“The Warm Table”
For years, people have asked me to tell the story of how I ended up with my dual US-Italy life. The reality is that it was a series of somewhat unrelated events that all came together to create an incurable fascination with Italian culture. A sense of belonging. Of home.
So this will be a series of posts, and if I have to pick a place to start, it is most certainly my first trip to Italy, and how the indelible memories were all of the ones I could never have anticipated.
Yes, I am calling Part 1 “The Warm Table.” As you read on, you will understand how that term was the very beginning in my journey of unforgettable memories in Italy.
We Need Some Background First
The year was 1983, and to appreciate the impact what was to come would have on me, it helps to know what my world looked like. I was a poor little rich kid from “The Valley” in Los Angeles. Encino, to be exact. I was a 17-year-old south of the boulevard latch-key kid snob that drove a brand new red Porsche, dressed like I had just stepped out of GQ magazine, and lived a very fast life. I mean, Dude! It was like totally rad, y’know?
Of course, there was also a dark side. I was finishing high school, my dad had died an early and sudden death six months prior, and I had no idea what my life might look like going forward. I was lost.
My mom and her Italian boyfriend asked me if I wanted to take a trip to Italy with them, and I was all for it. I really needed to get away from everything that was 1980’s Los Angeles for a bit. It just so happened that one of my closest high school friends of the time was also going to be in Italy that summer. We’ll call him Rocco… because his name is Rocco. His family was from Italy, and they spent their summers there, so I had an invite to visit.
Cool, I’m Going to Italy!
So here is the plan. We’re gonna fly to Rome, and the following day I am going to jet down to the city of Reggio Calabria, where Rocco will pick me up at the airport, and I will spend a week with his family in whatever place they live. All I know is that they have a beach, and the beach is good, right?
But then my Italian vacation will begin. I’m gonna go to The Amalfi Coast and swim in the Blue Grotto. I’ll go to Rome and see the Colosseum. I’ll see Florence, Milan, Venice… even the Tower of Pisa! All of the things that Italy is about, right? My excitement level was pretty high!
Day 1: Los Angeles – Rome
We get to LAX and board our TWA flight to New York, connecting to Rome. Yeah, I said TWA 🙂. When we arrive in Rome, we are picked up by my mom’s friend, Umberto. He was a co-worker of my mom’s that had moved back to his hometown somewhere in Italy. Remember Umberto, because he becomes a key component of the story later on. For now, he simply drops us off at our hotel in Rome.
Remember, poor little rich American kid here. We are staying on Via Veneto in The 5-Star Excelsior Hotel. I hop in bed and sleep off the flight for hours. That night, we had dinner at the Alfredo Restaurant in Rome. After all, it is where Fettuccine Alfredo was invented, or so they say. For anyone that knows me, this is a devilishly poetic first meal for me in Italy. For those that don’t, read this post that I wrote 27 years later.
The following morning, it was back to the airport for my flight down to Reggio Calabria. Up to now, I fly to Italy on the beautiful 747, stay in the Made-For-Americans 5-star Excelsior Hotel, and have dinner at a fake made-for-Americans restaurant in downtown Rome. Little do I know how things are about to change.
Welcome To The South
I land in Reggio Calabria, get out of the plane and there is Rocco, awaiting me with two of his friends: Domenico (Who also lived in the states), and Enzo, a kid that didn’t speak any English. I look around the airport, and it looks like I have just landed in a 3rd world country. As we walk out of the airport, I look around, and it… looks like I am in a 3rd world country. Toto, I don’t think this is Rome anymore!
The first order of business. Everyone is hungry. They very politely ask me if I have a preference. Dude! I’m in Italy, Show me the pizza! Rocco, Dom, and Enzo start speaking Italian with one another, and Rocco finally tells me that Enzo knows a great place across the channel in Messina. Messina? That is Sicily! Sicilian Pizza? OK, I am tired and carrying suitcases, but I am in!
Note: This was before one of the greatest, most visionary, most genius inventors in all of history invented the rolling suitcase!
So we walked from the airport to the port. No, it was not close. We boarded a ferry to Sicily. We disembarked and walked roughly 2 miles (those suitcases get heavier and heavier by the step) to go to the amazing pizza place. But don’t worry Michael, Enzo says it is amazing, and you just have to trust the local, right?
Finally, we arrive. OK, it’s gonna be worth it. My first Italian Pizza, and it is gonna be Sicilian! This is gonna be, like, so awesome!
