Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Italy, part II

When Italians go out to eat, they go all out. There’s the antipasti, primi (pastas or risotto), and secondi (meats or fish) with a couple bottles of wine. If you’re feeling really ambitious you can add on dessert with your coffee and grappa or limocello. That’s a lot of eating. That’s the kind of eating we normally reserve for anniversary dinners or when other people are paying.

Even with the ridiculously weak dollar we didn’t feel prices were completely unreasonable. We were there before the start of the busy season so the prices were not as inflated as they may be in the summer. On the other hand, Castellabate and Santa Maria are a little pricier than the towns that are more inland. For 6 adults to have a 3-course meal with 2 to 3 bottles of wine we usually didn’t pay more than 200 Euros. Hubby and I had a private dinner one night with a bottle of wine that cost 100 Euros. Pizzas were generally between 5 to 9 Euros, and while it seems most people order their own individual pizzas, they are large enough for two people to share. Almost every restaurant charged a sitting fee, which was normally 2 Euros per person. Some places added an extra percentage (we saw 10% at one place) on top of that. To save a little on food costs, we generally reserved 3-course meals for dinner and had more modest fare for lunch. We found a good and less expensive option was to pick up something savory at the local bakery or at take-out bars that featured foccacia or calzones.

Sonny showing us his favorite gelato shop.

I once heard that pizza was not as popular in Italy as it is in America. I can assure you that’s not true, at least in Naples and the Campania region. They don’t eat the types of pizzas most Americans are familiar with though. Their pizzas are thin crust with no more than 2 or 3 toppings and a moderate dusting of cheese. Sometimes the toppings aren’t baked with the pizza but added on top after the pizza is taken from the oven. I much prefer the Italian pizza to the American-style pizzas that are drowned in sauce and topped with 10 tasteless toppings and 1 whole pound of cheese.

Funny thing about pizza, almost every restaurant had a pizza menu, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will serve you pizza. From what we could figure, pizzas were only available on days that contain the letter S. Or if someone in your group was named Vincento. Or some other insane criterion. I don’t think we ever figured out the system, and it was probably sheer luck we ate pizza at all.

My favorite restaurant in Castellabate was one called Divino. Wonderful food and atmosphere. We all liked it so much, we ate there twice. It’s run by an enthusiastic Italian who lived in England (and thus speaks English). We could order off the menu a la carte, but they made it easy by offering a couple of prix fix menus (25 Euros for 3 courses, not including drinks). The menu mare had fish in every course and it was wonderful. I highly recommend it. If you’re not a fish eater, then you can get the menu terra. Delicious as well, but if I had to choose again, it would be the fish. The owner (oh, I wish I could remember his name!) was also very helpful with recommendations for local wines. At the end of the meal, he put a bottle of grappa and a bottle of limoncino (from what I can tell, it’s the same as limoncello) on the table and told us to take as much as we wanted. We didn’t want to seem like neanderthals, so we only took a couple of servings each.

Divino's outdoor seating is on a small piazza in Castellbate. When you're done with dinner, you can go to the bar just a few steps away. Quite convenient, really.

Paccheri with fresh tomato sauce at Divino. So delicious!

Ristorante Divino by day.

There were a couple of other restaurants I’d recommend too. Cantina Belvedere has a beautiful view and very nice atmosphere. Hubby and I had a nice romantic dinner that lasted 2 hours, which is so rare now that we have the munchkin (not that I’m complaining; it just makes it all the more special). Consider sharing the second or third course because the portions are super generous. When they brought out my spaghetti, there must have been enough for 3 servings! Again, I’m not complaining because it was good. Hubby had a delicious gorgonzola and raddichio risotto. We both had fish for the last course: Hubby had herb-crusted tuna and I had a fish mixed grill. Both were delicious.

Another good restaurant is Il Calesse, which used to be a horse stable back in the day. After learning that, I always referred to it as the horse restaurant. But don’t let the nickname give you the wrong idea. The food was also good. I had a spaghetti with tomatoes, basil and prawns and it was the best pasta I’ve ever had. I’ll always remember that pasta. And their foccacia bread, which was more like flatbread sprinkled with spices. Delish. Thing is, they only take cash and I thought we were going to have to do dishes to pay the bill.

As I mentioned before, we spent a lot of time shopping for supplies or at the beach in Santa Marie, so we often ate lunch there. There were a couple of restaurants near the beach and pedestrian shopping street that were open during “nap time”, as Sonny called it. Il Cantuccio is a nice establishment with covered, outdoor seating on a piazza, so we could people watch while we ate or Sonny could run around if he was feeling antsy. We ate there a couple of times. Once I ordered marinated anchovies and it was delicious. It was nothing like what most Americans think of anchovies. They resembled sardines in appearance, marinated in olive oil and white wine vinegar and served with arugula and sweet cherry tomatoes. I thought it was wonderful, but no one believed me. Their loss. The second time I had pizza. I can remember it being good, but I can’t remember what was on it.

Marinated anchovies in white wine vinegar and olive oil.

He doesn't look like the brightest kid on the block, does he? This cannon kept him entertained while we ate our lunch at Il Cantuccio in Santa Marie.

