Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Family Weekend

A Family Weekend 

Recently I was in our kitchen in the States trying to convince myself I could cook, or as a minimum, maintain what cooking currency I had above the burners.  My culinary repertoire, while rather limited, I do enjoy my pasta, especially the red sauce I whip-up with its secret ingredient, nimuc fo hcuot a (a mirror may help), just enough to sense its flavor.  Remember, it's a secret.  By that point, I’d gotten through the part on how to light the burner and boil water without any problem and was about ready to toss in a few nested tumbleweeds of capelli d’angelo (angle hair).  As I went to get my apron, a recollection circled back on me when I reached to put it on.  For there, in a moment to be blazoned across my chest in raised gold lettering, along with three just as golden palm trees, as prominent as that fancy S on Superman's chest was embroidered, Tenuta Cavalier Pepe 1269.  

Though this winery in the heart of Campania DOCG country is special, where on practically any day you can find Milena Pepe personally taking care of the vines, that wasn't what sparked my memory.  What flashed through my mind was the memory of who had given me the apron.  I recall it like it was yesterday.  It was my friend, Giuseppe, and we were in his kitchen at his retreat in the foothills of the Cilento National Park.  If I have it right, he was also cooking pasta at the time.  I’d noticed him wearing the apron as he went about preparing dinner that evening.  My mention of it hadn’t gone far from my lips when he untied it and handed it to me, his gift to me, apparently from one great chef to another. 

How we came to be there begins my story.  It was the summer of 2015, yet the invitation to visit had been extended by Stefania and Giuseppe a year earlier.  Since then, it had been re-extended a few more times.  I knew their gesture of largesse had been sincere, after all, we’d been sitting around their kitchen table when they'd proposed we join them!  Stefania had mentioned they had a place by the ocean at Santa Maria di Castellabate.  In a momentary Walter Mitty style daydream, my mind immediately stuck first on her mention of ocean and then on Castellabate.  They powered my imagination.  Combining them, I envisioned an enchanting home right on the shore, a flight of stairs leading to a beach of salty white sandy, an infinity pool with its edge vanishing into nothingness, a wisteria draped deck overlooking a frothy sea, all just a brief stroll from downtown, with the church bells of Santa Maria a Mare tolling the hours.  It was indeed a dreamy vision that I awoke from.  We knew of Castellabate.  It lay some 70 miles south of Naples.  A sleepy, quiet spot on the Cilento peninsula, deep in the Mezzogiorno, it remains a secluded destination still undiscovered and underappreciated (secret #2) by the majority who visit Italy.  In addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is listed among The Most Beautiful Villages in Italy.  We had visited it once, but unknowingly had only visited half of it.  It was only later that we learned it was a two story town— one the slow-paced seaside harbor town rimmed by a shimmering beach stuck in a '50s charm we'd visited, the other a balcony village higher-up for protection, not from some tsunami, but once upon a time for protection from marauding Saracen pirates.

It so happened that a few days before we were scheduled to head back to the States, Stefania mentioned that they were planning to spend the weekend at their getaway in Castellabate.  She went on to suggest that we get together then, and since we were flying off a few days later, why not stay overnight with them in Saviano and make it an easy trip to the Naples airport the day of our flight.  This made for an opportune possibility. Not dependent on the hospitality of others, we nevertheless love its offer.  We thought this over for a millisecond and subsequently closed-up our Calitri home a few days earlier than planned to rendezvous with them late one afternoon.
It was a scenic drive to the coast.  We ascended torturous mountains, hugged the coast at some points, and snaked through hills and colorful valleys.  We found ourselves in what might best be described as an anti-Amalfi zone.  We weren't far from the Amalfi peninsula.  It lay just to the north.  The shore-side landscape, cordoned here and there by 13th-century watchtowers, had the same vertical drama of the Amalfi Coast but featured smaller crowds, cleaner seas, better beaches, sandy in fact, many with Blue Flag status, all absent those nerve-wracking blind turns. 
You need not be overly adventurous, on the level of some extreme-sport seeking traveler to venture here.  Yes, it has its share of jagged peeked mountains and a coastline riven with cliffs and bays for those who might seek a crazy cross-country bike trek or parasail plunge, but the roads are paved, the amenities appealing, its nooks and crannies brimming with charming pastel villages along with pristine beaches.  For those willing to trade five star glitz for the allure of secluded down-to-earth, family operated getaways and the pull of unsung shorelines, this is the place.

