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Swept Away in Felton, California

June 18th, 2011 · No Comments · Eating, travel near home

On Father’s Day, Shelley Buck discovers an exotic destination may sometimes lie quite close to home.

“Write about a cultural stretch,” the instructor in my TEFL* program had told me, raising fantasies about dining on lamb’s eyes or chocolate-covered crickets at some exotic San Francisco eatery. But since it was Father’s Day, and the choice of restaurant was not my call, I wound up being towed along by the hero of the day for a dollop of Italy in Felton, California.

Felton is best known for its steam railroad, a pretty good health food store with a mural on the side, and a couple of small shops which sell attractive crystals, if you happen to want some. I don’t. I should add that Felton also boasts three of the six traffic lights in our unincorporated valley. It’s no Metropolis, but down the road, near the turn-off for the state park with the really big redwoods, there’s this Italian restaurant, set a bit back from the highway. It’s not Italy, but it is, after all, in the San Lorenzo Valley, which sounds a little Italian, if you’re making a vigorous cultural stretch.

“It won’t count for the assignment,” I thought. An American Italian restaurant out here at the edge of the continent would not be ethnic enough. The only cultural stretch here would be the big tab; I’m not used to expensive restaurants. And what about my low-cholesterol diet?  I was telling myself  all this as we were seated – my son, husband, and I – inside on the blond curved-back chairs, at a table with a sheet of butcher paper flung across a mustard-colored table cloth in a restaurant only a  seven miles from home.

“Not Italy,” I was whispering silently as I watched the other diners in their white plastic chairs among market umbrellas in the spreading garden below us, the fading sunlight in the garden gilding their hair. And I was still sure when the blond waitress, all in white, brought our menu, with the word organic prominently displayed on it.

Beyond the ochre-plastered counter which separated us from the kitchen, I could see the cook: He had blue eyes. A ponytail held back reddish hair the color of Thomas Jefferson’s as he maneuvered pans with intensity at a stove surface just out of sight beyond a makeshift work island. “Italian restaurant, ha!” I said to myself in derision.

My son confirmed the impression: “You can’t see the stove because he has a hidden microwave back there – a giant one,” he mocked. He wasn’t going to be seduced by any carefully crafted atmosphere. Nor was I, on Father’s Day, this most American of holidays. OK, it was a nice restaurant, close to home, but Italy, it wasn’t.

And then someone called the cook, “Lucca.”

The bread arrived, cut in long slim slices and studded with sliced nuts. Swiftly, too, arrived two dishes of yellow-green olive oil in heavy commercial china. Four immense cloves of garlic floated in one; the second held a mixture of chopped basil bits and a spoon.

“Do I dip or pour?” I wondered. I did both, anointing the bread, while pausing to stare as a waiter with a goatee and a ring in his ear swept by, impossibly balancing four big plates without benefit of a tray. The heavy plates were piled in a spiral like flying saucers radiating from some invisible core. “That’s gotta hurt,” I thought, then gaped as the waiter set down a platter least 18 inches in diameter before a nearby diner. Who could eat that much? Our own eyes were like saucers.

I could see children at other tables. At the far end of the long dining room, a little girl was stroking the long white hair of a woman sitting next to her. A man passed by us pressing a nearly newborn baby to his chest. In the garden, a young girl, aged eight-and-a-half maybe, sat side-by-side with adults, quietly munching. Nobody was screaming. In fact, the only noises seemed to be the muted clatter of pans, the hiss of the grill, and an aggressive cheerful music like the hurdy-gurdy soundtrack from some early Fellini film.

Orchestrating all of us.

And then our own dinner arrived. Moments later, looking up for a moment from my vast bowl of penne, tomatoes, grill-singed eggplant and pine nuts, I gazed  at the swirl of white-clad plate bearers, at the painted image on the ancient cooler of an ice cream cone with scoops of gelato piled on top like a bunch of balloons. Caught up in the music’s beat, the rushes of steam, observing the ease, the speed, the opulence of the meal, I surrendered disbelief and simply ate.

The diet could wait; I was  in Italy.

*TEFL = Teaching of English as a Foreign Language
Note to readers: This restaurant, sadly, has closed. But there are others. Seek them out.

© Shelley Buck, 2004. Used with permission. Shelley Buck is the author of Floating Point, a memoir of living on a boat just off Silicon Valley during the millennial technology boom.  A paperback edition is due out in July, 2011. She holds a certificate in TESL/TEFL from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

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