OK, I admit it, I was in the dumps. That blog about the broken tooth – the one I haven’t written yet – well the story got worse today and I was feeling sorry for myself. Tired, taken by surprise, plans changed, big dollars, alone in my room, which seems tinier when I am sad and I was feeling sorry for myself. Dang, I hate admitting that, but it is true.
Since the whole city goes to sleep at 12:30 I decided to do the same. When I awoke I found the pages I tore out of a devotional I read every day, although I haven’t read any since I left Wasilla. The message was short and sweet, “Trust Me in the tough times”. Oh, yeah, that. OK, I know better than to worry. It is all taken care of.
I decided since I have been out walking and doing and seeing for two days that would eat a simple, inexpensive meal downstairs at the hotel restaurant where the cook does multiple other tasks and the waiter sometimes doesn’t take his service jacket off when he is cleaning the rooms. Ah, off-season in a country with an economy that has not rebounded from 2008. I take the stairs down instead of the tiny elevator and to my surprise the restaurant is closed. Breakfast set-ups still there. Apparently, they’re not open on Saturday – or the cook has a second job elsewhere. I have passed a pizzaranti (whatever that is) everyday coming and going that is just around the corner from the hotel. I don’t want pizza but I am betting they have a few other things. They do have two windows full of faded, tattered newspaper articles going back 20 or 30 years proclaiming the merits of this guys’ pizza. Being half Neopolitan I dismiss the possibility of its quality and hope for the best on the secondi menu.
I stand studying the options on the menu posted in the window for quite a while since it is rather extensive, even if you don’t look at the 3 pages of pizza options, which I didn’t. I wasn’t committed until I saw a diminutive, dark brown, old, somewhat bent over gentleman approach the door with a “Are you coming in are you going to read the menu all day?” look and I felt compelled, or really coerced into entering. For a place with all those credentials it was completely empty. A big, open,brightly lit room with high white ceilings and weird blue decor, and modern. All the tables were set in hopeful anticipation, but it was already 8:30 on a Saturday night and the place was empty – with a capital E. I started calculating what I should probably not eat based on slow turnover.
I was clearly a “singolo” but he muttered something and walked into another room with me trailing behind. We stepped up (OSHA would be very unhappy here) to yet another empty dining room, also set for another 40 people and even some large tables for a dozen or more people. You gotta salute that kind of optimism. He turned and I mentioned I was not here with the entire opera company performing down the street. His response was curt and dismissive and he led me to a table for two along the wall, examining the other tables as though he was making a particular selection with my height, weight, gender, complexion, and family heritage in mind. I smiled to myself. This guy grew up in better days.
A youngster of maybe 50 came to the table to take my order. Birra? NO, vino. White? NO, rosso. OK. I have questions. OK. Menu in English? and off he went. My questions were not answered by the newly presented menu because they were not about translation, but he was in such a hurry it was hard to get a question in. He kept firing my potential answers at me. Used to Americani, I suppose. We settled on a dish not on the menu that he recommended, after he was convinced I actually wanted to eat a meal there. He came back with a sincere apology that the pasta that was available that night for the scoglio was not tagliatellini, as he had said, but rather tagliatelle. He looked prepared for typical Italian outrage. What! Talgiatelle! Santa Maria, how can I eat mussels and clams and oh my God, octopus with Tagliatelle. NO! It cannot be done. I must eat another dish, or perhaps I should just kill myself. Yes, this would be better. I should be dead before I eat polpi with tagliatelle. This is is actually fodder for a week’s worth of complaining to your friends about the incident, perhaps that is the very thing the bus driver was discussing while I waited for him to board and drive. I said, no problem and he went away happy while telling me to go get some antipasti.
