Saturday, September 22, 2012

Life in Italy mirrors life everywhere else. No surprise there. People go to work, attend school, raise their children, shop, play sports and look forward to weekends to mention a few. What especially distinguishes Italy from would-be competitors, however, is its cuisine. Today it is ubiquitous, found along the smallest of streets to the main boulevards of the greatest cities. The cooking and hospitality on the home front where della nonna (grandmother's) secret recipes still survive in the hearts of the next generation of cooks is the best to be found. Its specialness lies in the use of the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients. When you discover that especially notable place to have dinner out with friends and family from among the thousands that vie for your attention you cherish it like a jewel, defend its reputation like you would the honor of your favorite sports team and sing its praises to all who will listen. The wonderful part of the discovery process, however you go about it, particularly for the typical spaghetti and meatball American, is that you are rarely served a bad meal. There is great enjoyment in the hunt ......

Dining Among Dukes and Brigands

By this point Maria Elena had had it. "Let's turn back". Sage advice and I’d taken it before. She didn't care how attractive the promised place at the end of this road might be, she just wanted out. It was a bumpy, potted, winding road we were trying to negotiate down the side of a ridge toward the sea far below. We should have known better given the ill omen at the very top of this so called road when we'd first exited the paved road and had to stop to avoid a pair of twisting turning black snakes writhing across the road in the heat of midday. They were entwined around the length of each other and in a corkscrew manner slowly moving across the road. Though I'd stopped, I didn't get out to investigate any closer. No telling their tolerance for interruption especially when involved in what I suspect was some sort of intimate moment. After the recent scorpion scare there was no telling if these were poisonous or, like a cobra, might stand erect if I approached. No need pushing it for the sake of curiosity. As added security we'd even rolled up the windows. Talk about an overlapping belt and suspenders defense! We were looking for a hotel we'd seen advertized on the main road. However nice it might prove to be or not, I agreed, it was time to give up, fight another road, another day.

We had hoped to stay in Tropea just a little farther south along the coast of Calabria. We had even briefly visited but found it overcrowded and snarled with traffic, not the picturesque seaside resort we'd always imagined. So we had backtracked some, saw signs advertizing interesting sounding places and investigated a few only to discover, as in the case of 'adder lane', that the hype, if we managed to get there, far exceeded the reality.

Eventually we came upon a sign in the vicinity of Vibo-Valentia and followed its directions to the three-star Hotel Villaggio Granduca. Again down a side road toward the sea, nowhere near as bad as before, we made our way along a somewhat paved lane following signs here and there until we arrived at the elaborate compound of the Gran Duca. Entering an open gate I parked in the Duca’s parking lot, got out and tried to find someone, even going as far as to peek through glass panel doors on the first level. The place was a ghost town, i.e. deserted, with not one soul or single car around. I wondered if the place was actually open for business. Still looking for proof of life I walked around back and found what appeared to be the main entrance. The check-in desk, though protected by a roof, was on an outside deck a few steps up from an expansive paved open area, bigger than the town square piazzas of many an Italian town. In its center wasn’t an old well or dribbling fountain but a massive tiled swimming pool with a ‘fountain island’ and a wading pool for small toddlers. A pile of removed broken tiles by the side of the pool explained why the pool was empty. There was clearly a leak somewhere in the bottom of the pool and from the size of the bare space where the tiles had been removed, it was reasonable to conclude they didn't have a clue exactly where the leak was. Back in the car, still somewhat stunned by the wide-open abandoned nature of the place, we drove off. We hadn’t gotten but a few houses away when a man appeared in the street and waved for me to stop. First it had been a snake and now blocking our path this elderly man. As I slowed to a stop, windows still up, I wondered if we had come upon some sort of “neighborhood watch”, Italian style, and we were about to get bit after all.

