Eating Italy

Hannah Ahern Issue: Section:

Writing about food in Italy is something that, let’s face it, has been done before.  A lot.  For years I clipped articles about Italian cuisine and collected guidebooks about Italy, underlining and asterisk-ing the names of restaurants where I ABSOLUTELY HAD TO GO, and I dreamed of the day when I would actually taste pizza in Naples.  Years passed, planned trips to Italy were cancelled for various reasons, and the guidebooks and articles became less relevant.   Like eating at elBulli, a sojourn to Italy got moved down my culinary bucket list to the “not-feasible-now-but-someday” section.  And then,  suddenly, unlike eating at elBulli (which is now impossible because it is closed), due to a few lucky turns of events this year it became feasible.   I jumped at the chance.   With two and a half weeks of vacation, a small budget, a huge appetite, a copy of Fodor’s Italy 2006 (surprisingly still useful six years later!), and two round trip EasyJet tickets to Rome, my boyfriend and I headed to Italy in August to eat, swim, eat, explore, drink, and eat some more.  We took copious notes and tons of photos about the things we ate, constantly inspired by the freshness and simplicity of the food, the incredible respect for regional culinary tradition, and the creativity of cooks and chefs all over the country.  It is one thing to read about what makes Italian cuisine so special, and another thing entirely to taste it.

It was hard to decide what to write about exactly, because we cooked and ate so many extraordinary dishes.  But precisely because there is so much written about Italian food and where to eat in Italy, I wanted to share a few recommendations for some slightly off-the-beaten-path dining options in a few different regions.  Being in Italy at the height of tourist season, we truly relished finding places where there were more locals than tourists, and where the menus showcased the food that was freshest at that time in that region.  The restaurants below fit that description.   If you’re planning a trip to Italy, these eateries are all reasonably priced, informal, and really, really good! 

Puglia

At the beginning of our trip we spent four days in Baia Verde, one of the frazioni   (parishes) of the comune (township) of Gallipoli.  Located in the province of Lecce in the region of Puglia - the heel of Italy’s boot – the towns in and around Gallipoli are some of the most beautiful beach towns I’ve ever seen.  Geographically, the comune of Gallipoli and the other towns around Lecce are relatively close together, making it easy to go to the beach in one town and then out to eat in another.  Each town has its distinct specialties in terms of food and other wares produced, but they all share the relaxed, joyful summer vibe of a fishing community at the height of its season.   Another thing that made it different from the other coastal areas we visited was that, while extremely popular with Italians from other regions of Italy as a summer vacation spot,  there were few to no foreign  tourists to be found in Gallipoli.  Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE looked like they ascribed to the Jersey Shore school of tanning, and I stuck out as embarrassingly pale at first (and painfully sunburned later).   We stayed at the home of a good friend Maria Luisa and her parents, and most of the meals we ate were home-cooked  and could be the subject of another article all their own!  The one night we did go out, though, will go down in memory as one of my favorite meals of all time.  After a day of lying in the sun, picnicking in the woods, reading, napping and swimming in the crystalline waters and caves at the frighteningly beautiful nature reserve of Porto Selvaggio (http://www.portoselvaggio.net/) , Maria Luisa drove us to the nearby village of Lido Conchiglie.  Walking along the waterfront were couples out for a stroll, enormous families heading to dinner, artisans selling crafts made in Italy and various parts of Africa.  A few restaurants dotted the shoreline, with people, laughter and music spilling out onto their decks and the surrounding beach.  We made our way into a noisy, brightly-lit seaside spot called Scapricciatiello, and watched giant platters of shellfish, liters of ice-cold wine sweating in the humidity, and glistening plates of pasta fly all around us.  The tables and chairs were white plastic, and the giant plastic menu doubled as a tablecloth.  We ordered a liter of the house white and asked Maria Luisa what we should order.  We shared an insalata di frutti di mare and oysters on the half shell to start.  My boyfriend ordered frutti di mare in cartoccio – piping hot mussels, firm white fish, clams, and prawns cooked together with tomatoes, wine, onion and fresh herbs inside a little parchment paper “package” – and sopped up what seemed to be a gallon of juicy sauce with the chewy, crusty bread.  But the dish that was life transforming, and which I will spend the rest of my life trying to replicate, was the simple, perfect linguine ai ricci.  Ricci is sea urchin, something I had never tried before and a specialty in Gallipoli in the summer.  The pasta was simple, perfectly al dente, glossy with olive oil, infused with garlic and the silky, creamy sea urchin flesh piled on top with a little chopped parsley.  The urchin was saline and yet sweet, and possibly the most delicious thing I had tasted up until that moment.  I would spend the rest of the trip anxiously scanning menus in every seaside town that we visited to see if there were any offerings with ricci, but I was to be disappointed.  I never saw ricci on a menu again.  Maybe, though, it’s a good thing; I don’t know if any other plate could live up to the impossibly high standard set by that first encounter. 

