VACONE, Italy — One of my favorite parlor games with fellow travelers is this question: What’s the most romantic place you’ve ever been? Mine is French Polynesia. Turquoise water. Torches on the beach. Palm tree forests. Green mountains stretching to the sand. Polynesian music drifting across the water onto the deck of your sailboat. Nothing in the world can top it. I’d get married just to have an excuse to go there on a honeymoon. It’s like foreplay 24-7.
But I’ve added a new category: What’s the most romantic restaurant you’ve ever been?
Again, this isn’t even close. I’ve been there twice and I haven’t even eaten. No need. The atmosphere of Solo Per Due is like something out of a game show, where contestants see if they can keep from mauling each other before they finish their salad. Solo Per Due is Italian for “Only For Two.” It gets its name from how many people it serves a night. That’s right, two. That’s it. They have one table. That’s it. The couple hand picks their dishes made from ingredients found in the surrounding countryside. They hand pick the music. They call the tuxedoed waiter with a silver bell. The pink 19th century home is lined with artwork and Roman busts. A fireplace is in the corner. It’s a place only a Latin poet like Horace could describe. He too bad he didn’t stick around. He lived in the remains of an ancient villa on these grounds in the 1st century B.C.
If couples get carried away after dinner and can’t POSSIBLY wait until they get back to Rome, a nearby cottage is awaiting a spontaneous rental. You can also rent fireworks, preferably at the exact moment when you pop the question and not at the exact moment of your cottage tryst.
Solo Per Due has been the source of some very good freelance opportunities for me. I learned about it in 2002 from my photographer buddy, Antonello Nusca. He’s not only the best photographer I ever worked with, but he has an eye for a great story. I came up then to do a story for The Chicago Tribune and recently returned to do a piece for the Los Angeles Times. The L.A. Times ran 400 words last month. There is so much more to tell.
It hadn’t changed much in 12 years. It’s located in Vacone, a tiny ville 25 miles north of Rome and so small I haven’t met a single Roman who’s heard of it. It’s nestled in the rural Sabine Hills amidst a cluster of cypress and palm trees. We stroledl down a walkway lined with with ground-level torches and marble statues. We walked inside and the table looked set for Prince William and Catherine. Three yellow candles and yellow flowers adorned a white tablecloth with an ice bucket and wine set. Two overstuffed red couches faced each other in front of a fireplace with a mantle covered with flowers and more candles.
Over the top? You bet. Too much? Maybe. Cupid would walk in and point an arrow at his frontal lobe. Apparently, women on first dates get so intimidated by the obligatory expectations (After all, 25 percent of the guests are Italian men.) that they run out and all the way to Rome.
But over the top is the point to the father-son ownership team, Remo and Giovanni di Claudio. They embrace the romance that is Italy like archaeologists hug the dirt of their digs around Rome. I’ve interviewed the owners twice and Giovanni, the son, gets so emotional talking about Solo Per Due I keep thinking he’ll start weeping. Short and wiry with carefully coiffed short black hair and a willowy beard, the 46-year-old di Claudio looked up at the ceiling and paused when I asked him what he likes most about his job.
“There isn’t a better emotion than working to give happiness to somebody,” he said. “If you are a doctor, you can treat somebody. It’s a great emotion for you. In this case, this emotion is not felt in the end of your job, but at the beginning.”
They opened the restaurant in 1988 as a means to show off Italian romance. No restaurant in the world has only one table. Advertising itself as “The World’s Smallest Restaurant” stretches a long way past the Sabine Hills. Many people who’ve heard my tale of this restaurant bristle at the idea of a waiter standing around watching you eat. No worries. Remo is gone behind closed doors. That’s what the bell is for.
“Our characteristic was maintain our identity and not to invade the privacy of other people,” Giovanni said. “We are out of the celebration of the dinner. We do not take part in this celebration and we try to not appear physically as chefs. We don’t want to be protagonists. The protagonists are the two people, the guests, not us. The most important thing is the two guests.”
The surrounding countryside is rich with sheep’s-milk cheese, wild mushrooms and fruit. They get fish direct from the Adriatic Sea. They have their own wine distributor. Some ingredients are rare. One rice dish with pumpkin requires a black rice that cost $10 to $15 a pound. I asked Giovanna to describe a typical dinner which was difficult. He just threw out an example:
After prosecco (Italian champagne), the couple has a series of fried vegetables dashed with herbs. Then comes duchessa (pureed potatoes), followed by a rustici caldi (hot puffed vegetable tart) and fiori di zucca (squash blossoms, an Italian delicacy). The first course could be risotto with chestnuts and lentils. Or it could be pasta, always handmade, filled with wheat boiled in milk and ricotta cheese. For the second course, guests could have the famous Florentine steak accompanied by a salad made from arugula or fresh greens with dried fruit. Desserts range from cakes to cream-filled Italian chocolates. The final touch is caffe and grappa.
I interviewed one guest named Chris Endean, an English journalist living in Rome, about the experience and he waxed poetic for 10 minutes about the romance of the place. When I asked about the food, he paused. Frankly, he said, he couldn’t remember.
“You realize during the meal that they plan the whole evening around you,” Endean said. “You feel duty bound to keep eating. We had five or six courses. Then you wake up to a beautiful sunrise. Olive trees are in front of you. There’s a clear blue sky. It’s warm. It’s a special time.”
I didn’t eat. I don’t accept freebies from people I write about and even The Chicago Tribune and L.A. Times can’t afford this place. It is 250 euros a person (about $320). But the price does include the flowers, music and one of 10 wines. Transportation from Rome is an additional 250 to 590 euros. You can request three levels of fireworks, which will add 1,900 to 3,200 euros to the tab. They can be set off the moment a marriage proposal is whispered. The cottage nearby is 180 euros per couple. Yes, it’s crazy expensive.
Yet they were booked for two months (they also take one booking a day for lunch) and already had bookings for 2016.
The di Claudios have some good stories. There was the one about the woman who brought her cancer-stricken father for one of his last dinners before he died. American songwriter Bethany Rubin was so moved by her meal she wrote a song called “Solo Per Due,” a love song, of course. Some couples come the night before their divorce is finalized. “The last supper,” Remo said with a smile. Then there was the brother who took his sister. She was totally befuddled (confused, put off?) by the whole gesture. All she did was eat. The brother was so upset, the di Claudios gave him his money back.
“If there is not love between the two people,” Giovanni said, “there is no meaning.”
This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and not just because of the price. Rome is not known for its five-star romantic restaurants. It’s known for its inexpensive, authentic trattorias run by the same family for three generations. These are attractive to Romans who like their restaurants to resemble their kitchens. Romans go out to eat when they’re simply tired of cooking. Many are busy, brightly lit rooms that are about as romantic as Yankee Stadium.
Solo Per Due reminds them of what it means to be Italian, what it means to be in love. Yes, soon, it also reminds them of what it means to be broke. No matter. I’ve heard tourists say food around Rome is so good it’s almost sexual. At Solo Per Due it is sexual. It’s sensual. “Romance” starts with R-O-M for a reason. The di Claudios combined the most romantic city in the world with the most romantic restaurant in the world to create a volcano of a romantic evening.
Yes, the volcano image’s sexual innuendo was, indeed, intended.