Dinner in Italy

I like Italy. Of course it can be a tremendously frustrating place at times, especially when dealing with the tremendously inefficient bureaucracy and customs. But that is a small irritant in the overall scheme of things.

Some time ago I was in Milan, proud possessor of a rented scooter, hungry to explore and eat. So I hopped on my scooter at the hotel and headed down into one of the local towns, a place called San Bovisa. I was looking for a local restaurant called Cacciatore (it means “The Hunter”). Finding the place was a bit of an adventure. I had fairly good instructions, however they lacked some final explicitness, a point which was to become critical at the last, but ultimately not fatal to my plan.

The weather here is very nice in September. It reminds me very much of Vancouver at this time of year. It’s warm during the day, with some days of rain and cloud. You can feel that it is autumn and that the days are getting cooler, but it is still nice enough to sit outside and enjoy the cool of the early evening. Riding the scooter requires a sweater but as soon as you shut the scooter off and dismount, you can feel the warmth and the need for the sweater disappears.

I headed down the road, fighting the ever thick Italian traffic. There is an attitude here, a very positive attitude mostly. When people beep at you here, they aren’t angry. They are doing their best to warn you of something you might not see. The roads are not always jammed, but in the towns and cities the traffic gets mighty thick at times.

The Holiday Inn out here at the Linate Airport is pretty much in the country. It backs on to a corn field and the Idroscalo park is just across the road. Idroscalo means “water skiing”, and this park is an artificial lake with a machine that tows water skiers around the lake. It is a very popular park, and the rectangular shaped lake is actually very nice to walk around. This rural setting means the traffic was not bad at all, but in Peschiera Borromeo and San Bovisa it did tend to slow down.

Finding the restaurant was not easy. I started out heading for San Bovisa, and along the way stopped to take a look at the castello Borromeo. The Borromeos were a wealthy Tuscan banking family, so successful that they even had a London branch in 1435! In 1432 Vitaliano Borromeo bought an old house shaped like a castle and then proceeded to rebuild and fortify it. He built up the existing fish pond into a moat, hence the castle was nicknamed the “Fishpond Castle”.

The last Borromeo to own the castello died in 1534 and he willed the “FishPond” to his uncle, and it then came into the hands of his cousin. This cousin, Renato Cesare did the last set of renovations, removing much of the military look of the castle and making it more of a residence.

The village of Peschiera Borromeo (you say it as “peskyara borromayo” and you roll the “r” in both words) grew up in the area near the castle, but unlike some areas the village is now some distance from the old castle. (Peschiera means fishpond in English.)

When I arrived castle was all locked up, but I got a good look at the exterior. Many of the outer buildings are decrepit and falling into disrepair. There are a lot of minor castles in Italy, so the loss of one so small and unimportant as castello Borromeo is probably not significant.

The main castle building had the full moat around it along with the requisite drawbridge. The front had a high square tower with, of all things, a clock firmly set into the front of the tower. Both castle and tower were built mainly of brick and mortar; the larger stoneworks were reserved for the foundation and the moat walls.  The moat (aka the “FishPond”) was filled with water from which some local boys were attempting to coax fish, and up along side the castle behind the locked gates there were ducks paddling around in their constant search for something to eat.

Castello Borromeo

Surprisingly, one of the outer buildings was inhabited. There were people living in the apartments that were reconstructed inside the old shell. Their ramshackle building had an equally ramshackle front yard, with trees and scraggly bits of plants here and there. The lawn was mostly weeds and rocks. The old building had an archway over the road which supported more rooms, and I suspect they were accessible from the apartments in the main part of the building. The extension on the other side of the road was in a sad state; the roof was almost completely collapsed in.

I drove around the parts of the castle where there was a road, and then headed off for San Bovisa. As I headed down the Via San Bovisa I noted several old and seemingly dilapidated buildings along the road. Some were clearly abandoned, as their windows were gone and their roofs falling in. Others looked like they were about to collapse and some just looked like they needed help. I was to discover that I was judging too soon, something most North Americans do the first time they experience the Italian way of things.

The restaurant was nowhere to be seen. I continued down the road all the way to the Rivolta, one of the main roads in the area. The roundabout was jam packed solid, but being on a scooter I was able to weave my way through the traffic and completely circumnavigate the roundabout. I headed back down the San Bovisa road in the direction from which I had just come.

