■ 24 October 2014 by James Martin
You ever take a boat ride through a cave? You can at the Pertosa Caves or the Grotte di Pertosa as the Italians call them. Here in the Salerno district of Campania a trip to the caves (“a work in progress for 35,000 years” says the lit) can be combined with a trip to the nearby Certosa di Padula, making it a day you’ll never forget, especially if you happen to encounter a guy named Carmine—but more on that encounter later.
After you buy your tickets you walk up to the cave entrance. Way up. Then you enter the cave. It’s not one of those deals where there are a few big rooms where you stand in the middle and gawk at the maze of stalactites and stalagmites, wet and glistening under carefully aimed spotlights. It’s a long cave you walk and boat through. There’s a lake inside. Your guide will load you in a boat. The boat has seats but they’re always wet so nobody really sits in them. You could bring a small towel and outsmart the environment, of course, but nobody did.
Your guide will then launch you into the still waters, dragging the boat by means of a carefully strung wire above your head. It’s anchored to the walls, strung not unlike the wires that power the electric buses of a city like San Francisco, except that the wires aren’t electrified, or at least the guide didn’t do that macabre dance you see people do when they grab a wet, live electric wire.
The way is lit by colored lights your modern camera won’t take a liking to. No matter, the new lighting system, which is turned off when a group leaves the area, represents a savings of 80% in electrical power compared to a previous system which probably provided enough light for a decent photo.
The cave takes a good 2 hours to walk through. Time passes in a flash though. You’ll be amazed and entranced—and cold if you didn’t bring a jacket, because the temperature hovers around 60 degrees F and it’s damp—very damp.
After you’re done and get back to the parking lot, leave your car and continue walking down the street until you see the hand-painted sign for the Bar Ristorante Venoso. Have a meal. Learn what southern Italian cuisine is all about. Order the restaurant’s special pasta with eggplant. It will tell you all you need to know about the flavor intensity of southern food. The pasta has been kicked up notches unknown. Don’t worry about the bill. It won’t be much. The pasta runs 5 euro. Have something grilled for a second plate.
Introducing Carmine from Naples
We ate right beside the table of this man, Carmine, and his wife:
Carmine, having noticed me taking pictures of our trout and rabbit, wanted to show off his lunch too. Except that he had eaten about half of it.
When I struggled to cut the excellent grilled rabbit with the butter knife I’d been given for the task, I happened to glance at Carmine and he, too, had picked up his lamb in his hands.
So, I took that as a cue and ate the rabbit clean off the bone with my hands.
Carmine loved it. “Aha! Yes, the knives are useless! He uses his hands! Bravo!”
He said this in a voice that could have woken the dead, or amused a packed opera house.
So we’re swiping bits of wadded-up bread through the juices and excellent olive oil, a process the Italians call “fare la scarpetta” or “making the little shoe.” Years ago you wouldn’t do this, especially at a formal meal. Now it tells the waiter you really liked the food. Even sopping evolves.
So Carmine says, “In Naples, when we don’t have bread…” and he makes a swipe with his index finger as if he’s dragging it over a plate and pretends to lick it.
I like Carmine. Especially when they asked him if he wanted coffee. He bellowed, “I’m from Naples (where they are reported to have the very best coffee), I don’t drink coffee anywhere else.”
You gotta love Carmine. It’s this insistence on not accepting crap food that keeps Italian food honest. There’s not enough of it, methinks.
Italy Travel Toolbox
- All About Italy Rail Passes
- How to Ride Italian Trains (video)
- Italy Maps
- Italy Cities Climate and Weather
- Italy Autostrada Map
- Cinque Terre Hiking Map
■ 7 October 2014 by James Martin
Cremona is one of those cities in which everything is focused on a single square—and it’s not the typical “Piazza Duomo” either. It’s the Piazza Comune, with all the religious architecture on one side, so that the cathedral, baptistry, and Torrazzo (tower, the tallest in pre-modern Europe @ 112.7 meters, and you can climb it for some fantastic views) are all facing the administration center, the Comune. It’s all about the contrast between gleaming white marble and the red bricks.