We met at a bar called the Dolce Angolo (the Sweet Corner) located, as its deft name inferred, by a road intersection on the outskirts of Castellabate.  In Italy, the connotation of the word bar is not the same as our use the word.  In the States, a bar is typically the domain of adults, associated with alcoholic beverages, cocktails, and too often, loud TVs wherever you might turn your head.  In Italy, a bar is more a part of the social fabric and affords a shared venue for the entire family. The Dolce Angolo was like that.  As it turned out, it had a dolce sweet tooth nature about it too, just that kind of place for Italian breakfast treats like coffee, pastry and croissant-like cornetti for early risers, and sandwiches and drinks for the later crowd.  We arrived early and relaxed over icy drinks and complimentary snacks on an airy palm-shaded patio.  Our hosts arrived soon afterwards, right on time.  From their broad smiles we could tell they were both pleased to see us and thankful we'd found the place.  We'd found each other, the hard part was over.  As we drove away, our Fiat close in trail behind their vehicle, there were six of us; Giuseppe, Stefania, their son Raffaele, Raffaele's friend for the weekend, Cristian, Maria Elena and myself.

As Giuseppe pulled away from the parking area, he surprised me by taking a road that led away from the sea.  Initially I thought this was a shortcut intent on skirting the town, but as we went on it became clear we were headed inland, into the mountains.  We were soon running the ridges on roads without centerlines, knife edged with steep drop-offs to either side.  The terrain was sparsely covered, dry, with rocky outcrops and earth-hugging scrub growth along with an occasional olive tree.  Here and there along the road were homes, sometimes an occasional business or garage.  I'd estimate we drove about 10 km into the Cilento nature reserve 
to their home.  Like the others it too was near the verge, perched in a cleared flattened space alongside the road.  However, unlike the other homes we'd passed, if not a paradise on earth, it wasn't far removed.  It was more than simply a home, more like a compound, an estate.  Giuseppe swung open the gate and we drove inside onto a drive of brown and blue-gray stone slabs expertly cemented together that ended at an ageless, knurly olive tree.  There were two buildings inside the terraced enclosure, one higher, closer to the road, then the other.  The larger of the two, actually two stories high, was made of dappled stone and had all of a classic Tuscan charm about it ... elegant iron accents, terracotta roof tiles, stone accents.  The other, elegant, smaller, where we would stay, saw it neighbor’s stone exterior replaced by yellow, rough plastered walls.  Both had covered terrace appendages that commanded a gasp of a view toward the sea off in the distance.  All either lacked was the lazy drape of flowering wisteria.  They were surrounded by of all things, almost out of place here, a manicured emerald green lawn, perfectly cut in stark contrast to the gray color of the surrounding terrain.  Prickly pear cactus plants, some sprouting from barrels, added a Mediterranean mood to the landscape.  

The interior of our two bedroom bungalow, complete with bathrobes, had a modern eclectic mix.  A combined dining-living room featured a glass surfaced dining room table, leather sofa, artful wall
posters and paintings, a wall of cantilevered shelves replete with knick-knacks, and a pellet stove.  Just behind a TV wall running the entire length of one side of the room was a galley style kitchen stocked with every appliance, utensil and dish needed to whip-up a true Italian repast ... after all this was Italy.  We'd arrived in something just short of Camelot.  I'd have to see whether it rained here only at night!

