When I was in Italy last week, I ate some terrific food. There were pastries, pasta, cheeses and seasonal delights such as artichokes and oranges. While I would be hard pressed to declare a single one of those items as “the best” or “my favorite,” I can say without hesitation that the most extraordinary meal I enjoyed was my dinner on the island of Ischia.
Let me tell you about it…
Ischia is an island on the northwest side of Naples Bay and is very much a summertime resort area. Visiting Ischia in February is akin to traveling to Martha’s Vineyard in the off season. You’ll find lightly populated streets, beautiful and unoccupied beaches and many businesses, including restaurants, closed. A couple of those conditions make for a lovely and quiet stay but, when it comes to finding a spot to enjoy an evening meal, it can be a challenge.
After a late afternoon snack of a delicious and satisfying arancina, I found myself pretty darn hungry as the evening approached. My location demanded that fresh seafood should be the focus of my meal, so I did a little online research and located a spot that sounded very promising. I navigated to the location only to discover that, despite what Google told me, the restaurant was closed.
Disappointed – and even more famished, I headed towards the port to try my luck with my craving for seafood now laser focused on spaghetti with clams. Unfortunately, my craving was not as easy to satisfy as I had hoped. After checking a few menus displayed in various trattoria windows, I ventured into a spot which had a lovely array of bruschetta available. But, not yet willing to give up on my quest, I inquired if they might be able to point me towards a place that offered local seafood.
I was given the name of a place that I probably would have passed by since it didn’t sound promising for what I was seeking. I mean, what is there about the name Ristorante Pane e Vino that suggests fish? Trusting the recommendation, and my need to eat, I made my way there.
The restaurant is located very near to the port and had plentiful outdoor seating, but, on a cool night it was all unoccupied and simply too cold for me to consider. I entered the restaurant and was immediately presented with a small dining room completely seated with guests at 3 large rectangular tables. I was uncertain if the seating was family style or a private party, but it didn’t matter. There was not an open seat to be had.
Within a moment, a server approached me and, after determining I was da solo, led to a round table in an area beyond the main dining room. The table boasted some employee drink glasses and a single place setting. The server explained that there was a man who often dined at the very seat he was offering me, but if I was comfortable there, I was welcome to it.
Hello? As a veteran server, that table was absolutely perfetto!
I settled in with a menu and some information about availability of specific items and quickly made a couple of decisions – octopus salad followed by spaghetti with clams. When I voiced my choices, my server gave me a respectful nod and asked what I might like to drink with my meal. Without consulting a wine list, I asked for a glass of Vermentino, a selection with which he also seemed to approve.
I sat back and anticipated my meal, happy to have found exactly what I had hoped to find. My server came to the table with a bottle of Vermentino, which he quickly uncorked and poured a taste of for my approval. After I indicated that it was fine, he poured a little more in my glass and then placed the bottle on the table telling me to drink as much as I liked and that we’d settle up for it later. Great, that works for me.
A short while later, my octopus arrived. Tender, flavorful and well seasoned, it was outstanding. I’m talking about the kind of food that prompts an audible response. Wow. This was indeed my place. As I sipped my wine, savoring my first course, the server approached me and asked if I was open to sharing the table with 2 more diners. Of course, how could I possibly deny anyone the same opportunity with which I had been provided?
The couple who joined me for dinner were also tourists, from Israel. They were lovely, spoke terrific English, and we enjoyed lively conversation about an array of topics during the meal. My main course arrived and it was undoubtedly the best spaghetti with clams that I’ve ever eaten. The pasta was cooked al dente and topped with a generous serving of small, sweet clams. Absolutely dynamite.
From my vantage point, I witnessed the flawless deboning and serving of a fish that a diner had selected from a ceramic bowl for their meal, and had most certainly been caught that very day. I was absolutely in the right place. These people knew what they were doing.
How amazing is that? How charmed is my life?
I followed my pasta with a local dolce specialty, babà cake. This rum soaked cake served with whipped cream and a smear of wild blueberry sauce was absolutely lovely and made for a wonderful way to punctuate what was an incredibly satisfying dining experience.
The leisurely pace of my meal, unfortunately, caused me to forfeit the opportunity to utilize the spa facility at my resort. I had scheduled a 45 minute visit, per Covid restrictions, but was incapable of rushing through such a wonderful dinner to make it back in time for a soak and steam. Amazingly, though, my dining companions were staying in the very same hotel as I was and had booked the time slot after me at the spa. They returned the favor of my sharing the table by inviting me to share their scheduled time at the spa. How damn lucky am I?
Together, we walked back to our hotel and ended what was an unforgettable evening by indulging in a little water therapy in the way of a sauna and hot tub soak. Returning to my room later, I fell asleep debating which was more charmed – this special island, or my life on this particular day. Either way, I couldn’t have been more appreciative.