Then you turn around and see this:
In the daytime there’s a Commune bar where you can sit and stare at the cathedral all day long if you wish. At night it closes. Unfortunately.
Osteria La Sosta
The street that continues to the left in the picture above is a street of political symbolism, violin makers, and restaurants. We ate in one that was fantastic, just down the street. It was called “La Sosta” and it delivered.
For starters there was the wordy “Tiepido di Lingua salmistrata e Testina di Vitello con Salsa verde e Olio del Garda,” a warm plate of tongue and a bit of calf head with green sauce and lentils with olive oil. It was quite good but the snails! Oh, the snails! Not those French snails that have been cooked down to eraserness so that you have to douse them in all manner of butter, parseley and garlic to add forgiveness to the poor garden destroyer. No, they were succulent and tasty with just a little complimentary sauce.
I had to order the “Gnocchi Vecchia Cremona (antica ricetta del 600)” which came as three giant gnocchi stuffed with sausage and baked with Poppy seeds, Sesame and Parmesan. Don’t think the dish comes from 600 Ad, that’s 1600 AD in American. But still, old enough to be very traditional.
Martha’s Bigoli with sardines and parmigiano reggiano bread crumbs was also tasty.
And the good news on the wine front is that you can get many wines by the half bottle.
For me, La Sosta gets five stars, and you’re not far from the piazza where you can be immersed in the Medieval—during the day. At night you’ll have to find an open bar/restaurant on the back side and be content with a view of the cathedral’s big apse.
■ 27 September 2014 by James Martin
Amble Ligurian shoreline; beaches full; Lerici to little San Terenzo; ghost of Percy Bysshe Shelley; Villa Magni aglow, full sun; search for granita; none; new restaurant appears; La Creuza de Mauri; waiter lounging in doorway; island dark; jowls rutted; black sard brows; eat; balls of fregula roll like pearls on partched toungues; clam shells clatter on white plates; octupus boiled and grilled; good both ways; bottle of Vermentino; i; happy happy; gelato a limon, gelato a limon; now to walk back; soon breasts; unleashed; yes; a singular pair; harken to days past; before breasts were turned to bullets; murduring moral values; a shot in the unwanted eye; a blackness; bronzing couple with plastic plates of little fish; bottle of olive oil; douse; turn away; then uphill; dog lies on sidewalk; left side; leashed woman concerned; man rubs chin; looks to find different angle at which to view dog; chooses behind; we pass; car found; then Tusc___; rather the territory of Lunigiana; home for a nap;
Popular These Days
■ 29 May 2014 by James Martin
Getting to the Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita is not easy. From the town of Gallicano in the Garfagnana you follow a freakishly twisty, narrow little road uphill towards the Eremo di Calomini. It is the Italian custom to beep your little horn before you brave each blind hairpin, but here you might as well lean on the thing the whole darn way.
We eventually reached the parking lot at the Eremo and strolled over to Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita. It’s just down a little strada bianca, a white road of more or less one lane. Our friends parked below, and walked up the steep stairs.
We meet at the top. “Dori and I were thinking that this looks just lake someplace in Hawaii,” Robert said upon greeting us.
Yes, lush, green and fragrant in a drizzle, the place had that Shangri-La thing going on.
But let’s talk about that roasted trout up there, shall we? It didn’t seem very Italian, covered with all those herbs. You wouldn’t be surprised to see such a thing in Provence, but this is a tiny corner of unknown Tuscany, not Provence.
The more you learn about “Italian” food, the more things on a plate rise up and slap you in the face, demanding further research.
Monastic outposts relied on herbs for medicinal purposes. There was a reason the Eremo was placed where it was, including the abundance of water that gushed from the rocks all around. This water has, they say, curative powers as well.
So, on with research. More herbs:
Today I went to the Sagra della Minestrella di Gallicano. Minestrella is a soup of wild herbs and beans made only in Gallicano, a town of fewer than 4,000 people. Today it is the southernmost town in the Garfagnana. ~ Why the Garfagnana?
