“Your bird is here,” said the factotum to his colleague at Oakland International Airport’s gate 22 as our Boston airbus docked, and that was the beginning of my Sentimental Journey to Italy. I’d be stopping in places not visited in 30, 34 years – dangerous of course, you can’t always “go home again,” and the Villa Libano hotel in Barga, recently taken out of circulation, looked as abandoned as an operatic courtesan down on her luck. But the rest was all in the PLUS column, with son John as superb negotiator of hairpin turns on back Garfagnanan roads and your correspondent as a mostly reliable navigator.
First stop was John and Lucy’s farm in New Hampshire. Woodsmoke greeted us at the eighteenth century salt box and Lucy had made a lovely soup I’ve christened Indastrone – Minestrone, that is, seasoned with turmeric, cinnamon and paprika and punctuated with yam. The next night was her awesome African Lamb Curry; we’ll give you that recipe a little later. But perhaps the best gastronomical news in South Hampton was that Celia (heavens, she just woofed from under the table where I’m writing!) did NOT demolish a Seven Layer Cake as she had three birthdays ago when we weren’t looking. That put her in the doghouse, you can be sure.
We had a bit of an Italian culinary preview at the Black Trumpet, a cozy boite on tugboat row in Portsmouth NH, the brainy bill of fare including a risotto (“mountain paella” they called it) with sausage, rabbit, bacon, mushrooms, leeks and, take a breath here, snails. Overkill? Not at all. Then it was back to Logan, Swiss Air pretzels and a sunny dawn over the eastern Atlantic, clouds like slim maidens lying in state. Destination the newly scintillating Zurich where we’d take in the opera (we had front row seats for Aida and could watch the brass players rolling their eyes as the ballet boys took their bows) and catch a day train down the Gottardo (the sight of kayaks in the sunny mist on a ripply Lake Zug was almost unbearably beautiful).
Bellinzona, Lugano, Chiasso, Milano (big change of car-mates here), Brescia, Verona, Vicenza, Padova, on we rolled in fading light to Venice. Twelve years on and the Agli Alboretti Hotel was as serene as ever enjoyed from a room overlooking back gardens, and since the October weather was positively balmy and the air of course pollution free, we dined outside, on the street, shepherded through the menu by a comic waiter on his way to winning the lottery.
Risotto, what else? I always preach that you can put anything in risotto except maybe pasta, and our reward on this occasion, seated next to some expat Americans with a miniature Italian greyhound and an Italian Aussie with his own canine friend, was the combination of rice and – for me – bits of orange-fleshed melon and shrimp, and – for John – duck and Amarone red wine. We opened with steamed octopus slices gritted with walnut in a heady walnut oil vinaigrette, and the evening’s wine, a light, smoky, fruity Primitivo di Manduria, was, according to our delightful server, quite an idiomatic and zesty English speaker, “your Italian Zinfandel.”
There are two Venices, the insanely crowded one that might be Disneyland East, and, my preference of course, the Venice of the locals. From our hotel, near that great waterway the Zattere and its engaging promenade, it was easy to operate in the more digestible of these somewhat overlapping opposites. And then of course one could go to San Marco piazza after dinner and the crowds and listen to the battle of the café orchestras, not, thanks be, playing simultaneously but in carefully clocked succession. My favorite was the hot five that played six or eight variations on “I Could Have Danced All Night,” in Hungarian style, Viennese, Paris-in-the-rain, you name it.
We also enjoyed the organist at the Salute church who, as the 11 o’clock service approached, teased promenading listeners with coils and coils of Bach never quite resolving until the Hour had struck. Addictive! Venice also has big bossy bells that bong dramatically at 7, 10 and 6, not quite as endearing as the gently creaking boat docks and mundanely harrumphing vaporetti. A word here, too, for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection which was featuring a comprehensive exhibit of American painting 1850-1950, from Eakins to Man Ray. I’d never before experienced this particular Guggenheim with its enchanting gardens, a near Alhambra North.
Forty two years ago my Persian friend Lotfi Mansouri introduced me to Alla Madonna, the Sam’s or Tadich Grill of Venice with its no-nonsense slabs of piscatorial delight (no tartare sauce, though) and waiters in crisp white jackets. This trip we braved the Anaheim-ian crush of tourist humanity by Rialto Bridge to find this alley-tucked prize and lo, the Scandinavians at the next table were eating the same squid ink pasta dish Lotfi had insisted I try back in ’66. A “home again” moment, one of many.
I’ve saved for last the gastronomic revelation experienced in Venice at Casin dei Nobili, a Zattere-side restaurant of uneven quality but capable of hitting the culinary jackpot. This it did with a platter of hard white cheeses served with HOMEMADE mostarda di frutta, that wonderful mustardy syrup of preserved fruits, a decent version of which you can buy at home in an import jar from Cremona but said comestible simply doesn’t have the unctuous tang of the made-in-the-house concoction that blew my mind one warm Venetian evening.
Next day we rented a nimble Fiat, negotiated somewhat better than a dozen years ago the tagliarini tangle of freeway on’s-and-off’s heading where we did-or-DIDN’T want to go and emerged, correctly, on the road down the Adriatic coast to Ancona. Stopping, as one must, at an old favorite of Sam Chamberlain the riveting ancient abbey of Pomposa north of Ravenna, one of the few skyscrapers you’ll find in the bittersweet valley of the giant Po.
