It’s a rainy morning in Agropoli, the dark clouds rolling over the ridges, even a few rumbles of thunder farther to the north over Paestum. But it’s a good rain, gentle, slow, nourishing for the riot of plants around here, promising a bit of relief for the hours of work Rolando and Filo often have to expend to water their crops from the well. It’s one of those maritime showers that rolls in off the sea and erupts when it hits the thermals from these mountains and quickly dissipates. Even now there is far more than enough blue sky showing to the south to make cat’s pajamas, so it won’t be long before it’s sunny again. And is it really possible that the Cilento is even more beautiful in the rain?
Yesterday was memorable for an invitation to pranzo (lunch) from the Astones, and Filo was promising Spaghetti alla vongole, Spaghetti with clams, one of our favorites. And Filo is an incredible cook, even by Italian standards.
As often with all things Italian, the time for lunch was a bit nebulous. We’ve just learned to chill out and wait for the signal. But as the hour approached 3 pm our appetites were raging. The delay was well worth the grumbling stomachs, for Fabio had gone to town to retrieve Katiuscea, and this lively, intelligent, funny young woman is the best sauce for any dish. We entered the house upstairs to find lunch service laid out beautifully in the living room next to the terazza, the doors open to admit that ravishing brezza we’ve had lately. Hugs and kisses all around and then we settled in for a feast.
The first course was not, in fact, alla vongole, but Spaghetti con frutte di mare, spaghetti with a mixture of seafood. But not just seafood. The freshest possible seafood, bought less than three hours earlier at the Astones’ favorite local seafood market and pulled from the sea less than 24 hours before that. I hear lots of people say they don’t like seafood, but I have to believe that if they ever tasted seafood this fresh they would be converted. Not the slightest hint of ‘fishiness’, just the pure, sweet essence of shrimp or crab or whatever plus a subtle soupçon of the sea. I once had a waiter in Rome advise me not to order a seafood dish there because the sea was too far away and the fish could not possibly be fresh. You understand that Rome is all of 18 miles from the sea! But he may have been right; here we are less than a mile from the port as the crow flies and the seafood is impossibly fresh. It should be possible, thanks to processing at sea and flash freezing, for North Carolinians to have seafood almost as fresh, but again and again at my local grocery I am appalled at the fetid mush that is proffered. All it takes is a modicum of care and love for one’s product, but it seems many American purveyors can’t even muster that.
Strange to say, however, Filo herself doesn’t eat seafood! How does she cook it so masterfully and yet not eat it? Obviously the instincts of a naturally talented cook. The spaghetti was perfectly cooked thanks to the ministrations of Fabio. About two minutes before Filo anticipated the pasta would be al dente, Katiuscea began bringing strands of pasta from the kitchen for Fabio to sample and he rendered his verdict. Finally I heard, “twenty seconds!” and out came the spaghetti and into the sauté pan with the seafood to ‘marry’. The seafood itself was a rich mix of tiny shrimps, beautiful little pearly orange mussels, oysters, strips of calamari, and tiny little tails of the cicale, 'cicadas' (actually a type of mantis shrimp) which yield very little meat but impart a rich flavor. All dressed with exquisite simplicity with parsley, a few bits of cherry tomato, and Rolando’s priceless olive oil. With it we drank a crisp, dry white from Puglia which Fabio explained was made on the estate of a daughter of the American actor Tyrone Power.
As usual, the primi piatti would have been a feast for most American meals, but we knew we had only begun so we were canny enough not to ask for seconds. And predictably, for the entree out came a platter of fittura di merluzzi, beautiful little whole hake battered so lightly you hardly realized a batter was there and perfectly fried so that there was not the slightest hint of oiliness. These little beauties had backbones that were almost fused so that they could be filleted with ease. The flesh was beautiful, white, firm but yielding and absolutely delicious. I ate two and was trying to be abstemious but Katiuscea cheekily put two more on my plate. My protest was very perfunctory. Those little guys disappeared in a hurry. With these we had a simple salad, perfectly dressed with oil and the juice of the wonderful lemons that grow here on the estate. Fabio brought out some thin-skinned lemons he had procured while in Sicily recently, ones which looked like the ones we have in the states, and we compared the taste of these to our knobbly local ones. The taste was identical. But Fabio explained that it was the oils in the skins of Campanian lemons which are used in making the local specialty, limoncello, a powerful, sweet liqueur, and the larger the lemon the more oils can be extracted. Ergo lemons the size of grapefruit.