So there is a cultural reason for so many herbs, even though it seems to break the cucina povera tradition of simple preparations with few ingredients.
Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita is your chance to see what this whole thing is all about. You can eat the special bread of Gallicano called focaccia leva, a thick flat bread cooked between two iron plates to be eaten with cold cuts and the restaurant’s smoked trout (they raise their own trout here!). They also raise farro, which appears in the farro soup. You can taste or buy eggs from their free range chickens. You can buy packets of the dried herbs they collect from along the little white road. Then, when you’re totally stuffed, you can go visit the Eremo. When you do, note the chapel carved out of the hillside.
Then you hit the road. Don’t forget the horn. Blow for all it’s worth.
■ 27 May 2014 by James Martin
On Sunday, Italy’s National Day of Stuffing Yourself with Friends and Family, we ate at one of those restaurants tourists always say they seek out but never find, the unlabeled eatery full of Italians.
I didn’t find it. That honor goes to Mike of A Path to Lunch. He had the good sense to know that if a place has one of those old signs announcing a public telephone (remember them?) that there was a story there somewhere. And thus he found his path to lunch and was the first American they’d ever seen sticking a fork in their spaghetti. Bravo.
But another thing I like about Italy other than unlabeled and unsigned restaurants is the variety of things to eat that are common, even lowly, like the onion mentioned in the title. We Americans think, “an onion is white, brown, or red and they all taste pretty much the same” as if the color was merely painted on. But in Italy, we have so many different kinds of onions with different flavors, I’m wondering if anyone has ever cataloged them all. Sometimes you go to a food festival (a sagra) and it’s an entire weekend celebration of a particular kind of onion and you don’t even know it because the name of the onion is disguised by being written in dialect, like our experience in the village of Moncigoli at the Sagra di Cigola.
So six of us are eating our antipasti and my friend Roberto leans over after tasting this amazing onion tart-like thing and says, “this is rich, like French onion soup. Do you think they make it like that?”
It would be a stretch to think of a country Italian trying to mimic something French. Anything French. So I answered in the negative. There was no evidence of having been cooked in beef broth, no thyme, No stringy cheese—nothing like that.
So time passes. Then this:
It’s a simple pasta, paglia e fieno, straw and hay, spinach and normal pasta. It’s sauced with…sausage. Tiny bits of sausage. You can hardly see them. It looks like the dish isn’t sauced at all.
But then you taste. The onions you can’t see rise to make the dish triumph, the sausage playing a decent second fiddle.
Man it was good. And onions made it that way.
So I take my hat off to the onions of Il Borgo di Canossa. I should say the secret onions of Canossa. You see, I asked our waitress about them. Were they special? “Yes.” Where do I get some, where do they come from?
“Just ask if we have them when you make your next reservation.”
I guess if you don’t put labels on your restaurant you don’t put them on your ingredients either. Fair enough.
So, I’m going to do something I am inclined not to do. I am going to come clean with all I know about this restaurant. There is parking in front, but it is on a road that will require you to back your car all the way to the main road if someone decides to come down off the hill (experience speaking). I am going to show you a map of this secret place and tell you the name, which will do no good because not many people will know it. I will trust you not to tell anyone else. Ok?
Ristorante Bar Capetta di Luciani Maria Paola. TEL: 0187.850.063
And whatever you do, ask about the onions. Eat anything that has them as an ingredient.
■ 24 May 2014 by James Martin
Lari has all you can ask for in a small, Tuscan hill town. Good pasta is manufactured right in the town center. A short walk away is a great restaurant. Climb a little hill and you’re in the courtyard of Lari Castle. It’s a pretty little place. People are friendly and generally happy.
Then there’s the past. The 16th century past. You can see it in the photo above—a picture only Dick Cheney could love. I know, I know, tourists like torture, and will pay big bucks to see how the medieval folks did it and I will exploit that fact to bring this weirdness to you. Yes, what you see it is a bit of Tuscan torture. But, according to the recording, it was quite a “humane” torture. You see, when you strung someone up like this, the alleged miscreant didn’t often die. The worse that could happen would be something small, a little shoulder separation perhaps.
