"Did we pack the wine?" "Yep, it's in the bottom of the picnic basket." "What about napkins?" "Yes dear, we have it all, the plates, glasses, forks, you name, we've got it." "Ok, let's load up." Down the highway and right on a roadway that will head up the mountain. The layout is genuinely just one switchback after another, often with no view other than the towering trees that surround. Sun peaks through creating a mosaic of green hues. Houses, or mostly 'California mountain shacks' pass by. "Don't drive so fast. The white bean dip will spill!" Quick left. "I'll drop you guys, you take the stuff and I'll park." A sneaky way of evading the task of carrying all the weighty items we've hauled. I park just down the road and run into three friends. We greet, hug and walk together, passing under the archway that has heralded this place since, well, pretty much as long as anyone here can remember.
Welcome to Italian Village. First, Pezzolo's Resort, built likely in the twenties, was the go-to summer weekend destination of the San Francisco North Beach Italians, most of whom owned the neighborhood's famous restaurants. Unassuming cabins surround the perfect rectangular pool, which I believe was likely added in the ‘40s or ‘50’s. Forget about pavers, kidney shapes, fake rock waterfalls or any greenery in the central courtyard. Instead, you'll find tiered concrete, painted iron railings, picnic tables and, of course, a bocce ball court. There is also a communal kitchen in a screened hut with massive pots hanging by nails in ancient redwood beams; water, burners, a couple of refrigerators and a 4x6 outdoor charcoal/firewood grill pit. And honestly, that's it, the quintessential no-nonsense family resort design of the mid-century, all about the fun, forget useless decorative frills.
One can easily picture the resort staff sweeping off the winter's fallen pine needles and dusting the cabin furnishings just before the Memorial Day opening. You can see the carivaning cars, pulling in under same said archway, delivering pale city residents by the drove to spend their summer among the massive trees and in the pure mountain air. Children leaping out and directly into that pool, leaving the adults to unload. And you can see the staff again, walking cabin to cabin, final check and hear the final door lock the Tuesday after Labor Day. Year after year after year.
For decades, the Angeli's and the Romano's, and just about every other name ending in o, i or a frequented Pezzolo's and somewhere during this time the Saturday night dinner came to be a happening. It was uninterrupted when, in the '70s tourism in Lake County dwindled, and the resort was sold as, basically, a country club with condos. Most of the buyers were the children and grandchildren that had spent every childhood summer at the resort. Italian Village was born and the Saturday night dinner rolled on. Each family takes a turn cooking and all the teenagers of the Village serve. It is every Saturday night, rain or shine, of the summer. Tables are managed by the families for 10, 20 or 40 and the only way to attend is to garner an invitation. Nope, I'm not kidding. You have to be invited. It took us a year and half! Saturdays are a challenge for us because we are often working. This year when I knew we'd have visiting friends, I contacted our host in April. The tables are often filled for every Saturday before the summer even begins.
Guests wander in, laden with boxes, baskets and wine bags – we are in wine country after all – shouting and waving to those they know across the sea of red and white plastic table cloths. As with the other hundreds of attendees, we bring plates, utensils, glasses, napkins, wine and appropriate appetizers to share with our table of 40. At our first village dinner, thank heavens I brought sunflowers in mason jars because I didn't know about the appetizers. The kind folks next to us shared homemade salamis, breads and artichoke crostini. This year, we were on it! Sunflowers again, as they have become our trademark, white bean dip, focaccia, tiny meatballs and caprese salad from the neighbors who joined us. Baskets are emptied, places are set, wine is opened. Time to toast, chat, sip and dine.
The meal is timeless and almost entirely changeless. It varies by family only to their degree of cooking skill. We begin with a lettuce salad, some tomatoes, slices of white 'french' bread and a white paper plate of thinly sliced salmi arranged in a perfect spiral. Following comes the pasta. The vast majority of the time it's a tube or bowtie pasta in a red sauce. Occasionally, pesto. This is followed by beef or pork, roasted potatoes and green beans. In the end, there will be some sort of dessert but more importantly, some sort of 'cello' such as limoncello or, as in the case last week, a homemade berrycello by one of the guests at our table. Toasts abound. Here's the fact of the meal – it plays second fiddle every time. Yes, it's ok. I have a soft spot for it because it harkens to my family's kind of Italian food, with tomato paste sauces and very well done meats and it’s a perfectly fine meal. I said in my first column that even the worst experience couldn't ruin a spectacular meal. On the flip side, a spectacular experience can absolutely make a perfectly fine meal perfectly stellar!
Announcements are made. Thank you to the cooking family. Thank you to the servers and don't forget a tip bowl for the kids – stainless steel and very large – will be making the rounds. Who won the week's horseshoe competition and tonight, after the dinner, there will be moonlight bocce. All are welcome, thank you for coming, hope to see you again soon. As the offspring of Mittino’s and Torretta’s, the family names roll into my ears like a happy tune. Meandering occurs with glasses of wine. Introductions are made. People spy an aquantence at a far off table and wander over to say how ya' been. Eventually, plates are cleared, repacked and it is time to make our exit under the archway and return down the mountain.
Italian Village is a truly unique experience. What happens behind that archway, under the towering pines of the mountain, is nothing shy of magical. It's a real event, not staged. No one is there to impress. Everyone is there to see their friends, eat some food and forget the problems of the world for a few hours. I never want to leave. Our friend Rich wants to move in. It's just that kind of place with just that kind of people.