This episode of Jim & Kathleen’s Food Experiences will conclude the lunch portion of our show 😀. I am going all the way back to our very first international trip in 2002 for these two but they must be special if they stand out almost 20 years later.
Lunch in Venice—Eating with locals
It was November and we were ready to head to Italy, the home of half my ancestors. We had stops planned in Venice, Florence, Rome and Sicily. What the Italians call the “Golden Triangle” (plus Sicily where my family is from). Our first stop was Venice and it is there we learned a valuable lesson about eating in a foreign country—find where the locals eat AND then eat there.
We had spent the morning taking the vaporetto (if you haven’t been to Venice, that’s kind of a water bus) to the separate islands of Murano (where they make some really cool glass) and Burano (where they have some amazing and brightly colored houses I wanted to take capture photographically). Between walking around on both islands and the vaporetto ride to each of them, we didn’t get back to the main part of Venice until it was well into the middle of the afternoon and by then we were STARVING! Italians don’t do big breakfasts. Our typical breakfast in Italy was a croissant and coffee, maybe with some cheese or Nutella and some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. No eggs and bacon there. So when I say we were starving and it was 2:30 pm and we were STARVING.
Now the trouble was finding a restaurant that was open and that we would be able to get a decent meal in. Luckily for us, the vaporetto from the islands docks on the far side of Venice so you don’t get off (or at least you didn’t then) right into the touristy spots. If it had, we might never have had this experience.
Wandering around looking for someplace to eat we passed a bunch of places that had already closed. There were also small stand up bars where we could have gotten a small sandwich but we were looking for more than that. Luckily we almost got lost going down a small street (you can easily get lost in Venice) and saw a restaurant that looked open. When we looked inside the place was good sized but it was empty except for…about 20 gondoliers having lunch. We looked at each other and decided if this was where the gondoliers ate their lunch, it must be wonderful. And it was. We had not yet had an Italian specialty—spaghetti carbonara. If you have never had it think really great spaghetti with bacon, eggs and cheese. I have had it since then a few times but nothing can compare with that day. Of course looking back on the experience I often wonder if the carbonara was that good or if we were that hungry or if it was the entire experience of eating it in Venice in a restaurant with twenty very noisy gondoliers.
Lunch in Sicily—meeting Vito
About a week later we were exploring Sicily’s mountain towns looking for the final resting place of my great-grandfather in Corleone. Yes, my grandfather’s family comes from a town with the same name as The Godfather’s family. It was a Monday. If you have not been to Italy, finding almost anything open on a Monday is very difficult. This is especially true of restaurants.
We had risen early in our hotel in Monreale (just above Palermo) and headed into the Sicilian hills—a phenomenal drive as you pass walls and hill towns as old as the Roman Empire or the Moorish invasion. We found Corleone and headed to the cemetery where we not only found my great-grandfather’s grave but a man who claimed he could be my cousin who worked at the cemetery. By this time it was again about 2:00 and we wanted to find a place to eat lunch. Nothing was open in Corleone so we started heading back to the coast.
We passed through two or three small villages with nothing open. We were getting really hungry at that point. Plus, we really wanted to find someplace where someone spoke at least a little English so we could kind of know what we were ordering. All of a sudden we turned the corner into the tiny village of Masseri d’Amari and saw a big sign that said “Trattoria—Open!” By that time we didn’t care if they spoke English or not, we just wanted food.
When we got inside there was a HUGE seafood buffet all along one wall, a fairly empty dining room and two servers. One approached us and we asked if he spoke English. He didn’t and neither did the other. Since the buffet was all seafood we needed to know which dishes had no shellfish as Kathleen is allergic. We were about to abandon the place when in walked a huge man wearing all black with gold chains around his neck hanging down into a shirt that was unbuttoned fairly far down and showing a LOT of chest hair. Think Tony Soprano with a bunch of dark, black hair on his head. He saw us and walked over and said, “Hello, I am Vito. Can I help you out at all? I am visiting from New Jersey.” Seriously? We were in a tiny hill town in Sicily and we meet a Tony Soprano type guy with the name of Vito?
He was incredibly nice, told us what had and didn’t have shellfish in it and we grabbed a couple of plates from the buffet. After we had sat down at our table, Vito came over and asked if he could join us. We were thrilled to be able to talk to someone who spoke English and might know something about the part of Sicily we were in. As it turns out Vito knew a lot about that part of Sicily. He had grown up there. In fact, his family owned the restaurant we were in as well as most of the other businesses in town. We also found out that he spent about half the year in Sicily working on the family business and half the year in New Jersey. We asked him what he did in New Jersey and he REALLY said, “I work in waste management.” Unbelievable and kind of hilarious all the same time.
We had had a lovely lunch with Vito (who didn’t eat but just joined us to talk and order us the largest bottle of coke we had ever seen). When we were done we were both pretty full but Vito said, “You must have a cannoli. They are the best you will ever eat. The milk we made the cheese from was in the goat this morning.” We couldn’t pass that up so we said, “maybe just one.” Vito ordered and in about five minutes the server came out with two of the largest cannolis we still ever seen. They must have been at least six inches long and about an inch around and they were delicious!
That just about concluded our lunch experience except that when it was time to pay, there was no check. Now getting a check in Italy is pretty hard most of the time. The restaurants really don’t want you to leave. Seriously. It can often take 15 to 20 minutes after dessert is over to get the bill. But this time, there was no bill. I finally (after waiting a little while) asked Vito (since his family owned the place) if he could ask for it for us as we had to get on our way. He just reached down below the table and motioned with his hand so I could see it while saying, “Do you have 10 Euro? Just give it to me.” Far be it from me to turn down an amazing price on lunch or to not do exactly what this man told us to do 😀. And even after that, Vito insisted on walking us to our car and on the way introducing us to his brother who owned the local car dealership. It was a crazy day and we felt like we had found the true Sicily starting with Corleone and ending with Vito from New Jersey.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch. —Milton Friedman