Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Tapas Crawl Through Italy




A Tapas Crawl Through Italy
Though at times interrupted by the sounds of a motorcycle, a passing car, even an occasional jogger, the lapping sounds of the waves on the shore were as though the sea was breathing.  Its steady whoosh distinguished it from the sound of the wind, for the waves would continually return and steadily repeat throughout the night.  Lying there, listening to the sounds of paradise, I wondered whether these were the same water molecules, climbing the sand only to retreat, that had for centuries washed these shores and floated fleets of Phoenician, Greek, and Roman ships that once prowled these waters.  Here was a place of postcards and limoncello; Here was enchanting Cefalu on the northern coast of Sicily.  Battered in time by both the sea and invasion, Cefalu, a city of ancient Greek origin, sits on the Tyrrhenian Sea about 40 miles east of Palermo and approximately 100 miles west of Messina. 
We were staying at the Astro Suite Hotel, just a few minutes walk from Cefalu’s intriguing medieval center.  In contrast to the rugged, honey-colored stone architecture of the rest of this city by the sea, almost barnacle-like clinging to the shore, the Astro Suites is contrarian, the antithesis of bygone days.  For me at least, a word like “astro” too easily suggests some image of space travel, astronauts, and space ships.  Contrary to what you might imagine from its name, however, its silhouette evoked a breezy nautical mood.  Like billowing modern sailing ships, the towering white buildings of the complex were instead content on catching the eye, verses the wind.  In fact, the suites are spread over two floors and two wings, designated by nautical sounding names, "Bridge A" and "Bridge B".  Its interior color scheme only added to a union of sea and sky - vistas commonly visible from a suite aboard a cruise ship.  A color palette of shades of blue continued the deception, for its floors were blue with blue appointments from sofas to
curtains of blue and colored sand.  Promoting a ship afloat further, were portholes.  Ours was positioned in the bath, just high enough that we could shower to a view of the sea, and hopefully not be seen from someone enjoying the view from Bridge B!
We like to wander and Cefalu’s enchanting postcard-perfect venue of squares, streets, and churches presented a perfect opportunity to do just that.  In the time we were there, we did the entire town a few times over, poking into alleyways, walking the beach, visiting shops, and peeking into churches.  One artist’s workshop, The Art Studio, proved especially rewarding when we got to visit with local artist, Giuseppe Cimino (click to watch Video).  His dark curly hair was frizzed like that madcap scientist in Back to the Future, but his gray mustache and beard brought out his artistic side, enough that I'd categorize his mild mannered nature along the lines of Pinocchio's puppet-maker father

