VERBANIA, Italy ― Serendipity and a chance encounter on my recent trip to this Mediterranean country led me to the very best lunch I’ve ever eaten ― anywhere.
It began back in September as I sat exhausted on a stone garden bench at Villa Della Porta Bozzolo in Casalzuigno in Northern Italy.
Eight days into a 10-day tour of Italian gardens and villas and all the travel had finally caught up to me. I took a break from my tour and sat outside with Anna Maria Massimi, who was guiding another group traveling with us.
We talked about relationships and traveling, and then I mentioned my love of cheese and dried meats and how the night before a group of friends shared both on my balcony overlooking Lake Maggiore.
Anna Maria smiled and offered to take me to her old friend Eros Buratti’s shop in Verbania, which specializes in meats and cheeses.
The next day she encouraged me to invite a few people from my bus and hers. There was room for only 15, so I asked for volunteers. Seven lucky people joined me on the short walk to Eros’ meat and cheese shop and four from her bus.
Walking through the front door was like entering another world. Giant prosciutto hams hung in the doorway leading to a counter jammed with customers, and it was loud, really loud. Eros yelled orders and went back and forth with his loyal customers, making sure they were happy. As I walked past him, he smiled, said something in Italian and handed me a slice of meat. I shared it with two friends; it melted in my mouth.
Eros greeted Anna Maria saying, “The most beautiful woman in Italy, where have you been?” She hadn’t visited in a year. It felt special to be included, and everyone in our group was thrilled at what was going on around us.
A long board with 10 types of cured meats elicits a collective gasp from diners at Eros Buratti’s shop in Verbania, Italy. (TNS)
Above the counter were more cured meats and an unbelievable amount of cheeses in the case. I’d never heard of most of them. At the end of the counter, Eros’ mother helped move the customers along.
It was sensory overload, small tables squeezed into every corner, waiters and waitresses hurriedly walked past trying to keep up with the demand for food. We sat together at a long table.
To tide us over, Anna Maria brought over a large dried sausage. Joseph DiLuccia of Bangor, Pennsylvania, who lived in Italy until he was 14, was charged with cutting the meat. As he cut thin slices, we started eating the homemade bread sticks and fresh, hard-crusted white bread.
Two types of olive oils were deep green and exploded with flavor ― one had a kick to it. A drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar worked as a perfect foil, and the guests soaked up the concoction with the breads. It was already a magical lunch, and that’s before we were served most of Eros’ specialties.
Just about the time the sausage was going around the table, two bottles of wine were served, one white and one red. When those were emptied, two more appeared.
What we had in front of us would have been enough. The sausage had a soft, fatty texture and finished with a hint of hot pepper, the breads each offered a different texture and flavor, the oil was heavenly, and the balsamic tied everything together.
There was a collective gasp as one of Eros’ employees carried out a long board filled with 10 types of cured meats and set it down in front of us: a local specialty called speck along with prosciutto, venison and other offerings that looked like bacon and tasted like heaven.
Then he returned with a board just as long filled with cheese. There was runny gorgonzola, a hard variety, baked ricotta, a goat cheese filled with pistachios and more. The feast began.
Each bite offered a different flavor and texture, and we all ate until we couldn’t eat any more.
Italians expect the best, whether it’s in gardens, art and certainly when it comes to food. That day I was lucky enough to experience the most amazing lunch I’ve ever had. Walking back to the bus in a euphoric afterglow, I saw one of my fellow diners. We were trying to play it down so the folks who didn’t come wouldn’t feel so bad, but there was no holding back.
Spontaneously she hugged me tightly and laughed hard because we both knew it was the best meal we’d ever had and might ever have.
By Doug Oster
(Tribune Content Agency)