Even though I saw two amazing gardens today, the religious experience I had at lunch was so powerful, I’m compelled to write about it.
It began the day before as I sat on a bench in the shadow of an ancient villa with Anna Maria Massimi who is guiding a tour in concert with ours.
As I explained my love of Italian cheeses and meats to her, she smiled and offered to take me to her old friend Eros Buratti’s shop in Verbania which specializes in both.
The next day while riding a cable car up to see the Alpinia Botanic Garden near Lake Maggiore she thought it might be nice to invite a few people along from my bus and hers. There was only room for about 15, so I asked for volunteers.
Seven lucky people joined me on the short walk to Eros' meat and cheese shop. Walking through the front door was like entering another world. Giant prosciutto hams hung in the doorway leading to a counter jammed with customers, and it was loud, really loud. Eros yelled orders and went back and forth with his loyal customers making sure they were happy. As I walked past him, he smiled said something in Italian and handed me a slice of meat. I shared it with two friends as we walked to the back and as I took my first bite of the salty treat, it melted in my mouth.
It was such a relief to have Anna Maria with us as Eros greeted her saying, "the most beautiful woman in Italy, where have you been." Anna Maria hadn’t been able to visit the shop in close to a year. It felt special to be included, and everyone was thrilled at what was going on around us.
Above the counter were more cured meats and an unbelievable amount of cheeses in the case. I'd never heard of most of them and Eros' mother helped move the customers along.
It was sensory overload, small tables squeezed into every corner, waiters and waitresses hurriedly walked past trying to keep up with the demand for food. I would say it's like the Strip District on steroids. We sat communally at a long table and the place was hopping, and as we looked around each table was filled with familiar and unfamiliar dishes.
To tide us over, Anna Maria brought a large dried sausage, cutting board and knife. Joseph DiLuccia of Bangor, Pa. was charged with cutting the meat. Since he lived in Italy until he was 14, he was the obvious choice. As he thinly sliced the dried meat, we started eating the fresh bread. There were homemade breadsticks, thin, cracker like pieces and fresh hard crusted white bread.
The two different olive oils were deep green and exploded with flavor, one had a kick, too. A drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar worked as a perfect foil and the guests soaked up the concoction with the different breads. When our eyes met across the table, it was obvious, this would be a magic lunch, and that's before we were served most of Eros' specialties.
Just about the time the sausage was going around the table, two bottles of wine were served, one white and one red. They were the best I had tasted in Italy yet.
What we had in front of us would have been enough. The sausage had a soft, fatty texture and finished with a hint of hot pepper, the breads each offered a different texture and flavor, the oil was heavenly and the balsamic tied everything together.
I couldn't believe it as one of Eros' employees carried a long wooden board filled with nearly 10 different types of cured meats through a slew of customers and set it down in front of us. It was filled with a local specialty called speck along with prosciutto, venison and other things including something which looked like bacon and tasted like heaven.
Then he returned with a board just as long filled with cheese. There was runny gorgonzola, a hard variety, baked ricotta, a goat cheese filled with pistachios and more. The aroma of cheese and meats was divine and the feast began.
Combining these mysterious ingredients with better known ones, adding bread and great olive oil was a culinary treat which will live with me forever. Each bite offered a different flavor and texture, we all ate until we couldn't eat any more. Both boards were pillaged, but there was still food on both somehow.
Italians expect the best, whether it's in gardens, art and certainly when it comes to food. Today I was lucky enough to experience the greatest lunch I've ever had and as I walked back to the bus I saw one of my fellow diners. Spontaneously we hugged, because we both knew, it was the best meal we'd ever had, and might ever have.
This is a shot of Eros' shop, look at the huge hams hanging in the doorway.
This was the selection of bread we had for the lunch.
One of the employees brings out this amazing cheese board.
This is the selection of cheeses at the shop.
This are some of the dried meats available.
This our selection of meats for lunch.
Joseph DiLuccia of Bangor, Pa. was charged with cutting the meat.
(Top image: Anna Maria Massimi and Eros Buratti at his cheese and meat shop. Doug Oster photos/Post-Gazette)