Tavola Calda: Italian for “Cafeteria”
Yeah, pause on that for a moment. Go ahead, let it sink in. You are jet lagging, you have traveled 8,000 miles, you have carried heavy suitcases for miles and miles, you are starving, and you think you are finally getting the Sicilian Pizza you so crave… By now it is The Holy Grail, for God’s sake…. and there you are: Standing in a cafeteria line.
It is not called a cafeteria, it is called a Tavola Calda in Italy, strictly translated to Warm Table. Actually, while “caffetteria” (double-f, double-t) is actually an Italian word that would mean “a place to get coffee”, a place to get coffee in Italy is called a “bar“. Yeah, I know what `you are thinking. So did I. OK, moving on…
So no amazing fresh out of the oven real Sicilian Pizza. We’re gonna make the best of this. I mean, we are in Italy. They freaking invented good food, right? And my new local friend proclaims this place to be something special. Worth walking all these miles for. It is a destination! Surely, looks are deceiving, and this is going to be the most amazing food my taste buds have ever come in contact with. It will shock me to my core and redefine the concept of what a cafeteria is capable of in my mind forever, right?
Of Course Not.
The food was old, soggy, and awful. I think I had one of the worst lasagnas I had ever eaten that day. It turns out that to Enzo, it wasn’t the food that made this epic journey worthwhile. It was the concept of a cafeteria that was so novel, so genius. I mean, think of it: You don’t need to sit down at a table and have a waiter tell you what the chef can cook for you, and wonder what it will be like.
Here, you can just walk right up to the line and browse your food, right there in front of you. You can see it and smell it to assist in your choice. And best of all, it is already cooked for you. They give it to you right there, on the spot! No waiting for someone to cook it. You simply pick what you want, they give it to you, you pay, and you are eating with no delay whatsoever! My friends, the future of culinary greatness has arrived in Sicily! The Tavola Calda! The Cafeteria.
I really didn’t want to hurt my new friend’s feelings. I understood. And Rocco really helped me understand what a big deal this was for Enzo. To him, this new “Tavola Calda” experience required hours on a train, miles of walking, a ferry across the Straights of Messina, and miles more on foot. This is a full-on road trip experience!
OK. But we have another problem to deal with now. I am even more tired, just had a terrible meal, and still, have my pre-rolling suitcase suitcases to carry for miles and miles. I can only take so much. CAN WE GET A TAXI?
No. What do you think, you are in Rome or something?
We walk miles back to the port. I’m starting to wonder if I even need the clothes in these suitcases, right? Ferry back to Reggio Calabria, a nice long walk to the train station. Train Station???? Awesome! I have never been on a train before, and it is gonna take us to Rocco’s town, wherever that is. But seriously, there has to be a bed there, right?
I don’t know what I expected the train to look like… I mean, I surely didn’t expect a steam engine train, nor did I expect a bullet train. But I found myself feeling like I was on another planet as a train pulled into the station that looked like something Mussolini’s grandfather rode. It inspired no confidence that it could make it to its destination without breaking down.
I will save the train ride, the arrival, and so much more for part 2 and onwards. For now, I will leave you with the point of this series of posts.
With every post in this series, there will be something of a moral to the story. This was the first day of my first trip to Italy, and every assumption I had in my head was blown to pieces. But the real takeaway is this: 36 years later, I don’t have a single fond memory of the Excelsior Hotel I stayed in that first night, nor do I have any enduring memory of the first meal in the famous Alfredo Restaurant. The hotel was just a hotel, and the restaurant was just a restaurant.
But the adventure that started as I walked out of the airport in Reggio Calabria, walked miles to find myself eating underwhelming food in a cafeteria, and the total contrast with everything I had ever known… well, I can remember those views, the smells, the laughter, and everything that surrounded it in vivid detail. I have told the story hundreds, maybe thousands of times over the years, and the stories in this series of posts are some of the best memories of my life. Moreover, they changed my life profoundly. This was the day that the snob from Encino began to change his view of the world.
Why This Story Matters
I’m not gonna lie… for many, it won’t. If you feel no urge to continue to part 2, I get it, we are all different. But decades later we opened Culture Discovery Vacations, which is a tour company that is very different from traditional tour companies. Virtually everything we do is designed to help people have the types of experiences I describe in this series. As a guy that was accustomed to luxury measured by opulence, I discovered a greater luxury through experience. Something transformational. So I hope you will join me as I chronicle this journey over the next few months.
Ready for Part 2?
My Life in Italy, Part 2: Where are the Walls? and How do I Flush?
But before you make your way to Part 2, I would love to see your thoughts and comments below!