Italy's Apennines and the Tuscan countryside
  • Italy's Apennines and the Tuscan countryside
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When in France, my husband and I decided to squander beaucoup d' euros on a Michelin one-star restaurant. The experience was so satisfactory that, on a subsequent trip to Italy, we decided to make a special detour to eat in a two-star restaurant there.

The detour took us across the Apennines from Siena to a destination unknown to American travel guides – Terme di Castrocaro. After a rather hot and very twisty drive, we arrived at a small, modern town with nothing of interest except a medicinal spa.

Imagine our disappointment when we discovered that our destination restaurant had had a major fire and was CLOSED until further notice. Saddened, but ever open to the serendipity of travel, we decided to go to the spa. Alas, we found that we could not get in without a doctor's prescription. Furthermore, even the local church had nothing to recommend it.

Disconsolate, we strolled around the ugly little town looking for an interesting place to eat a nice dinner. Nothing presented itself. We went back to our hotel convinced that the detour had been a total loss.

Nevertheless, the moment came when we had to eat. We climbed into our car to drive to a pizza place we had seen near one end of town. As we drew near, Alan said, "Let's just go clear outside of town to make sure we didn't miss something." And that's when the serendipity kicked in.

Half a kilometer outside the town, our headlights illuminated a painted sign: Ristorante Rustica. Dozens of cars were parked in front of what looked like a well-lit farmhouse. We parked and joined what looked like at least half the townsfolk for family dinner night in Terme di Castrocaro.

The "joint was jumpin'." Busy waiters threaded through the close-packed tables with trays of food redolent of garlic, tomato and rosemary.

Entire families, laughing, gossiping, arguing, occupied the tables. Little kids, candidates for a Happy Meal in the U.S., were eating prosciutto with melon. Platters of pasta were making the rounds at many tables. Everyone seemed occupied with enjoying the moment.

We crowded up to our little table and studied the menu. It was not only surprisingly extensive, but also inexpensive. I was excited to find asparagus crespelle, a rare treat. Alan was amazed to discover that the least costly item on the menu was the famous Fiorentina T-bone steak, which (according to Marcella Hazan) cannot be duplicated outside of Tuscany.

"Look at this," he crowed, "only 7 euros!"

Our amazement increased when the waiter took the order. "'Ow beeg?" he asked Alan. This was service beyond the ordinary.

"Big!" Alan answered. The waiter raised his eyebrows. "Beeg?" he said, making an oval with his hands.

"Big," Alan replied firmly, making an even larger oval.

And, sure enough, when the order came, the steak was so big that it hung over the edge of the plate.

Eating such a large steak was not easy, but – embarrassed that he had imposed his unintended greediness on the restaurant – Alan managed to finish every bite. And then the bill came. Rather than 7 euros, the steak was 35 euros!

We called the waiter and struggled to understand his broken explanation. At last enlightenment came. We had not noticed the small “hg” beside the price on the menu. It stood for hectograms and indicated to all Italians that the steak was 7 euros per hectogram.

Well, we'd had a wonderful experience and learned something to boot. It was worth every cent.

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