I first visited Verona thirty years ago. I was in Venice having lunch with an aunt and two cousins who I had never met before. During the memorable lunch, which you can read about here, it emerged that my eldest cousin, Silvia, sang in the chorus at the Arena di Verona—a well-preserved Roman amphitheater where a summer season of operas are staged in a manner that Cecil B DeMille would be proud of—and was appearing in Aida that evening. A moment of summer madness resulted in my going with her (Verona is about an hour away from Venice) and hearing Verdi’s music soaring up to the stars while a cast of a thousand ballerinas danced on a vast pyramid behind the stage.
After the opera, I had dinner with my cousin and some of her colleagues in one of the street restaurants that fill the area around the arena and some of the backstreets beyond. We discussed the music and the relative merits of that nights’ Aida and Amneris, the latter of which was accused by one of the party of singing ‘like a train’. Finally tucked up on the sofa of my cousin’s Veronese pied à terre, I slept like the fourteen-year-old I was until we woke up, breakfasted in a bar, and then went on a whistle-stop tour of the city. I remember crossing a bridge over the powerful Adige river to enjoy the spectacular views of the hills beyond, and the House of Juliet, Shakespeare’s fourteen-year-old heroine, replete with balcony, which looked for all the world like an opera set from the nearby arena.
These would remain my memories of Verona until I received a mail from my friend Amy Riolo, saying that she’d be in Verona for a few days and could we meet up. Amazing Amy is and American-Italian food writer, chef, and TV personality who I met through my dear friend, the author Monica Bhide. Amy’s background is Calabrian and through her I’ve been learning about the food of that region and am planning a trip there this summer to taste it for myself. Despite becoming very friendly on social media, I’ve never physically met Amy and so I jumped at the chance and on a train, booking a table for Saturday lunch at a typical Veronese Osteria, and looking forward to a lovely chat.
Unfortunately, a strike resulted in Amy arriving in Italy later than anticipated and the meeting never happened. However, the silver lining is that I still have the pleasure of meeting her in person to look forward to, and I still went to the Osteria for lunch.
I arrived in Verona early in the morning and met up with Claudio, who lives in nearby Venice. After an early start and the walk from the train station to the city centre I was ready for breakfast, so we popped into a bar for an espresso and a brioche. It always amazes me that even in tourist centres in Italy, an espresso never rises beyond a euro a cup—unless you’re sitting at the tables in Venice’s Piazza di San Marco, although even there if you stand at the bar like an Italian the prices come right down.
Fortified, we set off, two intrepid explorers determined to cover every metre of the city on foot before lunch. The exercise would mean I could eat more. I discovered a charming city, proudly displaying its ancient Roman history whilst shamelessly exploiting its tenuous links with Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. If Bologna is a city of colonnades, Verona is a city of balconies. The most famous one, in the house of Juliet, is echoed all over the city—sometimes literally. The Hotel Giulietta and Romeo, has not one but two replicas of Juliet’s one stuck on the front of the building: presumably one for Juliet and one for Romeo to stop him feeling left out.
The House of Juliet is pretty much how I remember it, except a lot busier and now adorned with graffiti, lovers notes, and the ubiquitous love locks that recently destroyed part of the Pont des Arts in Paris. Sandwiched between the Romeo and Juliet gift shop and Emporio Armani, it still manages to retain a certain medieval charm. Romeo and Juliet, of course, is fiction. Neither lover really existed, and to my mind Shakespeare based his story on the ancient Greek tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare definitely knew this tale as it features as the play within the play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I think Shakespeare embellished the tale and moved the action to his beloved Italy. It’s worth noting that round the corner from the house of Juliet, another medieval palazzo has been labelled the house of Romeo. Not so popular, but it did have a group of French tourists outside when I went past it.
Away from the House of Juliet, Verona’s streets are remarkably tourist free and its medieval vicoli (alleys) are full of real Italian life. It is an extremely pretty city full of charming churches and archeological surprises, rather like Rome. The area around the Arena is occupied by posh restaurants and cafes with plenty of outside seating, and has an atmosphere rather like the the seafront in Cannes or St Tropez, but without the water. Its place is taken by a large park with benches, trees and a refreshing fountain.
Finally it was time to cross the river and find the Osteria for lunch. I’d booked at the Osteria all’Isolo, a family-run restaurant which I’d picked out of the 2016 edition of Osterie d’Italia, a guide published by the Slow Food movement. I went for two of the dishes recommended in the guide as being authentically Veronese, bigoli con le sardelle, and pastisada de caval. Bigoli is a kind of fresh pasta akin to Tuscan pici or bringoli but made with eggs. Here it was served with a sauce of sardines, fish being a major part of the cuisine of the Veneto (unlike the Valtiberina). The sauce was buttery with a distinctive taste of sardines and complemented the pasta beautifully as well as a glass of local white Soave wine.
As you might have guessed from the name, pastisada de caval, is a horse-meat stew, served with polenta. It’s very rich, the meat having been marinated for at least 24 hours in local Valpolicella wine and then slowly braised into chunks of the most tender, melt-in-the-mouth meat. One of the best stews I’ve had in my life, I’d go back to Verona tomorrow for another plate.
Dessert consisted of Easter colomba cake which had been stuffed with cream and fruit.
The restaurant itself was charming, like the owners, decorated in a classic 1930s style with crisp white cloths on the table.
After lunch, more walking by the river and through the old town discovering the house where Opera legend Maria Callas once lived and the property owned by my heroine Carla Fracci, one of the best ballerinas of all time, both of them having come to the town to work at the Arena.
The shops were full of amazing examples of the local produce, including white asparagus for which the region is famous. Stay tuned for a recipe involving this coming soon. In the patisseries I saw baci di dama (ladies kisses), a sweet from Piemonte which was being marketed under the name of Baci di Romeo e Giulietta (Romeo and Juliet’s kisses!) and a strange looking cake called polenta e osei, a yellow sponge topped with sugar birds which is supposed to resemble a savory dish of the same name and comes from nearby Lombardia.
On the train on the way back, I received a message from Amy to say that she’d just arrived, a little too late unfortunately, but we’ll meet on her next trip to Italy, I know.