The burn in my throat was overpowering. As the lemony, dry, liquid raced past my esophagus and headed towards my stomach I could feel my three-course, homemade, Italian meal race around looking for a place to hide. When the fluid hit my stomach my brain went into overdrive sending a distress signal from my tear ducts to the far reaches of my toes. My neck hairs were at attention. My right hand squeezed the recently emptied shot glass with the power of a vice grip hand tool as my last few puffs of air passed over my vocal chords and released a whisper of an alarm. “Lets get out of here!”, I gasped.
It was just shy of 2 hours ago when I was wandering about on the twisted, utterly deserted, cobblestone streets of Castel del Monte, a small hill town plopped smack in the middle of the Apennine Mountains in Italy’s Abruzzo province. My watch read 1pm. Danielle, my travel partner, and I had just finished an interesting discussion with a modern day Shepard about 9-11 and the aftermath. As he herded his flock through one of the great Apennine valleys, majestic granite mountains rising up around us on all sides, he spoke in rapid Italian about the devastation, TV images and US policy. We followed his words as best we could before we bid him arrivederci and set off to the lonesome Castel del Monte to find some food. We had been walking around the town for about a half of an hour and we hadn’t seen anyone except a nana feeding her three cats scraps from her last meal. Finally we turned a bend and saw a thicker more modern road that seemed to sit at the bottom of the hill town. Crossing the road we saw a line of shops and bars that seemed to have a few locals lingering around. Still desolate we stepped into a bar and asked the bartender if he knew of an open restaurant where we could get some lunch. He replied by telling us this was a bar and not a restaurant and that he was out of “bar food”. Bar Food usually refers to small pizzas and some Panini sandwiches. We must have fouled up the words in our translation so we referenced our English to Italian dictionary and tried again. This time we had more of a short conversation and a lot of hand gesturing. In the end the man hung his body over the counter and yelled out into the street, “FABIO!!!!”. A few seconds later a young man, no older than 15, ran in from the street. The two exchanged words and then the boy ran off in one direction and the bartender motioned for us to follow him to the back of the bar. He led us through a door to a grand set of stairs. We climbed 2 stories and found ourselves standing in a hallway with three ornately decorated doors. Two were shut but the third one was ajar. The man pushed the door open revealing a huge dining room containing 10-12 tables, all set for patrons. There was no one else in the room. He motioned for us to choose a seat and then disappeared out of the room and through one of the other closed doors.
We slide into a seat near the window and took stock of the many pictures of mountain peaks displayed on the walls. The furnishings were a hodgepodge of tables and chairs with mismatched linens and distressed, old silverware. Before we could fully settle in, the bartender returned. His hands were wrapped around his back tying his apron strings as he approached the table. A paper chef’s hat, like the one you would see a soda shop clerk wearing in 1953, adorned his head. He asked us three one word questions which we replied an emphatic yes to all. He then disappeared into the back room once more. Our Italian was poor but we faired pretty well when in restaurants. We usually answered yes to any questions asked because no matter what food hit the table it was bound to be delicious. That is why we had no problem answering his vague and simple questions; Antipasti? Primi? Secondi?
As we sat in silence at the table, still unsure of where we were and what had just happened in the bar, an eruption of clanging metal broke out from beyond the mystery door. As we tuned our ears we could make out the voices of the bartender, a women and Fabio, the boy from the street, arguing in Italian as the metal noises rose to a crescendo. The sounds of pots, pans, metal spoons, plates, glasses and trays all banging into each other began to clue us in to what was happening. They were opening this restaurant just for us. Dan and I sat still and silent as the kitchen symphony came to an abrupt end. The bartender reappeared for the third time. This time he arrived at our table with fresh hot bread and soft warm sheep’s milk cheese. The cheese spread onto the bread like hot butter finding its way into every nook of the delicious semolina loaf. The cheese was white and creamy with a mild flavor. Its salty whey dripped off the bread as I brought it to my mouth. The warm cheese and bread combined with a flavor and texture that reminded me of my grandmothers home made cooking. The cheese was so fresh that I imagined the scene in the kitchen, the bartender holding the sheep steady while the faceless chef tugged on an utter that poured the creamy cheese right onto the plate.
As quickly as the bread disappeared the bartender arrived with our pasta course. A bowl of fresh linguine with a simple marina sauce was placed in front of each of us. With out missing a beat the bartender took a grater from his back pocket and a small piece of Parmagino Reggiano from his apron and grated a healthy portion into both bowls. The pasta was literally just cut and the gravy was a spicy smooth mix of what seemed like fresh garden tomatoes and herbs. Of course by this point I was so enthralled by the experience I could have been eating boxed pasta with Ragu and been just as excited.