I get up and make my way to the area where I hear someone beating the air out of pizza dough in the most un-Neapolitan way. It was so loud I thought perhaps he had a mallet back there pounding it flat. Oh well, what do the Barese know about Pizza. But then – everything changed. I heard angels singing softly in the background as I swear, the lights came up on the table, no tables – and rolling carts – and tiered banquettes of antipasti, like I have never seen in my life. In America we think of antipasto as salami and cheese and some olives, and that is a type of antipasti, but in Puglia where is has been historically very poor and they eat only what the land and the sea gives them – they eat vegetables – and olive oil. (Puglia produces about 90% of all the olive oil consumed in Italy.)
In front of my eyes was a spread of vegetables in every conceivable preparation. Even at the house of a friend I have seen 8 or 10 different vegetables and olives come before lunch, but this was entirely different. There were four types of green olives in various stages of ripeness, a roasted black olive, still warm from the oven, some giant Castelvetrano, green and unripe and tangy. Zucchini options that would satiate a Mat Valley grower in August. Fried zucchini, battered and fried zucchini, roasted zucchini, grilled zucchini, zucchini salad, baked zucchini sandwiches with ham and cheese in the middle and breadcrumbs on top and zucchini frittata. I don’t know how they missed sauteed zucchini with garlic and mint like my mother made. Then there was 4 varieties of mozzarella. Tiny knots in cream, bocconcini in salt water, mozzarella di bufala, and stracciatelli. I have only seen this in Puglia, though it may be elsewhere. It is stringy uneven strands of mozzarella in milk. It is so fresh it moos and delicious. I was served this once before and since I had not yet taken a bite I asked what it was. The hostess looked at me and shouted , “Mozzarella!” She left the implied,”you idiot” unspoken.
There was eggplant in giant wedges and thin slices. Poached and oiled cauliflower-ettes reformed into a flower, three or four potato preparations, small individual baskets of FRESH ricotta, 4 or 5 cold seafood salads, roasted peppers sorted by color and mixed and a top shelf of I-never-even-looked, two bowls of lentil something, a few salads in a very thick sauce of I have no idea what and mussels steamed & stuffed, several shrimp preparations, squid and cold rice salads. Of course there was a great big roasting pan full of CTD (cooked to death) bitter greens. I left them for the lentil-eaters. Not a single slice of ham, cooked or raw, no beef, no cured pork of any kind, not even a slice of salami. It was wonderful. As if that and a fork were not enough along comes the young’un with a plate of bread. It was a smallish mound of dough, probably for the pizza/focaccia, completely bathed in Pugliese olive oil prior to baking, which apparently happened while I was trying not to get any drool in the platters of antipasti. It crackled when I bit into it. Oh my God.
By now, with wine ordered, a pasta crisis averted and a plate full of gorgeous vegetables in front of me I looked up at the clock; it was 9 PM. Like the clock striking 12 noon on Wall Street, the floodgates opened and people began pouring in. Group after couple after gang of ragazzi streamed in, the door barely closed behind one before another pulled it open. I had completely read it wrong in my arrogant assessment of the situation. Let’s review the clues:
- Menu in Italian only
- Place set up for a crowd
- Waiter anxious to get me settled before the onslaught
- No tourists in sight
- Restaurant under a bridge
- Lots of newspaper clippings and handshake photographs on wall
- Truck load of antipasti prepared
- Chef pounding out doughs for pizza while no one is in restaurant
I didn’t want to leave, so I ordered cafe and dessert. Little old guy was my man now and he leaned with a list of flavors. I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said, Gelato. I said NO, Pasticciotto. He delivered, Tete de Monache, a pair of them. I said,” Pasticciotto, no?” He said, “This is good.” I guess he was long on them, or he really wanted me to have them, because there was no room for a discussion of the fact that it was not what I ordered. I was happy though since I have had these before and when properly made they are incredible. These were not as light, but definitely filled to capacity with VERY good pastry cream. They are politely called Sospiri these days, which means a Whisper. A good description of the unbelievable lightness of the cake dome. However, the original name, Tete de Monache, means Nuns Boobs.
Remind me to tell you about the lady at the next table…….that is another story.