I love Italy.
I really love Italy.
I love everything about this country. The people, the weather, the hills, the cypress, the language, the wine, the coffee, the food.
Oh my, the food!
I had the great fortune of traveling to Italy alone in the spring of 2008. I had saved up airline miles and could get a ticket for free. I also saved up a lot of money to sleep safely and eat well. It was my first solo trip overseas and I had a wonderful time. I say that, but my father had just passed away; I wanted to buy a one way ticket, never to return and yet I had just met the man of my dreams - here in the States. It wasn't the trip I had expected, but it was a trip that I didn't know I needed. The solace I found while sitting on the empty beaches of Monterosso Al Mare allowed me space to think with just the sounds of the waves and seagulls to soothe me. I could walk along the narrow pathways from my little apartment in Vernazza, the next town over, to any one of the five towns in the Cinque Terre. I was only going to stay one night, I ended up there for over a week. It's not that I made a ton of friends, I did meet people but that wasn't the draw. The Cinque Terre, especially when it's not cram jammed with tourists, is a peaceful place so fantastically colorful you forget that you are here on earth. When I left, I cried.
And I vowed to return.
It's 2014 and I've got tickets, for two this time to Venice, returning from Florence. I am returning to Italy! Mr. C had never been to Europe, so this was his first trip. I've been quite a few places over there, so it wasn't a big deal except for the fact that it was ITALY.
I love Italy.
We started in Venice and made our way to Perugia and then to the coast of the Adriatic, and on to Rome. We were traveling like college students, without an itinerary but with backpacks, and a with a healthy budget unheard of in University days. I wanted to watch as Italy unfolded for Mr. C, as he entered his first ancient cathedral, as he floated the canals, as he ate artisan gelato and fresh focaccia. I wasn't disappointed once, Italy rolled out the red carpet for us. We had great weather, it was fall and we were skirting the edge of the tourist season, we went sea bathing in the Mediterranean and waded to our knees in the Adriatic. We sunbathed, ate outdoors, sipped countless cups of coffee and I practiced my Italian everywhere we went.
And I took him to the Cinque Terre.
Mr. C was not liking Rome. It was too busy and noisy and our hotel wasn't the greatest. The elevator was so small, we couldn't go up but one at a time with our packs on. The room was stuffy and there was a constant cacophony coming from the road and construction outside. We were booked two nights but left after one. I told him I would take him to paradise. Packs on, we made our way to the train station. and headed to La Spezia, a small city on the coast just south of our destination. Switching rail platforms was a breeze and we had other tourists soon following us and my confident stride toward the ticket machine where we could buy local tickets on the only train that would take us North stopping at the five small towns of the Cinque Terre. After helping other travelers with their tickets, we all headed straight for the platform and boarded the waiting train. Five minutes went by. Then ten. And then suddenly the loudspeakers crackled with a message, in Italian. I managed to make out enough of it to know that our travel plans were about to be affected by a strike. I grabbed Mr. C, who was still trying to comprehend all this, and said to him that we had to find alternate passage.
Outside the train was a local boy who was gathering quite a crowd around him. He had information about the trains and was hoping to be paid to dispense this. Mr. C and I are not easily fooled and he put his trust in me as I led him out of the train station and to a waiting row of taxis. While we were climbing steps on our way out, I was thumbing through the pages of my notebook looking for where I had noted the acceptable taxi fares for exactly this situation. I found a fair faced fella in a white car, feet on the dash, reading a newspaper. Other taxi drivers were gathered around this guy like he was the Dali Lama, debating the news, food, women, wine and life all at once. I approached the group asking first in Italian and then in English if we could get a driver to take us to Monterosso. Only one wanted to do it, the fella already in position. So we popped our bags into the boot and plopped into seats and off we all went.
He drove at a breakneck pace through the winding hillside roads behind and above the Cinque Terre villages that I knew. I was loving this, it was like seeing behind stage - small, non tourist towns with little cafes, no real shops but an authenticity I wanted to explore. I bookmarked it for our return when I would maybe rent a car instead. The drive took a while, and on occasion we could see the Mediterranean between dips in the landscape. I was excited to watch Mr. C fall in love with these colorful villages along the sea and I was getting impatient, but as suddenly as we rounded the next corner and careened down a hill, we were there.