A neighborhood watch of sorts it apparently was. However, our presence had been noticed not by some gendarme or random homeowner but by the owner of the Granduca himself, who although named Francesco, I soon would refer to as the 'Duke'. He was a short wiry old chap usually sporting two protrusions from his face – his nose and a cigar! His was one of those knurly cone-shaped cigars, wide at the ash, narrow at the lips. We appreciated his limited command of English for he explained that the hotel, though appearing abandoned, was open and if we would like to see a room he'd take us there. Turned around and back once again by the pool we climbed a spiral staircase to the second floor. I'd describe the design of the hotel as unique. Think of two stunted towers entered by way of separate spiraling staircases open to the elements, one on either side of a covered raised patio somewhat like a hotel lobby, although outside, that led into a grand dining room. This dining room appeared to occupy the entire lower level. Everything looked sparklingly new. In fact the complex was relatively new. Solid rich looking wooden doorframes hinted that building this structure had been an expensive undertaking. The 'Duke' even pointed out three other multi-story buildings beyond a fence used for spill-over guests. About then I was thinking of elevating the 'Duke' to at least princely status with a penchant for the game of Monopoly with houses on every block! There'd be no spillover tonight, however, for following a brief tour and taking a room with a balcony overlooking the "Coast of the Gods", we discovered that our suspicions were correct, there were no other quests! When we inquired about a place to eat that evening the 'Duke' replied "Qui, naturalmente" (Here of course) and that 8 pm downstairs in the dining room would be just fine. We asked if we might be able to get something to drink, somewhere in the meantime and he said he'd gladly bring something to our room shortly. Imagine, room service from a would be prince! A little later as we sat on the balcony Francesco did return with beers for Mare and me. It had taken him some time to find the keys to the kitchen! Final proof we were alone and the place was truly empty came back in cold reality when Mare, getting into the shower, sensing the rush of cold water shouted that there wasn't any hot water! We could only imagine what dinner would be like.

When we spiraled downstairs later for dinner and approached the doors to the dining room we found a group of men and women relaxing on couches. Finally we thought, though not hotel guests, then at least some fellow dinner guests. We were wrong. As we approached they scattered like soldiers called to battle stations. In addition to Francesco, these were people he'd called in to support our dinner. There was a chef and two women to assist him. In case we wanted pizza, there was a pizzaiolo (pizza man) in charge of a wood-fired oven. To top it all, a young waiter named Tony, who could speak English well, had been recruited and stood by reacting to our every motion or nod. We felt like a royal couple dining at Versailles for the room was vast, ornate, more on the order befitting a wedding, if not a coronation.

Mare started with something close to lox and bagels less the cream cheese and capers. The menu presented it as Cornetti di Salmone affumicato su crostini di Pane Nero, bite-sized smoked salmon on toasted black bread followed once again by her favorite, a white pizza. The pizzaiolo must have been grateful that he hadn't come for naught. My prima was Risotto con fave e frutti di Mare, a seafood risotto of tiny clams, shrimp and little crayfish cut in half the long way, mussels and strangely, green fava beans, but then the name of the dish told me that. The rice was a small portion well presented. As a secondo I went for more seafood, a Fritto Misto. For dessert we shared a molded milky flan, which they refer to as panna cotta, topped with a mint leaf and slices of strawberry. Add the wine and everything was just delicious. We would have told our neighbors at nearby tables but there still weren't any, late by now as it was!

Our upscale meal at the Granduca had been a far cry from one only a few days earlier. Though nowhere near as elegant, I rather liked it more. Maybe the presence of other groups at nearby tables breaking the silence barrier had something to do with it. I enjoy my own company but I also like background noise - the sound of a radio or TV even when I'm not paying it much attention. In Thailand years back, I'd gone so far as to give up my private trailer to bunk in with the rest of my crew. This less formal noisier meal had been at an odd sounding place named “La Locanda Ninco Nanco”. The restaurant's name is derived from the nickname of a famous 19th century brigand from the Calitri area. A brigand, a word we hardly use these days or at least I hardly if ever have used, refers to someone who lives by plunder, something on the order of an inland pirate or in our terminology, a bandit - a "stand and deliver" type here known to be especially violent, vengeful and murderous. Indeed the owner, clad in a double breasted chef's jacket with gold piping and buttons to match, told us that Ninco Nanco was a long departed relative of his. With centuries enough time gone by to romanticize the family legend, he backed it up with a photo of his brigand relative quite dead in fact, a rope still around his neck! With that for a starter, what might we like to order? Unlike its namesake, the colorful Ninco Nanco is charming and unassuming. It sits on a sharp bend in a road that leads essentially nowhere. An earthquake years before had destroyed Conza della Campania, the name of this village, so whatever lay beyond the restaurant farther up the mountain was now closed to the public. The survivors had in fact picked up and relocated. Seeking a new place to call home they’d built a rather uninspiring town at the base of the mountain roost they’d previously occupied. The new town, also christened Conza della Campania, seems out of place with the towns and villages that surround it. Concrete-modern as it is, it seemed laid out by some deft draftsman with ruler precision. New as it is, it lacks the cento storico feel of a history. Its history, alongside an even older history evidenced by Roman ruins found not far from the Ninco Nanco, lays disconnected, left behind at the top of a mountain.

