An atypical lunch on the roads of rural Tuscany makes for an interesting detour…
If there is one thing my travels have taught me, it is that the best moments are the unplanned, unscripted adventures we take; these moments define our memories. My earliest recollections of travel were in our white Ford. We would drive for days to campgrounds in Yellow Stone, Yosemite Park, and the Grand Canyon. My dad was given the nickname Freeway Fraese, for whenever we took a trip, the car would be packed by 5am sharp and we would be on the road within a quarter of an hour. There was never a dull moment in our adventures. On one occasion, while staying in Yellow Stone Park, we were startled from our sleep when we noticed a full sized Buffalo sleeping on our tent. These were the moments we lived for. However, as my sister and I grew older, our passions for travel began to change. After a whirlwind European tour, travel abroad seemed much more appealing than the camping trips we had so loved. From that moment on, our adventures in the wilderness were put on hold, but we never lost our desire for adventure.
We had not taken a family vacation since I had left for University. Our destination was Italy, beginning in the bustling city of Rome, then on to the shopping centre of Florence, and finally, ending with a road trip through the Tuscan countryside. The trip was planned to perfection – except for one minor glitch. It had been years since our last road trip and my sister and I were not exactly enthused. For the last few years we had been blessed with modes of travel that allowed us a decent amount of legroom. The thought of sitting for hours in the crowded back seat of a car did not, at first thought, seem enjoyable. Sure enough, the car was tight. Yet the moment we entered the Tuscan countryside, the thought of the inconvenient baggage was the furthest from our minds. Never have I seen such a lush landscape, full of brilliant colours, smells, and picturesque architecture.
About two hours into our drive, we began to feel our stomachs rumbling. We set out for a place to rest and have lunch. The road was desolate but for the beauty of the landscape. Off in the distance my Father could see a house. Being the adventurer in the family, my Father turned the car into the drive and came to a full stop. There were no people in sight, only a white plastic table and one chair. My sister and I, while giggling and screaming in the back begged, “Daddy, stop! This is not a place to eat. This is someone’s home. Please get back on the road!” He insisted on getting out and as he did, the doors on the side of the house began to open. A small old man hobbled out. The man spoke in Italian and my father, getting a little nervous, resorted to the only language he had any experience with, French. “Un café… sir?”, holding his hands up as if to sip a cup. The man nodded in understanding and retreated into the house. We piled out of the car and went to stand around the table. When the man came back with the café, my father made a gesture for food, bringing his hand to his mouth as though he were holding a fork. “Eat?” The man shook his head. My sister and I were mortified. We shamefully put our heads in our hands, praying for this awkward interaction to end. Suddenly a woman with short dark hair emerged wearing an apron. My Father gestured again and she nodded, pointing towards a drive a few feet up. My mother smiled and said, “Grazie! Girls it’s fine. This is a restaurant. It’s around the front. Don’t Worry!”
We were still skeptical. Yet sure enough, the place was full of dining tables. It deeply resembled a canteen, but with beautiful wooden tables and memorabilia on the walls. As we slowly took in our odd surroundings, we heard the banging of car doors and the bustle of feet. Before we knew what was happening, the doors of the restaurant were flying open and customers were rushing in. We were ushered to a table with a sign saying ‘Riservato.’ No sooner were we in our seats did the place reach its capacity, the many rows of tables filling as fast as we could blink. It suddenly dawned on us that the customers were all male and in working uniforms. They were all road workers! Clearly a family run place, it was the spot to be on a Thursday afternoon. Within minutes, piles of food were being brought to the tables. The hungry men dug in and we could not hear ourselves think over the bustle of the room. It had been fifteen minutes of awe when we heard the waitress approach the table. We all burst into laughter. What had we gotten ourselves into?
She did not speak English and we did not speak Italian. It was your classic lost-in-translation moment. After minutes of struggling to order, my Mother threw up her hands and gestured for the woman to choose. She came back in a flash with two jugs of wine and was gone again as quick as she had come. She then returned with a large bowl of pasta and it was the best pasta I had ever had. A simple bolognaise, it hit the spot and had flavours I never could have anticipated. Before we could finish, the woman was back with a plate of sausages! We were so full already, but we ate them anyway, surrounded by laughter, smiling faces, food on every inch of the tables, and endless jugs of wine amidst people who all seemed to know each other. We even saw one elderly man given a steak the size of his face, which he proceeded to finish in five minutes.
Our meal coming to a close, the little old man from before approached our table. He seemed to be the owner and he carried with him a bottle of Limoncello. He poured us four shots and smiled. Although we could not speak to him, the smiles we exchanged were a mute conversation: him saying thank you for coming, us saying thank you for this amazing experience. When we got to the door, the owner smiled again and kissed us all on the cheek. He then shook our hands and we left, but not before half the restaurant shook our hands as well. We had given them a show, but they had given us the best meal and experience on our trip. We could not have asked for a more authentic Italian restaurant. As we got back in the car and we drove off, my mother said, “You’ll never guess, but that was the cheapest meal we have had. And it was by far the best. Kurt, you better remember this place. We are coming back on our winery trip with the couples!” Oh, Mother!
Images by Kathleen Fraese