Oftentimes the highlight of a vacation is predetermined. When I went to Chicago, I knew in advance that seeing a baseball game at Wrigley Field was going to be the centerpiece of the weekend. And being a big fan of Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, I had a strong feeling that the medina in Marrakesh was going to be one of the highlights of my trip to Morocco. But sometimes one of the high points is an event that is not only unplanned but totally unexpected. Such was the case on a sojourn to the Italian Riviera. After an early morning arrival at Nice Airport, we decided to cross the border into Italy for lunch. While driving on the road from San Remo to Santo Steffano al Mare, jet leg kicked in and I made a wrong turn away from the coast. Instead of making a U-turn to correct my mistake, I decided to forge ahead in hopes of finding a country inn where we could get a modest but enjoyable lunch. As we continued northward on the SS548, the road became narrower and the amount of roadside buildings dwindled. “This is Italy, there’s always some local trattoria just around the corner,” I confidently stated. But with each twist and turn of the road my party became more & more impatient with me and we all began to wonder if our first meal in Italy would be a bust. “Where the heck are we?” we all wondered. Just as I was about to give in to their pleas and backtrack towards the coast, the perched Ligurian village of Badalucco suddenly loomed in front of us.
The large parking lot on the edge of town was an encouraging sign. As we walked into town we spied Ristorante Il Ponte just on the other side of Ponte St. Lucia, a picturesque medieval humped-back bridge. Hoping it wasn’t a mirage; we crossed the Argentina River and headed toward the restaurant, where we were greeted by the proprietor. After inquiring about the possibility of having lunch, he explained that because it was Sunday there was no menu, just a fixed meal for the day, and beckoned us to come inside. After having breakfast on the plane at some godforsaken hour, we were now desperate for food and were willing to accept whatever they were cooking that day, so we took a seat in the restaurant totally unaware of what was to come.
We started with not your run-of-the-mill antipasto of cheese and cured meats, but with a platter of seven delectable appetizers. Not for the entire table, but one platter for each of us. This was followed by a pasta course. Foolishly, we thought that was our meal. But it continued with a roasted meat course. Then a second meat course. Then a selection of desserts and espresso. And of course there was wine. No idea about the grape or the vineyard, but the house red, which the proprietor simply described as “vino locale”, was a perfect accompaniment to the food. I can’t tell you the specifics of each course as it was a two-hour blur of continuous food and wine. But I can tell you this: We entered the town of Badalucco tired, hungry & irritable, but by the end of the meal we were not just content but elated. Not just about finally finding a place to eat, but finding a restaurant that had fantastic food, wonderful wine, great service and a quaint and enjoyable atmosphere where we were treated like family. No menu. No wine list. No choices. No decisions! Just whatever local specialties they were serving that day. Which was perfect for a bunch of weary travelers who had just arrived from the States.
But wait; there was one more surprise to come: The bill. As each new course appeared I started doing mental calculations about the total bill. I was not yet in a Riviera mind set and was still calculating things on a New York standard. This is the Italian countryside I reminded myself, and sure enough I soon added “reasonable” to the list of adjectives describing our experience. For about 100 euros in total, the four of us had what seemed like an endless feast.
Later that night as we pondered our wonderful discovery over a glass of wine, we had this distinct feeling that we had somehow accidentally wandered into this Brigadoon-like village and we’d have to wait another 100 years for it to appear again. But after doing some research online, I discovered to my surprise that other people have enjoyed dining at Ristorante Il Ponte. Well, maybe not quite Brigadoon after all, but a serendipitous discovery nonetheless. So, if you find yourself totally lost while on vacation, don’t despair, a pleasant surprise, or in this case an unexpected feast, may be just around the next bend in the road.