If you’re visiting Padua and looking for a great meal, head to Osteria dei Fabbri in the city’s ghetto.
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Dining at Osteria dei Fabbri in Padua
An authentic dining experience
The food at Osteria dei Fabbri in Padua is divine, and I’ll describe it more thoroughly below. Before I dive into an adjective-rich discussion of pasta and tell you about my second encounter with a life-changing prawn, I’ll tell you another reason why you should eat at Osteria dei Fabbri: it is unapologetically authentic.
To explain why this is, we must digress into linguistics, my other favorite topic of discussion after perfect pasta and transcendental shellfish.
A note on the Italian language and its many dialects
As you may know, there are several dialects spoken in Italy. Each region has one, and there are even different dialects within regions. These dialects are, by and large, not mutually intelligible.
You might be wondering why Italy has so many dialects. This too requires some explanation.
Before its unification in 1871, Italy was just a series of city-states. Each city-state had its own dialect. It wasn’t until the advent of television in the late 1950s and 60s that “standard Italian” (which is actually based on the Tuscan dialect) became widespread.
A friend recently told me that one of the earliest television programs in Italy was a series of lessons that taught people how to read and write in standard Italian. After watching these programs and practicing at home, people could apply to take a final test that was administered at the end of elementary school. If they passed, they earned a certificate.
Despite the fact that they are not as widely spoken as they once were (lots of young people understand their dialects but can’t speak them, even though older relatives are still often fluent), dialects are still an important part of Italian language and culture. As an Italophile, I find them super interesting.
Sometimes, certain dialectal words resemble standard Italian. Let’s look at the word ragazzi, which is either the plural of boys, or the word for a mixed group of people (the equivalent of guys in American English).
Romans say regà, which at least shares some letters with standard Italian.
Sometimes, dialectal words are completely different from standard Italian. A dear friend of mine is from Piedmont, but his dialect is actually one from Lombardy, called Dialetto Ossolano. In this dialect, the word for ragazzi is bocia. Bocia can be singular or plural, with the change being indicated by the article that precedes it (il for singular or i for plural). Bocia is actually a standard Italian word that refers to recruits from the Alpine army, but has been adopted into dialect with this more casual meaning. In a fascinating twist, a girl is bofia. In standard Italian, gender is indicated by articles and final letters (normally, a feminine noun changes from a final “a” to a final “e” when made plural), so this deviation between bocia and bofia is interesting to Italian learners like me.
In Padova, ragazzi is tosi.
In the coastal areas of Veneto like Venice and Chioggia, it’s fioi.
In Napoli, according to this dictionary, there are many variations, including the slight change to ragazzu and the completely different guaglione.
This linguistic richness is just one of the many reasons that Italy has fascinated me for so many years. Sure, we have accents in the US, and regional differences in vocabulary (soda vs. pop vs. Coke, for example), but we can always understand each other. A Sicilian and an Abruzzese speaking dialect to each other probably wouldn’t.
I’ve found that in Veneto, people are very proud of their dialects. Once Jeremy and I were buying some fruit in Venice, and the woman selling it taught us the Venetian word for each of the fruits we purchased. This pride has carried over into the names of restaurants, and even onto menus, such as the one at Osteria dei Fabbri.
The menu at Osteria dei Fabbri
Not only does their menu contain dialect, it’s also not translated into English.
I really hope I don’t offend anyone here, and I certainly do not mean that what I’m about to say applies to Veneto as a whole or the majority of people in the region, but Venetian pride does not come without its caveats. Veneto is the stronghold of the right wing anti-migrant party. Certain groups want it to become independent from the rest of Italy. At worst, it is a culture based on exclusion.
Using an “in-group” language is a great way to exclude. If, in the US or Australia, I don’t want someone to understand what I’m saying to Jeremy, we speak Italian. My grandmother used to speak Portuguese to my mom (who understands, but can’t speak) if she wanted to keep something just between them. Even slang that’s popular among teenagers creates an in-group/out-group dynamic.
Why would a restaurant create a menu that’s written partially in dialect and not translate it to English? The answer is simple. It’s a local place that serves local food that’s frequented by locals.
As a traveler, you can look at this in one of two ways, the first being negative. Intimidating? Yes. Stressful? Maybe. Unpleasant? It can be, especially if you order folpetti because you like the sound of the word and are then surprised when the server sets down a plate of baby octopuses in front of you.
The second way, the way I recommend, is to look at this as a positive. If the menu isn’t in English, odds are, it’s not a touristy place. You’re probably going to get an authentic meal. You’re being adventurous! You’re creating a memory! You’re eating like a local!
So, you might not speak Italian, let alone a completely different version of the language that may or may not have anything to do with the standard version, but you really want to experience the local cuisine in a restaurant that is free of tourist menus, frozen pizzas, and rubbery spaghetti. The solution is simple, regà. Google it.
