Orvieto - Renee in window  Renee at the window in Hotel Duomo, Orvieto, Italy.

Sometimes you hear a phrase, a question, or a comment, and it sticks in your mind like a barnacle to the bottom of a boat — forever glued to your psyche.  Such was the question asked of my dining companions and me during a recent trip to Orvieto, Italy.

Zeppelin Sign                                      Zeppelin Chef

Do you want normal, or do you want crazy?”  — Chef Lorenzo Polegri

And there are few dining experiences in one’s life so spectacular as to rank among the most memorable.  But when you find yourself immersed in one, you know it is special.

I was in Orvieto, Italy to study the Monastic Approach to Writing under the tutelage of Justen Ahren from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Zeppelin Justen 2

Ristorante Zeppelin had been recommended to him, thus our eagerness to give it a try.

Zeppelin interior                                       Zeppelin interior 2

Shunning menus, Justen asked for Chef Lorenzo Polegri, a handsome Italian with a personality almost too large to fit inside of the stone walls of the restaurant.  He rubbed his chin, a sparkle emanating from his eyes.

                         Zeppelin Chef and Justen

“So, do you want normal — or do you want crazy?” 

This is our invitation to tell him how cooperative we are with innovative dining.  Who would say normal, we asked ourselves, as we replied, “Crazy!” in unison.

Clearly pleased with our answer he retreated to the annuls of the kitchen, bouncing off to the beat of the rock-and-roll music playing in the background, and the dining adventure began.

I almost hesitate to call it dining.  It was a full sensory romp of food, music, wine, writers, and staff — as symbiotic in relationship as that of the truffle to the tree — each giving something of value to the other.

Please keep in mind as you scroll through this visual memory, this was one meal — only one — a single dinner.

It began with wine and bread — naturally — skillfully maneuvered by our adorable waiter, Constantino.          Zeppelin Constantino

Zeppelin First Wine                                      Zeppelin Bread Course

“We’ll start with dessert,” Chef Lorenzo said, and plates of puree swirls landed in front of us.                                         Zeppelin First Course   Savory, with a whisper of sweet, creamy, decadent — the “mmmms” began.

Next was a frittata, followed by the pasta, which had a sinfully generous mound of shaved truffles (just go ahead and hate me now) piled on the plate.  I was in culinary heaven.

Zeppelin 2nd Course - Frittata                                       Zeppelin Pasta Course

“We are the last dinosaurs, still belonging to a lost world of flour, hands and greasy knives.  Where your art is simply making good food to please someone else, to turn a bunch of vegetables, powders and blood into a new creature, a new Prometheus made of energy and flavors.” — Chef Lorenzo Polegri from The Etruscan Chef

A new wine was served — my favorite — a little tannic, mouth drying, rich and full-bodied.

Zeppelin Second Wine

The steak course — if one can call the tender, juicy, perfectly seared meat sitting in a sauce with notes of chocolate and cinnamon simply a steak –was next.  Ribbons of zucchini bookended one side.     Zeppelin Steak Course

“We are authors of small masterpieces, and if the muses of our hell or heaven are around, we will create the best form of art you will experience.  You will be the admirer of that gem, and you will be part of it.”  — Chef Lorenzo Polegri from The Etruscan Chef

And we are not even close to finished.  Out came the dessert…

Zeppelin Dessert

….then cheese.                              Zeppelin Cheese Course  And we couldn’t forget about the digestive.  It was especially important after such a large meal.

Ahhh — Lemoncello!

Zeppelin Lemoncello

We applauded the staff wildly and asked them to introduce themselves.  One, the furthest on the right — Sean Ragusa — was from Chicago, Illinois, and had lived for a time in North Carolina. Zeppelin Staff  He was in Orvieto studying with Chef Lorenzo, who also offers cooking classes.

Zeppelin empty glasses  We could hardly believe the stash of empty glasses marching across the table.

Sated and nearly delirious, I was able to convince my dinner companions to pose for a snapshot or two.

Jarita and Kim                                                                 Kim and Mary

Zeppelin Jarita and Kim                                      Zeppelin Mary and Kim

Mary and I were fascinated with Chef Lorenzo’s book, The Etruscan Chef, and he was kind enough to sign a copy for me.

Zeppelin Book                                       Zeppelin book dedication

Wow!  What an evening.  Justen’s large effusive smile says it all.

Zeppelin Justen

“A chef has to be ready to sacrifice many things, such as time with the family, your son, yourself.  You wonder if one day you will be paid back with a little bit of gratitude…” — Chef Lorenzo Polegri from The Etruscan Chef 

So here is my gratitude Chef Lorenzo Polegri!  A full page dedicated to you and your staff.  Thank you for being a lovely part of my experience in Orvieto, Italy.  I’m coming back for the Truffle Hunting Excursion on your farm!!

“Are we what we eat?” — Chef Lorenzo Polegri from The Etruscan Chef

If so, this meal just turned us all into beautiful sculpture infused with color and texture from the entrees and brought alive by the heat of the wine.

Your turn, dear readers.  What has been your favorite meal, restaurant, or book on cooking, and why?

Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray.  She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food.  She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.