When I'm not in Europe, I like to recall my favorite meals on the road. I especially love the way Italians enjoy their food.
I’m sitting down for a meal with a friend at one of my favorite restaurants, Enoteca Can Grande in Verona. Eating in a little restaurant like this one, you have contact with the chef. We were here a year ago and chef Giuliano remembers us. Once we’re comfortably seated, he consults with us. As is our tradition, we encourage him to bring us whatever he’s most excited about today. Pleased with the freedom to dazzle us, he goes to work.
My friend and guide, Franklin, is a local. He knows the cuisine and gushes about the food incessantly. As the courses come and we eat, he shares his thoughts, which are sometimes impolite, but always come from the heart (perhaps with a side trip through the stomach).
With the first of many small plates, Franklin is delighted. “Raw Piedmont beef, carne cruda. It is like seeing the smile of a beautiful woman. Even after 10 years, you never forget her.”
Our wine is Amarone della Valpolicella. Enjoying a sip, I ask, “Sublime is an Italian word, no?”
He says, “Yes, soo-blee-may ... this is sublime.”
Giuliano brings a plate of various cold cuts, glistening in a way that shows they’re nothing but the best. We ponder, if you had to choose between salami and cheese, which would you choose? Giuliano and Franklin both agree that it would be a terrible choice ... but they would have to go with the cheese. Then we nibble the mortadella with truffle, complicating that decision. Mortadella is the local baloney — not a high-end meat. But with the black truffle, it is exquisite. Imagine calling Spam exquisite ... just add truffle.
Franklin says, “I used to smoke, and I compared white wine and red like cigarettes and a good Cuban cigar. I enjoy my red wine like I enjoy my Cuban cigars.” Then he gets distracted by the herb decorating the next little mozzarella dish. After tasting a sprig, he says, “Yes, fresh. It’s normally served dried. The chef is a genius ... fresh, brilliant with mozzarella.”
Next comes the polenta, the best I’ve ever tasted. This cornbread, typical of the Veneto region, comes in varieties, like bread ranges from whole grain to white. This is the darker polenta integrale, using all of the corn. And it comes with anchovies. “A good marriage,” Franklin says. It’s the simple things — the anchovies, the olive oil, the polenta integrale, and the proper matching of flavors — that bring the most joy to the table.
Noticing how Franklin polishes every plate, I say, “You even eat the crumbs.”
He says, “Yes, I would feel like a sinner not to.” Sipping his wine, he adds, “And to not finish the Amarone ... Dante would have to create a new place in hell. Mortal sin.”
Next comes the pumpkin ravioli. I hold the warm and happy tire of my full tummy and say, “Basta.”
Giuliano comes by, sees my empty glass, and realizes we need another bottle. He warns us, “Next I bring you a small cheese course.”
Contemplating the cheese platter, Franklin says, “I’m not so religious, but for this cheese, with Amarone ... I fall on my knees.”
I agree. “In cheese we trust.”
He compliments my economy of words and repeats, “Yes, in cheese we trust.”
“This cheese plate takes dessert to new heights.”
Franklin, playing with the voluptuous little slices, says, “Even if we do not talk, with these cheeses we have a good conversation.”
I support my heavy yet happy head with my hand as Franklin fills our glasses from the second bottle and we move on to the parmesan and the gorgonzola. Sipping the wine, Franklin says, “If this was my only wine, I could be monogamous.”
When Giuliano stops by again, I compliment him. He asks if I’d like anything else.
I ask, “Dov’è il letto?” (“Where is the bed?”)
Franklin agrees and says, “Yes, a good restaurant should come with a bed.” It occurs to me that we must have tasted 30 different ingredients — all of them top quality and in harmonious combinations. Franklin again marvels at how Giuliano is creative and unpredictable without using garish combinations — no gorgonzola ice cream.
I have a feeling Giuliano will remember my table the next time I drop in. And I’ll remember to invite my friend Franklin. Year after year, the experience is reliably indimenticabile. That’s an Italian word I’m thankful is well used in my tiny vocabulary: unforgettable.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his new book, For the Love of Europe. You can email Rick at email@example.com and follow his blog on Facebook.