One of the wives of one of the Valpe players wanted to go visit her old college roommate who happened to be visiting Italy. This college friend was visiting her medical school friend whose boyfriend lives in Milan but grew up in Modena. The Valpe wife with whom I have become friends asked if I wanted to join her on the journey to Modena where we could meet up with the crew. Since I made a vow to spontaneity this year, I graciously accepted her offer. The next morning we set out on the three hour roadtrip to Modena.
Unlike the rest of the travels I’ve partaken in this hockey season, I did not make any plans relating to this one. Usually, given my current employment status, I have happily accepted the responsibility of planning the adventures I’ve gone on in with Kevin or our guests. I have the time, and so I should dedicate my energies towards something that benefits our little family unit. This same reasoning could also apply to why I should uphold all dish-washing duties, but, for my own sanity, I cannot let it cross into that territory. My abundance of free time is erroneous in consideration of standard household chores. Being a travel planner is one thing, being a prototypical 1950’s housewife another. Anyway, like I was saying, usually before setting out on an Italian getaway whether it be for a day or for four, I have an agenda, a few bagged lunches, and I’ve got a pretty detailed map of the area etched into my mind’s eye from several hours of research about our destination. This time, my fellow Valpe wife and I had little more than a GPS navigation system set to the Modena city center and a backpack full of one to three days of clothing for our unknown escapades during the open-ended visit with her old friend. No tentative itinerary, no prerequisite Tripadvisor review reading, and not so much as a glance at my Frommer’s Italy guide book.
Despite our unpreparedness, we met up with her friend and her friend’s friend and her friend’s friend’s boyfriend without any complications. Modena is a small town (and a beautiful one!) so they were able to find our parked, decal-covered, Valpe-mobile without a problem. From that point on, we were under the guidance of the Italian boyfriend. And he turned out to be a spectacular host!
Lunch in a Modena osteria was followed up with a tour of the quaint Italian town (and hometown to the ever-so-delicious Balsamic Vinegar). Then we headed to, yes, the Ferrari Museum, which even for a non-car enthusiast proved to be a worthwhile stop. And, then, as the sun was setting, we were on our way to a little mountain village where the ever-so-gracious host was hoping to meet up with a couple of his friends at a hotel restaurant. As we followed his BMW in our recently snow-tired (thank goodness!) Ford, I marveled at the fluidity of the day’s events. Already I was thinking, I couldn’t have planned it better myself. And, we even had a free and friendly tour guide in our group!
After an hour of navigating through snowy mountainside switchbacks, we arrived at the Albergo-Ristorante. We were shown to our comfortable rooms and ushered downstairs for the entirely homemade meal. The innkeeper was the fifth generation owner of the establishment. With his mother and father still helping out in the kitchen and his own two daughters playing happily in a TV room adjacent to the dining area, at least three generations of the family were part of the operation.
Upon being seated, we were introduced to our host’s friend, the friend’s fiancé, and the friend’s father. With the exception of the father, all of the dinner guests spoke English. Our host’s friend had been visiting the little family-run restaurant since he was a child himself. He explained that we would be having a typical Italian meal in the sense of the numerous courses and a not so typical Italian meal in the sense that everything was homemade at the hotel from the ravioli shells to the sauces and the breads. The meal commenced with a delicious cheese and spinach tortellini, the pasta so soft that it nearly melted in my mouth. None of the subsequent plates lacked in the deliciousness of the first…
A meat and cheese lasagna, a ravioli soup, chicken in a rich and creamy truffle* sauce, tender flanks of steak with roasted potatoes, and an assortment of desserts. Cheese and wines throughout the feast were all local commodities, and were incorporated into the dinner sequence at appropriate times. A sweet wine to start with the pasta dishes, followed up by a richer, more “oaky” Chianti, and finished off with a selection of grappa, limoncello and other local digestivi drinks. A very sweet parmesan-like cheese that’s indigenous to the region was served in cubes at the end of the meal. Bagna e asciuga, bagna e asciuga explained the Italian-speaking father who sat to my right as he pointed from the wine to the cheese. Wet (wine) and dry (cheese). According to his son, who is also apparently a food and wine connoisseur, the cheese is provided to help finish of the wine. Ideally, you would alternate between a bite of cheese and a sip of wine and both would be gone at the same time.
