Sunday, September 28, 2008

When Bad Service Results in a Great Meal

It was hot. Very, very hot. The sun was intense and the heat was scorching, surprising for the elevation. We had just visited the fascinating castle of Lagopesole, one of the hunting lodges built by Frederick II during his reign. He used Puglia and Basilicata as his stomping grounds and playground and littered the landscape with unique, even odd, castles. Lagopesole is well preserved, though only a portion of it is open to the public. There are secret passageways and ornate stone work, and its sheer mass occupying the top of a crest makes it an enticing stopover. Bryan is very enthusiastic about fortresses and castles, so it was on the list, even if it hadn't been a convenient locale.

We left right at lunchtime and made our way to an osteria in the town below the castle. Chiuso. That's the problem with Mondays. It is a crapshoot if you'll find things open, especially museums and restaurants. We followed a sign to another restaurant, which was open and proudly proclaimed itself as climatizzata, air conditioned. Great!

We settled into a table in the depth of the cavern-like room to find that the promised a/c was not on, despite the fact that the temps were soaring in the 90s (fahrenheit). I had sweat streaming down my back while perusing the menu. We were hot and hungry. We were also resolutely ignored. The waitress floated past our table without giving us a glance, despite our best efforts to get her attention. She seated a large table of workers and immediately took their orders, brought them water and wine...while we stewed in the back. Twenty minutes ticked by without any acknowledgement that we existed and might want to eat. No water, no "I'll be right with you".

Poor customer service is one of my pet peeves. It drives me nuts; I mean, you're in a business to give service to serve them! I got good and ticked off and announced to my hungry hubby that we were outta there. He was less than happy with my decision, because as I've already mentioned, it was a Monday and there were no other choices in that town. For me it was a matter of principle...if they don't want to give me the time of day, why should I beg and then dole out money for the "privilege"? I'd rather lunch on the stale potato chips and mealy apples stashed in the trunk.

We huffed off. No clear destination in mind, as we were winding our way north-ward toward home. I drove while Bryan's stomach grumbled next to me. We descended from the castle-town along a windy road toward a green-carpeted valley with the distant outline of Monte Vulture bulking up ahead.

As we curved uphill again toward Filiano with the desperate hope of finding food, I passed a drive with a sign for an agriturismo proclaiming itself a Locanda. Now, it's not a hard and fast rule, but often "locanda" means that food is served. After another couple of turns I found enough space to pull off and yanked a u-turn to go back, hoping for the good of my marriage that the place was open for lunch. We crested the driveway to find two cars in the wide gravel parking lot and a family, obviously the cook and her family, sitting outside polishing off the remainder of their pranzo. They welcomed us warmly and sat us down in the cool interior where a nice breeze was blowing through the window bringing fresh air from the nearby mountains.

Chilled water and local wine appeared as if by magic. The daughter/waitress asked if we'd like to sample the specialty of the house, the antipasto. We know from experience that a Lucanian antipasto is a meal in itself so we ordered one portion of that and the home-made orecchiete which would come topped with the peperoni cruschi that I adore.

Plates started rolling out within minutes. Bryan gave me a warm glance of contentment. I felt a little smug with my decision to walk out of the hovel, but also knew I was extremely lucky to happen upon this heavenly place. We'd gone hungry on more than one occasion while looking for an open eatery. But no matter; we sipped a little local Aglianico and munched the house-cured prosciutto and fabulous pecorino cheeses (soft cheese, aged traditional pecorino, and super-fresh sheep's milk ricotta) along with the other elaborate nibbles that made up the three generous plates of antipasto. Tuna-stuffed cherry peppers, a pretty little frittata wedge, gooey cheese baked in pastry crust, crunchy bruschetta with the reddest tomatoes I've ever seen, and freshly roasted red peppers, and more.

The heaping helpings of pasta- pillowy canoe-shaped cups called strascinati that soak up the sunny olive oil and pieces of the crispy peppers that have been dried and fried (sooo addictive, those!) filled us up. The breeze cooled us down while the attention of the owners warmed our hearts. They were so genuinely happy to have us there, served us so sweetly and presented us with so much delicious food, we were thrilled to have walked out on the surly girl to find this family-run place instead. Sometimes bad service turns out to be a blessing in disguise.

If You Go: La Locanda del Re, located in the contrada of Gianturco between Castel Lagopesole and Filiano in northern Basilicata. Tell them the americani sent you.

Want to Know More?

Castello di Lagopesole, and some nice photos of the Castello

Aglianico del Monte Vulture

Travel Information for Basilicata


janie said...

Thanks Valerie-I love a happy ending, especially where food is involved!

Anonymous said...

I'm not likely to make it to Basilicata to eat there, but good for you for leaving the other place! Bad service bugs me too.