There would be no need to cook, however, for we would be dining next door with our hosts that evening.  A few hours of rest later, we walked over to their place.  The boys were playing a board
game while Giuseppe and Stefania were at work preparing dinner in the kitchen.  It was about then that the hand-off of my now cherished Tenuta Cavalier Pepe apron occurred.  Later when all was ready, outside beneath a sleepy sky under a portico supported by brick piers, we ate come una familia (like a family) in the fading light of evening to a view that only stopped at the horizon.  Our pleasant meal together concluded, we were soon off first to upper Castellabate followed afterwards by a roll down switchback roads for gelato as we promenaded through lower Castellabate.  First, however, we had some visitors who turned out to be the lay and religious leaders of the local church in nearby Perdifumo. 

Giuseppe has a giving nature.  I'd already realized and partaken of this aspect of his personality when he'd literally taken his apron off and gifted it to me, testimony to his 'give the shirt off your back' philosophy.  The callers were headed by the local priest, who though indeed local, was of distant origin, the Philippines.  Young, energetic and dynamic, I was further impressed to learn he spoke five languages.  They needed help with a project.  For some time they had been about the expensive task of restoring the church in Perdifumo.  Giuseppe was helping them with the paperwork, a grant of sorts for additional funds, which he patiently explained to them.  It was civic duty and God's work rolled into one.  God will certainly somehow, in some way, reward Giuseppe.  Right about then, however, he'd have to settle for the ice cream I hoped to buy him in Santa Maria.

Affairs now settled and the veranda cleared of dinner plates, we loaded ourselves into Giuseppe's car, all six of us, and went rollercoaster style into town.  All was fine and roomy up front for Giuseppe and me, but in back, well that was a different story.  Raffaele was on his mom's lap and Cristian wedged tightly in beside Maria Elena.  There was little room for movement although the car had no such restriction.  

The town is dominated by a well preserved castle, built in 1123 by the Abbey of Cava for the protection of the community.  Today Castello dell'Abate is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was well into evening as we strolled through town in the shadows of the castle.  Close to its walls, along
the main concourse, we came upon kiosks lit with strings of lights.  They offered gifts, crafts and food items typical of the area.  There was a book seller among them whose mood quickly changed from affable to, if I am to remain polite, outright surly.  This was after I’d leafed through his offerings.  I hadn't purchased anything, and as I tried to explain, only because they were in Italian.  Maybe by thumbing through them as I had, and not buying anything, I’d violated some rule.  It just might be similar to that inviolate rule of Italian vegetable stores where the customer is never to touch a fruit or vegetable.  It’s definitely a no-no.  Only on your turn, as you point to the tomato or the particular head of lettuce you want, will the attendant, with gloved hand, touch the produce.  Maybe there was a sign I’d missed, the equivalent to that familiar warning that usually proclaims, “If you break it, you own it”, only in this case cautioning, “If you leaf through it, it’s yours”.  In any case, it had been strange business, disquieting.  Continuing along, we circled around the battlements and looked out over the lower seaside village, our next destination, whose twinkling outline bordered the timeless coastline echoed in Homer's Odyssey.

Piled back in the car once again, we made our way down to the water's edge of Homer's Tyrrhenian seafront and parked behind Piazza Luigi Guercio.  The piazza that weekend evening was alive with activity as strollers, like ourselves, hesitated or sat on benches to enjoy the infectious razzmatazz of a feverish band intent on not finishing until their instruments were emptied of sound.  Without question, they made up for the quietness of the countryside.  In the thread of its streets you easily feel that you’ve stepped back in time.  It isn’t big, certainly not modern, just a few commercial streets, the piazza, a church, and the spacious seaside promenade of Lungomare di Simone.  Together they help retain an elegant seaside village atmosphere, a village that has its share of high profile admirers.