Throughout the meal, I talked a lot with the host’s friend and his fiancé who are currently living in Brussels. With her being Latvian and his being Italian, English is the second language for both of them. And, as only language they have in common, it is the one they use to communicate with one another. Their English was superb, but even still, it was impressive that they maintained a relationship when they both speak outside their native tongue. I learned a lot from these conversations and was impressed by how well traveled the couple was. He had seen more of the U.S. than I have in addition to the larger portion of Europe. I am beginning to think that traveling is more of a priority for Europeans than Americans. Of course, the at least six weeks of vacation built into their work schedules versus our two might play a role in this discrepancy.
By the end of the night, all of us were pleasantly full and consequently tired. We fell asleep almost immediately upon returning to our modest yet cozy chambers.
After our breakfast the next morning, I shuddered at the thought of our checking out. The meal we had eaten the night before was of the same, if not better, quality as the 80 Euro team dinner we’d been gifted had at the beginning of the season. That, in addition to a room charge would probably wipe me out of my 110 Euro in available funds. Dining and ditching is not in my biological make-up, nor would it be possible in the company of so many new acquaintances whose connections to the hotel managers were strong. How do you say embarrassing in Italian? Thankfully, and surprisingly, the total for full board, meal and room with breakfast included, came out to only 45 Euro a person! It makes sense why Modena residents make the hour long uphill trek to eat there! At that price and for that quality, it would be worth it for people from my neck of the woods to drive four hours there for dinner!
Relieved that I would have enough dough for another mini excursion, we all headed to Bologna. It was wonderful to spend yet another day under the guidance of someone that was familiar with the area. He offered interesting facts about the city as we walked through its streets, stopping at all important landmarks in our path. He knew where to go for window shopping and brought us to the best aperitivi spot I have been to in Italy up to this point. With a glass of wine, we were given our choice of any and all of at least ten delectable appetizers. When the sky was dark and we were ready to leave, he brought us up to a church, the road to which was lined with an illuminated covered archway. It was beautiful, and a perfect way to finish off the evening.
On our drive back to Torre, I thought about the randomness of my two days of travel in central Italy. I thought back to the dinner I shared with the friends of a boyfriend of a friend of a friend of my friend in practically the middle of nowhere in this foreign country. Then it made me wonder if it was really random at all. How the world is so intricately connected and how two people can cross paths in life in the most unexpected places through such unexpected connections. And how, when that happens, yet another life experience is logged in the diaries of my life. I can’t help but wonder, over the course of a lifetime’s worth of recorded experiences, how many people have an entry in theirs that matches one from my own? Though philosophically-oriented, that question is simply a digression of curiosity. Triggered, of course, by the fact that a spontaneous trip to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy led to amazing food, friendly new acquaintances, and another memorable Italian adventure.
*I once considered making the trip to Alba for its annual truffle festival in the hopes of finding chocolates. Though it would have proven an educational escapade, I probably would have been disappointed to find that chocolate was not the focus of the event. And far from it. Truffles, or Tartufi, aren’t candies. Rather, they are perhaps the most sought after and expensive mushrooms in the world. The White Truffle, which is especially popular for use in high-end cuisine, grows in the Piedmonte region of Italy. And here’s an interesting fact: they use dogs to sniff out the underground fungi when it’s time for them to be harvested! And though truffles weren’t what I thought they were, I now know they are actually quite delicious in a cream sauce poured over chicken.
|The final of three primi dishes at the albergo-ristorante|
|On the drive down from the albergo|
|A Piazza in Bologna|
|Another Piazza in Bologna|
|The view from a hole in the wall of a Bologna street. They call it "Little Venice"; you can see why.|
|A fountain in Bologna|
|Blurry shot, but the illuminate church at the top of the hill.|
|Archway leading up to the church|
|Another shot of the archway on the way up....|