Trattoria Ermes, Modena

We’d arrived in Modena (a two and a half hour drive from Genoa) just before lunchtime. We’d read in the guidebook about a couple of traditional trattorie which sounded appealing, and when we asked at the hotel they recommended “Ermes”, and phoned on our behalf to make a reservation, as this was the kind of place which sold out fast, and where people queued outside for the chance of a table.

Our place secured, we set off immediately and five minutes later made our way into a tiny, packed room off a nondescript street. Our eponymous host placed us on a table next to another young couple (her: Tuscan, him: Modenese) and quickly and rather brusquely informed us of the dishes available. This being a home cooking kind of place the options were few and simple. You pay a flat fee of 20 Euro regardless of what you eat, but you have the right to three courses, water, bread, wine and coffee.

I didn’t want to interrupt the experience too much (and was maybe a little intimidated by the close quarters and proximity of the other diners) so I only took a few iPhone photos of the dishes. A longer post (in Italian) with more pictures of the room and Ermes himself can be found here. My wife chose the cavatelli in brodo as a starter:

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I went for the maccheroni; oven baked pasta with a very crunchy dark crust on top. Good, moreish comfort food for a cold February lunch time.

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For the main course I had rabbit with boiled potatoes. Nothing groundbreaking, and rather starkly presented, but the meat was tender and well seasoned and tasty.

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We finished with a kind of light, sweet pastry which is traditional at Carnival time and goes variously by the name of bugie, frappe, or chiacchere among other regional variants.

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So, the food was simple, honest, tasty fare. Nothing spectacular, but popular with those who like traditional regional specialities prepared in the same way their grandmothers used to do it. But perhaps what made it a more memorable experience was Ermes himself. He’s quite the local celebrity and he probably exaggerates his moods swings and outsized personality at least a little in order to keep his clientele entertained. A few examples: at one point his elderly aunt stopped by for a bite to eat. He dumped her at the end of a large table full of strangers and they bickered with each other sporadically throughout the meal. During our main course someone on the table behind ours wanted to know what a particular dish was like, so Ermes picked up my wife’s plate, as she was in the middle of raising a forkful to her mouth, held it out in front of the other diners for them to glance at, then plonked it back on our table.

On the wall there’s a chart indicating his mood that day. The text at top left says “For those of you who drink to forget, please pay in advance”.

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This was undoubtedly good for a few laughs, and the warm atmosphere and conversation we shared with the other couple on our table meant that the social aspect of the meal was at least as important and enjoyable as the actual food. There are a lot of press clippings on the walls and I wondered whether Ermes’ celebrity was overshadowing the restaurant itself. Had it turned into a magnet for the tourist horde (of which, of course, we ourselves were a part) who wanted a caricatured Italian shouting and gesturing and flinging plates of hot pasta around?

But on the other hand we were the only non-locals there that day, so I don’t think his popularity can be put down to catering to foreigners’ expectations. The “character” of the place is certainly a little self-conscious, maybe even a little exaggerated and theatrical, but no less genuine for that. And I did enjoy the food. Of the reviews on sites like Trip Advisor the negative ones expressed mainly disappointment with the food itself, which they felt didn’t match the restaurant’s reputation, and the flat 20 Euro fee which applied even if all they ate was a plate of pasta. But if you’re in the mood for something simple and tasty and filling, and don’t mind a bit of noise and bustle and shouting, it’s a bargain.

And by the time we left a queue was starting to form outside…

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