When we weren’t homicidal with road rage, things in Italy were actually pretty spectacular. Take our first dinner out, for instance. We were staying in a town called Vorno, which is just outside the medieval walled city of Lucca.
This little town is pure Italia. It is nestled in the hills with views into a larger valley, and it is void of tourists, apart from us, of course. That was part of what made it a jewel of a town; we were joining their authentic lives, they weren’t contorting themselves to become the American tourists’ version of an Italian town.
Vorno only has one full service restaurant, but one is all it needs. We knew nothing about the place except that it served rich cappucinos every morning with sugary croissants on the side. We figured if they can make foam that well, they can probably cook up a great meal.
We spent the day biking the walls of Lucca, which is something I’ll remember as long as I live. We rented bikes for three euro an hour and took off exploring the ancient city. Once inside the walls, we found ramparts in various places, so at the first one we pedaled right up and were instantly charmed at the sight of the city below us. The walls are forty feet high, though there isn’t any danger in biking them; they’re about twenty feet wide, more in some places.
We felt like a cross between Peter Pan and Mary Poppins as we flew in the sunshine along rooftops and brick chimneys.
We made the three-mile loop, stopping along the way to point out major buildings or a rooftop deck overflowing with Bougainvillea. The chestnut trees lining the road provided desperately needed shade, as it was 95 degrees and we were exercising, like fools.
Back at the house we swapped bikes for bathing suits and jumped in the refreshing water of the pool. After showering and dressing, we made plans to go back to Lucca for dinner. My parents and Dave and Nancy said they’d rather stick close, so they walked to the restaurant in Vorno, which was about 300 meters down the road.
The other eight of us were in our toy cars when we passed the restaurant and saw the four of them sitting outside with glasses of Prosecco. It was too much. We screeched to a halt and popped out of the car to see if they might be able to change that reservation from four to twelve. You know, just a tiny increase.
Luckily they were, and we ditched our Lucca plans faster than you can say “Ciao.”
We grabbed a table near theirs for our own apertivos, and nodded at each other in grateful approval that we’d made this choice. Rather than navigating roads and struggling to find parking, we were watching the sun go down with our hands around cold beers and white wines.
Before we knew it they were seating us in the restaurant, on their large outdoor patio strung with lights. It was one huge table and we were delighted.
I think it was Dave or Nancy who made the genius decision to order the entire antipasti menu for the table, and it was absolutely the best decision of the night. Before we knew what was happening, waiters were pouring out of the kitchen with platters of food so delectable we considered canceling our main courses. At first we thought we’d have to split everything, but then the waiter said, “No! No! You order the special so you get many for all.” “Many for all” was exactly the kind of abundance we hoped to find in this little back-door town.
So out it came, plate after plate of olive oil soaked bruschetta, soft and hard cheeses, salamis and prosciutto, toasted cornmeal fried potato cakes, small mountains of olive and tomato tapenade so good we thought this was the first tomato we’d ever tasted. Just when we thought they were done, more came.
My dad said, “This is the best meal I can fathom, and my entrée isn’t here yet. How is this real life?”
That was the sentiment carried across the table as we opened another bottle of wine and leaned in for further conversation.
Midway through the meal, the owner came around to greet us because she lived for a couple of years in the states.
“Which one?” we asked her, thrilled that she spoke English and had a love of our country.
“Ohio,” she said with a smile.
“Oh…” we replied, not sure how to proceed. Ohio. Oh…hio. Not much to elaborate on. Should we ask what she thought of Cincinnati? Eh, we didn’t really care. We were far more interested in what she’d done in Italy.
“Look, my son. Your waiter. And my husband is the chef. You like what you’re having?” she asked.
We practically choked on our words trying to tell her fast enough how much we loved her food, her son, her restaurant.
When Dave nonchalantly said, “This one’s on me,” at the end of the meal, the rest of us were so overwhelmed by his and Nancy’s generosity that it put the evening completely over the top. There were now unicorns dancing on rainbows, as far as we were concerned.