Last month, I finally made it to Italy for the first time. I call this third time lucky, having failed on two previous attempts. Many years back, my sister and I came across a great deal to spend a weekend in Rome. Brimming with excitement – being a whole one sixteenth Italian, I’d always wanted to visit the homeland – we boarded our Ryanair flight at Prestwick airport. Fast forward three hours later and the plane remained on the same damp and drizzly Tarmac; we were informed that due to an Italian air traffic controller strike the flight was now cancelled. With no other flights available, instead of going to Rome, we had no choice but to head home. It might be overused, but the term anticlimax was created for moments like that one.
A couple of years later, two good friends and I planned a last minute getaway to Rimini to celebrate having finished our final degree exams. However, one of the two needed a new passport. True to form, the courier arrived at my friend’s door 10 minutes too late and we missed the flight. How could it have happened again?
Having shared these unfortunate tales with Craig’s family – this was my first family holiday with the Barclays – they were eyeing me with both suspicion and apprehension that this so-called “curse” might strike again as we arrived at Prestwick Airport one windy Wednesday afternoon. After Ryanair put me through 90 minutes of agitated déjà vu before our plane finally took off – again citing issues with Italian air traffic controllers which I really must look into – we arrived happily in the warm climes of Pisa.
We were staying in the lovely town of Montecatini Terme which sits just below Montecatini Alto, an ancient village built at the top of a hill and accessible via an equally ancient but lovely funicular railway. It was at Alto we first visited Casa Gala, a quirky and truly one-of-a-kind restaurant that sits on the romantic cobbled square at the centre of the village. Potted olive trees are scattered between the tables, with lemon yellow paintwork creating a rustic Mediterranean backdrop. Inside, a long table adorned with trinkets, ornaments and plants sits below a contemporary light fitting, bringing a gallery-style feel to the place. This unusual display was my first hint that Casa Gala is something more than just a restaurant.
Craig’s parents had eaten here a year previously and told us of their amusement as they witnessed the stereotypical Italian temperament come alive; a blazing argument between the staff concluded with a waitress walking out mid-shift. Half-expecting some Fawlty Towers-esque service, we were in the right state of mind for the place, although some of the other diners appeared less amused.
Our server certainly seemed to lack the urgency and attention one might expect when dining out. We could see the patience at other tables wearing thin as he chose to spend ten minutes chatting with the staff at a neighbouring restaurant rather than attending to customers. Appearances, however, can be deceiving; we soon realised that the waiter, Simone, was, in fact, the owner and creator of this curious place, and his apparent lackadaisical attitude couldn’t have been further from the truth. He spoke to us about his food with so much care and passion that we were certain we were in for something very special.
Recognising our burning enthusiasm (ie greed) for food, he treated us to a wonderful array of locally produced Toscana cuisine during our week in Italy, over which time we visited Casa Gala three times. On our second visit, whilst we were perusing the stunning menu, Simone offered to go off-piste and prepare us his own special meal. In a restaurant full of diners, this felt like a pretty special opportunity available only to our party, which, naturally, we grasped with both hands. Over the next couple of hours, Simone went back of house and cooked us a five-course meal to remember.
First, a deliciously juicy tiger prawn was served on toasted Italian bread with pancetta and sliced green apple that cut through the salty, oily flavour perfectly. As it was set down on the table in front of us, the visual impact alone, tendrils and all, was enough to tell us this dish was going to be nothing short of brilliant. The prawn was generously meaty and, once that was out of the way, the toasted bread mopped up the seafood juices and pork fat very nicely indeed.
Next, fresh wide-ribbon pasta was served with clams, squid rings and some more modestly-sized shell-on prawns, with the broth providing a light, wonderfully savoury accompaniment. Simone let the ingredients do the talking again and, combined with his technical ability, the result was another course of a really high standard.
After two fish courses, we knew something quite different had to be coming next, and we were right. Put before us was a real big player; gnocchi with stilton. Three courses in, I was feeling pretty intimidated. I tend to struggle with really heavy dishes of this kind and this one brought a batten-the-hatches punch of richness that was a lot for me to deal with. I was relieved to discover, however, that the gnocchi were delightful little cloud-like mouthfuls; like no other gnocchi I’d ever had before. I couldn’t completely polish off this course, a rarity for myself, but I did a pretty good job. For gnocchi enthusiasts, this was the dish of dreams.
If I think back to that moment, I remember the overwhelming emotion was concern. How much more could I stomach? How many courses were still to come? How on earth could I possibly bow out of this once in a lifetime meal? And then came another daunting reveal. Course number four was a pancetta-stuffed pork fillet served on more delicious, oil-drizzled toasted bread. The cut had been sautéed in white wine and, in all its salty goodness, was a delight to devour despite suppressed protestations from my full-to-bursting stomach.
It’s difficult to imagine how we did it, but dessert made five. A selection of sweets, from a scrumptious marmalade cheesecake to a gooey chocolate fondant, were somehow devoured by our party. We sat around the table, gazing dreamily at each other – admittedly wine had been consumed throughout – recounting our personal highlights of the meal and feeling very lucky indeed.
I could easily write ten or twelve blog posts – if I miraculously discovered the necessary willpower – about the incredible food we enjoyed on our Tuscan getaway. Every meal I had in the country was of an impressively high standard, but the famous five courser at Casa Gala is the one that’ll stick in my mind. Even more so because we later discovered that the eatery-cum-hotel is named after the family’s elderly pug, Gala, who shuffles around the restaurant doing her rounds with an completely adorable confused expression on her pudgy face.
My lasting memory of Tuscany is ancient hilltop towns, cypress-lined impressionist landscapes, sunflowers as far as the eye can see and that meal of epic proportions at Montecatini Alto. Casa Gala, we love you!