While some travelers have all the luck and seem to stumble upon buzzing restaurants or packed festivals without doing a bit of research – the rest of us can benefit from a little planning ahead.
Getting on the local schedule almost always guarantees finding the type of atmosphere that will bring a destination to life. Before you plan your next trip to any European city – do some research on local habits. What types of meals do they eat? (Small breakfast? Lunch as biggest meal of the day? Very late dinner?) What time are meals served? Are shops closed for siesta?
Over the last years I’ve found this out the hard way. Italy is a great example of the benefits of being on the local schedule. One afternoon, I was enjoying the sunny streets of a quaint town outside Rome called Frascati. We probably arrived on the train from Rome around noon, and thought we would wander around for a while before sitting down to lunch.
If I’d had a closer look, I probably would have noticed that right around 12, the tables were starting to fill with local people sitting down for their afternoon meal. At 2pm when we were ready to sit down for lunch, many doors had ‘closed’ signs hanging in the windows, and tables were finishing up espresso, not digging into pasta.
After about the 5th or 6th restaurant we were turned away from, we started to lose hope. Bakeries were closed too – our plan B of just grabbing some bread or pastries to hold us over until dinner was failing miserably.
Luckily, we turned a corner to see one last bright awning. At this point the clock was approaching 2:30, and I realized that we were no longer in the cosmopolitan city of Rome where we could always find something to eat. On first glance – there was no closed sign on the door, and with the ring of a bell, we walked inside.
It was exactly the restaurant I’d been hoping to find: small wooden tables, decorated with family heirlooms, and a glimpse into the kitchen in the back. There were only two tables that were occupied – one with a couple who were finishing up their main courses, and the table in the corner where the family who owned the restaurant were sitting down to their own meal.
Just as the chef was about to tell me they were closed, I smiled. Next I practiced my limited Italian to say, ‘Are you open, please?’ He directed us to a table nearby, and looking at the table next to us, I pointed at the dish the gentleman was having. Pleased with our quick order, the chef went back into the kitchen to whip up our lunch.
His three-year old daughter Isabella was shy when we first arrived, but after a few minutes she was running around the restaurant, playing with my scarf, even delivering bread. What came to the table next was one of the best meals I had during my entire few months in Italy. A handmade twisted pasta had the perfect rough texture to pick up a creamy, cheesy, bubbly sauce. Pan seared pancetta, onions, tomatoes, and other garden vegetables kept the dish light.
It could have been my extreme hunger at this point – but the red house wine and this plate of pasta is one of my most distinct memories of my time in Italy. As it turns out, the couple sitting next to us spoke some English, and served as translators with the chef and his family. We sat almost until the restaurant was opening again for dinner, lingering over our wine, followed by strong coffee.
This was the Italy I had traveled to find – focused on family, good food, good company. While this story has a happy ending – I definitely learned my lesson about getting on the local schedule. When I’m in Italy, I make sure I’ve got my seat for lunch by 1pm. I don’t want to miss out on any of the atmosphere by being late.