Part of the Renaissance of Ottawa Street North
Puravida Tuscan Deli & Espresso Bar | Hamilton, Ontario
This article also appears on TripAdvisor and Urbanicity.
Sauro, the owner of the Tuscan deli, the subject of our story today, could be considered a “renaissance man”. It is a description that has been used and abused over the years but in his case it would be fitting. Born in Lucca, Tuscany, he comes from an Italian region that is at the heart of the Rinascimento in Italian or Renaissance in French or Rebirth. Already famous in ancient Rome, the town of Lucca witnessed the re-affirmation of the First Triumvirate, a political alliance among Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. This is also the City where was born the man dubbed “the best composer of Italian Opera after Verdi”: Giacomo Puccini. Other famous artists and composers called this place home. Having been administered by waves of European dynasties since ancient times, this land rich in culture and history has much to offer to our modern food culture.
Well, Let’s start with a very interesting culinary concept called in Italian: “La Cucina Povera” , translated literally it means the “the poor kitchen or cuisine “ but a better explanation could be “peasant cooking”. This is a concept that would apply to many areas of the world except that the Italian version was widely exported hence the best known and appreciated. It involves using all ingredients no matter how low grade they might appear to the uninformed. For instance day old bread used in Tuscan Ribollita, pigs ears, feet, head, organs, and other “nasty bits” to echo Anthony Bourdain. This cooking has nothing to do with trends or fashion. It was born out of necessity as it was a coping mechanism for poor people who needed sustenance and were creative enough to create delicious dishes with the humblest ingredients. In Sauro’s case his grandma Gioconda used fresh herbs and veggies form her own garden (called “l’Orto”), eggs from her hen house (called “Pollaio”). Her livestock consisted of chickens, ducks and rabbits all fed with bread only. To understand how Tuscany became a culinary powerhouse of flavours and refinement today, one must go back to the post World War 2 era when beef and meat protein in general were severely lacking, prompting people to search for porcini mushrooms and truffles to enhance meatless dishes.
Now back to Sauro, what is he offering us on the bustling Ottawa Street North in Hamilton where a number of eateries, new and old, hip and traditional, call home. Through a simple décor of paintings and pictures adorning the walls we see peaceful and scenic representations of Lucca and the Tuscan countryside. The furniture is rustic and the layout functional allowing us to see all that is being done, from espressos to elaborate and tasty sandwiches.
This is a flexible set up where one can order a sandwich, pasta a European or more Canadian type breakfast. One could also buy cheese and deli meats and go to enjoy in the comfort of home. Although a fiercely competitive man, having won the 1982 National Rally Championship as a rally car racer in Italy, Sauro would patiently slice the prosciutto needed for his Tuscan sandwich, get the bread and with a big smile arrange all the ingredients as if it were a work of art. The shop also sells premium extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Earlier this year I had the pleasure of participating at an evening EVOO tasting at this place. Sauro showed his mastery of simple yet delicious cuisine by combining Tuscan ingredients in the most satisfying way.
One thing to clarify is the name why a Spanish name “Pura Vida” for an authentic Tuscan deli? It is a famous Costa Rican phrase meaning “pure life” or “real living”. Sauro entertained dreams of retiring in the Central American country hence the adoption of the phrase. If I understand correctly a change of name is in the offing.
While the only thing I keep hounding him about is “Please get your alcohol license” all this great food requires pairing with its corollary in Tuscan wines, this is still a place where you could come for a gelato, a coffee and pastry or a hot meal in a very congenial comfortable atmosphere served by a proprietor whose passion is undeniable for all things to do with food.