One thing to note about the towns of the Cinque Terre is that they are without cars. All of them except the new town side of Monterosso Al Mare. And Monterosso is divided by a tunnel, New Town where cars are (somewhat) allowed past a vast parking lot, and Old Town where no cars are. This one little fact was an important recollection because I didn't want to have to hike into town with our packs - Mr. C had a Roman sword and I was carrying too much in the way of wool sweaters purchased in Perugia.
Our taxi dropped us off at the edge of town, past the vast condo complexes that I wanted to avoid. We paid our fare and a very hefty tip, looked up at a sign for Hotel Baia and walked on in. Without reservations in summer we would be fools to try this but, as I said, it was fall and most tourists were gone. We were given a gorgeous corner room with a balcony overlooking the boardwalk, the beach, and the water.
Our first night I let Mr. C pick a restaurant. We had walked the length of the New Town and through the tunnel to the Old Town and back again. He wanted to try a bustling local joint and we had a lovely meal sitting on an enclosed patio. The next night I consulted my travel books and starred a few places, then we went to the lobby and asked for a recommendation. Our hostess rang up a restaurant, set up a reservation and told us how to find L'Ancora della Tortuga - at the edge of New Town, just before the tunnel, turn right and climb some steps. We were there in less then five minutes.
Had we known what was awaiting us, we may have ran. Had we known what the food was like, we would have skipped Rome altogether. If only we had known...
The restaurant was, unbeknownst to us, on its last night before closing for the season. The windows facing the water were all open and we had a view of the setting sun. Cool breezes were blowing the white curtains all about, giving the candlelit dining room a very ethereal feel. The hostess led us to a corner table with a booth seat next to one of these windows and Mr. C immediately started moving the candles that lined the sill. He was worried about a fire - he was the only one, the hostess merely shrugged it off. I ordered a glass of the local white - it's my favorite because of the minerality and clean tartness, Mr. C had aqua con gas (sparkling water). The menus were simple and I knew immediately that I wanted to try the Risotto al Gamberetto because I just love risotto. In a surprising turn, Mr. C ordered the vegetarian lasagne. I had to look at the menu twice - butternut squash seemed a strange selection that I actually questioned him. He smiled, "Lasagna." And so it was.
Until the lasagna came out.
My shrimps, "Gamberetto," were enormous. Three of them covered the plate - I felt like I was eating a lobster tail. The lasagne in front of Mr. C was a lovely white slice, oozing with a cream sauce and delicate slices of butternut. He took the first bite and literally started tearing up. His face changed. His body emanated an aura of complete peace. I swear I heard angles singing. "You have to taste this," he insisted. And so I dipped my fork in for a small bite. I nearly fainted. And then I nearly wrestled him for it. This lasagna was the most heavenly thing I had ever eaten. I think Mr. C may have shared one more bite with me, but I sat there, across from him, listening to his every moan as each bite disappeared into his mouth. I am sure my dish was delicious, but I was distracted by him and his orgasmic lasagna. We both managed to finish our meals and the heavenly pillows of bread they kept plying us with and then debated ordering another slice of lasagna to split between us. I don't know why we didn't, I guess we're pretty darn dumb.
That night our walk around town was done on air, we were both moaning about the lasagna even over scoops of freshly made gelato. We got back to our hotel ready to beg the receptionist for another nights reservation but she told us that the restaurant would be closing after tonight. I think we wept as we climbed the four flights to our room.
The next day our waiter from L'Ancora della Tortuga was in the breakfast room of our hotel having coffee and flirting with the receptionist. We stared at him like he was a movie star. We fantasized that he would be back at the restaurant that night at some private staff-only party featuring platters of orgasmic lasagna. We talked about how to get ourselves invited to this fantasy party. We consoled ourselves with good Italian coffee and the fact that we were probably feeling the effects of post-lasagna depression.
I have since sent many people to L'Ancora della Tortuga to indulge in this dish. Sadly, every single recommendation has been either met with off-season closure or a full restaurant and no available reservations. I suggest that you reserve now. What? You don't have tickets?!!??! Book your table and make sure your passport is up to date. You can thank me later.
The colorful town of Monterosso