Ancona, tucked into its hilly coastal crescent like a miniature Genoa, with ferries to Croatia and Greece steaming off in the evening fog just beneath our hotel window, is an underrated city. A little dowdy perhaps, not a town of snappy dressers, it’s homey and stately at once, with beautiful piazzas, spacious arcades, excellent fish soup at La Moretta, where the conductor Riccardo Muti likes to dine, and aged soulful alleys twisting upward to the lion-guarded cathedral perched inscrutably on a promontory rather in the manner of San Francisco’s Coit Tower looking down on the Embarcadero. No Tamalpais in the distance but green countryside lapping at the edges of the town.
And at La Moretta we drank with our aristocratic cioppino a full bottle of Boccadigabbio, a light chewy Macerata red the hangover from which was worth it. The maitre d’, by the way, had friends in Palo Alto and was happy to hear about the blog you see before you. Breakfast overlooking the vibrating port at the Grand Palace – at tables or a stand-up bar — was farm fresh eggs yellow as a Van Gogh painting and coffee cake to die for. A quick check of the cathedral lions, a dip down the spectacular Conero Riviera just south of town, a foraging for Adriatic stones on Numana beach, picnic spot of yore, and we were heading back north.
Thirty years ago, playing travel-planning roulette before the days of websites full of pictures of prospective hotel rooms large and small, spacious or claustrophobic, Anne and I guessed right with a chanced-upon brochure for the town of Ostra, up in the hills from Senigallia. We spent a couple of extremely tranquil days there, I waxed gosh-awful eloquently about it in the Tenerumi d’Agnello recipe some pages back, and now John and I were taking a new look.
Lost at first – I’d forgotten the ancient part of town, one long neat street up and another one down, with scarcely anyone about at 1 p.m. – I summoned the courage to ask directions to La Cantinella from a grocery lady who poured out a flood of directions (“after the gas station,” I caught), gave me a good fraternal slap, and sent us on our way. Soon we were digging into a wonderful mush of sautéed chard at the Cantinella dining room, which looked sort of familiar. It was after lunch, and a walk a few metres down the hill to the hotel itself, that, ta-tah!, I suddenly had THAT TRANQUIL FEELING again, almost overwhelming as March 1978 with John’s admirable mother came instantly into soul-drenched focus.
Next stop, the faithful Rosetta in beloved Perugia, reached after a curvy-curvy run through a brace of hill towns in the stepchild province of the Marche (Markay), the tip-toppest being Arcevia very high indeed on its impressive perch. The Rosetta dining room steers confidently through the decades, offering elegant but unpretentious fare to a rather hip and stylishly nerdy clientele (I’d swear that fellow at a neighboring table was a veteran film director, others might have been archaeologists taking a time out). And of course that crazy pasta in the patty shell was still being served, as in 1978, as in 2003, a wonderful cholesterolic nightmare.
The revelation this time was a starter plate of sautéed leaf chicory liberally bathed in oil, cicoria they call it, not to be confused with the salady chicory which resembles endive. I said to the waiter this scrumptious veg with its floral bitterness seemed rather like spinach, or chard, and he answered, with superb logic, “spinach is spinach, and chicory is chicory.” So there! I also want to mention a carpaccio drizzled with balsamic vinegar and dotted with juniper berries – you could do the same, I think, with prosciutto or mortadella at home.
Now a wiggle through the cozy Garfagnana north of Lucca, the festival hill town of Barga as exquisite as 34 years ago, ringed by sharp-peaked mountains even more dramatic than I remembered. This is the corner of fabled Tuscany no one’s ever heard of! Next day the superbly organized freeway up to Lake Como, stopping at a roadside Auto Grill where a little lady in a cap out of Breughel stirred risotto as she manned the cafeteria line, piling juicy roast pork or comme-il-faut pesto onto traveling businessmen’s plates.
Travel, Paul Theroux has written, is most rewarding when it ceases to be about reaching a destination and “becomes indistinguishable from living your life.” I couldn’t help thinking of this pithy observation when we settled into the Posta in Moltrasio, a calm and gorgeous little town arranged at a near-dangerous angle above the Como shore, lake waters gurgling, church bells performing their riffs, evening lights on the hills about to dance, the air virtually shampoo’d with fragrance. Yes, nothing to do but float on these felicities. Serendipity had propelled me to this heaven a couple times before by accident: this time one of my favorite nirvanas was reached by design.
And the food! The family-run Posta was offering turnip top ravioli sauced with cheese fondue and decorated with tiny sausage meatballs, risotto with quail, bacon and pan juices, a whole encyclopedia of temptations. I would return — that was the mantra on the flight back to Boston.
And here is Lucy’s curry, a party dish for six to eight . . .
Combine in a small and pretty bowl the following spices and herbs:
about 2 teaspoons each of paprika and ground coriander
4 crushed cardamon pods
2 bay leaves
hefty pinches of fenugreek seeds, ground cumin, oregano and basil
a little more than a teaspoon of turmeric
1/4 teaspoon of powdered saffron
3 or 4 small cinnamon sticks
and 1 teaspoon of black peppercorns
Then in a large Dutch oven sauté in
a melted stick of unsalted butter
2 chopped red onions
6 to 8 crushed garlic cloves
approximately 7 inches of peeled and chopped ginger root
2 chopped bird’s eye chilies, ribs and seeds removed.
Now add the spice/herb mixture, stirring well, followed by 2 pounds of cubed leg of lamb and about 6 chopped tomatoes. Simmer all uncovered for a few minutes.
Next, add a can of coconut milk and a cup of water; simmer covered for two hours. Then add 6 or 8 Yukon potatoes, peeled and halved, and another cup of water. Simmer all, covered, for 45 minutes, adding a box of frozen peas in the last few minutes.
Serve this abundant curry with plenty of good quality yogurt and steaming basmati rice.
Now to the guest list . . .