Scapricciatiello                                                                                                                                                                              

Address: Via Colombo, Lido Conchiglie, 73017 Gallipoli, Province of Lecce,  Italy                          Phone: 0833 208601

 

Campania

Campania, the region of Italy just below Lazio on the West Coast, is a culinary mecca of sorts.  The city of Naples is widely considered the birthplace of pizza, and by many still thought to have the best pizza in the world.  Campania produces mozzarella that has earned Protected Geographical Status from the European Union, as well as DOC status in Italy (denominazione di origine controllata).  Food is a serious matter!  But it’s also something to be relished, savored, lingered-over and enjoyed among friends, of course with a good glass of wine.  Nowhere is that spirit of lingering more apparent than at Da Adolfo in Positano!  Of the restaurants profiled here, this is certainly the most touristy of the three (Zack Morris from “Saved by the Bell” was actually there at the same time as we were), but it’s worth a trip nonetheless.  Accessible only by boat, Da Adolfo is a tiny restaurant nestled on a private beach between jagged cliffs.    We spent a few days in Positano, one of the larger towns on the Amalfi coast, and from the central beach in town you can get a boat to Da Adolfo. 

 The boats depart every day from 10am to 1pm – you just wait at the pier and look for a boat flying a red fish, and then sail the 5-10 minutes along the coast to reach the beach of Laurito.  The views from the boat are breathtaking, and it is freeing to leave the hustle and bustle of the town center.   The boat is free for patrons of the restaurant, and upon arrival you can rent a beach chair and umbrella.   The beach is so tiny that you can leave your belongings without having to worry much, and go back and forth between the restaurant deck, the beach and the ocean as you please.  We heated up in the sun, swam and explored the rocks, lay in the sun some more.  We got some Martini Spritzes  (Martini Rosso with prosecco, on the rocks) and drank them in our beach chairs.  Swam some more.  And at some point we got hungry and decided it was time to try the food.  We meandered up to the restaurant deck, ordered a half-liter of wine, some cozze  (mussels) cooked simply with wine and lemon, and the house specialty.  As a preface, the area in Campania around the Costa Amalfitana is known for the lemons they produce – limoncello is everywhere—and they are big, juicy, gorgeous lemons.   In addition to the astoundingly fresh seafood to be had at Da Adolfo is a dish that captures the essence of this region: mozzarella wrapped in lemon leaves and grilled.  It tastes like sunshine! Salty, creamy, tart, sweet, chewy  - it was a million flavors and textures together in each bite.  We would have ordered more but we ran out of cash; we hadn’t known how good the food would be.   Because of its small size and accessibility only by boat, Da Adolfo manages to maintain both exceptionally high quality and a certain mystical feeling – being there, it feels like you’ve discovered a secret.    Indeed, we encountered a German couple in their 70s who had been coming to the same beach on vacation for 40 years, and they told us that the water at this particular spot had special, purifying properties; no one leaves completely unchanged, and that’s what has kept them coming back.   I am certain that it’s true that no one leaves unchanged, and even more sure that I will go back; what I’m not sure of is whether it’s because of the water or the mozzarella.

Ristorante Da Adolfo                                                                                                                                    

Address: Via Laurito, 40, 84017 Positano, Italy                                                                                  

Phone: 089 875022                                                                                                                                              

Website: http://www.daadolfo.com/                                                                                                                          

 

Toscana

On the last leg of our trip driving from Rome to La Spezia, where we would leave our rental car before heading to Cinque Terre by train or boat, it started to pour.   I was already in a bit of a panic because during the drive I realized we had accidentally stolen the key to our room at the bed and breakfast from the night before –not one of those ubiquitous swipe-card keys, but an antique-looking one that had probably been made a few centuries ago.  Plus, driving on the autostrade makes me nervous (and I wasn’t even driving).    I think before actually going to Italy I had dismissed the anecdotes about how “crazy” Italian drivers are as being charming exaggerations, one of those things that everyone says but that can’t really be true.  I should have prepared myself better.  So just as I’m thinking about how the owners of the bed and breakfast probably think we’re thieves, and how there is probably some kind of medieval curse on the key that we took,  the rain got worse, to the point where there was zero visibility and we needed to get off the road.   And we were starving!  We’d seen nothing of note for miles, no signs indicating any real life/restaurants nearby, but we had no choice.  So we pulled off at the first exit, and drove for about two minutes, and then, as if appearing by magic out of the fog and rain, was a hand-painted sign with some kind of mythical creature and a rainbow on it.  L’ORCO (orc or ogre) it said, and then “everything grilled.”  It was a steakhouse!  A magical, funky, hippie-influenced roadside restaurant with all kinds of salumi, aged beef, and the like.  And come on, happening upon a rainbow in the middle of a storm?  In Tuscany?  It was a sign.  Having spent the ten days prior on the coast in Puglia and Campania, we had eaten seafood almost exclusively.  We were on our way to spend four more days in the Ligurian seaside towns of Cinque Terre, where undoubtedly we’d be eating pesto and more seafood by the boatload, so this was our chance!  Steak!  In Tuscany!   The owner Giorgio, clad in a tie-dye similar to the one employed in the overall décor scheme of the restaurant, manned the enormous wood-burning grill while his wife worked the bar and the kitchen in back.  We shared a selection of prosciutto and bresaola and crostini with the unctuous house-made pate and then steak, the tagliata di manzo.  It wasn’t big enough, and I instantly regretted that we’d decided to share!  The owners were lovely, the local red wine they served perfect, and it really was the best steak of my life.  Oh and while we were eating, not only did it stop raining, but a real rainbow appeared.  If you are in Tuscany, and especially if you get caught in a storm, this place is worth a little detour.

RISTORANTE OSTERIA IL GIRARROSTO L'ORCO  di GIORGIO VULPITTA (or just Osteria dell’Orco)

Address:  6, v. Aurelia Vecchia 58051 Alberese Scalo, Grosseto,  Toscana, Italy

Telephone:  0564 596021

Website: http://www.ristoranteosteriaorco.com/chi-siamo

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