I have met the reincarnation of Ancel Keys, the now-sainted guru of the Mediterranean Diet. Even better, we had dinner at his restaurant.
His name is Roberto Paullilo. Roberto is a compact, intense fellow in his fifties with blue eyes, steely gray hair, and a smiling demeanor that belies the intensity of his passion for food. It’s entirely appropriate that Roberto has taken the mantle from Keys; when Keys disembarked with the Fifth Army on the beaches of Gaudo, near Paestum, back in 1944, the first man to meet him and shake his hand was Roberto’s grandfather.
Roberto is a true Renaissance man: architect by training, hotelier and restaurateur by birth, landscape artist by inclination, and food guru by all of the above. Roberto doesn’t just create food, he sculpts it, as a work of art.
His partner and muse, Rafaela, a pretty woman, quiet and warm, did the actual cooking from both traditional dishes to which the two have added their own flair, and from completely original recipes using the best local ingredients. Rafaela didn’t talk that much, even when she was not in the kitchen, but if anything, she spoke even more than the effusive Roberto; Rafaela let her cooking do the talking, and, let me tell you, the lady can flat out throw down in the cucina.
Roberto and Rafaela are the proprietors of the Calypso Hotel Ristorante Lido on the shores of the Tyrrhenian at Paestum. The hotel had been founded by Roberto’s grandfather and he grew up in the business. The hotel and Roberto’s landscape architecture pay the bills, but “slow food” is his passion. The Slow Food movement was started by Carlo Petrini in Torino back in 1986 and now has chapters in countries all over the world. If you care about good food and/or sustainable agriculture and are not a member, betake thyself to the website and join; it’s cheap and we need all the help we can get.
Roberto spoke in his near-flawless English of a philosophy of food that included elements of Taoism, of homeopathy, of the virtues of organic foods and of the sacredness of local food traditions. His restaurant bespeaks that philosophy: part art gallery, part food library, part lecture hall, part demonstration kitchen. Roberto showed us a demonstration he had set up for local school kids where they can mill their own grain in a simple mill with real millstones and spoke of the possibility of doing the same sort of thing with a miniature frantoio. It seems that thousands of cultivated olive trees are being abandoned in Italy as more and more Italians settle for the crap that the huge conglomerates sell for less in the supermarkets. But what if tour groups could be brought to the Calypso in the fall, taught a bit about traditional foods, and then sent out to the olive groves to hand harvest their own olives, bring them back and produce their own oil, which they could take back home with them?
Fernando tells me of an incident which pretty well summarizes what Roberto and Rafaela are all about. Several years ago the regional director of NAS, the Italian equivalent of the FDA, came to inspect the Calypso. He was puzzled about the absence of a walk-in cooler at the restaurant. Roberto explained that his food went straight from the farm or sea to the table so there was no need for much refrigeration. The inspector, at first incredulous, stuck around for a few hours and saw for himself. He then went home and promptly booked the restaurant for his daughter’s wedding reception.
The meal itself was a revelation, perfectly balanced and filling without being excessively so as so many Italian restaurant meals can be. The antipasto was one of our favorites, a simple bruschetta all’ pomodoro, of the sort that so many American restaurants manage to murder. It was composed of the best bread (in this case made from grain the Paollilos mill themselves every morning and naturally leavened to create a sourdough bread), perfectly ripe little grape tomatoes which are in season right now in the Cilento, a bit of basil and garlic, salt and pepper, and fruity olive oil. Not even any Parmeggiano. And, forgive my rant, but too many Americans slaughter the name along with the dish; in standard Italian it is pronounced broo SKET tuh, not broo SHET tuh, with the hard k sound. Some of my friends of Italian extraction insist they pronounced it with the soft s sound as kids. Fair enough, that could be dialect, but I’ll insist in that case that you have your brooshettuh with spajetti; the only purpose of that h in Italian is to make the c and g hard. The dish itself was everything we love about good Italian cuisine: the absolute best local ingredients, simply prepared and allowed to speak for themselves.
Along with the antipasto and our primi we enjoyed a local sparkler, Caprarizzo Greco, a ‘garage wine’ (that’s a good thing) made near Capaccio on the flank of the mountain overlooking Paestum. The name of the winery derives from the converted goat stable which now serves as the press room. This is a tiny estate, about six acres (another very good thing), which produces only about 12,00 bottles per year, the sparkling frizzantino that we enjoyed as well as a still wine, both using the Greco grape which is really starting to strut its stuff in this region.
We enjoyed two primi, or pasta courses, one an invention of the Paullilos and the other from a family recipe. First up was a sort of roulade made with homemade sheet pasta from a traditional grain whose name I never could understand, wrapped around the classic pasta verde, pasta hand-made with bits of spinach to give it color and flavor, wrapped around a suffrito of veggies, all topped with a homemade marinara and a sprinkling of goat cheese. The second, traditional pasta was cavatelle, little hand-made gnocchi, not of potatoes but of hard wheat, with a smoked swordfish. Both delicious.
Next we were offered two entrees and a contorno, or vegetable dish. The first was a torta d’allici, a sort casserole made with fresh anchovies gratineed and served with a pepper ragu, also gratineed. The second was thinly sliced cutlets of pork loin topped with peppers. I should explain that these were Italian bell peppers allowed to reach their full, glorious ripeness so that they are so sweet you can eat them like apples. These had been gently sauteed and bathed in good olive oil. With the entree we had a wine we had enjoyed before, Kratos Fiano, made by the winery of Luigi and Rafaela Maffini at Castellabate, on the flanks of the mountain about 20 miles south of Paestum. Not a garage wine, but definitely artisinal; the Maffinis have about 47 acres and produce about 45,000 bottles per year.
Forgive a brief digression about the wines of the Mezzogiorno. Some of the most exciting wines I have tasted in recent years are coming out of this southern region and they are still largely unheralded and therefore reasonably priced, both here and in the States when you can find them. They are a far cry from those produced en masse fifty years ago, when about the best you could say about them was that they were potable. What gives? In a word, controlled fermentation temperatures. It’s damned hot down here in August and September when the grape harvest occurs, and a hot fermentation is inevitably a bad one, one which absolutely strips the wine of flavor and aroma. Enter Robert Mondavi and the idea of fermentation in stainless steel tanks with cooling jackets, and viola! the fermentation climate of Bordeaux! Many of the wineries here have taken the next logical step and now also harvest at night under halogen lights. Does that really make a difference? Absolutely! As far back as Roman times vinegrowers knew that a cool harvest was essential, and so they recommended harvesting only in the early morning.
For dolci, or dessert, we had cannoli, the classic dessert of Sicily, but there was nothing classic about these except the taste. The pasta rolls were crisply fried but small and delicate, unlike the huge honkers you often get in pasticcerie here. That meant more crunch per bite. Further, Rafaela used local ‘ricotta’, the full-fat version popular around here, instead of the sheeps’ milk ricotta of the classic. This was flavored with lemon zest and a touch of brown sugar. These we had with more of the Caprarizzo sparkling wine, and sparkling wines and Italian desserts, in my opinion, are a match made in heaven.
As I read back through this entry it suggests that we stuffed ourselves, but nothing could be further from the truth. The portions were small and perfectly balanced and we left the Calypso sated but not logy. Somewhere in a better world, Ancel Keys is smiling on you, Roberto and Rafaela!