There’s Ceres, goddess of grains, Minerva, goddess of wisdom and Flora, goddess of flowers, springtime and fertility. Demeter watches over the harvest, Vesta, the hearth, and Pomona protects fruit trees, orchards and gardens. Abundantia’s name affirms she’s the goddess of abundance and prosperity..
But the Romans never adored a “dea della porchetta.” Near Rieti though, you can meet her, taste her porchetta… and her name is Dea (goddess). If not for eye-catching bright red and white umbrellas shading tables encircled by pots of cheery scarlet begonias, you might pass a seemingly nondescript shack – La Baita – along the road outside Rieti (northern Latium). But pull off to park near the trucks of savvy workers who know where to find good food – and head inside. “La Baita” – denoting a small wooden mountain refuge – is a refuge, but a culinary one: for those seeking uncomplicated simple goodness.
On a recent visit, red-cheeked smiling owner Dea – in bright red shirt and pants – was slicing up porchetta, spit-roasted suckling pig seasoned with wild fennel and rosemary. Dea slices with the ease and expertise of a surgeon for after all, she’s had lots of practice: growing up in the tiny town nearby, Pie’ di Moggio (pop. 54 nowadays) she set her sites on becoming a butcher at a young age.
She cared little for school and at fourteen, she apprenticed to a butcher – and over fifty years later, she’s still slicing up the pork goodness. I asked her, “Any regrets?” As she slipped the sliced porchetta onto a crusty roll, she answered, “if any, maybe that I could not continue my education. But I made sure our three children did: one studied law, the other is a pianist, the other – with two degrees – works for the health care system.”
“We’re only doing this now for passione,” she grins with a twinkle in her eye.
Enrico, her retired banker husband, flanks her in this little food shack (he works mornings, Dea handles early evening and cheery tattooed assistant young Chiara fills in the afternoons). The first time we stopped at La Baita (which has become a favorite “culinary refuge” for us now, too), Enrico was at the espresso machine behind the prosciutto, capocollo, salamis and cheeses piled on the counter, while Chiara made sandwiches for a group of hungry workmen.
The brightly-colored paper cut-outs tacked on the wall near the counter listed all the sandwich options – but how to decide? Porchetta? Grilled sausage? Grilled sausage with sheep’s milk cheese (pecorino)? Panino di prosciutto? Prosciutto sandwich with pecorino? Or how about marinated eggplants topping the porchetta or prosciutto or sausages? Or roasted peppers? Or wild chicory sautéed in olive oil and garlic? Or a spicy chili pepper sauce? Or… all of them? Or does mortadella, capocollo or salt-cured bacon tempt?
I took Signor Enrico’s suggestion for a lunchtime sandwich – and it’s now all I ever have at La Baita: grilled sausage topped with roasted peppers, marinated eggplants, a touch of chili pepper sauce and a paper-thin slice of pecorino cheese. Red wine on the side, logicamente.
One certainty: the pig reigns here at La Baita. “Each year, we buy about eighty prosciutto (the salt-cured hams of the back legs) and eighty spalle (‘shoulders’ i.e., hams of the forelegs) from local farmers,” Enrico told us recently as we munched our sandwiches, “But Dea’s not the butcher any longer.”
Maybe not, but La Baita still offers all the pork goodness… of a goddess!