The best part of the meal, of course, was the banter that enlivened the room. When I compare how awkward and shy we all were that first year to how comfortable we all now are I am amazed. Much of that, of course, is simply the ease of communication. Sandy’s Italian is still rudimentary but she is making steady progress and uses her pictures as a way of bridging the gap. My Italian is far from good, but it is coming along nicely and there are times when I would swear I was having an actual conversation. And it’s so easy to feel comfortable with these gracious folks.
We talked about Fabio’s trip to Sicily in May to deliver a talk on the subject of his dissertation, soon to be completed. We have longed to see that beautiful island and Fabio explained that the train, when it reaches Reggio-Calabria at the toe of the boot, is simply driven onto tracks mounted on a ferry and then ferried across the Straits of Messina to the island, where it proceeds to Syracuse and beyond! The whole trip to Catania, where he gave the talk, was a matter of four hours and 30 euros. Tempting. Very tempting.
At another point the conversation turned to matters of gravest import, namely, where to find the best pizza in the area. Ah, but nothing so simple as the best purveyor. It seems that this issue is a seasonal one. In the winter there is a local pizzeria where the forno à legno (wood-fired oven, de rigeur in every Italian pizzeria) is cheek-by-jowl with a raised hearth where a roaring fire heats the stones of a huge fireplace. Great pizza in a cozy, warm environment. In sprIng the Astones prefer a pizzeria south of Agropoli up on the flank of Monte Tresino. Here you have great pizza with a spectacular view of Agropoli, the Bay of Salerno, and on a clear, spring day, the Amalfi coast. In summer, no contest, Pizzeria Galleone, where we have eaten twice. It’s down at the port on a large terrace overlooking the sea and if you wait till the appropriate summer dinner hour (somewhere between 10 and 12 pm) you will enjoy the cool sea breezes, the twinkling lights of the port, and a view of the Rocca where the Centro of Agropoli is situated, the stones of the cliffs lit up suggestively in red, white and green, the colors of the Italian flag. In autumn, Fabio insists, one buys one’s pizza at a great pizzeria in Paestum, home of the fabulous Greek ruins, and then has a picnic out among the temples of Hera and Athena. Not too shabby, eating pizza with the gods.
The next course was the fruit course, in this case slices of fresh, sweet watermelon. Fabio experimented with a syrup of Limoncello over the top, but I think we all agreed it was gilding the lily. A fine, simple dessert, right? Wrong! Just another course. Out came a tray of dolci brought by Katiuscea, similar to the one we had brought two days before. With these Rolando served one of his masterpieces, a mandarinetto, similar to a limoncello but in this case made with tangerine skins instead of lemons. I can tolerate limoncello if it is served ice-cold as it so often is here to blunt some of the excessive sweetness, but I can’t say I really like it. But Rolando’s magic elixir is something else indeed, subtle, wonderfully perfumed and perfectly balanced. The peak of citrus season here is December and by May the fruit itself is past its prime, but the skins are still good, so that is when Rolando makes his liqueur. He explained that he had experimented for years to perfect the formula and technique and would write down the recipe for me. I will definitely try my hand, this stuff is nectar of the gods. And before we left he offered me one of his precious bottles, a gift so generous I almost teared up. Rolando is a quiet, reserved man who is such a sweet, sensitive soul underneath. Still waters really do run deep.
Finally we had little cups of good, strong Italian espresso, a great deal more laughter and loud, affectionate banter, and finally we were off to our downstairs snuggery for a nice, long riposo. It was a meal we will always remember; the food was almost as delicious as the company.