It was in 2011, while attending the 150th Anniversary of the Unification of Italy in Rome, that the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden, chose Santa Maria di Castellabate to celebrate his wife’s birthday.  They may have had a private reason for returning.  I can’t confirm it but I think they may have spent their honeymoon there.  Here was a chance for a memory-filled, nostalgic, if not romantic return.  After Rome, they'd visited U.S. service members in Naples, which upon hearing caused me to pause and wonder if it had been a simple ruse to justify visiting Castellabate.  Upon their arrival he and Jill Biden, who is of Sicilian immigrant descent, stayed at the exclusive Palazzo Belmonte in Castellabate during their Italian getaway.  Used as a hunting lodge for kings through the centuries, the estate has since been host to nobles from across the world, and back then in 2011, to America’s own equivalent of royalty, the Bidens.  Giuseppe recounted the traffic restrictions and heightened security measures that including naval ships offshore, clearly visible from their home.  Certainly an idyllic place for a holiday though we doubted we’d be staying at Palazzo Belmonte any time soon.  But our objective that evening wasn’t five star accommodations, simply gelato.  

For the very best gelato, we walked along Piazza Luigi Guercio to a place of Giuseppe‘s choosing fittingly named, L'Ancora, which means "again" in Italian.  It wasn’t hard to find, for although I had no idea of its location, one needed only follow the trail of cones in the hands of pleased customers who minutes earlier had made their selections.  Inside the gelateria, folded into stainless steel troughs, colorful mounds of every conceivable flavor begged for attention.  I went with due gusti (two flavors), one limone (lemon) the other pistachio (pistachio), my favorite choices, while Maria Elena didn’t hesitate to ask for her favs, nocciola (hazelnut) and pesca (peach).  By the time we’d returned to the car, all evidence of the existence of our confections had disappeared.  We didn’t bother to report the theft. 

The next morning we had a busy schedule with much to see, including a tour of nearby Perdifumo, followed by a refreshing dip in the sea.  We assumed our familiar positions in Giuseppe’s car and were soon off to Piazza del Municipio situated in the center of little Perdifumo.  We must have been a sight, worthy of a double-take, when we piled out on our arrival.  It would have been due to our clothing.  Dressed as we were for the beach in flip flops and bathing suits, we may have appeared lost, the victims of a wrong turn with the sea a good 20 km to the west. 

We intentionally skipped visiting the nearby church, Chiesa di San Sisto, named for Pope Sixtus II.   We thought this best, what with our attire, especially since it was a Sunday morning.  Besides, the clack of clogs on the marble floor echoing inside such a cavernous space might have seemed disrespectful were it to turn a head or two, if not the entire congregation.  It was so quiet, however, that a why not try anyway check of the door found it locked.  Apparently, the Lord was away at the moment.  Thankfully there were other points of interest in the piazza that included the town hall, a post office and the Piante e Fiori, a plant and flower shop. They too were closed, but we expected that.  Approaching 10 am as it was, the town was very quiet, apparently still sleepy.   Crossing the piazza we were taken aback, at least I was, by what we discovered.  While most towns might typically feature a statue or a fountain in their town square, Perdifumo, at least during our visit, showcased something quite different.       

In the center of the piazza was a brand spanking new, dark blue, Ford F150 Super Cab, 4-door pick-up truck with chrome roll-bars.  It was totally loaded and certainly a surprise to find there when practically every other pick-up we
occasionally spot in Italy is a Toyota.  I looked around for a camera crew.  Had we walked into a photo shoot for an upcoming TV advertisement?   Was it a prop of some sort?  We'd seen something similar beside a lighthouse once in Maine.  Instead of being placed atop a Rocky Mountain bluff, along the edgy rim of the Grand Canyon or pulling some outrageous load, why not showcase your vehicle smack dab in the cobbled center of Piazza del Municipio in little Perdifumo?  Apparently I was wrong, for it wasn't long before its owner appeared from a nearby cafe, climbed into his shiny 4-wheeler and drove off.  He must have seen us walking around, giving it too close an inspection.  As he pulled away, we entered the cafe he'd just departed.  Proof of life, something was actually open.  

