Religion and grilled octopus

Another culinary adventure from our Sunday Comics columnist who in an unplanned visit to Italy experiences the horror of the Vatican cafeteria and the terror of driving along the Amalfi coast, before happening upon a tranquil and restorative setting.

Jim Gabour
20 October 2013

Travel miles.  That’s all I can plead.  A free roundtrip plane ticket to Rome and two weeks’ use of an automobile.  No matter that the reality was flying cattle steerage on the first two legs on my way to a motorized roller skate.  I was soon to be in Italy, and I was already hungry on the way over.

It was such an unexpected and quickly developing landfall that I was really not prepared.  I received a notice that my frequent flyer miles were about to expire.  I had not even realized I had accumulated that many miles, and surely did not want to let them go unused.  Suddenly I was just going.  Not planning, just going.  For instance, I knew that I was flying into and out of Paris on my way to Rome, but I did not realize that I was jammed twice overnight into five-wide rear rows on airplanes flying from New Orleans to New York/JFK to Charles de Gaulle, clearing customs, then shuttling on a tight timetable by bus completely across town to Orly, before then being quickly loaded onto another wide-body Air France flight to Rome-Fiumicino.  I was traumatized.

Then I settled into my Air France flight.  May I say now that my Air France coach class breakfast had better service, its stewards and stewardesses a much better attitude, and the meal itself was a much more inspired experience than any I had previously received in any American airline first class cabin.

An aside:  this was actually only my second positive experience with Air France, the other having been a late-night trip from Houston to Mexico City. This was also not planned, but was set in motion when I was bumped from a direct-to-the-Yucatan Continental leg, given $600 cash recompense in Houston for the inconvenience, and placed aboard a jet filled with the French national football team headed south to the World Cup.  

I have never before or since drank so much entirely decent champagne, or enjoyed so much jovial company while doing so.  And then as I flew a second regional airline east to the beach I received another pleasant surprise. Overnight the peso had been nationally devalued vis-à-vis the dollar. Which resulted in a temporary windfall at the expense of that country’s and my hotel’s treasury.  For my hotel was booked in pesos.  And my dollar was now worth almost ten times in pesos what had been quoted to me for everything. After staying three days in a four-star hotel, changing money repeatedly, and eating and drinking my way through the peninsula’s most exotic offerings, I came home from Mexico with almost $900 more than was in my wallet when I left.   An altogether good trip, that.  Except for the wretchedly large bulge around the waistband of my jeans, and only the slightest pang of international economic guilt.

But out of Mexico past, and out of Orly present, and on to Fiumicino future. Jet-lagged to the max, and suffering the effects as the recipient of two gratis demi bottles of an excellent Pouilly Fuissé, I managed to take the Leonardo Express to Termini, Rome’s large downtown train station.  This was a life-preserving destination, since at this point I could barely walk and keep my eyes open, and since the pensione I had booked was only a few blocks away from the station on Via Cavour, the main drag that heads obliquely south towards the Coliseum.

I made it, after walking up three sets of staircases that the booking guide had not mentioned.  I registered, argued momentarily with the signora of the house that my room had been reserved with a private bath.  I was awarded only a free-standing shower, which I used immediately to get rid of the airline fever, and still it was only mid-afternoon.   I was starving.  I walked north on Cavour, able to muster only weak decisions and little physical effort, determined to find the first food available, which ended up being a chain buffet restaurant two blocks up the road.  I was in Italy, and I was going into a buffet?  A serious disappointment.  My character was truly suspect.  Embarrassed as I was to enter, I did, and had the best cafeteria meal of my life.  Hard to believe that pasta in a steam tray could be so good.

I slept fitfully, as the roar of traffic directly below my window was unbearable and unceasing.  And I kept waking up itching.  The sheets smelled sour.  I was later to discover that I had acquired a extended family of Roman bedbugs in the quaint pensione.  

I had promised a much-beloved aunt a souvenir of the Vatican, so I searched, discovering that the official religious knick-knacks are sold in a structure on the roof, right beside the long claustrophobic spiral staircase to the top of the dome.  None-too-friendly nuns ran the three cash registers there, seemingly eying each customer for traces of sin.  The lady who took my card handled it by the edges, trying to avoid even secondary contact with me.  She did not thank me for my purchase.  Doing something nice for my aunt was not as pleasant an experience as it should have been.  I decided not to tell her the circumstances of the purchase.  It was now noontime, but the whole situation had put me off my feed, and I thought about simply finding a decent wine bar and dispelling myself of the nasty mood with a hearty glass of red.

But I was in one of the gustatory capitals of the world, and was in search of off-kilter, dramatic, memorable food experiences, so somehow, even after the Via Cavour cafeteria, the closest meal was downstairs in the Vatican cafeteria. Yes, there is one, and though I thought it might be a kinky and fun experience to eat there, it was also not something I would recommend for even the most begrudging gastronome.  Maybe it was because I did not say Grace that I was rewarded with as dreadful a pile of quasi-food as any stateside hospital might manufacture.  