As we finished the pasta, I performed the ceremonial “bread-around-bowl” wiping tradition to scavenger the last of the sauce. The bartender arrived to remove our plates. With a smile and a “bueno” he nodded as we smiled back. We sat at the table digesting for a good 20 minutes before he appeared again. This time he carried two plates each with a single thin cut veal chop. This was a very Italian dish as we had come to learn. A single chop, grilled with nothing more than salt and pepper, on a plate was an old standby in many Italian restaurants. Nothing accompanied the chop on the plate but the juices that had managed to escape the meat on its journey from the kitchen to the table. Without missing a beat the two of us cut into the fresh, hot chops. It was unexpectedly, mouthwatering for such a simple preparation and thin cut of veal. We made quick work of the chop savoring it down to the very last bite. Unable to help myself I picked up the bone and stripped any remaining meat from it. Glancing over my shoulder to make sure there was no sign of the bartender, I reached for Dan’s bone and did the same. That’s the great thing about eating with Dan, she can put it away but always leaves a bit for me to nibble on.
Satiated we pushed away from the table and simultaneously rubbed our bellies indicating to each other our sheer enjoyment of the meal. We were not sure how we managed to find this secluded, closed restaurant in a town with no one on the streets. Nor were we able to comprehend why the bartender told us he had no food and then brought us upstairs and opened the kitchen. But we were not complaining. The bartender arrived again removing or plates and meatless bones. He returned a few minutes later with a plate of watermelon. It was the perfect compliment to the other three courses we had just devoured. We slurped along from piece to piece smiling and discussing each course more intimately until all the red was gone and just the whitish-green rind was left.
Realizing we had been eating for almost 2 hours Dan and I asked for the check using some butchered Italian coupled with the universal pen-signing motion. Of course this isn’t the type of place you take out the Amex card and sign anything but the bartender got the point. He disappeared into the kitchen and quickly returned with a small white plate that had a tiny piece of paper riding on top of it. As he placed it on the table and went back to the kitchen Dan and I leaned over to get a peak at the check. There were only 5 marks on the entire piece of paper. As Dan and I deciphered the bill, not prepared for such a simple solution, we laughed openly at what was written on the paper. A three, 3 zeros and a euro mark was what this fantastic, overindulgence of a lunch would cost us.
After a brief discussion with Dan, I opened my wallet and place two 20-euro bills on the plate. Dan and I had decided early in the trip that we were going to tip “American style” as we traipsed around Europe. In this particular instance we felt that our host deserved a bit more than even “American Style” tipping. After all, he did open an entire restaurant just for us. The bartender reappeared a few minutes later to collect the plate. We explained with a few gestures that we did not need any change and that the extra money was for him. I could see the excitement build up in his body and squeeze through his neck. Eventually his emotions reached his head erupting in an array of facial gestures that allowed us to comprehend his profound thanks and happiness. He quickly disappeared into the kitchen, his feet barely touching the floor. Dan and I knew that we were being a bit generous but had no idea how the extra 10 euros would effect our new friend.
I heard the door of the kitchen crash open. As I looked up the bartender skidded to a halt at the edge of our table. He fumbled with two tall thin glasses as he placed them on the table. In his left had he grasped a large bottle containing a thin, yellow, liquid. He poured a large shot into each of the glasses emptying the bottle. He motioned to us that he would be right back. He then turned and zoomed back into the kitchen slamming the door into the wall once more. We assumed he had gone to retrieve more of the school bus colored booze.
The overpowering smell of the booze jammed itself up my nostrils. As I looked across the table I could see by Dan’s expression that she was being assaulted in much the same way. I told her I couldn’t do the shot. The scent reminded me of the throat drying moonshine I once had in the Louisiana bayou, only this time with a twist of lemon. I emphasized my decision by explaining that I did not need to see my delicious meal again, especially because the next presentation of it would not be in comfortably timed courses and it would certainly be much more liquid. As disgusted as Dan’s grimace looked she accepted the bartender’s gift and encouraged me to drink it. Not doing so would be an insult to our host she explained. I protested and added that he was on his way back with a fresh bottle from the cellar. If we finished the shots and then he came back we would be forced to drink again. Having not even mentioned my thoughts about driving down the thin mountain roads back to our farmhouse with 3 shots of hi-test lemoncello in my veins I had to find a way out of this restaurant. I decided to cut a deal with Dan. We were to down the shot and then make a break for the door, hopefully clearing the dining room before the bartender gets back with the fresh bottle, and B-line it to the street. She agreed.
My feet were in motion before I even knew my brain had asked them to begin. Dan and I ran through the dining room door, passing the closed kitchen door unscathed by the bartender who was nowhere in sight. We began down the staircase. Spinning around the banister we could see the light poring into the front of the bar from the street. We slowed our speed to not call attention to ourselves as we opened the bar’s front door and stepped back onto the public street. We briskly walked a few storefronts away before we exhaled and looked back to see if the bartender had come after us. He hadn’t. Bursting into laughter Dan and I silently acknowledged the quite unpredictable ending to one of the best meals we had in all of Italy.