The Antica Caffetteria, run by a father and son team, is a pastry and coffee stop by day and lively wine bistro by night.  It has been doing well, since they tell me they have been there since 1823.  Along with the church, here was another long standing institution.  As we entered, my eyes were
immediately drawn to the wood planked floors, chestnut I thought, and from there to the thick walls of stone with the cement recessed just enough to be able to grab hold of a stone's edge.  A three handled machine, its levers long enough to make you think they were draft beer taps, sat to one side of the counter.  It was the hiss from its steam wand that put that thought out of my mind, for instead, here was a state-of-the-art espresso machine.  Instead of beers, we ordered coffees!  The wall was interrupted by an arching doorway bordered by a thick white, very white, plastered edge.  This opening led to an adjacent room that with the wide door treatment, like a halo, gave the feeling you were entering a church, at least a chapel.  In my irreverence I wondered if by my presence there, it just might count as some sort of dispensation seeing the church was locked and none of us had attended Mass that day.  I was wrong about it being a church or chapel, and likewise about any chance of a dispensation, for although there were built-in, pew-like bench seats with cushions lining the walls, the room was absent an altar.  Instead, opposite the entry rose a wall of wine bottles accented with wine glasses hanging by their stems.  Assorted tables and chairs accounted for the rest of the space.  It was obvious this place had known some good times and certainly had to be the place in town for social gatherings, refreshments and entertainment.

Reluctantly leaving the café, we continued down the street until we literally ran out of town at the base of a hill.  There in a corner, where the street abruptly turned right and abutted Palazzo Guglielmini, a building notable for a corner tower
built-in along its edge, similar to a silo, we came upon a long public fountain.  This rectangular fountain, sheltered beneath a sloping roof supported by three drooping arches, had been in service long before the Antica Caffetteria served its first customer.  This was Fontana Pubblica con Lavatoio del 1500.  Still in operation some 500 years later, its cool waters still flowed from the hillside into boxlike troughs along its back wall.  With little room overhead to toss a coin over my shoulder I nevertheless took the opportunity to sample the water as it flowed from a pipe in the wall.  Would I return someday?  I'd have to wait and see, hopefully not too long.

Maria Elena and I are not typical beach people.  Though we enjoy the beach, we are not taken by the sun part of the experience.  She especially likes the heat and I appreciate the overall atmosphere, but burns and accumulated skin damage have exacted their toll from us.  I can recall in high school (yes, we dated in high school) when Mare (she had no idea nor did I that someday she'd be known as Maria Elena) passed out at home following a day at the beach.  But organized Italian beaches, like the beach in San Marco di Castellabate, thankfully, came with umbrellas.  While not perfect, they at least helped dull our concern.  From the ageless hillside water font at Perdifumo we were once again underway, rapidly bridging ridge after ridge as we made our way to San Marco and the sea.  This time our destination was the real zuppa di mare, the briny juice of the sea, at Lido Mirage, a small beach resort run by the Cipullo family.  Finally, the jams I'd been wearing had become appropriate, just possibly stylish.

We would never have been able to find this place on our own.  We zigzagged our way through residential back streets just above the shore to eventually enter a grassy lane lined either side with the cars of earlier arrivals.  Our arrival intruded on the lot attendant who was sitting in a folding chair, shaded, inside a garage size shed.  Telling from the number of cars there, he was used to it, and quickly emerged to show us where to park.  They seemed to know each other.  Without need of words, it was evident that Giuseppe had been bringing his family there for years.  Like swallows return to Capistrano through the generations, I imaged that someday Raffaele would likewise someday return with his family.  Clutching our totes, filled with towels, we negotiated a narrow access path that sloped toward the waterfront passing between cottages to emerge from behind shower stalls and a simple beachside eatery to the pleasing surprise of a spectacular sea view.  We had arrived. 

