Just beyond the urban sprawl that has been built up between Ventimiglia and Bordighera, is Ospedaletti. The town, which was named after a 14th-century hospital established by the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, is an oasis of solitude on the Ligurian coast during the off-season when the summer crowds are gone, and the beaches are empty. Most American tourists driving from France into Italy drive right past Ospedaletti, stopping at Sanremo, Albenga or one of the other more frequented towns on the Italian Riviera on the way to Genoa or The Cinque Terre. But I’ve been visiting this small town annually, having accidentally discovered it when I was fleeing the congestion of Ventimiglia on an ill-advised Friday morning visit on market day, when traffic is terrible and finding parking can be a problem.
As is my custom, I arrive in Ospedaletti around 11am. After a late-morning cappuccino at Bar La Bussola, a walk on the seaside promenade and a visit to the small church of St John the Baptist, I then head back to the promenade for some lunch. While there are many combination restaurants and cabanas right on the beach, I prefer eating at I Versiliesi, which has everything that I want in a good restaurant: Great food, friendly and professional service, a fantastic beach-side setting a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean and most importantly they have that “La Bella Vita” attitude.
The restaurant was started in the early 1950’s by Pietro di Buselli and it has been a family run business ever since. It is named after La Versilia, a fashionable region of Tuscany famous for its seaside resorts. Since the mid-1990’s, the restaurant has been run by his grandchildren, Pietro and Carlo, who have been long time residents of Ospedaltti. The younger Pietro manages the restaurant and his brother is the chef. Like most Italians, Carlo acquired his cooking skills from his mother and continues the tradition started by his grandfather and specializes in the simple Mediterranean cuisine of Liguria, their adopted homeland. After a discussion of the cuisine of the region, our conversation naturally progressed to life on the Riviera, two topics inexorably linked together. Pietro summed up what life was like living in Ospedaletti with the phrase “Ospedaletti è a misura d’uomo.” Literally translated this means that living there is “the measure of a man.” When asked to elaborate on this Italian idiom, Pietro explained in part English and part Italian that everything about the town is on a human scale: Not too big, but not too small; not too provincial, but not too congested; and not too dull, but not too hectic. In fact, everything about living there was just right.
And as for my lunch, everything was also just right: Fresh local ingredients with each dish cooked to individual tastes. Which meant my meal would take a little time to prepare, which is as it should be. While waiting for my first course, I sipped on a glass of the house white, which turned out be a local Vermentino and chatted with Pietro about the weather. I explained that I had just arrived from chilly New York a couple of days earlier and was looking forward to enjoying the spectacular Riviera sunshine. By the time my Spaghetti alla vongole arrived, I was finally starting to relax, leaving behind the hustle and bustle of the city. The pasta was home-made (of course) and cooked to perfection. Clams are not something I normally order, as I often find them tough and rubbery. But in Italy they have vongole, tender tiny clams that pack a flavorful punch; nothing like what I usually get in restaurants back home. As he placed the plate on my table, knowing that I was an American and assuming that I was a fan (and that I was keeping up with all the latest news), he said to me: “Did you see what happened to Aaron Rodgers last night?”
That was definitely not something I expected to hear in this small Italian village, but it turns out that Pietro has been a big fan of American football ever since getting a satellite television hookup twelve years ago. His enthusiasm had turned into a passion, which he has since imparted to his sons, who play for the Sanremo Waves, an American football team in Italy. He was watching the game late last night and was devastated when he saw his favorite quarterback on his favorite team break a bone in his shoulder. Hearing about the game reminded me of Charters and Caldicott, those thoroughly British characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” whose main concern was the latest cricket scores during the final days of a test match in Manchester. While everyone else on the journey was frantically worrying about the impending world war (and desperately trying to get across the border to safety without being shot), they were more concerned about getting an update of the score of the test match. On the surface they appeared to be just another couple of bumbling English aristocrats prancing their way through Europe. But after some thought I realized that they were just “carrying on” in the best of British traditions and keeping up a pretense of normalcy despite the rather unBritish-like and totally uncivilized circumstances. So, while this was terrible news for the Green Bay Packers, I actually found our conversation both comforting and reassuring. A bit of normalcy for me and a momentary sense of home while traveling abroad.
The pasta course was followed by a filet of Branzino, accompanied by some boiled potatoes and an assortment of local vegetables. Again, the food was simple, flavorful and delicious. This was accompanied by a second Vermentino and some more discussion about the NFL. Without any prompting by me, a third Vermentino appeared. When the wine was finished, I asked for the check. Pietro reminded me that I was no longer in New York but on the Riviera di Ponente and that I needed to relax and get back into a Riviera mindset. He then brought me a fruit tart. Of course, he was right. I was on holiday, enjoying a beautiful sunny day on the Mediterranean. I had no schedule, no pending business meetings and no urgent appointments that I needed to rush off to. What was my hurry? When I asked for the check a second time, he instead brought me an espresso, saying that the meal was not complete without some coffee. And when the check finally did appear, it was accompanied with a glass of Limoncello, to top off the meal. “A little something to welcome you back to Italy,” he added.
While some of my fellow countrymen may have been annoyed at the slow pace of the meal and the reluctance to present me with the check when asked, I actually found my lunch soothing, peaceful and reassuring. In a word, it was the perfect. Sometimes you need to be reminded, that like great food and wine, life is meant to be savored. So, forget your troubles and the world’s problems, take a break from checking the latest scores (be it NFL or cricket) and sit back and enjoy La Bella Vita. Even Charters and Caldicott would have to agree that would be the proper thing to do.