San Felice was on my left. It’s a newer “designed” village intended to serve as a residential area for the 3M and IBM buildings right next door. It has all the amenities and none of the charm of the older Italian villages, but the buildings are new and well kept. Clearly it would appeal to the “forward thinkers” in the Italian planning councils. The restaurant was nowhere to be found in this area either.

I headed further towards San Bovisa and at the intersection of the San Bovisa village road I stopped at the small tabaccheria. These are small shops that used to be tobacco shops but have become the equivalent of a local small market. They mostly carry convenience items and wine. Some have small tables out front where you can sit and have a snack along with a glass of wine.

The proprietor spoke Italian; I spoke English. However he was able to make me understand that the restaurant was right around the corner, virtually in the same decrepit looking building as his shop. It’s hard to describe this building. It was old, perhaps 300 or 400 years old. It had small doors and the main door to the interior courtyard was solid planks with a small “man door” cut into it.

The building was mostly old style bricks whose rows were no longer straight. They had sagged in places as gravity and time proved more than a match for the vain attempts of the builders. On the other hand the flowing rows of bricks looked gently appealing, as if the undulating pattern of the outer walls was intentional.

The building was actually the remnants of another old castle built by the Borromeo family. It started life as a country manor some time in the middle ages, but nobody knows for certain when the original building was constructed. The last major renovations to this building were in 1456, when the first Borromeo hired monks to drain the local swamps so the land could be farmed. He also had the monks turn the old manor home into a minor castle for is son and daughter in law. The castle gets its name from the daughter in law – Donna Maria Longhignana – and is known as Castello Longhignana.

I headed around the corner and into the rear parking lot. Sure enough there was the entrance to the restaurant. It was closed! Dinner here in Italy doesn’t start until well after 7:00 PM and it was only 7:08 PM. The chefs were sitting in the outer courtyard having a smoke and chattering away in lively Italian that I couldn’t comprehend. One of them came to me and I asked if he spoke English. He said “a little” and that the restaurant would open at 7:30 PM.

I shrugged and pouted a bit. I said “it’s only a few minutes” and he did what so many Italians do in these cases. He shrugged back and said “Wait a few minutes and I will see what I can do.”

The Italians have the art of shrugging down cold. They have their happy shrug, which is attended with a smile and intended to mean be pleasant yet non-committal as if to say I can see why you are happy and that makes me kind of happy too. They have their sad shrug, accompanied by a frown, intended to share your sadness but not to commit themselves to being sad. And they have their “that’s just life” shrug, which sympathizes with but does not share your exasperation for whatever the frustration of the moment is.

The key to all this body language is its ability to communicate the shared feeling without the person having to actually feel the way you do. The Italians have come to understand the true power of physical expression along with verbal expression. Perhaps this comes from Italy’s place as a geographic cross-roads for eons. Every language you can image has been heard here, and most of the time the translations were poor at best. These people have needed body language throughout their history to communicate with their neighbours and visitors, so no wonder they do it so well.

The chef had given me the “happy shrug” and gone of to get permission to open the gate early. It was not my intent to rush them (at least not too much) so I replied “Don’t worry. I will go for a walk”. I heard them unlocking their front gate as I turned right and walked into the inner courtyard of this old castle. What I later discovered was the opening the gate implied in no way an early opening of the restaurant. They simply were willing to give me a place to sit and wait, and perhaps have a glass of wine.

Castello Longhignana is a square shape with a large inner yard rather like a square donut, as so many buildings are in this part of the world. It was there that I discovered that the outer face of the building said nothing about the charm and attraction of the inner face. This decrepit looking old building was actually a charming complex of small apartments carved into what had at one time been an old country home some 500 years ago. They call it a castle, but it was not that large; it was more like a mansion built around the inner yard.

Each of the apartments had a tiny door and many of them were ornately carved or brightly decorated. I managed a look into one of the windows and saw a bright and clean, modern looking interior. The castello had large entrances with iron or wood gates and apartments on three sides and the fourth was a solid row of these small apartments. At one end of the inner courtyard there was an overhang from the roof. This covered area had a table for communal use and even a bathroom with open access. This was obviously a well used area, and certainly appealing as a shaded spot for those hot summer days.