What to do if you’re confronted with a menu in dialect
Do a Google image search for folpetti. For fasoi. For straecca. Suddenly, this menu that consists of funny-looking words you don’t know comes into focus. Octopus. Beans. Steak. Boom.
When I lived in Rome, if I spoke in Roman dialect, my friends would laugh hysterically, and then become stern and say I shouldn’t corrupt my textbook Italian with it. I still understand it well (which has come in handy for my recent binge-watch of Suburra – 10/10 highly recommend). I guess I still sound Roman too, because lots of people in Padua told me I had a Roman accent (which they mean as an insult and I take as a compliment). I even recently said a word that I thought was standard Italian and was told that it was Roman. It creeps in. I’m afraid I never learned too much Venetian, other than the odd word here and there, so when we took my parents to Osteria dei Fabbri, my sweetheart and I were Googling away so that we could help them understand the menu.
Our hard work was rewarded with one of the best meals I’ve had recently, which I will now excessively detail for you. Who’s hungry?
My dad is a big fan of appetizers (and dessert, good man) so we went with a starter that intrigued us all – involtini di radicchio, or radicchio rolls.
Before moving to Italy, I’m pretty sure I had only had radicchio in those big bags of mixed salad that are common in America. Radicchio is everywhere in Veneto throughout the winter. Its purple-red color pops out of all sorts of dishes. They put it in risotto, salads, on pizza, dappertutto. I was pretty indifferent to radicchio before moving here, but now I know what it can do.
The radicchio made up the heart of the involtini. Grilled slightly, it retained its signature crispness and slightly bitter flavor. It was wrapped in salty pancetta steccata, which is pancetta that has been rolled and pressed between two pieces of wood, salted, and left to age. The rolls rested on warm, melted cheese called formaggio di Montegalda. We weren’t sure what to expect from the cheese, but decided to go for it. Come to find out, formaggio di Montegalda is a bleu cheese made from goat milk.
My mom hates goat milk. She can smell it from a mile away. Once, my dad used some in a recipe just to mess with her. She sniffed it, looked at him, and said, “This smells goaty.” Our jaws hung open in disbelief. She had identified goat milk with no warning or indication whatsoever. The woman is like a bloodhound.
At the time of eating, we were unaware that this cheese contained goat milk, and, wouldn’t you know that Mrs. Goat-Milk-Hater of the century gobbled down the formaggio di Montegalda like it was going out of style, and even took an extra scoop off the plate. I guess her love of bleu cheese trumped her hatred of goat cheese. Congratulations to the goats of Montegalda for winning someone over!
Anyway, combined with the salty pancetta and the bitter bite of the radicchio, the cheese provided an earthy creaminess which made the dish a savory delight. It came with a few slices of toasted bread which rounded out the dish with a nice, hearty crunch.
Another vegetable that’s all over the place at this time of year is the lovely artichoke. Italians do brilliant things with artichokes, particularly in Rome, where you can have them gently steamed to perfection, or, my favorite, fried (these are called carciofi alla giudìa and are not to be missed! For my other don’t miss dishes in Rome, check out this post).
I decided to continue on the path of seasonal vegetables, and got maccheroncini with artichokes and mazzancolle, or shrimp. The pasta was firm, the artichoke delicate and tender, and the shrimp – oh, the shrimp – was rich and succulent. I savored every bite of its sweet, salty flavor.
My dad and Jeremy had the same dish, bigoli freschi all’anatra, a local favorite of fresh pasta and duck meat ragù. I’ve had bigoli all’anatra before, but this one was spectacular. Bigoli are thick and filling. They provide the perfect complement to the fat-rich duck meat, which is combined with onion, carrot, celery, and other seasonings to make the ragù.
My mom had gnocchi that were plump yet light. They came out with swirl of squash puree and a drizzle of olive oil beneath them, and a dollop of arugula pesto on top. The peppery arugula mixed perfectly with the sweetness of the squash, creating a balanced bite.
Too full for secondi, we went traditional for dessert and had a round of coffees, and shared a delicious tiramisù and a creamy panna cotta.
The servers were lovely, attentive, and patient as we interpreted, translated, and ordered our meal. We had two servers as we ate, and then another one arrived to take our dessert order. He spoke very good English, so you never know – a staff member might be able to help if you’re feeling lost while looking at the menu!
Why you should eat at Osteria dei Fabbri
Osteria dei Fabbri in Padua represents Veneto at its best. Unpretentious, genuine, and proud of its heritage.
Today’s travelers are obsessed with eating where locals do, and having off-the-beaten-path experiences. Here’s your chance. Don’t be intimidated by places with no English menu or menus that are in dialect, seek them out! You’re sure to have an authentic experience and an unforgettable meal.
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