I’m sensing a trend here with this article that I hadn’t really noticed before. Living in Italy year-round we seem to naturally gravitate to restaurants that appeal mostly to Italians and that strangely never seem to be visited by tourists. Perhaps it’s because Elena is Italian or perhaps after 9 years I’ve gone native as it were, but whatever the reason we are drawn to casual dining spots where foreign language reviews on Tripadvisor are non-existent but where there are dozens of appreciative Italian reviews.
As one would expect, given the sheer number of tourists that invade Italy every year, these restaurants are often in out-of-the-way places but increasingly these are also the parts of the country that we prefer to visit ourselves because they are where the real Italy is still to be found.
The restaurant Le Meraviglie del Mare in Abruzzo fits this profile and so does La Rustica in Busseto with just one solitary English language review by someone who was either an intrepid traveler or just happened to be lost and hungry that day and who fortuitously stumbled upon this nondescript looking restaurant.
Which in fact is exactly how we came to discover La Rustica a few years ago when we were on our way to the nearby village of Zibello and we were in danger of missing lunch; a fatal mistake in Italy because after 2.00 pm in the countryside you won’t find anywhere to eat until dinner time.
Zibello is on the Po river in the Bassa Parmense and is renowned as the place that gives its name to the most delicious cut of charcuterie in the world; I am of course referring to Culatello di Zibello which was the subject of a recent article by us that can be found here.
As is often the case in Italy, most people would zip right by La Rustica because the exterior is not the most enticing I’ve ever seen and in fact provides no clue as to the wonderful food on offer inside.
This is very much a locals hangout and the group gathered outside when we arrived was made up of local hunters who go out at the weekend looking for small game like hares, rabbits, pheasants and quails.
This was our third visit to La Rustica and we have yet to be disappointed. The small print on the outside sign describes it perfectly; ‘cucina tipica Emiliana’ it says and that’s exactly what you will find on the menu inside.
There’s a simple reason we like places like La Rustica. It relies entirely on local customers and being in a sparsely populated area that is famous for its parmigiano reggiano and many varieties of cured meats, their customers will be very knowledgeable about their local cuisine, some will probably be employed in food production themselves and most of them will likely also be decent cooks so they would not frequent La Rustica if the dishes served here weren’t every bit as good as what they can eat at home.
Walking into an Italian restaurant for the first time you get an immediate sense of the place if you allow yourself to look around and that’s especially true of the types of restaurants we like because none of them have been given that overly-curated and slightly clichéd look that Italian restaurants abroad will succumb to in order to create what they perceive to be a more authentic atmosphere.
La Rustica is a true family restaurant with the owner, Marina, doing everything front of house while her mother and son run the kitchen. Family restaurants in the Italian countryside are typically sparsely decorated with things that have a meaning to the proprietor, perhaps old family photos hanging slightly askew on the wall or faded black and white pictures of the restaurant 80 years ago with a prior generation standing stiffly in the foreground or simply old artifacts (above photos) long since past being useful that the present generation just never got around to throwing out.
Menu prices tend to be so reasonable and such good value in these types of places that there’s no money left over for frippery and locals in rural parts of Italy are not going to support restaurants with high margins, they’ll simply go elsewhere or eat at home.
We have the same mindset as the locals when we travel, it’s all about the dining experience and by that I mean the quality of the ingredients, the skill and care taken in the kitchen, the authenticity of the dishes and the value that the bill at the end represents.
The menu at La Rustica and our suggestions:
We’re not in Emilia particularly often so we always choose the most traditional dishes, even if they are the most obvious. With that said, the antipasto choice is easy. Go straight for Il Gran Tagliere La Rustica and the Torta Fritta with a side order of La Giardiniera fatta in casa. Enough to be shared among 3 or 4 people and preferably accompanied by a bottle of Lambrusco.
The Tagliere has a little of everything so it makes for a great sampling of all the best salumi that Emilia has to offer. The Torte Fritte are heavenly squares of deep fried dough, traditionally made by incorporating milk and strutto (lard) in with the flour, yeast and water. Arriving at the table they should be warm, soft and not greasy and this is exactly how they leave the kitchen at La Rustica.
Torta Fritta is frequently served with salami all over the region of Emilia-Romagna but in typical Italian fashion its name changes from town to town. In Bologna you will see it referred to as Crescentina (crescentine bolognesi on the menu), in Reggio Emilia and Modena it’s called Gnocco Fritto, in Piacenza it becomes Chisulèn and something similar, Chisulin Mantovano in Mantua. In Parma it’s Torta Fritta which is why La Rustica in nearby Busseto uses the same terminology.
Having gorged ourselves on the antipasti we can typically only manage a primo piatto each and so we hardly ever make it to the secondo piatto, but I have long been of the opinion that the first two courses are invariably the most interesting in Italy and often also the dishes that are harder to replicate at home.
Glancing at the menu it’s clear that La Rustica is in the very core of the Culatello DOP zone because it appears in a different dish in every part of the menu but to us you can’t beat it as an antipasto so our advice would be to choose any of the other primi piatti, all of which are excellent.
Especially perhaps Gli Anolini in Brodo di Terza (above left) because a brodo well made is the very essence of la cucina Emiliana and there’s nothing better in the colder months of the year. Another primo piatto highlight for us on this visit was I Pisarei con Pasta di Salame.
With regard to the wine choice if, like us, you have already imbibed several glasses of Lambrusco before arriving at La Rustica then you could order instead one of the Gutturnio red wines from the nearby Colli Piacentini DOC zone made from a blend of Barbera and Bonarda grapes.
The final bill for the various shared antipasti, three primi piatti, a bottle of wine, a dolce and coffee came to 76 euros for the three of us so it was another fabulous lunch at La Rustica at a very reasonable price.
If, as the old saying goes, 'the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach' then this is how you fall in love with Italy.
Note: Given that we now live in a world of paid 'influencers' (ie unpleasant grifters spawned by the abomination that social media has become) who pretend to be impartial commentators, let us make clear that we always pay in full for our accommodation and meals. We never solicit or receive any type of compensation for any of our articles or recommendations on wine, olive oil or food and at La Rustica the owner was completely unaware that we were going to write this article and still is, even after publication.