Geppetto.  A graduate of the Palermo Academy of Fine Arts, in addition to being an artist, he is also an art teacher, set designer and screen painter all in one.  While he specializes in oil landscapes, his wife's focus is on portraits.  We had seen his work throughout town, some commissioned by the commune itself.  While his daughter ran the shop and at the time was giving a child a watercolor lesson, he happened to come by.  I’ve always been impressed with water colors, the way the colors seem to bleed into the paper, along with the veiled transparency of the colors that allow the underlying etching to come through.  There were many scenic vistas to choose from, with several surprisingly at prices we could afford.  With Giuseppe's help, we settled upon a scene viewed from the old port pier, a spot where we’d hesitated one evening to take in that exact view.  It presented that waterfront silhouette of the town we’d seen and for which Cefalu is so well known.  Once framed and hung on our wall in Calitri, it will remind us of our Sicilian sojourn in Cefalu for years to come.  Giuseppe must have enjoyed our company as much as we enjoyed his, for on our departure he presented us with the gift of a signed numbered copy of his latest creation.  My paint by numbers days long past, I greatly appreciated this gentle soul's talent as well as his sincere kindness.  
Farther along Via Vittorio Emanuele, we came upon what for all intents and purposes appeared to be a cobbled alley that curved down in the direction of the sea.  Following this route downward, a sign informed us that this was the entrance to the Lavatoio Medievale.  At first look the name got me thinking that we’d stumbled upon some sort of medival
toilet.  It certainly sounded that way.  Unfortunately, it was an easy mistake to make, for instead, we discovered a charming courtyard at the end of the passageway, not a toilet in sight.  What we did find were a series of stone pads, their sides washed by a steady stream of rushing water.  Centuries ago, this was the spot where housewives would kneel to do the family laundry, and girls being girls, certainly to chat, if not gossip, as they busied themselves scrubbing and rinsing.  The facility appeared intact, as if at any moment from around the corner, the ageless routine might continue with the arrival of a troop of women I envisioned in long colorful skirts balancing baskets of laundry atop their heads.  It was not to be, at least not that day, for the sound of approaching footsteps simply heralded the arrival of more tourists, some I’m certain looking for that phantom lavatory. 
Of course there were also meals to enjoy.  We had our share of course, both substantial sit-down affairs and from far humbler street-food concessions.  It was at the very smart
Ristorante Vecchia Marina where we enjoyed a Sicilian Pasta alla Vongole.  This was followed by a slab of Spada alla Griglia, an Insalata Mista salad, and an entire bottle of Vino Grillo wine in a semi-formal atmosphere that included tablecloth linens and a patio window view over the old port and beyond.  This spectacular setting was missing, however, when we discovered Fritto & Divino, a hole-in-the-wall eatery just off the Piazza del Duomo on Via Mandralisca.  The place was a long narrow affair … think of a house trailer slid between adjacent walls and
you just about have it.  A counter ran its length, while a few small tables and chairs clung to the long span of the opposite wall.  Between the two only a narrow lane remained, front to back, terminating at a wall of assorted wine bottles all yearning to be sampled.  There were no printed menus.  Instead, a chalkboard, outside by the entrance, was scrawled with the day’s fare.  
To our surprise we discovered that Fritto & Divino was a sort of Italian version of a tapas bar.  Tapas were relatively new to us, since where we live in the States, it’s a challenge to find a department store, let alone a tapas bar.  For novices like ourselves, tapas are appetizers that have evolved into a sophisticated form of snack food in Spanish cuisine.  About the closest we might be able to find would be jalapeno poppers √† la Taco Bell!  Cold or hot, tapas are open-ended to creativity and can consist of just about anything, their only limitation being our imaginations.  Sitting outside that evening we passed on the panini and instead enjoyed a
small dish of deep fried pieces of fish, similar to calamari, then another of batter fried vegetables, both to the short lived accompaniment of a bottle of Firriato Altavilla Grillo wine.  What the heck, fried can’t be too bad once in a while.  We enjoyed the experience so much we returned the next day for another round of cibo fritti (fried food).  To be honest, we’d experienced something similar in Monreale, a city just outside of Palermo only days earlier. 
We were staying in Monreale to avoid the traffic mess of downtown Palermo.  Instead, we planned to take a hop on-off bus into the city to see the sights the following day.  But getting to our B&B in Monreale proved a challenge when I missed a turn in the center of town.  I was confused in a web of unfamiliar streets, and the narrowness of encroaching buildings put our GPS into a “recalculating” muddle.  Throughout my befuddlement, the surrounding traffic didn’t give a care.  I knew I’d overshot our destination but exactly where it was remained a mystery.  To top it off, the town was getting ready for a festival.  Many streets were already closed to traffic.  A few lefts later saw us emerge into a piazza where a man was directing traffic.  He was not a traffic cop and clearly had no official capacity.  He reminded Maria Elena of a fellow in Newport, Rhode Island, years back, who had the distinct moniker of ‘Timmy the Woodhooker’.  While he would make his rounds weekly and collect cast-offs to make a living, this lad seemed to help out around town.  With no idea who he was, I had no confidence in his assurances we could park there, for our entire stay if we wished or leave our belongings while we found our B&B.  