Two Italian Lunches

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

Lunchtime…again. This time in Italy

It’s been a couple of weeks since our last installment of Jim & Kathleen’s Food Experiences. In case you forgot, I had promised a running bunch of posts on our best food experiences from our travel life. You can read about breakfast in Vancouver here or lunch in Barcelona here. For installment number three (this one will be all about the food) let’s travel to Pontone, Italy with the best tour guide in the known world, Marcello.

To set the stage we were sailing on Celebrity’s Galaxy on a 15 night cruise round trip from Rome that visited the usual Greek islands, Istanbul and even ventured into the Black Sea to stop in Romania and Ukraine. We were on our way back to Rome when we stopped for one last shore visit, in Naples. Pre-cruise we had contacted the “God of Shore Excursions” Mike Preisman who had recommended we contact one of his favorite tour guides, Marcello Maresca. He told us that Marcello was like no other tour guide. That if we let him pick us up in Naples and give us a tour of what he later called, “My Italy,” it would be a day well spent. Mike was right.

The amazing Marcello

We contacted Marcello (we’re still friends on FaceBook and I hear from him all the time) and luckily he was available on the day we were there. We told him that we were more interested in Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast and Sorrento than we were in Naples, so he got us set up.

He was there on time and we headed off in his van. As we drove out of Naples, Marcello proceeded to tell us his philosophy of touring. “If you want to shop, don’t tour with Marcello.  If you want to see ‘his’ Italy, the real Italy, tour with Marcello.” BTW: When I say we, there was Kathleen and I and four other friends we had met through our Cruise Critic roll call including Marybeth and Anne we have become friends with and cruised with in SE Asia.

We made stops on the way to lunch at lots of places where we saw incredible views, stopped in shops where only the Italians shopped and laughed at the other cruisers trying to navigate the Amalfi Coast in one of those huge busses. Oh, the places we could go that they couldn’t. Speaking of driving the Amalfi Coast, even though Marcello is the ultimate tour guide, he has this crazy habit of driving the coast road while looking back at us to talk. Scared the hell out of us but I guess he drives that road so much that he can do it blindfolded.

First stop was a tour through three villages surrounding Sorrento. These were towns that no one stops in because they don’t have the reputation that Sorrento has. But they show what Italian life is like now. I would tell you all of Marcello’s views of Italy today but it is best experienced firsthand from his mouth. So my advice? To see the real Italy and the real Amalfi coast, go to Naples and meet Marcello.

After driving the villages around Sorrento and then into Sorrento itself (where true to his word we saw a bunch of tourist trap shops) we headed down the Amalfi coast stopping whenever Marcello thought we could have great picture opportunities.

We did not stop in the tourist trap towns of Positano, Amalfi and Ravello but did stop on either side of them to take in the view and we drove through the multitude of tourist trap shops with goods from all over. The only semi-shopping stop we made was at an overlook outside of Positano where there was a fruit stand selling local fruit.

After we had driven through Ravello, Marcello announced that it was time to see the real Amalfi coast and we headed up into the hills to the village of Pontone. This village had not changed in more than 50 years. He told us we would have lunch in a wonderful outdoor restaurant where we would be the only patrons other than locals. A restaurant that grew all the food that they served, baked their own bread and everything was made to order.

After a quick tour around the village set high on a hillside we sat down to lunch. And “OH MY GOD, WHAT A LUNCH!” Those of you who know me, know how much I love Italian food. And I have to say without a doubt that this was the BEST Italian food I have had since my Italian grandmother passed away when I was a freshman in high school.

The meal started with an incredible antipasti. Bruschetta, zucchini squash blossoms and so much more. Check out the pictures above and make sure to click on one and watch the slideshow to see them in all their glory. Wonderful red and white house wines by the pitcherful were refilled every time we got near running out. Once we had gorged ourselves on the antipasti, out came the pasta. Three kinds. First a gnocchi that was wonderful, then a ravioli with cheese inside and cooked with arugala and finally a wonderful mixture of pasta shells, beans and pumpkin. We were in heaven. And a very full heaven by this point but wait, there was more. As if we had not had enough to eat on the cruise. Out came the desserts. On one plate we each had a piece of apple tart, a chestnut mousse and a incredible lemon dessert that was like lemon mousse and lemon pie combined. All this was accompanied by our choice of a melon liqueur, a fennel liqueur and our favorite (but not by much) lemoncello. It was wonderful. And this was lunch? What do they serve you for dinner?

The happy group just before we dug in. 45 minutes later we waddled back to the van to visit Pompeii.

After we had thoroughly gorged ourselves (did I already use that word? Gorged is the only word I can think of that describes how we felt), we were back on the road over the mountain to Piedmonte and then on to our tour of Pompeii.

To me, that’s what an incredible dining experience is all about. Awesome company, wonderful ambience and incredible food. We are hoping to go back there when we stop in Naples again in October 2022 and again see Marcello’s Italy.

People will travel anywhere for good food – it’s crazy. —Rene Redzepi

How we fell in love…with travel

Venice in the sunshine

Tomorrow I am going to post the photo above on Instagram. I have been posting one of my best travel photos there each day for 249 days and I have been saving this one. Knowing that it is coming tomorrow as my 250th photo it made me want to write a little about it. Because it has a lot to do with the moment I truly fell in love with travel.

