Aspen Princess: When Aspen becomes a small town again
“Would you mind if we didn’t go to the party?” Mom asked, cringing as she braced herself for my response, her face a little pinched as if reacting to a bad smell. “Dad and I can just stay here and go for a hike.”
We’d been invited to Ruben and Viola’s birthday party at L’Hostaria. Ruben was turning 40 and it was Viola’s 18th, milestones each. The only two words she needed to understand were “L’Hostaria” and “party,” but apparently, I hadn’t adequately communicated that.
If you don’t know Ruben, you either haven’t been living here that long or you are on a strict diet and understand that it’s impossible to walk into L’Hostaria and not get caught up in the eating and the drinking and the merriment. He’s the chef of all chefs, and one of the nicest guys in town, always coming out from the kitchen to say hello, to make us feel like we matter.
Viola is the elder daughter of owners Tiziano and Enrica Gorton. Tiziano is movie star handsome and funny as hell, his mind always going a million miles an hour. His wife, Enrica, is my inspiration at yoga: We’re the same height only she’s about 20 pounds lighter, a couple of years older, and 10 times more flexible. She makes lifting her foot up over her head look effortless. Whenever I’ve asked her how she stays so super fit, slim and oh-so-flexible, she launches into a lengthy explanation about her 30-day detox programs, her roster of wellness professionals, and her rigorous yoga practice, the song of her Italian accent making it all sound that much more impressive and sophisticated.
I’m always like, “Oh.” And that’s the end of that. Let’s just say I run out of excuses when I compare myself to her.
Everyone treats you like family at L’Hostaria, which I believe is one of the reasons it’s one of the longest-running and most successful restaurants in a town where restaurants turn over as fast as the weather changes in springtime. Maybe it’s an Italian thing, those bear hugs from the manager Fabrizio, and the kisses on both cheeks that really do make me feel like a princess. It could be the food, the handmade pasta that’s soft as velvet and worth every calorie, or the house-made burrata cheese that’s so sweet and buttery it’s reminiscent of a first kiss. The truth is, it’s better than any Italian restaurant I’ve ever tried in Brooklyn (I was so disappointed), and that’s saying a lot.
Despite the magic (or maybe because of it), Viola and Ruben have been celebrating their birthdays together since Viola was a baby, a testament to the longevity of friendship and Ruben’s loyalty to the restaurant.
“Yes, I would mind if you skipped the party,” I said to my mother, doing nothing to keep the irritation out of my voice. “This is an amazing opportunity to experience an Aspen institution at a private party.”
Oh, I knew what she was thinking: Aspen is a snooty place full of rich, pretentious people who walk around dressed like they expected to be followed by paparazzi; I don’t have anything to wear; I won’t know anyone; I don’t want to eat a big meal in the middle of the day and get heartburn; and why is it that I still have to listen to my annoying daughter when she is almost 50 years old, for Christ sakes?
I listed the seventeen reasons I was not going to let her squirm out of this until I received a chorus of “OK, OK, OK,” from her and my dad, hands held up in surrender.
Here’s what I told her:
Aspen in the offseason is a special place. It’s like seeing someone without makeup for the first time, how they look bare in a way that finally lets some of their true beauty shine through.
It’s also when the community comes out from beneath their winter grind, whether that means gondola laps every morning without fail, or working double shifts when the money is good, or making the rounds at all the season’s biggest parties and social events. It’s when things slow down enough to be able to find a place to park or not have to wait for a table or clamor through a busy crowd for a drink. Going about your daily business (grocery store, post office, etc.) becomes a social event simply because you know almost every single person you pass in the streets.
It’s when Aspen becomes a small town again.
Last week I wrote about how we so often misunderstand each other. I think it’s the same way with Aspen’s stigma, its reputation as being this place defined by the rich people who own homes here.
But the real Aspen still exists at places like L’Hostaria, those long-standing, locally owned institutions where everyone knows one another. It’s also at special occasions like this, a birthday party where the riches are shared, not paid for at an unreasonably high price.
My parents quickly understood this as they were greeted warmly and made to feel at home. They marveled at the delectable spread of raw oysters, smoked salmon, arugula salad, porchetta, spare ribs and crab cakes. They raved about the wine, indulged in the Champagne and couldn’t stop talking about the cake.
But mostly, they were able to appreciate what it is I love so much about Aspen, to experience for themselves this unique community of fascinating people who are as generous and welcoming as they are kind. There is no snobbery here, no pretention, no flash. Just a beautiful meal at a long table full of laughter and memories in the making — and a room full of new and old friends.
Isn’t that what small-town life is all about? And for those of us who really, truly love this place, Aspen will always be just that.
The Princess is stuck at home with a sick babe today. Email your love to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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