A string of melodic words we didn’t understand trailed her “Ciao!” but her raised brows and the universal gesture to her watch told us the restaurant had closed for the afternoon. It was a quarter past two, after all, and we were in Italy. We turned our empty bellies from the osteria with polite half-smiles and hiked back to the town square.
Such had been our luck as novice travelers in Europe. We were on a second honeymoon after a sudden deployment stole away the first year of our marriage. After two weeks of meandering through Alsace, Bavaria, Prague, Vienna, we had reached the Italian Alps and obviously still had not learned that Europe does not operate on American hours.
“We should have gone to Disney World,” my husband groused. “There you can see Europe and eat anytime.”
I might have countered that a week at Disney was hardly the same as an adventure in actual Europe. But any sustenance from the day-old croissant with Nutella that I’d eaten for breakfast at the hostel had worn off hours ago and I could see his point.
Before we reached our rented Jetta, a voice called out to us. Hope rising, we went back to the charmingly crooked doorway of the restaurant and followed the hostess’s beckoning hand inside. Apparently they were willing to make an exception. She led us past the kitchen into a dining room. Pristine plaster walls and earthen floor tiles with a handful of tables greeted us. Our hostess seated us across from the only other customers—a jovial multigenerational party of eight. A baby dozed in a man’s lap as the adults lingered over wine and the vestiges of their midday meal.
We sunk into simple wooden chairs thanking the woman profusely. She gave us menus and ducked her head down bashfully, dimples gracing her cheeks.
Our travel-numbed minds struggled to decipher the options on the menu. This wasn’t France where we could skate by on my husband’s college French classes. It also wasn’t Germany or the other bustling cities we’d visited where there was always someone on hand who spoke some English. This was Italy’s equivalent of a one-stoplight town, up a mountain road filled with so many switchbacks I wasn’t sure we’d survive the drive back down.
My husband homed in on recognizable foods like polenta. Risotto. Gnocchi. My greedy gut demanded protein, though, so I attempted to locate a meat dish. My decade-old high school Spanish sent me looking for the word Carne. Spanish and Italian are mutually intelligible, right?
Our server returned with water and an earnest desire to please. She waited while we guzzled down the glasses.
“Okay?” she asked.
“Okay,” we said.
“Okay,” She repeated, pulling out a pen and pad.
We dithered, casting helpless glances at the two-page menu printed in Kunstler script.
“Do you have chicken?” I searched fruitlessly for the word pollo.
The girl tilted her head, chestnut ponytail swinging with the lilt of her words. “Um. Sorry. No English.”
“Carne?” I ventured.
Her eyes lit and she confidently stabbed my menu in several places with her pen, rattling off in Italian as she went. The final place her pen landed caught my attention. Its description contained words I could understand like pappardelle, porcini, and carni de cervo.
“Just pick something.” My husband’s words had an edge.
“What’s this?” I pointed to the last offering hoping it was meat, pasta, and mushrooms. Regardless, I was about to order it.
The girl understood my questioning expression and lopsided shrug, but didn’t know how to answer. She pursed her lips and tapped the pen on her forehead. A moment later amusement flickered across her face. Then, standing tall, she triumphantly stated, “Bambi’s father!”
We stared at her and then all three of us exploded into laughter.
I held up two fingers, nodding vigorously.
Twenty minutes later we enjoyed the best meal of the trip: tender chunks of venison nestled in thick egg noodles and drenched in sage-flecked mushroom cream sauce. The simple richness comforted and welcomed us to fully enjoy the unexpected hospitality from an unnamed girl at the sole eatery in a Dolomite village—our own personal EuroDisney.
Cover image by Bruna Branco.