Some background first. My father did NOT like to travel. As a kid, the furthest we ever “traveled” was to visit our grandparents in the LA area (about 100 miles from our home in Palm Springs). I honestly can’t remember staying in a hotel before I was in my teens and I went away for school speech tournaments. My first international travel was driving six miles into Mexico to see an orphanage that our church supported. Other than that, I never left California (except to attend a speech tournament in Phoenix) until I was well into my late twenties.

In my previous life (before Kathleen) I didn’t travel either. Not necessarily because my first wife or my kids didn’t like to travel, but because we really couldn’t afford to go anywhere. We were living in the Northwest by the time we had kids and of course we drove them back to California to see their grandparents and maybe even took them to Disneyland. Once, when they were in their early teens, we actually took them  to Disney World…on an airplane…for four days.

Speaking of airplanes, when I turned 30, I had still never been on a commercial airplane. I had taken a short and scary ride in a Cessna piloted by my at-the-time brother-in-law but that really doesn’t qualify as traveling. We started and ended at the same airport.

When I was 30 we were living in Rogue River, OR and I was teaching school. I got a call from the best manager in my lifetime, Gil Duncan, asking me if I could come to San Francisco so he could interview me for a job with Jostens. He said he would send me an airline ticket. To be honest, that totally freaked me out. The idea of flying someplace was totally not something I did. I was not the guy who flies.

Once I started with Jostens in 1982 I flew all kinds of places in the USA to attend company meetings and teach yearbook workshops but these weren’t really travel. They were just business trips. I never saw anything except the airport and the insides of conference rooms and college classrooms. My first wife really didn’t have that much interest in joining me and in the 23 years we were married, I think she came with me to one of these meetings/workshops (wives were usually welcomed) once. We had no one to take care of the kids.

So when I met Kathleen one of the first things we did was go someplace. It was one of those yearbook workshops. This one was in Montana. We decided to rent a convertible and drive there, I would teach the workshop and then we would continue on our road trip visiting Jackson Hole, Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone and Glacier National Park on the way home. Except for the fact that she HATED being left alone at the motel while I taught yearbook, it was an awesome trip. (Note from Kathleen, we were in a teeny tiny town with nothing to do!) But we didn’t fall in love with travel then. That was just a nice road trip.

Over the next few years we continued to travel sporadically. Went to Canada (me for the first time—now we go there all the time), NYC, took a short Alaskan cruise but that was about  it. Until 2002 when we both turned 50. To celebrate, we decided that what we needed was a “great adventure,” and that the adventure should be in Europe. I had always wanted to explore the country of my ancestors, Italy. She had always wanted to do the same in Scotland. So we compromised, decided to do both and I went first.

We booked our first overseas flight to Italy. We did a ton of prep. This was going to be BIG! It was going to test us to see if we could actually travel to a country where they didn’t speak English, where we would have to try different foods, different customs. We knew we could do it. We signed up for an adult-ed class called, “Italian for Travelers” that not only taught us some basic language but also about what it would be like to be in Italy. We went to Edmonds and listened to lectures by Rick Steves and read all his books on Italy and museums.

In November 2002 we headed to SeaTac to board our flight to Italy. We were on Delta and flew first to Atlanta, changed planes and then took our flight to Milan. By the time we got to Milan we had been awake in airports and on the plane for more than 20 hours. Not being a good flyer and not having the money for anything but the cheapest coach seat, we had not slept a wink on the plane.

When we arrived in Milan it was 7:00 am there. We were exhausted but we had a long way to go. We took a bus to the train station (dragging our bags) and got on the train to Venice. I am sure I could have gone to sleep on the train but by this time I was way to excited. I wanted to see everything out the windows of that train that I possibly could. And to be honest, I was kind of disappointed. I thought Italy would look different. Instead it was kind of gray (the weather) and foggy. The train travelled through some pretty dirty and gross industrial areas. I was not sure exactly what I had expected Italy would be like, but this was NOT it. In the four hours on that train we were just not that impressed.

About an hour before we were scheduled to arrive in Venice, I think we both finally succumbed to our exhaustion and fell asleep. The last thing I remember was going through Padua and it was still rainy, gloomy and commercial-looking—disappointing.

We woke up as the train began to slow coming into Santa Lucia station in Venice. In fact I am pretty sure that we were already under the cover of the station itself when I became fully aware that we had arrived. I couldn’t see what the weather looked like, so I assumed it was gray and gloomy just like the rest of the trip. We disembarked with our luggage and made our way to the outside of the station where it happened. We fell in love with travel. The first thing we saw when we came out into the glorious sunshine is the photo at the top of this post. I can still remember that moment like it was yesterday and I am pretty sure I shed a tear because it was so beautiful. I actually still do whenever I think of this story. The rest of that trip was magical. We saw Venice, Florence, Sicily and Rome before we headed home and loved it all.

So that’s how we fell in love with travel. We loved that trip so much we went to England, Scotland and France the next year, took a Panama Canal cruise the year after that and the rest as they say, is history. Since then we have traveled to forty-one countries, thirty-one states and six Canadian provinces. We have done land trips and cruises that put us on five continents and we have loved each and every (well almost but you forget the bad stuff) moment of it. We have met the most amazing people. We have friends in so many places and we can’t wait to go to more places and meet more wonderful people.

BTW: Hemingway said it right below. I can’t imagine having done all this alone without the person I love most.

Never go on trips with anyone you do not love. —Ernest Hemingway