Oftentimes the highlight of a vacation is predetermined. When I went to Chicago, I knew in advance that finally seeing a game at that ivy-covered shrine to baseball known as Wrigley Field was going to be the centerpiece of the weekend. And being a big fan of Alfred 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. And when I took a cruise to Alaska, I was eagerly anticipating seeing a glacier up close. But sometimes one of the high points of a vacation is an event that is not only unplanned but totally unexpected. Such was the case on a day trip to the Italian Riviera.
After spending three weeks on my own, I was eagerly looking forward to the arrival of some friends from back home, who would be staying with me for 10 days. It was a beautiful Riviera morning, so for their first day I thought we would drive into Italy and have a relaxing lunch at some beach-side café overlooking the Mediterranean. After an early-morning arrival at Nice Airport and a quick stop at my apartment in Menton so they could freshen up, we drove across the border into Italy. Instead of going to one of my usual restaurants, I thought it would be fun to drive along the coast and just pick some place at random. I normally have everything planned out to the smallest detail when traveling with friends and family abroad, but I was feeling a bit frisky, so I thought I would just wing it and see what we would discover. While driving on the road from Sanremo towards Santo Steffano al Mare, in my excitement of finally having some companionship (and somebody to talk to!), I accidentally made a wrong turn away from the coast. Instead of quickly making a U-turn to correct my mistake, I stubbornly decided to forge ahead. As we continued northward on the SO548, the road narrowed, the traffic thinned out and the amount of roadside buildings dwindled. “This is Italy, there’s always some marvelous local road-side trattoria just around the corner,” I thought to myself. But with each twist and turn of the road my party became more and more impatient (and hungrier and hungrier.) “Where the heck are you taking us?” and “What happened to the Mediterranean?” they asked, as they began to wonder if they were ever going to eat lunch. Just as I was about to give in to their pleas, admit defeat and backtrack towards the coast, the perched Ligurian village of Badalucco suddenly loomed in front of us.
On the outskirts of town there was a large parking lot, a sure sign that we had finally reached civilization. And hopefully a place to eat! As we walked into town, we spied Ristorante Il Ponte just on the other side of the 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 happily greeted by the proprietor. We inquired about the possibility of having lunch, to which he responded “Certo!” He then explained that because it was Sunday there was not the usual a la carte menu, just a fixed meal for the day, and he then beckoned us to come inside. After their long journey and some forgettable airline food, my friends were eager for a nice Italian meal, so they said that they would gladly accept whatever dishes they were preparing that day. We took a seat at the last available table, finally able to relax and patiently waited for our lunch to commence, totally unaware of what was to come.
Instead of the usual run-of-the-mill antipasto of cheese and cured meats (which would have been a perfectly acceptable lunch by itself) we had a platter of seven delectable appetizers (including various quiche-like concoctions). Not for the entire table, but one platter for each of us. This was followed by a pasta course with a simple ragu. Foolishly, we thought that was our entire meal. But it continued with a roasted meat course consisting of pork, accompanied with vegetable and potato cortoni. Then a second meat course of a side of beef appeared in the form of a table-side carving station. This was followed by a selection of desserts, coffee and an after-dinner drink to top off the meal. And of course, there was wine. I have no idea about the grape variety or the location of the vineyard, just the house red, which our waiter simply described as “vino locale.” But its derivation was unimportant; all we knew (and cared about) was that the wine flowed freely and when one bottle of wine was finished, a second instantly appeared on our table.
I can’t tell you the specifics of each course, or even comment about the style of cooking, as none of our dishes were identified by name and I was so totally overwhelmed with our experience that our lunch was basically a two-hour blur of continuous food and wine. But I can tell you this: We entered the town of Badalucco tired, hungry and 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. In fact, no decisions whatsoever! Just whatever local specialties they were serving that day. Which was a perfect arrangement for a bunch of weary travelers who were glad to leave all the decision-making to culinary experts.
But wait; there was one more surprise to come: The bill. As each new course appeared, I did a quick mental calculation about the total. Even though I had been living in the South of France for three weeks, I was not yet attuned to the Riviera mindset and was still in a New York frame of mind and was concerned that the bill might be getting out of hand. After all, since there was no menu there were no prices. But this is the Italian countryside not New York City (or some tourist trap in Rome), I reminded myself. And sure enough, I soon added “reasonable” to the list of adjectives to describe our experience. For just over 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 reappear. But after doing some online research, I soon discovered much to my surprise that many other people have actually 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, whether it’s in Baldalucco or Bratislava, don’t despair, there may be a pleasant surprise, or in this case an unexpected feast, just around the next bend in the road.