Daily Dose of Europe: My Dinner with Franklin

I’m thinking of my friends in northern Italy, including Franklin — a local gourmand who loves to take me to dinner while I’m in Verona. Join Franklin and me for two Italian specialties: a memorable feast…and great conversation.

Europe is effectively off-limits to American travelers for the time being. But travel dreams are immune to any virus. And, while many of us are stuck at home, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis.

I love the way Italians enjoy their food. I’m sitting down for a meal with Franklin 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.

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 in life, 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.”

Franklin’s phone rings. It’s his wife, who says, “Don’t eat too much cheese or dessert.” Franklin, who’s not thin, surveys our table and sadly contemplates enjoying the enticing parade of food that has just begun with anything less than complete abandon. Then he sighs and tells me, “Many people live their entire lives and they do not have this experience.”

I say, “That is a pity.”

“Yes. It’s like a man being born and being surrounded by beautiful women and never making love.”

As we eat and drink, Franklin opens up about his passion for good eating. He says, “In Italy, you don’t need to be high class to appreciate high culture, opera, cuisine. It’s the only culture I know like this. Here in my country, a heart surgeon talks with a carpenter about cuisine. This is just how we are.”

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.”

As guides tend to do, especially after a little wine, Franklin mixes culture, history, and politics in with his commentary on cuisine. I find myself scribbling notes on the paper tablecloth.

Franklin is frustrated with how Italy’s north subsidizes the south. He complains that the south is “corrupt, inefficient, lazy, no organization.”

I remind him, “They say that here in the north — in regions like Veneto and Lombardi — you are like the Germans of Italy.”

He says, “Even today, the south still has its organized crime. When fascism came to Italy, the Camorra went to the USA. Mussolini had zero tolerance. And he got things done. That’s one reason why he was popular. And one reason why Mussolini is still popular. Then, after World War II, rather than tolerate communism, the government allowed the Camorra to reestablish itself in Italy.”

I ask him if he enjoyed The Godfather.

“I watched The Godfather with a certain pride because of the importance of food in that movie. Especially the scenes with tomatoes. Marlon Brando watched tomatoes ripen. When he said something like, ‘Become red, you bastards,’ to the yellow tomatoes, that took me back to Sicily and the home of my father.”

Our conversation drifts to how modern societies mirror their ancient predecessors…or don’t. Comparing the historic continuity between the ancient and modern civilizations of Rome, Greece, and Egypt, we agree that the biggest difference is in Egypt, a relatively ramshackle society today that feels a far cry from the grandiosity of the pharaohs and pyramids. Greece, which wrote the ancient book on aesthetics, developed an unfortunate appetite in modern times for poorly planned concrete sprawl. But Rome has the most continuity. Today’s Romans, like their ancient ancestors, are still passionate about wine, food, and the conviviality offered by the public square. The piazza and good eating — in Italy those go back to Caesar.

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 recalls that on our last visit, we sat at the same table. He serves thousands of people. I’m always impressed by people who care enough to remember their clients. It’s the same in hotels. I don’t remember which room I slept in last time, but often the proprietor greets me saying, “I put you in your room…number 510.”

On my visit to Milan three years ago, I got a haircut. I remember really enjoying my barber. I needed a haircut on this trip, too, so when I was in Milan, I walked vaguely in the direction where I thought his shop was. Not sure whether I’d found the right place, I popped in on a barber. It seemed like the one, but I really didn’t know. Ten minutes into my haircut, the barber — having gotten to know my hair — realized he remembered it and asked me if I hadn’t been there before. He had a tactile memory not of me as a person…but as a head of hair he had cut that happened to be mine.

Giuliano asks if I’d like anything else.

I ask, “Dov’è il letto?”  (“Where is a 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 indimenticabale. That’s an Italian word I’m thankful is well-used in my tiny vocabulary: unforgettable.

(These daily stories are excerpted from my upcoming book,  For the Love of Europe — collecting  100  of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel, coming out in July.  It’s available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit Rick Steves Classroom Europe and search for Verona.)