And this is not, the little voice out of the yellow plastic box told us, a torture session. The miscreant was merely being interrogated. If he confessed while his shoulder was being wrenched from its moorings, it didn’t matter—as long as he didn’t confess in court, which was across the hall. At least this is how I understand it. It’s not like waterboarding, when they get what they want out of you and then they’re done with you. No, you got a second chance in the actual courtroom. Bully for justice—or something.
The little prison in Lari castle was used until well after the Nazi era. The more things change, the more they stay the same, evidently.
But on a brighter note, we went back to Lari’s little gem of a restaurant, Antica Osteria al Castello and had lunch outside in the piazza. Lari is called “the cherry city.” Signs pointing the way into town inform you of this fact, except, of course, in Italian rather than English. I know, it confuses me, too.
The town hosts a cherry festival the first week of June.
It’s almost June, so one of us was bound to order the duck with cherries and Marsala. It was quite good. Here’s the food porn part:
This, some pasta, a couple of new friends to pranzare with and air clean as a bell really made a special day. If you’ve never heard of Lari, well look at the map and it will show you how the little hill is configured and show you where the restaurant is.
And whatever you do, don’t get in trouble with the law or you won’t get to see this view from your cell in Lari Castle. They’ve cleverly put the windows very high up on the wall.
■ 9 May 2014 by James Martin
I’ve had the privilege of tasting some of Chianti’s “best” wines. Some of them cost more than 8 worker’s lunches here in the Lunigiana, just for a single bottle. People whose job it is to “present” this wine to the public usually extol their handling of the grapes and speak glowingly of the care they take with their little babies, all moist and ripe as they slide slowly down the chute on their way to becoming expensive libation. When their juices age a very long time these grapes become a wine that will undoubtedly be called “refined.”
But when it comes time to taste, your pourer may flick an imaginary piece of dust from an impeccably tailored sleeve, allow a precious dribble to fall into a glass, then stand back, smile and say something like, “good, eh?” when you touch the glass to your lips.
Yes, good. But not 7 times better than a decent bottle, I usually think.
But I’m not a wine writer, really. I look to other people to extol whatever virtues justify the cost. They say the same thing. “Good,” or “Mmmm,” then nod knowingly. I am thinking they are thinking the same thing I am thinking, something like “somebody please say something intelligent about this wine.”
But maybe not. Maybe we are just letting the wine speak for itself. It is refined. It speaks softly.
Walter De Battè is serious about the wines he makes out of vineyards that cling to the slopes above the five little villages given the name Le Cinque Terre. These wines are not “refined.” They speak boldly of things refined people don’t speak of in public. We tasted Walter’s wine with foods prepared by Cappun Magru restaurant in little Groppo, a bump on the winding road to the top of a ridge from which you get excellent views of the five little villages and the terraced hillsides the rain keeps washing away. Food expert, guide, B&B owner (Poggio Etrusco) and cookbook author (Cucina Povera) Pamela Sheldon Johns has invited us, and man, are we glad she did.
The first wine we taste is brilliantly colored, a deep gold with signs of murkiness. Walter thrusts his nose deep into the glass and describes the smell of rocks drying on the beach in the noonday sun. He talks of lichens and moss. It is the opposite of refined; we are shrouded heavily in the nature we desire to be engulfed in, at least in our dreams.
The wine he’s named Carlaz is unfiltered and unfined. Hence the murkiness and, above all, the intense flavors of the sea and earth, the terroir, as the French say, from which the grapes have developed their unique character.
It paired nicely with the dish the restaurant was named after, the Cappun Magru, a fisherman’s dish of fish, shellfish, a mariner’s biscuit, green sauce and earthy vegetables.
We had three other courses—and three other wines. I’m not going to wax poetic over them. Each was significantly different, like a novel which comes alive when you realize that each personality is different and distinct and equally compelling.
