Visitors can sample European culture without leaving the county

Rizzo’s on Georgia Road is under new ownership but still serves German-leaning dishes and desserts including German apple and strudel. The new owner is Brandi Smith (right). Photos by Vickie Carpenter

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Most foreign countries are still only “partially open” to travelers, and a handful, like Belgium and Norway, continue to be “completely closed” to out-of-country travelers. Yet, local opportunities are available to glimpse, taste, and learn about aspects of European culture. And, in this pandemic period, when foreign travel is either prohibitive or imprudent – depending on destination – grasping unique cultural opportunities can provide some fulfillment for individuals missing overseas travel opportunities. 

Franklin, population around 4,000, is home to both a French- and a German-inspired restaurant. Caffé Rel, on E. Main Street, is touted as a “classic French neighborhood café,” and takes food preparation seriously. In fact, its mission is: “It’s about the food.” Chef Richard E. Long has operated the restaurant beside the Hot Spot gas station since its inception in 2004. While the menu includes some American and Italian-inspired items as well, some of the classic French fare featured are such dishes as French pot roast and a signature cordon bleu with an herb mornay sauce. 

Rizzo’s Bakery and Bistro has been owned and operated by Pete and Barbara Rizzo for many years. Both master bakers, the Rizzos are now retired and the new owner is Brandi Smith. The former owners taught her the German method of achieving the baked goods before they handed over the reins. The menu includes American dishes, but is German leaning, with authentic cakes and pies in its dessert cases, including German apple and cherry strudel. Also very traditionally German is Jaeger Schnitzel, a breaded and fried pork cutlet, that is served with German Spaetzle, which is a dumpling-like egg noodle made in-house. 

Bent Willow is a bakery that offers items prepared with traditional European flair: handcrafted batches of slow fermented, wild yeast cultured breads, such as baguettes or artisan loaves like its British-inspired Earl Grey and apricots sourdough, as well as unique baked goods such as blackberry and crystallized ginger scones. Housed in a historic, renovated home on Palmer Street, just behind Main Street in Franklin, the bakery provides an authentically European, stay-a-while experience on sofas, comfortable chairs, and at small café-style tables. 

The Scottish Tartans Museum and Heritage Center on Main Street is the only one of its kind in the United States. People unable to travel to the British Isles will appreciate an education on Scottish Highland dress traditions, such as tartans and kilts; plus, there are plenty of foods to purchase, including shortbreads and lemon curd, as well as woolen and tartan goods for sale. In fact, due to the large Scottish-American heritage community in Western North Carolina, resources are provided to help anyone visiting the museum find his or her heritage tartan and learn more about family origins. The annual Taste of Scotland festival, usually scheduled for Father’s Day weekend is once again being postponed and will not be held this year. However, the Taste of Scotland Society is planning a Ceilidh for Saturday, June 19, at the Rathskeller on Stewart Street with Scottish music, singing, traditional dancing and storytelling.  The Scottish Museum is also holding a Cherokee/Scottish Heritage Celebration on June 19.

Lucios in Franklin provides a traditional Italian foodie experience, but beyond Franklin, yet still in Macon County, are other opportunities for European cultural experiences. Ristorante Paoletti has been in Highlands since 1984. The Italian restaurant, with all menu items in Italian and then described in English, takes patrons on a culinary tour, beginning with antipasti (traditional first course of meats and cheeses and marinated vegetables) and insalate (salads) to pasta and main dishes and eventually ending with dolci (dessert), including creme brulee w/fresh berries and Gelati Della Casa, in-house-made gelato, which is a frozen ice-cream-custard-like Italian specialty. 

Get a feel for a real British tavern by popping into The Ruffed Grouse at Highlander Mountain House, just before entering the Main Street shops in Highland. Located in a renovated English country estate inn, The Ruffed Grouse has overstuffed couches, marble-topped pub tables, and a large wood-burning fireplace. Visitors are encouraged to settle in for remote working and a hearty or simple breakfast, stay for brunch or lunch, try dishes like Wild Boar Ragout or the Harvest Vegetable Platter for dinner, or just hang out in the tavern and sample libations and share a starter, like the Ploughman’s Board of cured meats, cheeses, house pickles, chutney, and grilled sourdough.

Forbes reported April 15 that three European countries recently announced dates for reopening – Greece by mid-May, Malta on June 1, and Denmark plans to reopen to vaccinated visitors on June 26. The United Kingdom may open next month, or at least by July, according to Forbes’ report. However, until locals can get back on track with foreign travel plans, they can at least enjoy some bits of European culture in this mountain community.