I so love meeting unusual people, don’t you? And I love funky eating and drinking experiences. It’s been my great fortune to do a lot of sojourning in foreign countries where you often have the opportunity to come across interesting eateries and the quirky expats who run them.
I lived for years in Ghana, West Africa. In the capital of Accra you could get the best authentic English breakfast in, of all places, a car repair shop. It was called the Pit Stop and was owned by a British person. You could eat your eggs, bacon, beans, sausages and fried bread with a view of a collection of cars in various states of decay and repair. What made this Englishman run a repair shop cum restaurant in Africa? I never found out.
Also in Accra, an eccentric Italian chef had set up an eatery in what looked like two shipping containers put together. So today let me tell you about my first dining event there. I’ve fished this tale out of my expat journals and it’s written in the present tense, and no, I do not now live in Accra. So here goes:
La Trattoria Romana is a small restaurant coveted by discerning gourmands of the expat tribe here in Accra. The chef and owner goes by the name of Giorgio, a good solid Italian name.
Friends have waxed euphoric about Giorgio’s cooking and my man and I are eager to give it a try. So one night six of us journey through this sweltering tropical African city in search of his shipping container dining establishment.
Joyful Italian music greets us as we enter the restaurant, a small space full of people and cheer. Lovely aromas add to the ambiance, as do the huge murals depicting Roman antiquities — the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum. The décor gets you in the mood for fun and frivolity before you’ve even started on the vino.
We are greeted by Giorgio himself. He’s all smiles and enthusiasm and I am getting kissed left, right and left again, which makes me feel real special because I’ve never laid eyes on the man. He shakes hands with the males of our little clan and acts as if we are long lost friends.
Acrobatics ensue as tables and chairs are jostled around to make room for us in the full, cramped place. The table cloths, I notice, are a mismatched collection of old-fashioned grandma affairs, imprinted or lovingly embroidered with designs of birds, flowers and fruits.
Giorgio explains about the wine and suggests we try a red or white from Sardinia, newly imported, or so we gather from his Italian. His English is severely limited and mostly we don’t get what he says. So we tell him to bring it on, which is basically what you do here we’ve been told.
There is no menu. The way it goes here is that Giorgio cooks and you eat. As if you were invited to be a guest in his home. First he brings us a plate with an artful collection of crostini, then a plate with tender beef carpaccio in a vinaigrette. Raw meat in tropical Africa? Well, I just hope he knows what he’s doing.
We eat. We drink. We enjoy. Then I’m stopped short in the middle of chewing an olive, when, to my surprise, Giorgio suddenly breaks out in song. We listen, transfixed, as he sings of Bella Roma, the beauty of his home town, in a deep voice full of longing. We applaud when he is finished and he continues with his duties.
When we’ve consumed the various antipaste, Giorgio comes over and describes the main dish, using many words and many gestures. What we get out of his enthusiastic mixture of Italian and English is that we’ll get penne with something or other. When we fail to understand what the “other” might be, he goes to the kitchen and returns with a plate bearing three humongous lobster tails, of a size I’ve never found in the fish market here. He practically swoons explaining how good they are, saying the meat will be mixed into the penne. We say bring it on.
(The Ghanaian lobsters fished from the Atlantic waters are rock lobsters and do not have big claws.)
We talk and drink our wine and watch the goings on. This is not the Olive Garden in the US, or your typical Italian restaurant in my native Holland. Giorgio is flirting with his customers and now and then breaks out in song, serenading a person here and there. We wonder what his story is. I’d love to find out. Why is this man here, in Ghana, running a restaurant? He does not have a Ghanaian wife, we know. Is he a refugee from the law in Italy? Running from an Italian wife? The mafia? All three? As we drink our second bottle of Sardinian wine we come up with more and more exotic scenarios.
The time arrives when I need to avail myself of the restroom and go in search of it. It looks fine, has all that is needed and even more. Such as a window that opens up into the kitchen, I kid you not. And I see toiletry items – a tooth brush, toothpaste, and a razor neatly perched on a shelf above the sink. It looks like Giorgio shares his bathroom with his guests.
Our plates of pasta are delivered with a flourish. They are beautiful to look at and we all dig in. There is lobster meat in abundance and the sauce is a work of art. I am not a food writer so all I can say is that it’s the most delicious pasta I have ever had. (There will be competition in the years to come as I will visit Italy on various occasions.)
There is no meat course, as would be the Italian way. Giorgio has given up on cooking them, we’ve been told, because the crazy foreigners never want one. Well, who has room after the fabulous pasta?
We have a choice of three desserts, Giorgia tells us: crème caramel, plain ice cream and his own creation, Saint George. He gives the name in English and we all find it quite hilarious. He offers up and ecstatic description of his own artistic inspiration involved in the creation of this masterpiece. Not that we understand much of it, but needless to say, we cannot pass up this gustatory delight. We all want the Saint George.
It is cubes of cake, drenched in Drambui and topped with ice cream.
This consumed, it is our turn to be serenaded with an opera about the beauty of Rome, of Italy, or something like that. Saint George belts it out with great passion and we sit there with stupid smiles on our faces, but enjoying it none the less.
After this he presents us with a liqueur on the house, coffee-cream. How nice is that?
For the equivalent of twenty dollars a piece, we are out of there. Not bad for an evening of great food and wine, including live entertainment by a saint.
It takes all kinds to make this an interesting world.
* * *
What funky types have you come across in your expat life or in your travels around the globe? Dig around in your memory and share the fun, or horror, or . . .