THE WRONG TURN
by Hal Trussell
Sometimes making the wrong turn can be the best part of a trip, and on this dark moonless night last October, I had made several.
Now, somewhere in the hills of Tuscany, several miles from the medieval-walled city of Lucca, I found myself completely lost on a narrow winding mountain road.
Remarkably, my little Italian cell phone worked perfectly in these mountains, and the hotel manager, in heavily accented English, patiently talked me down the mountain road, to a little village and a bridge, where — for the third time tonight — he once again guided me across the bridge, up the impossibly dark and narrow side road, then turning left and right onto different narrow farm roads.
Again I wound higher and higher, and suddenly — on a 180 degree bend in the road — there it was: a small sign next to a steep driveway, Villa Volpi Hotel.
My tires crunched on the gravel as I edged up the drive, and there, standing in the light of the doorway, was Giancarlo, the manager, cell phone in hand, smile on his face.
As I happily jumped out of the car, his smile broadened, obviously humored by the incredible incompetence of the American at following directions. He showed me to my room. The overhead rough hewn beams were delightful, and fragrant countryside air floated through the open window.
It had been a long drive from Florence, made all the longer by my numerous wrong turns. I glanced at my watch, it was nearly nine. I sighed and asked if there were a restaurant back in one of those little mountain villages where I might get a bite to eat.
He shook his head, sadly. No, there was not a single restaurant among the villages. If I wished to eat, however, he suggested there was probably a table available at the Villa Volpi Restaurant.
“There’s a restaurant here?” I was startled; it hadn’t been on their website.
As my aversion to hotel restaurants began to creep up my spine, Giancarlo gestured out across the courtyard toward another separate building. “It is also called Villa Volpi, but it is not connected to the hotel.”
“Is it good?” I blurted, my blunt American style carelessly displayed on my sleeve. He gave one of those indifferent shrugs of the shoulder; a clear answer to anyone who can read Italian body language, that indeed the food was very good.
Inside the restaurant, the lighting was low; I blinked my eyes, trying to adjust. A waiter appeared and asked me something in Italian. I gathered it had to do with whether I wanted to eat. “Si,” I acknowledged, and was shown to a table.
I looked around. The restaurant was divided into two intimate rooms. Soft amber light pooled onto yellow tablecloths. A wrought-iron staircase wound its way toward a second floor. The walls were that same stone as the outside. Of the ten or so tables downstairs, six were taken.
A waitress came from the kitchen. She handed me a small menu, and in perfect English she said could help if I needed. I smiled and nodded appreciatively. The waiter re-appeared with a basket which he put on my table, as the waitress explained it was a specialty appetizer, she searched her vocabulary, a fried pasta.
Beneath the napkin were puffed delicacies about the size of ravioli squares, salted, and indeed delicious. The two waiters watched as I took a taste, the smiles on their faces clear indicators that I was very probably in for a most unique culinary experience.
When traveling in the countryside of Europe, I have learned to entrust myself to the suggestions of the staff, and let the meal unfold. My only guide to them was that I would like something typical of the area, and I would be grateful if they would choose the wine for me.
A distinguished older gentleman wearing bifocals came to my table and offered his suggestion for wine with my meal, explaining in slow Italian, that it was grown and bottled locally. His name was Piero, and I would later learn he was the owner of the restaurant. Gladly I accepted his recommendation, and indeed it was lovely: dry, Chianti-like; yet unexpectedly smooth.
Next was the primo plati. A gnocchi. Outstanding. I could have easily stopped there, but the secondo was next; and then of course there would be desert.
The secondo entre was extraordinary. As the waitress set it in front of me, she explained it was a farmer’s special meal, typical of the Lucca countryside: fried pieces of delicate rabbit meat and white chicken meat, in a light but crunchy breading. It was heavenly, and after my third glass of wine, I was unable to distinguish which was rabbit and which was chicken.
Dessert was visually spectacular: vanilla custard with a brûlée crisped top, drizzled with melted chocolate and a hint of mint.
By now I was in love with everything about this restaurant, and being their last customer of the evening, I had the opportunity to visit with the family owners and the staff. Villa Volpi Ristorante is entirely a family affair; they call it a brigatta. Piero with the bifocals is the owner and manager of finances. His wife, Enrica, coordinates all the activities in the kitchen, while their children Stefano and Sylvia are waiters. Dear friends, Sara and Emilietta, are the chefs. A real Italian system.
The next day, I spent the entire morning exploring the spectacularly beautiful countryside. There were virtually no other cars, and parking on the shoulder of the narrow winding roads was not a problem. Unlike my native Texas, there were no fences. Just rolling hillside orchards of olives, and rows of local grape vines.
I walked among them photographing wildflowers that grew in the sun. In a shady glade a magnificent portabella grew. I wondered whether it would end up on some restaurant’s menu tonight, or perhaps on the farmer’s table.
I drove the half hour down the hill to the walled city of Lucca, and spent the afternoon walking around this marvelously preserved city. Later, I found a place to rent tourist bicycles and joined the many who were exploring by bike.
The top of the massive, 60-foot thick wall surrounding the city is now a major pedestrian promenade. At twilight I bicycled on top, along side young and elderly residents alike, joggers, and whole families on bicycles, all of us enjoying the rose-red sunset and the peacefulness of the twelve hundred year old fortress.
Slowly the city was engulfed in evening’s darkness as I returned to my car. Familiar now with the hidden twists of turns of the mountain roads, I aimed my tiny Fiat back up into the hills. Yes, Lucca was lovely, but I was not going to miss an opportunity for another remarkable dinner at Restaurant Villa Volpi.
Sometimes wrong turns do lead to the right places.