Though there was something to him that told me he might be harmless, I was still suspicious of his over ingratiation.  For our part, we didn’t want to leave anything in the car.  When I insisted on taking things like my computer and suitcases with us, he seemingly tired of directing traffic, told us he knew the place, took hold of a handle, and insisted on helping us find it.  He was off in a heartbeat with us rolling along behind him as best we could with additional baggage, struggling to keep up.  Recently off our flight, only just arrived in Sicily, we had plenty along with us.  No simple holiday overnight totes for us.  Pulling our suitcases along, it felt like a sack race.  It proved to be more like a steeplechase race at best, only lacking the obstacles, for it went on and on, never seeming to have an end.  In a race at least, you can usually see the end.  Not in this case, for none of us knew where we were going, especially 'Timmy'.  But what the heck was his hurry?  It was as though we were in a fast moving parade, with us soon strung out behind him.  People on the sidewalks in front of storefronts watched our procession as ‘Timmy’ led us down the center of the main street.  Unlike most races, however, this one featured numerous, what can only be described as waypoints, as we made two false stops before finally arriving at Casa
Lilla.  Street-side observers must have wondered what was going on as our gaggle first went by in one direction, only minutes later to the clickity-clack announcement of our suitcase wheels on the cobbles, to see us return headed in the opposite direction.  I honestly wondered if his plan was to tire us out and be off with our suitcase.  Thinking about it, we were actually easy pickings.  He was well out in front of us, disappearing for a time with each corner he'd round.  Our bag-drag parade only concluded when he toted all our luggage to the second floor landing of Casa Lilla.  Although he’d have won a gold medal in this race, I was glad to pay him for his help.  It was the only part of the experience I can admit enjoying.  There was one positive spinoff from this slog, however.  Next door to one of our false B&B stops, we discovered Le Barrique, a wine and snack-food bar.
Now familiar with the route to the Barrique, we found it later, located by one of the walls of the Monreale Cathedral,
without difficulty.  Saddled-up to the counter on tall bar stools, we learned that Le Barrique was relatively new, having opened only weeks earlier.  It was a treat to get to know these young entrepreneurs (lead photo), something we'd missed when we sat in the street outside of Fritto & Divino.  Absent anything fritti here, we instead snacked on little tapas-like servings of prosciutto wrapped eggplant, along with assorted cheeses, olives, and salamis arranged atop bites of garlicky bread, all while enjoying what else but Aperol Spritzers.  We so enjoyed the intimate atmosphere, the staff's enthusiasm, and their friendliness, that we returned for a second time.  It proved to be our last hop off the tour bus.  On that visit, we got to enjoy generous samples of their excellent selection of Sicilian wines, ranging from strong hearty reds like fruity Nero d'Avola and volcanic soil-grown Nerello, to a bold refreshing white Grillo.  Along with tasty, eye-catching snacks prepared right before us, we so savored everything about our visit that we hated to leave.  Why couldn't there be a place like Le Barrique just around the corner wherever we were?  Beyond the tastes and beckoning smells of the food and spirits, the assault on our senses continued.  Adding to taste and smell were the simplest of sensory pleasures, like watching the care in the preparation of the tapas, taking in the sounds of their friendly conversation over the tinkle of ice, extending even to the cold touch of our icy spritzers.  All this sensed perfection makes Italy something special, special enough that people like ourselves are drawn to return again and again, if not to the same stools at Le Barrique and street-side outside Fritto & Divino, than to the country as a whole. 
Our fling in Sicily concluded, we drove aboard the ferry at Messina
and crossed the straights to Villa San Giovanni on the mainland.  Arriving in Calitri hours later, we were struck by how green everything appeared.  The parched fields of early fall had turned to emerald carpets.  The lake at Conza was full to brimming.  Later, as I’d gaze over the countryside from our terrace, breaks in the cloud-pocked sky let pass just enough light to spotlight patches of forest and green fields stretching to the horizon.  We were home but not for long.  A spur of the moment trip to the coast, weeks later, to the seaside town of Palinuro was followed by another excursion deep into the mountainous countryside of neighboring Basilicata.  The little hamlet of Pietrapertosa is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy.  There's no question about it, for
sitting as it does in a outcropping of spike-tipped peaks, similar to the Dolomite region of northern Italy, this village has managed to preserve its medieval appearance.  In addition to its natural beauty, clinging as it does to the side of a Lucane mountain range, its major draw is the Volo dell'Angelo (Flight of the Angel).  From a launch pad above the village, near the lofty Saracen-Norman Castle, you can enjoy a cable ride along the highest and fastest zip-line in the world while lying horizontal, face down.  The pull of gravity gets you across the steep sided valley along a steel cable stretched from Pietrapetosa to the adjacent town of Castelmezzano.  This just might be your idea of fun.  With credentials like these, I wondered what good the crash helmet that these thrill-seekers were required to wear might serve.  I've done a lot of crazy things in the air over my life, but as I had with bungy-jumping, I took a pass on this one. 

