The Joy of the Unexpected in Traveling

One of my favorite restaurants in the world is also one of the most simple.  From the food and decor to the husband-and-wife team who run the place, Caffe Solaris is an all around modest establishment.  In 2006, we visited Taormina for the first time.  A glitzy resort town, we were disappointed by sub-par food and outrageous prices.  

One afternoon we stumbled into a small deli/convenience store right on the main drag and my mom struck up a conversation with the owner.  His name was Benedetto and he had salt-and-pepper hair and a fiery spirit.  As he was preparing our delicious sandwiches we planned to take away, my mom made the unthinkable request of asking for two different cheeses in the same sandwich.  Benedetto wouldn't allow it.  "You Americans- all you do is eat at McDonald's- you don't know about food," he ranted.  My mom asked him what he knew about America and to our amusement he had spent time in Quincy, MA (the town my mom learned how to drive in!).  We allowed him to make the sandwich the proper Italian way and told him about our difficulty finding good food in Taormina.  He told us to meet him at his friend's place, Caffe Solaris, that evening.  
             A wonderful array of bruschettta

It wasn't too far from the Porta Messina- just off the beaten path.  There were only a few tables outside, overlooking a crumbled ancient theatre, and a few more tables were set up inside.  Benedetto was sitting outside chatting up a New Yorker who was there for the summer.  He beckoned us over and introduced us to Paolo, the owner/chef and his sweet wife, Maria, the server for the entire, albeit small, restaurant.  After the best bruschetta sampler I'd ever tasted, we were hooked and it became our dining spot for the rest of our stay in Taormina.  

We made it our mission to return and when we were fortunate enough to find ourselves in Taormina this summer, we stopped at Benedetto's deli, just a stone's throw from our hotel this time.  The man inside resembled him to a degree but we knew it wasn't Benedetto.  I had remembered to download a picture onto my phone of the entire group in 2006 (along with Benedetto and Paolo) at Caffe Solaris to jog their memory in case they didn't remember us. We asked the man about Benedetto and he told us he was his brother.  We showed him the picture and he looked at it and smiled.  "Where is Benedetto?" my mother asked in Italian.  "In paradiso," he responded.  We were all taken aback.  Benedetto had just passed away a few months earlier in April from an illness.  His kind-faced brother graciously accepted our condolences and confirmed that Paolo was still running Caffe Solaris.  

We managed to find it by memory that evening and we had a lovely reunion with him and his wife.  The food was as good as we remembered it.  At the end of the meal, he came around with shot glasses for the entire table and told us we had to try the Sicilian dessert wines.  We returned to eat there every night during our stay in Taormina and every night he brought us a different digestivo.  He'd come out to our table and chat with my mom during his cigarette breaks.  One of the evenings was his birthday and all his friends sang to him around the bar. 
                                    Fresh spaghetti all'arrabbiata and lasagna the first night
After the first night this visit, we found that Paolo reserved a table for us on the patio every night.
Clockwise from top left- risotto with shrimp, pasta alla carbonara, penne alla norma (a Sicilian specialty), spaghetti alle vongole
Desserts clockwise from left- fresh peaches in white wine, crêpe, cantaloupe

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that the best memories during travel can come when you least expect it.  Even in tourist-centric Taormina, we found a little piece of home in our time with Paolo and his family.  It doesn't hurt that my mom speaks Italian which goes a long way.  But whether or not you are studying another language (which I highly recommend), I wholeheartedly encourage you to push yourself a little outside your comfort zone when traveling, because you will never know when you might meet a new friend.

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