The inner courtyard of the Castello Longhignana

I walked out the gate at the opposite end to discover that the far side of the building had a small yard and drive next to it. The yard extended the full length of the building and there were picnic tables and small gardens all along the yard. There were no fences and the front yard of one apartment blended into the front yard of the next. Flower gardens decorated the walkway along the front doors and there was a border along the drive that ensured the road did not encroach on this green space.

Across the drive there was a large park area. I realized after gazing at it for a moment that it was an orchard, a very old orchard. Some of the trees still had fruit on them. There was a sign politely asking people not to let their dogs loose in this area and to clean up after them. This was clearly another important shared space for the people dwelling here.

For a few minutes I was lost in reverie, looking out at the orchard and back at the inner courtyard, then suddenly this moment’s pause was shattered as two young children blasted out their front door and down the walkway, yelling and laughing as children do everywhere when they are at play. It made me smile and reminded me of the younger days of my own children.

Behind the boy and girl came a man who was obviously their father. He too was chattering, trying desperately to corral these newly released housebound prisoners. He called for them to come to the restaurant; I later found out he worked there and that the venerable restaurant was also their playground. I followed them back inside and across the inner courtyard.

I had a momentary fright as I saw that the main gate through which I had come was now closed. Fortunately it was not locked, so I opened the inner courtyard gate and turned through the now open front gate of the restaurant. Just inside the gateway was the outer courtyard and patio of the restaurant.

Tratorria dei Cacciatori

This outer courtyard was paved over with small paving stones. These were not the modern paving stones that we purchase in North America, made to look old but fabricated out of specially designed cement and epoxy. These were real stones, and old stones. This patio had been in place long enough to take on the same shape that flowed along the bricks on the side of the building.

The ground undulated gently while presenting the firmness of stones pushed downwards by the passage of a million feet over hundreds of hundreds years. This constant tread of traffic had worn down the edges of the stones so that they seemed almost soft when you looked at them. The small gaps between the well fit stones were filled with sand and the dust of generations, but the patio was clean and swept.

There were trees and a massive grape arbour that presented a cover for the larger portion of this patio. The stones were worked around the trees. These were old trees, perhaps even older than those in the orchard on the other side of the building. There must have been at time when they were young and someone thought to plan the patio for what might happen in a hundred or two years.

I sometimes wonder if, in our rush to build our own life, we have forgotten how to think of things that will happen long after we die. Some of us have, but here in Italy there are so many things that live beyond one generation that they are constantly reminded of the flow of history. Perhaps this is why they, and other peoples in ancient countries, don’t fight the tide of history the way we do in North America.

Since the restaurant was not yet open, they sat me outside on the patio at the same table the staff had been sharing a few moments before. The chairs and tables on the patio were all folded up; the summer season was over and dinners for the winter season would be indoors. I sat there, watching the breeze lift through the turning leaves. Suddenly the children reappeared, laughing and running as only children can. Their mother was behind them this time and she apologized to me for their exuberance.

She spoke English to me and I replied that I was enjoying listening to their laughter and watching them play. It felt like home and reminded me again of my own children when they were small. Nonetheless she ushered them away and I returned to my idle. Someone had brought me wine, sliced meat and bread to keep me busy while I waited for the restaurant to open. Time passed by with no notice from me.

As I sat there on the patio with the evening breeze blowing and the sky darkening I began to feel an all too familiar ache inside me. I was lonely, missing my own home and family. As much as travel is an adventure there are days when the pain of being away is almost too hard to bear. Since I usually travel alone on business, I rarely have someone with whom to share these special places and moments.

I soon became aware of another ache. I was hungry and just about the time when it started to get mean one of the restaurant staff came to me and said “We are ready now. Do you want to come inside?”

I went in. The interior of this building is as fascinating as the exterior. The beams holding up the upper floors were massive. The inner walls were plastered but the old bricks where exposed where they crossed the room in archways. The building pre-dated central heating and each area had as fireplace. In the main salon the fireplace had been converted into a cabinet. In one of the side rooms the fireplace was still there, sheathed in copper and notched into a shallow in the wall. It must have been cold in here during Italian winters before they put in the hot water heat radiators.

My table was a small one in the corner. I am used to this kind of placement; it happens a lot when you travel alone and I have learned to accept it. After all, the restaurant can sell a lot more to groups at the larger tables with better placements. Still it was cozy and had a clear view of the whole room along with the gallery towards the second inner room.