It was on our way back to Calitri that we decided to stop-off in Lagopesole for another go at some Italian style tapas.  On an afternoon, weeks earlier, we'd visited Lagopesole for the first time.  What brought
us there initially was its fortress castle.  On previous trips south, in the direction of Potenza, we couldn't help but notice a massive blockhouse structure situated in a commanding position overlooking the entire Vitalba valley.  Come to find out, it was a castle, one of many to include another at Melfi farther north and the octagonally shaped Castel de Monte, off in Puglia, that Swabian Holy Roman Emperor Federico II (1194-1250) constructed.  Starting in 1242, on the foundations of a former Norman stronghold, it was to be the last and greatest of his castles.  


Passing through the castle's decorated entry portal, we entered a large enclosed rectangular open space.  Other than the soaring walls surrounding us, there was only a capped well, typical of a castle courtyard.  We were surprised by the sound of music and on closer inspection, when I peeked inside a room that was part of the wall, I came upon the source, two saxophone players.  How odd I thought, here in a castle.  Farther ahead, we discovered another gentleman, this time visible through a window,
who was also busy at the keys of his saxophone.  Something was definitely afoot.  Later, now inside, touring the former rooms of the Emperor and Empress, the sounds of another saxophonist, piped through the narrow corridors, drew us to the castle's former Angevin style chapel where yet another person was performing.  My competing thoughts settled on the idea that maybe it was due to the excellent acoustics afforded by the stony chambers.  That was only part of it, for we learned they were all master saxophonists rehearsing for an upcoming concert to be held right there in the castle.  That had been our inaugural visit to Lagosepole and its castle.  It was when we were leaving town, no more than a thread of streets at the base of the castle, looking for some refreshments, that we happened upon the owner of La Taverna, of all things, a local tapas bar.  It happened to be closed at the time, but Peppe told us when he was open, which we made note of for a return visit.  


As advertized, we found La Taverna open when we arrived from Pietrapetosa.  While Giuseppe, one of those secular saints we call a chef, was busy in the kitchen, his sister Lena managed the bar and looked after patrons.  Both were fluent in English.  Passing beneath an entry pergola, the interior with its stucco walls and bricked floor projected the intended cantina atmosphere of an authentic Spanish bodega.  The small intimate room strewn with thickly planked wooden tables completed the illusion that we'd suddenly materialized in some watering hole in the Basque region of the Iberian Peninsula.  All that might be missing were flamenco dancers, the sounds of their clapping hands and yelps competing with the abrupt staccato clatter of their shoes pounding the floor.  The mood complete, we settled into pints of crisp Spanish Estrella beer, all the

way to their tap from Barcelona.  It was new to us, very drinkable, with just the right amount of taste.  The day's fare, posted in chalk on a placard took up a large part of a wall.  No paella topped with prawns but then I didn't see any risotto either.  Instead, it listed a slew of Italian inspired tapas from 2 to 4 Euros each.  Included were things still unknown like baccal√† e czuschi (battered cod), strapazzate di salsiccie (scrambled sausage) and undefined ciambotte (stew?).  They remain for another visit.  Instead we enjoyed verdure grigliato (grilled veggies), a parmigiana (a layered eggplant and cheese dish), and some crisp potatoes blanketed in mayonnaise and a thick spicy tomato sauce christened patatas bravas.  If that wasn't enough, I also couldn’t resist trying one of my standards, an arancini(stuffed rice ball).  Peppe served us and along with Lena would occasionally stop by our table to explain things and check on our progress.  
 
The place, the staff, and the food made for a thoroughly enjoyable evening at La Taverna.  This little tavern, bumping against perfection, a mix of Spanish and Italian cuisines if not words on the menus, will see us return.  The next time we'll definitely bring friends. 


Little things, including little tapas bar snacks can make for pleasurable moments and memories.  I'm the type that enjoys simple, little pleasures.  How simple can they be?  Really simple, like tightening a shoelace and feeling the pressure on my foot or simply the stout weighty feel of a proper fork or knife.  OK, ok, I realize this is just a step above twiddling your thumbs or a one-star
game of Sudoku, but then for nerd and sophisticate alike
the pursuit of pleasure and the good life are traits that each shares.  Food is like that, a common denominator - the Italian variant a universal constant.  Whether it be in Sicily, where cooking married the cuisine of its former occupiers, forever erasing any chance for some anodyne flavored meal, or be it on mainland Italy in some hidden off-beat place in the shadow of castle walls, far removed from those sought after constellations of Michelin stars, the best can still be found.  Beyond simply being a rote tourist tied to a schedule, we need only be engaged and look for it.  When looking for the Italian experience, don't settle for mediocrity.  Leave schedules behind, pack only your desires, and come taste the life.


 

From That Rogue Tourist

Paolo