Closer to the beach was another restaurant called Arlecchino with an outdoor eating area. They also served pizza throughout the day. The good thing about this place was you could get pizza to go and bring it to the beach for a picnic. It was here I had my favorite pizza: anchovies, capers and buffalo mozzarella. I love anchovies on pizza, but it never occurred to me to add capers. I don’t think I can do without either topping ever again.

I was going to include some stuff about the day trips we took in this post, but I think I’ll wait with that. Think you can handle the suspense? But I don’t want to leave you without a recipe since I haven’t posted one in a while.

One of the things I loved about the food in Italy was the use of the freshest ingredients. The tomatoes were ripe and sweet with a wonderful tomato flavor. The fish was fresh, like caught-in-the-morning fresh. They may have been liberal with the olive oil, but the food never felt greasy. Like that spaghetti I had at Il Calesse. After I finished the pasta and scampi, there was a little pool of oil on the plate, but I don't remember being put off by it. I liked that pasta so much, I have tried to recreate it several times myself. Once I used fresh bay scallops in place of shrimp and it was nice. The juice from the scallops gave the sauce a creamier texture. Another time I left out the shellfish altogether, and it was still tasty.

This pasta is so simple, yet so easy to miss the mark if you don’t use the right ingredients. For this recipe, I urge you to use fresh sweet tomatoes, such as cherry or some other type of small-ish sweet tomato. There’s something about the combination of sweet, slightly acidic tomatoes with the salty, briny anchovies and smooth flavor of a good olive oil. Those tasteless beefsteak type tomatoes just don’t have the sweet acidity to stand up to the flavor of the olive oil and anchovies. Don’t substitute with canned tomatoes either, even good quality ones. And most importantly, DON’T LEAVE OUT THE ANCHOVIES!

Spaghetti with Fresh Tomato Sauce
Feed 3 to 4
  • 1 generous pound small-ish, sweet tomatoes, cut in half
  • 3 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 handful fresh, sweet basil, roughly chopped
  • 1/3 cup good quality olive oil
  • Dash of dried chilli flakes
  • 10 to 12 oz dry long pasta (spaghetti, linguine, etc)
  • 1 pound scallops or shrimp (optional)
  • Grated parmesan for topping
It seems silly to give directions on how to cook pasta, so I’ll call it tips rather than directions. Making a good pasta dish requires timing. The pasta should be done when the sauce is ready, and not sitting around waiting for the sauce. I generally like to cook pasta a minute or two less than stated in the directions. The noodles always get a little more heat when I turn them in the sauce, so if they start out overcooked, they will be really overcooked by the time they reach the table. Don’t forget to salt the water. I’m not talking 1 tsp kosher salt, I’m talking about a generous tablespoon or two, at least.

In a large skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil. When it’s hot (sufficiently hot enough to sautee, not stir-fry!), add the anchovies and garlic. Fry for about 20 to 30 seconds. The anchovies should start to break up, but make sure the garlic does not brown. Add the tomatoes, chilli and basil. Stir it every now and then. You want the tomatoes to break down and release their juices and the skin will separate from the pulp. This will probably take about 10 to 15 minutes depending on the size and firmness of the tomatoes. Then turn down the heat to low and let is simmer away until the spaghetti is done. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

If you want to use scallops or shrimp, I recommend sautéing them separately from the sauce. Start heating up your pan when you put the pasta on so that everything can be done at the same time. Do it in a little olive oil over high heat until they are just cooked through. I found with the scallops, they released a lot of their milky juice, but that’s okay. You could drain it away or add some to the sauce, which is what I did.

To put it all together, drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Add the sautéed seafood, if using, and the sauce. Give it a few quick stirs (over some heat) to distribute everything, then you’re done! Serve immediately. Top with copious amounts of fresh parmesan and more fresh black pepper. YUM!


Manggy said...

Yum indeed! I think Italians would find it strange to put Parmesan on a seafood pasta, though.. ;) But I'm not Italian, so hey hey, gimme some :)
I love Neapolitan pizza too (hate the mounds of tasteless rubber cheese that goes on many other pizzas). Granted, I didn't go to Napoli, I had it in Venice-- on foot. I just realized years later that it's rude to each while walking in Italy. Oops! At least it was obvious I'm a tourist!

Dee said...

Yes, I had heard that Italians do not condone cheese with seafood, but I saw it done occasionally. At least where we were, they always put grated cheese on the table for the pasta course and people use as they wish. And of course there were the seafood pizzas.

I guess I get to use cheese since I'm not Italian either :-)

Anonymous said...

Those marinated anchovies look so good. I've had something similar in a nice Italian restaurant here, so I know what you mean when you say people are put off by anchovies here. But they are so good!

Wandering Chopsticks said...

I've never seen anchovies so fresh and white. I hated that silly cover charge. Once I asked why and the waiter said to pay for the napkins and silverware. Huh!

BTW, I finally got around to it and posted my ginger chili fish sauce recipe this week.

Dee said...

WC, I saw your sauce recipe and have already written it down :-)