Everything was in colorful order.  Like opposing armies, regiments of umbrella farms of bright uniform colors grew from the sand like mushrooms
as far as your eye could see.  There was a boardwalk leading toward the water's edge lined with the Lido Mirage's particular standards— yellow umbrellas and blue-gray lounge chairs.  Un-noticed by us, our hosts had made arrangements for two individual stands, our cohort just behind theirs.  Having now joined this beach family, some satisfied to soak, others to swim, many to stroll, some simply preferring to lay back, sit and sag, it wasn't long before we were soaking in the sea ourselves, and afterwards to read as we dried under our umbrella, assured of remaining in the shade.

I imagine you could easily spend the entire day there.  Many surely did telling from their baskets filled with Sunday luncheon favorites.  But for those of us not so well provisioned there was a restaurant behind us.  It wasn't long before Maria Elena and I headed there to investigate.  That's where we met one of the Cipullo family members, Antonio.  He, the cook and a young lad who tended to beach matters were enjoying their daily dose of pasta accented with coin sized clams, the khaki color of the beach sand.  Their vis-a-vis posted menù del giorno offered polpo all'insalata (octopus salad) and a variety of pastas including ravioli filled with ricotta, an assortment of frutti di mare each with different fruits of the sea, and likewise for the spaghetti and linguine offerings.  One pasta for €10 surprisingly featured seppioline.  Speaking for Maria and me, we would caution against this selection unless you were a homesick Venetian.  As opposed to a red sauce topping, a coating of aglio e olio (garlic and oil) or a frosting of clam sauce on your pasta, this treat, the favorite of one particular Venetian gondolier we once met (and we assumed many more of that city) is the carbon black, squid-like oil of a cuttlefish.  On a menu it should be accompanied with a disclaimer, some sort of warning.  No gondolier myself and unless you enjoyed those doses of cod liver oil your mom may have anointed you with as a child in the hope of keeping you healthy, keep clear of this dish at the Lido Mirage or anywhere else for that matter.  We were satisfied to chat with Antonio over goblets of wine while players at the US Open Tennis Tournament on TV swatted at projectiles just about impossible to see.  

We left the beach early, not with the dusk.  I regret not seeing the fire-red sun extinguish itself in the Tyrrhenian Sea, in what I imagined had to be a spectacular sunset.  We understood why our hosts loved this place and were appreciative that they chose to share it with us.  The Bidens would have to wait.

Our journey of pure escape was complete.  Our weekend fling concluded, we first returned to their summer home, had lunch, packed, and soon found ourselves on the road again, this time north to stretch our host's hospitality even farther with an extended stay-over at their home in Saviano.   They were treating us like family and we were beginning to feel like extended family.  We could talk openly, laugh heartily, certainly eat with undisguised gusto like familiar faces around the table, and together had shared special moments.  The boundaries of mere acquaintance fashioned on the streets of Calitri had melting away.  Anchoring moments with Italian friends like these had united us and made for an amazing ending to a summer in Italy.

In today's lopsided world, as familiar institutions continue to fail, it is as soothing as comfort food to know that there is always family you can rely upon.  By some twist of fate, more than a random Google search, we'd been led to Italy, to Calitri, to Saviano, then Santa Maria di Castellabate and tiny Perdifumo.  In the process, we have broadened our notion of family to embrace special friends, like Giuseppe and Stefania, related not by blood but through shared affection.
Even with my super apron on, I find I can't duplicate the flavors of Italy.  For instance, Calitri folks claim the water makes the difference in the local bread.  I'm sure it does.  But more than the ingredients, there are other subtle factors at play, missing from my kitchen 3000 miles away.  It takes a special recipe— a smidgen of special atmosphere, a pinch of good company, the cohesive gluten from family who refer to us as Zia e Zio, a hint of local dialect murmured like birdsong across the room— each adds additional depth and content to an Italian meal I can't reproduce.

From That Rogue Tourist                                   


For related photos, click here on "Eyes Over Italy".  Look for and click on a photo album entitled “A Family Weekend”.