I took a few minutes to wander about the place. Down the gallery and through the inner room was the kitchen. I peeked into the doors; it was massive and sparkling clean. This was clearly an important room and virtually the whole staff was in there. Perhaps it was the pre-dinner staff meeting. I crept away, turning to look out the window beside me.

Outside the wall along the inner courtyard the restaurant had a large canopy tent enclosing yet another room. This outer room was fully covered, but the tables sat on the old stones of the inner courtyard. It was not heated, so was not likely to be used in the winter, but in the spring and summer it must be a lovely place to sit. After my short reconnoitre I returned to my table.

The Inner Gallery

When the waitress came over she spoke to me in Italian; not surprising since I was, after all, in Italy. However I don’t speak Italian and she did not speak any English at all. She quickly summoned another staffer and this young lady spoke excellent English. She gave me an English menu. I perused the menu and could find nothing that appealed to me.

It often happens when I am on the road that I become so tired of restaurants and choosing from menus that all I want is something simple – comfort food. I felt this way, so I asked the nice young lady if I could just have a plate of pasta with meat sauce. This was actually quite an ordeal as the kitchen had no beef.

What they did have, however, was some sausage so they put together a small plate of noodles with sausage and tomato sauce. It was actually good – so good, in fact, that I ordered another plate of the same thing. Then, as I was waiting for my “secondi”, a plate went by for another table with some really interesting looking stuff on it. I asked what it was, and it turned out to be figs, salami and some sort of special pork sausage sliced into thin sheets. I asked if I could have some.

The pasta was good, but these figs and sausage were incredibly good. The figs were soft and sweet with just enough firmness in the seeds to have a crunch but not enough to get stuck in your teeth. The sausage was salty and tart, a perfect compliment to the fruity sweetness of the figs. This was supposed to be an “antipasta” – a starter plate, but it became part of my main meal.

Along with my dinner I had a bottle of chianti. Milan is in Lombardia and there are not many wines from this area. The chianti was from the Tuscano region of Italy, so it was almost local and it was a very good wine. Italian wines are tart, sometimes too tart, but this chianti had the tartness of a fine Tuscan wine while still offering a mellow and smooth taste as you drank it.

While sitting at my table I took a closer look at the beams holding up the second floor. The floor beams were all held up by a main cross beam that spanned the center of the room. I suspect this construction was the same in the other rooms as well. These old beams had hardened and withered over time. They had clearly shrunk as the decades had rolled by, as there were wedges underneath them to hold them firmly against the cross beam.

The wood had become grooved and worn over time and many had a furrowed pattern where the softer wood had crumbled away, leaving the hard solid grain pattern in place. Some of them still had ancient nails in them and a couple had heavy spikes the likes of which might hold a railway tie in place. A couple had no bracing and simply ran their span of the room without the support from the cross beam. Somewhere behind the plaster and finishing wood these beams joined other beams and support the rooms above the restaurant and the other rooms of this wonderful old building.

I slowly ate, and enjoyed my dinner of pasta and sausage meat. After a leisurely repast I decided on a crème brulee for dessert, matched with a local dessert wine. The finishing touch was a café Americano and milk.

While I was sitting and munching away I caught snippets of conversations from the many groups that had come in. This was mainly a business crowd, probably from the IBM and 3M buildings up the road. I heard a lot of Italian, some English and a couple of other indistinguishable languages. One interesting feature of the gallery was that the arched roof bounced the conversations from those tables clearly over to where I was seated at the front of the restaurant. They were mainly conversations about Information Technology, and it convinced me even more that these were workers from the office buildings up the road.

After dinner I took a short cut back to the hotel through another local village and side road. It was a short ride, and I was back in my room and ready for a good night’s sleep. I still had the ache from loneliness but at least I was well fed.


  1. Rick, I've enjoyed reading your travel notes, but I'd like to know when they were written. In particular this article and A Dutch Day. Thanks!

  2. Hi Adam

    Dinner in Italy - September 2006
    Dutch Day - June 2008

  3. In Sept '06 I was halibut fishing in Alaska, and in June '08 I was honeymooning on an Inside Passage cruise on the west coast. What a marvelous, varied, and life filled life we've had the privilege of living!