The castle of a well-heeled wayfarer

Between the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia, around a border that was historically fought over more often than not, you come across the ancient town of Rubiera. Rubiera is not a place with much of an aristocratic background; its past is battle-hardened and battle-scarred, thanks to its defensive position on the river Secchia – which, despite the Italian word for river (fiume) being masculine, is known by the feminine la Secchia. It’s a surging, gushing watercourse, and it flows under a stone bridge that goes back to the time of ancient Rome, when the Roman authorities decided to replace the old wooden crossing.
 
For centuries Rubiera was nothing more than a pokey if pugnacious little military outpost; only in the 1200s was a castle built here. And as was customary at the time, houses popped up in the shadow of the keep, and people from the surrounding countryside came to enjoy the security that it offered. Even today, looking down from a nearby hilltop, you will make out the simple quadrangle that was constructed along the Via Aemilia, which has always been this region’s raison d’être. In fact, “along” is not the right word: the fortress was slapped right on top of the Roman road, which is forced to veer off to the right – at least for those coming from Rimini, the Via Aemilia’s starting point – in order to skirt round the bastions.
 
The castle – which is locally known as “Il Sasso” (the rock) – was built by the potentates of Reggio Emilia, but changed hands numerous times, from the Boiardi family to the Pio, and then to the illustrious house of Este. It served as a residence, as a prison, and, thanks to recent restoration work, has found a happy niche in the catering and events sector.
 
The castle’s latter calling is down to the passionate and visionary drive of Marco Bizzarri, CEO of the Gucci Group. Bizzarri was instrumental in transforming the appearance of the castle both inside and out, restoring the interior to a long-forgotten splendour. Il Viandante (meaning “the wayfarer”) – one of Rubiera’s most historic restaurants – was at the heart of the restructuring project, thanks to which the stronghold looks like a royal residence once again. Just sit at one of the tables in the sumptuous, beautifully-lit dining room, having climbed the monumental staircase to get there. Then you’ll understand.
 
The talented young Emilian chef Jacopo Malpeli expresses himself through a cuisine that captures the essence of strictly local produce and meats; he takes the most popular staples of the Emilian table, and gives them a twist that has every hallmark of contemporary classic. A touch of creativity, a dash of savvy, a wink at tradition and the most tasteful of quotations: the sum of the parts makes a visit to Il Viandante a cultural as well as a culinary event. Trout and eel fill the stuffed pastas; gnocchi simmer in game sauces, but also in caviar; and mushrooms or truffles balance out the exquisitely done, purebred beef. All is prepared with the most careful, delicate, loving of touches – if we were talking in operatic terms, more the velvety tones of a contralto than the blast of a heroic tenor.
 
There are few places where you’ll find taste and technique coming together as well as they do here, all’italiana.