Why is Schiacchetrà wine so expense? Easy: It takes 45 pounds of fresh grapes to make 15 pounds of dried ones, from which the winemaker extracts a single bottle of Sciacchetrà. The wine should age for at least 6 years. Good vintages can age 10, 20, even 30 years. ~ David Downy – Wines of the Cinque Terre
I’ve put a picture of it over there to the right. Look at the color! This is no wall flower wine!
The perfect afternoon? A room that opens onto the vineyards of the Cinque Terre, letting in the light. A small group of good people unafraid of life, a man in jeans who knows wine. Good food. Wine that speaks volumes: of the air and the sea and the rocks and the hanging moss, earthy as all get out…
It’s almost pornographic, eh?
■ 3 May 2014 by James Martin
I am giddy. I’ve just attended a lecture on nutrition conducted by a medical doctor in Italian and came away with an almost complete understanding about what the man was saying. This makes me quite happy. The man is a genius. This is not mere hyperbole; anyone who can make me understand anything is a genius. It doesn’t happen that often. He’s in the center in the picture, just so you know.
But really, Dr. Samir Guiseppe Sukkar has his own website chock full of credentials, just in case you think he’s one of those fly-by-night, paid-by-Monsanto crackpots who dominate the American nutritional scene. His talk in front of the museum in La Spezia was titled “Vivere piu a lungo e sani grazie al modello alimentare della Lunigiana” which pretty much means, “live longer and healthier with the Lunigiana dietary model.”
I emphasize the word “model” because Dr. Sukkar wisely pointed out that, while the “Mediterranean diet” is widely held to be some sort of holy grail for those who want to live to be 120 years old, the UNESCO prize isn’t for the diet, it’s for the model of the diet, which includes lifestyle. That is, hard physical work in the fields, discussion during meals, as well as the food itself.
To quote Dr. Sukkar in a general way only a person who struggles with the language daily might, “Our model of eating comes from the Greek, the concept of the Agora, where ideas come together with daily tasks like eating. You eat less when you are interested in the discussion.”
An enormous part of the success of this diet is attributed to components in fresh olive oil. The big word is polyphenols, an antioxidant that protects cells from damage and has anti-inflammatory properties. The fat in Olive oil is monounsaturated, which can help lower your cholesterol and control insulin levels in the body.
But here’s the thing. While we Americans fetishize the precious olive oil on our shelves, we are kidding ourselves that we are benefiting from consuming it. Remember, I said “…the components in fresh olive oil.” The crap you buy in an American supermarket isn’t fresh, and besides, “highly refined or “light” olive oils, which use heat or chemicals in the refining process, have significantly lower polyphenol levels.” That’d be the stuff on the Safeway shelf. Green olives from older trees that have been handled very, very gently in the field and at the processor have the highest polyphenol levels. That’s not the junk in the American Grocery, that’s my neighbor Enrico’s olive oil. It’s the (demanding) lifestyle, silly. He works. He makes olive oil. He toils in a humongous garden. He cycles long distances on “vacation”.
How did olive oil get to the Lunigiana? Think Romans. Think energy crisis. They brought olive trees to provide fuel for oil lamps, the high tech lighting of the time. What was left over was eaten. By the medieval other oils and other means of lighting started to be used, freeing olive oil for consumption.
And finally, let’s consider the lowly, besmirched egg. It’s not lowly because of what it is, but what we’ve made it. The fats in the eggs produced by a real free range chicken that gets to prance around the barnyard eating bugs are significantly healthier than those produced by caged, pellet-fed chickens. Insects are huge providers of select amino acids that are found in sparse quantities in vegetables.
So, technology has alleviated seasonal starvation; we can give it that. But then, like the Roman god Janus, shouldn’t we have an eye toward the past so that we might avoid the ever-crappier food of the future? The truth is, happy chickens produce healthy eggs that taste better.
Until they get that straightened out, I’m happy to eat in the Lunigiana. I only have to walk down the driveway to see chickens pecking in the dirt on the hillside.