Perched high on the edge of a bluff the Ninco Nanco overlooks a broad valley taken up for the most part by a reservoir holding back Lago Conza (Lake Conza), which makes for a spectacular view. We had driven there with another couple. Newly met, this British couple, John and June, like ourselves own a place in Calitri. We followed behind our Italian friends, Antonio and Gerardina, who led the way up to old Conza. We were joined that evening by yet another British couple, Malcolm and Shirley, who have a home in nearby Cairano, another ancient place up a narrow lane high enough to give you a nosebleed. With new and old friends alike, our night out, this clandestine gathering in a mountaintop hideout had been planned as a get together of friends who by happenstance were all visiting at the same time. It gave us a chance to catch up on happenings, reminisce on places visited and family as well as a good excuse to eat, drink and in general kibitz. This we did with gusto.

Dinner began with something I hadn't seen since the 70's, a communal pot of cheese fondue! This retro dish was composed of gooey Italian cheese and crusty chunks of salty Italian bread. Following this, which wasn't very long given our communal appetite, came an antipasto which just kept coming. It began with an antipasto of, given an active imagination, what might be described as 'little boats'. The 'hulls' of these sumptuous crafts were made of chunks of seasoned bread while their 'masts' were composed of onions, olives, peppers and pickles one atop the other, held in place by plastic toothpick length skewers. First the fondue then this fleet, curiously we wondered what would be next.

With the 'condiment fleet' now well out to sea, already eclipsing my foodie horizon, what followed was a more classic antipasto, this one cart sized. The surface of the pushcart was packed tighter than the deck of an aircraft carrier with prosciutto, cheese rounds and whole salamis (see Photo Album). Most notably, the prosciutto crudo (uncooked dried ham) appeared in its near native form as an entire dry-cured haunch clamped on edge in a metal vise for easy carving. Expertly drawing the blade of an extremely sharp carving knife across the meat the chef shaved thin slices of the marbled ham onto wooden trenchers for serving. The twisted ribbons of ham accompanied checker sized hunks of sopressata salami, a specialty of southern Italy, and chunks of cheeses, some yellowy solid, others shot through with tiny holes. Accompanied by bottles of the house Aglianico red this was a feast in itself but it continued with individual rounds of steak, pasta and leafy salads.

My 66th birthday was only a few hours away. When the chef heard, his bandit blood stole from here and there in the kitchen to produce a small torta (cake) topped by a tall willowy taper and with that our gathering briefly segued into a birthday celebration. For the others he cobbled together little individual cakes sporting tongue depressors as pseudo candles, albeit flameless. As the hours passed, merriment ensued. At a nearby table a group of young men were also celebrating. One of their own would soon marry a girl from Naples. I'd been way off - my first guess had been that they were members of some squadra (team) celebrating a recent win. It would be a win for him, at least in the looks department, for from the photo he showed us she was clearly an Italian beauty in the class of one of my Italian faves, lovely Caterina Murino (BBC Series "Zen"). By this time it was approaching mezzanotte (midnight). Unexpectedly, in the hum of conversation, while in my head swirled thoughts of past birthdays, other joyful gatherings, even beautiful betrothed Neapolitans, the owner appeared with a bottle of "Scola Enologia" wine, the product of a school for winemaking, something like Prosecco, only milder. This touch of class, christened by the ching-ching of raised glasses, culminated our evening together at the La Locanda Ninco Nanco. For me it had been a special time at a special place that will quickly enter our canon of places to entertain, be entertained and of course dine into the wee hours. But promise me you will not tell anyone, it is after all a hideout, the lair of brigands.

We had enjoyed both of these dinner experiences, one rather smart, almost formal, at the Hotel Villaggio Granduca with the ‘Duke’, the other more casual in provincial Conza at the La Locanda Ninco Nanco, undoubtedly among the raucous spirits of departed brigands. Enjoyment gained in the search for the simplest of pleasures in life in such a seductive place as Italy can't be overstated. It's a destination with a bill of fare capable of teasing, many times astounding your palate. You need to 'bib-up', experience this incomparable food for yourself and get on with that most noble of tasks as recalled in Ecclesiastes ... "Eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart." The author forgot to mention that to enjoy these gifts from the hand of God, best do it in Italy!

From That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “ Dukes & Brigands”.