This week was made up of a few “firsts” for me. I had my first bottle of wine… as in this was the first time I single-handedly polished off a whole bottle in one night. I might suggest they add a cautionary label to the wine here that says Warning: cruelly delicious enough to inspire accidental overconsumption. Also this week, I experienced my first earthquake. Though it was a mere 3.4 on the richter scale, the three second vibration through the apartment was my first exposure to seismic activity of any kind. And, on Saturday, I participated in my first true Italian feast… all five hours and six courses of it. Since the first two of these firsts will hopefully also be lasts, I will use this post to elaborate on the third, which I hope is only one of many to come…
With nine teams in Kevin’s league, it works out that each one has a Saturday off every fifth week. These few weekends are a blessing in the schedule, not just for the players (like Kevin), but also for their respective traveling companions (like me!). Two days off means a weekend getaway in Europe. Florence, Pisa, Le Cinque Terre, Venice, Nice, Monte Carlo… the possibilities are endless. Needless to say, when an autograph signing for the team was scheduled for Saturday afternoon, I was disappointed. Rather than lounging at a Bellagio trattoria eating Apertivi and admiring the view of Lake Como, we would be in an electronics shop in nearby Saluzzo. Have a good weekend without me in Como, George Clooney! Maybe I’ll catch up with you in five weeks, and you can buy me one of those Italian coffee machines that you rave about to Americans… Americans who, by the way, would probably scowl at you for even trying to market such a small serving of their sacred morning brew if you weren’t voted the World’s Sexiest Man every year for the past decade. Phew… I got THAT out of my system. THAT just about sums up my initial reaction to the news of our weekend getaway being plucked mercilessly from our agendas.
Luckily, my disappointment was short-lived.
Perhaps to increase the appeal of participation in the autograph session, a team meal was scheduled for the end of the event. So, at 7:30, along with the generous Valpe owners and their families, the players and their wives boarded the team bus and headed to Cuneo for dinner. I will be the first to admit that I was a touch critic. Even considering Friday’s beautiful hike through the Valpe Alps and memorable evening at Cele with the Valpe crew, I was still not convinced that any dinner could top-off a weekend more fulfilling one than the one we had originally planned elsewhere. But I should know by now… any time I do anything here, I should just expect the unexpected and unbelievable.
Sure enough, an hour after leaving Saluzzo, we arrived at a beautiful restaurant perched atop a steep hill. Inside and out, the dining venue maintained an appealing balance between rustic and modern. The lacquered, rich brown wood of the U-shaped bar in the main room was accented by the exposed beams extending from the high ceilings. Warm yellow lighting complimented the maroons and oranges that are so characteristic of Italian décor. Ivory damask linens on the tables were adorned with understatedly elegant china. After years of watching HGTV, I finally understand what designers mean when they say they are bringing Italian inspiration to a room.
The waiter led us to a large dining space extending to the left of bar area. A DJ was situated at the intersection of the two rooms. All 40 of us were seated at the lavish tables and, without adieu, were served our first antipasti of the evening. I know I am doing this italian delicacy a disservice when I say that it was simply a thin, raw filet of meat covered with a balsamic sauce. Yes. Raw. And yes. Delicious.
When the first plates were cleared, we all ate our share of fresh breads and sipped on Nebbiolo D’Alba wine. Surrounded by good company, everyone relaxed under the influence of Italian culture. The DJ, getting a feel for the vibe of the dinner experimented with an array of different music. Bryan Adams, classic rock ballads, a few Italian classics, and, of course, Michael Jackson.
The second antipasti arrived. Roast beef with a mayonnaise-based sauce and sautéed mushrooms. Sensing the growing enthusiasm of the crowd, the DJ worked a little dance music into the rotation. A few guests took the bait, leaving their seats to dance in the space available in front of the DJ. The team owners and their young children, accompanied of course by the team’s notorious dancer.
By the time the roast beef dishes were cleared away, the DJ was gaining confidence. The crowd was cheering on his song choices and singing along to Billie Jean. And then something amazing happened. A few stanzas into the next song, I recognized familiar chords. I looked around at several of the players to see if what I thought to be true was actually happening. And, oh yes, from the expressions on their faces, it definitely was…
Flash back to the previous night. Along with several of the players, we were out at Cele, the only bar in the Valpellice region that just so happens to be around the corner from our apartment. There, much to my amusement, Kevin found himself dancing on the bar to uphold his end of a losing bet. In his defense, it was a really safe bet. After all, we are in an extremely small town in northern Italy. What were the odds that the DJ would randomly play Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A? This is why I’m not a gambler.
Back to the Cuneo restaurant, where the freshly placed dishes of potato, green bean, and pan-seared squid sat before us. That’s when we heard it… the unmistakable opening to Springsteen’s ballad. Everyone who witnessed Kevin’s performance the night before started laughing… and they wanted an encore. The group started clapping along to the beat, chanting my husband’s name harmoniously. (It still feels weird to say husband.) The rest of the crowd joined in. Kevin, though not characteristically a solo dancer, is also not one to let down his teammates. And so, he took out his air guitar, headed to the front of the room, and paid homage to his birth country. Fumbling for an appropriate description of his routine, it will suffice to say that he did Bruce proud.
And so, the night continued. Our primi dish of creamy mushroom risotto arrived. This technically translates to first plate though we were technically three appetizers into the meal. It was followed up with the secondi which was, as it is traditionally, a meat dish. This time it was slivers of grilled meat that were so tender that my mouth waters just thinking about them. As I ate plate after plate, I kept waiting for my pituitary gland to make the signal that I was stuffed. But, it never came. Throughout the entire meal, the longest one of my life, I was completely satisfied and comfortable. I suppose that’s the secret… petite portions served over an extended time period. What’s the big rush anyway?
As the empty bottles of Nebbiolo collected at the center of the tables, more dancing commenced with more and more contributors until a full-out disco exploded in the center of the room. From 5-year olds to 45 year-olds and 25-year olds that act like 5-year olds, every one was dancing to everything from bad wedding music to Shakira and Grease. Yes, the YMCA made the playlist. This is humorous to me seeing as Italians don’t have a “y” in their alphabet.
In case the first five courses weren’t enough to solidify this dinner as the best one of my life, the dessert sealed the deal. A sliver of thick nocciola mousse, full of nuts and slathered in creamy hot chocolate sauce.
Before boarding the bus, glasses of genepy were distributed from the bar. Genepy is an Italian after-dinner drink that supposedly aids in digestion and has an alcohol content that would probably be illegal in the U.S. Although I’m not yet able to non-chalantly sip the drink from it’s little cup, I agree that it is far more tolerable than Jim Beam, my dad’s substitute for the concoction. It’s sweet, herbal, and to follow it with a chaser would be a crime.
Several times prior to the weekend, I wondered what I would be missing from the Como weekend that never was. But on Friday, as Kevin and I hiked above the clouds in one of the jagged mountains in Valpellice, I was undeniably content. And, on Saturday night, I never thought twice about where we should be or who we should be with. No offense, George. The best part is, I don’t think anyone else did either. Despite all worries about the sacrificing one of the few full weekends off, this one evolved into one that will be amongst my favorites from Italy.
|Hiking in the Valpe Alps 1700m up|