gamey taste and the meat has just the right texture: it’s chopped into pieces, but it hasn’t been turned into a minced substance. The fresh tagliatelle, thick and dominant, go perfectly with the texture of the sauce.
The main courses are also true classics – take the excellent oven-baked aubergine with mozzarella and tomato sauce, for example, or the grilled Iberico pork with wonderfully crispy fried polenta. But the wild boar dish was so good that the main courses can’t outshine it.
All in all, we had a wonderful meal at a cosy restaurant where the other guests were clearly enjoying themselves as well. The staff is great, too: our server very considerately asked us how long we would like to wait between each course, was clearly proud of the restaurant and even gave us a short tour of the wine cellar after dinner.