Southern Italy: Vacationing, Eating, Sailing, Cooking
Experiencing late August in the seaside town of Tropea in remote southern Italy was a slice of Italian life.
Our hotel was a thousand year old building cut into the sheer cliff rock wall of the town.
The floor to ceiling window in our apartment was completely open to cooling breezes – no screens available, nor needed; flying pests did not live there, apparently. The view from the little iron balcony looked down onto an amusing switchback road – two on-coming vehicles would approach at speed, stop, inch around each other, and then speed off again.
One morning very early, a disorganized herd of goats appeared and ambled through the dusty, deserted parking lot below, stopping and grazing at grassy corners. A young boy took his time shepherding them, disappearing into the scrubby pine grove near the harbor side. In the early morning light people watered their plants, left for work; one woman gave a boy a haircut outside on her back porch.
The walls of the hotel were easily two feet thick, punctuated by six by six inch holes, whether for shooting arrows, ventilation, or whatever, we never found out for sure. The town and its yellow cliffs precipitously dropped down 200 steps (we counted) into a narrow street next to a crescent of white sand beach bordered by the crystal blue coolness of the Mediterranean sea.
Meals in picture perfect outdoor ristorantes and pizzerias allowed us time to experience local favorites such as Fileja Pasta with Capers, Eggplant, Red Onions and Tomatoes, Insalata Tropea with tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onions in a fresh vinaigrette, or Pizza with red onions, arugula and parmesan cheese. The famous local produce was sweet red onions, appearing in many of the dishes and seen in braids everywhere for sale for 1.50 Euros, and hot peppers, which were billed with a wink as “Viagra” peppers, for their strengthening effect.
Evenings saw the vacationing Italian families out in force with all ages in attendance. Dinner, starting not before 8 pm , was followed by the passagiata, or evening walk, where everyone promenaded around the streets, talking, hugging, playing with their children and pushing their babies in strollers. Women wore heels, men were in tight shirts, all were impeccably well groomed and coiffed as they paraded the streets, walking down the cobblestone streets toward the view from the cliffs, shopping for souvenirs, eating their gelato, and enjoying the warm evening breezes. Everyone was out at least until 11 pm, including the little ones, who by now were mostly passed out in their strollers.
When we transferred our luggage to our 43 foot sailboat on Saturday morning for a week’s sailing odyssey, we knew what to buy in the markets to provision our boat in order to duplicate those distinctive tastes for our lunches and, as it turned out, a few dinners.
Our intent was for our party of six to sail to the volcanic Eolian Islands, mooring or docking next to each one, and having dinner in the various little towns. That first night when we moored at the harbor in Stromboli (accent on the FIRST syllable, please), the good looking young Italian man who pulled up to our boat in his little inflatable, warned us ominously that a scirrocco – strong wind - was coming that evening, probably about midnight, and that the mooring was not guaranteed to hold us.
With that in mind, we uneasily set about getting our little dingy in the water to go ashore. Still healing from a broken collar bone, I chickened out and decided to stay aboard our 43 foot boat, the Alice (A-LEE-chay, in Italian). As the seas got rougher, and the winds kicked up, the rest of our six person band decided to stay aboard also. The seas and winds increased with each passing minute, and the provisions we put aside for “one day”, were hauled out for “today”. We started cooking the fileja pasta in a large pot of boiling water as the scirocco winds bore down on us.
The dishes and glassware – didn’t the Italians know about plastic? – crashed back and forth, and side to side in the locked galley cabinets. We were sure they were all in smithereens. Later we heard that that night the scirocco winds blew up to 50 knots for a sustained half hour period. And nothing broke!
All during this time the pasta pot bubbled as the stove swung wildly back and forth on its hinges, struggling to keep from tipping, as did we all. That pasta, which we prepared with a sauce of fresh tomatoes, eggplant, and onions, served us for dinner that evening, when finally at ten p.m., the winds let up enough to allow us to eat on deck while only occasionally holding onto to our plates.
In the meatime, our dingy had untied itself from our boat, never to be seen again. The morning dawned sunny and calm and we continued on to other Eolian islands for more adventures and wonderful food in the subsequent week.
Back at home in New Jersey, we had a fabulous pasta the other night that approximated some of the tastes we had in Tropea on land and at sea. Using Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, we loosely followed the recipe for Linguine with Raw Tomato Sauce.
- Use only really ripe, lovely Jersey tomatoes. No need to skin or drain the seeds.
- Buy imported Italian pasta. (I bought mine at Home Goods for $3.99 for 500 g, about a pound.)
- Buy imported Extra Virgin Olive Oil. (Again, I bought at Home Goods. For both, check to see if it says “made in Italy” – it’s surprising how many times it says made in Spain, Turkey, or elsewhere when it’s billed as Italian.)
- Buy high moisture, house made mozzarella from an Italian store, like D’Angelo Italian Market on Spring Street in Princeton.
- Salt the water after the water comes to a boil.
- Leave the pasta really, really al dente – just barely tender. The imported pasta itself has good flavor, and this way will have texture as well, which is how the Italians make it.
Raw Tomato Sauce
3 or 4 cups roughly chopped ripe tomatoes, preferably plum, but round are ok too
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, put through a garlic press, or chopped
¼ to ½ cup fresh basil leaves, sliced or torn into pieces
1 pound Italian pasta (the fileja shape is in 3 inch pieces of rolled tubes)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
OPTIONAL but fabulous – fresh mozzarella, cut into ¾ inch cubes,
Swiss chard, quickly sautéed in a few tablespoons of EVOO
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water. Cook the pasta just until tender. Save a cup of the pasta cooking water.
In the meantime, add the chopped tomatoes to a large, wide bowl. Add kosher salt and pepper, EVOO and garlic and mix together. Drop in the basil.
When the pasta is ready, don’t forget to take out a cup of pasta water. Drain the pasta in a colander. (Never rinse the pasta – the starchy water will help the sauce adhere to the pasta.) Pour the pasta into the bowl with the tomatoes and add about ¼ to 1/3 cup pasta water to loosen the sauce. If using, saute the swiss chard 2 minutes or so until just tender in the empty spaghetti pot. Tip out into the pasta bowl. Add the optional mozzarella and fold together, adding more pasta water if the mixture seems dry. Dust with a few tablespoons of Parmesan cheese.
This recipe simply cannot convey how delicious this dish can be if you use all the best ingredients you can find, but even if you just use great Jersey tomatoes, this will be a wonderful meal.
Italian cooking = all about great ingredients used simply to highlight the natural tastes of the food.
More on our Italian adventures overseas and in the kitchen next week.