One, Madonna della Neve in Cessole, I had visited in 2007 on Anna's recommendation, and I remembered it well. It's a family-owned and operated restaurant, famed for their delectable, handmade agnolotti, so tender and delicate that they serve it on a napkin without any sauce. We sampled it that way, followed by a second serving, this time on a plate with a butter and sage sauce. Delicious! The host, Massimo, who seated us, was the very same who'd greeted me when I showed up alone three years earlier, just days into my very first visit to Italy.
I had entered the restaurant a bit shyly and was relieved to see it was almost empty; just two parties sat in the dining room--three suited gentleman obviously on a business lunch, and a middle-aged couple, none of whom paid me any mind. I was acutely aware of my complete lack of Italian language skills and hoped I could blunder through. I realized at that moment that I'd failed to find out if tipping was expected. It had not been in France. I felt even more nervous.
Massimo seemed to pick up on my hesitancy and, before I could say a word, greeted me in English. (Admittedly, I'm a bit fair to pass as Italian. Still, it sort of bothers me to be recognized as a tourist.) Massimo's voice was filled with regret.
"I'm terribly sorry, but we do not serve parties of one."
I froze. In all my years I'd never once been refused a table simply because I was on my own. Massimo saw the stunned look on my face and quickly suppressed a smile. The twinkle in his eye, however, gave the game away. Luckily I'm fairly quick on my feet. I donned an exaggerated look of deep disappointment.
"What? Is it not tragic enough that I have been denied the pleasure of a gentleman's company, that I must also be denied the simple pleasure of a meal in your ristorante? Indeed, this is too much to bear!"
"I would be most pleased to make an exception in your case, signorina."
Phew, that was a close one. I thought I was going to have to miss out on those fabled agnolotti for a minute.
Madonna della Neve was a delight then and it was a delight this time as well. However, no modest meal for me this time. We began with an antipasti which I foolishly assumed would be a single platter with a variety of meats, cheeses, vegetables and olives. Instead, dish after dish was served, including paper-thin slices of pancetta, followed by a divine carpaccio, then, peppers with a tonnato (tuna) sauce, a courgette (zucchini) flan with cheese, asparagus wrapped in proscuitto topped with a cheese sauce.... I was beginning to fear each appearance of our server.
It was so rich, with one course following on the heels of the preceding one, that my friend Innis got up and stepped outside the restaurant for a brief walk just to give herself a respite before facing the lamb-filled agnolotti. I was afraid she'd decline it but she tried a tiny bit and pronounced it delicious. And it was--even better than I'd remembered.
It's after a meal like this that it becomes clear why the Europeans drink digestifs. A sip or two of a fiery brandy really does settle the stomach. Ken and I decided to go the distance and make ours a local grappa. To our surprise, Massimo brought several bottles for us to sample. I liked one in particular. Upon closer inspection, I saw it bore the restaurant's label with a notation that it was in honor of the festival for Sant' Antone, which had been held earlier that same day. On impulse, I purchased a bottle to bring back to France as a memento.