Philosophically and materially, I questioned a church that could have such enormous and precious treasures in its worldwide headquarters and still could not serve a visitor a decent repast in the same building.  

The food was literally inedible, and I took it, tasted but  uneaten, back to the cashier and asked if I could have my money back.  I could not.  The Vatican Bank had already deposited my cash it seemed.   I even mentioned this to a priest who was sitting to the side in a booth segregated from customers by a glass window, undoubtedly bulletproof, making sure the money exchange continued apace.  He was obviously some sort of a manager of the facility, albeit religious and wearing cassock and collar.  The gentleman in question acted like he could not understand what I was saying and waved me off, disapproving of me as I pressed my case to his window.  “Confessarsi, figlio mio, e tutti saranno ben,” he advised, and turned his back on me.  If I would just go to confession, all would be well, he had speculated.  My secular stomach refused to heed his ecclesiastic advice, and I left the Vatican unhappy and unfed.

So, after a bit of self-serving moaning I left the holy environs and started wandering, just blindly walking without consulting maps or street signs.  And it was by such random means that I finally stumbled upon a neighborhood place on a tree-lined boulevard a dozen blocks away from the seat of the papacy.  I sat at a table on the sidewalk under an awning, the area burdened with very little tourist traffic.  I was surrounded mostly by homespun, unpressured Italian businesspeople taking a very very leisurely lunch.  I fell into the groove quite easily, and the pall of Vatican City dropped into the far reaches of memory.

I had a few more excellent meals in Rome, mostly notably a simple calf liver lunch, Fegato di vitello, with a spectacular house red at a signless café in Trastevere.  But I was rapidly becoming overwhelmed by the ingrained city noise and the sheer weight of tourism.  I needed to get out of the urban area, and quickly, no matter that it was Rome.  

So I went to collect my free rental car.

It was the tiniest vehicle I have ever entered.  The speedometer listed 80kph as its maximum speed.  I was later to find that it would never, and probably could never, have approached that velocity.  

My automotive experience was documented, as I received a traffic ticket within thirty seconds of being ushered into that miniature vehicle and starting the engine.  At the time I was unaware of the honor, and only found out some six months later via mail that I had been cited for a violation.  As it turns out, the attendant must have been giggling all the way back to the rental office, as he had parked the vehicle, and led me directly to it for pickup, aimed the wrong way down a one-way street.  As soon as I drove off, a traffic officer noted my violation and recorded the offense.

Thus I exited Rome an unknowing criminal.

* * *

Frascati is perched atop one of the fourteen Castelli Romani hills just south-east of Rome.  The town was documented for the first time in the "Liber Pontificialis" around 950 A.D., initially just noted as a random pattern of crossroads that connected Rome with the rest of Italy.

But with the treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559, the great cardinal families began building elaborate renaissance and baroque villas in the town, which is located at the centre of Castelli Romani area.  The town's terracotta-tiled buildings kept popping from the ground, and soon covered the upward face of the hillsides.  It is quite a sight, and dripping with history.

I did not come to the town for any of this, in fact knew none of it at the time, but only arrived in Frascati because I had become infatuated with an inexpensive but light, white, and refreshing wine, called by the town’s name, Fontana Candida Secco Frascati Superiore.  I wanted to drink some at the source.  Frascati is arguably the most abundantly produced wine in Italy, with some 112 wines in the Lazio region alone.  Grapes are touted to have been cultivated for wine production in the area as far back as 5,000 BC.  Its highest-quality wines like the Fontana Candida, both still and sparking, are given the denomination Frascati Superiore DOCG.

Roman tourists also still arrive in crowds during weekends to eat on the squares in dining halls known as "fraschette".   I couldn’t get a straight answer on the origins of the word, but my dictionary translated it directly as “twigs” or “branches”, possibly referring to their outdoor location, but I found that the word also is slang for “coquette” or “flirt”.  I received the pleasure of neither of those during my two meals in town.

The fraschette are mostly run by local families of winemakers, who want to solely sell you their wine but also invite you to bring your own food and enjoy it at their wooden picnic tables and benches.  Though they do usually have a subcontractor to provide comestibles for those of us without access to the proper culinary devices in our autos.  At lunch I did not vary far from homemade comfort food, sat outside and ate Bombolotti pasta cacio e pepe, basically a simple mac and cheese dish made with large barrel-shaped pasta.

But in the evening I arranged a more formal white tablecloth experience, and began to move into serious gastronomic territory, even though I ate abbreviated courses.  I simply could not handle the massive parade of food that was being brought out of the kitchen.  First, I devoured a spicy Bucatini all'Amatriciana pasta course, a thick spaghetti with a red sauce which enlivened with both black pepper and dried chiles, and which is given an even more intense flavor with shavings of guanciale, Italian salt-cured pork jowl.   This was followed by a local specialty recommended by my waiter, the perfectly marinated and cooked skewers of lamb arrosticini.   All accompanied by a bottle of the 2005 Fontana Candida Frascati, which was marvelous.  My waiter apologized for having no more of the even more vibrant 2004.   I used this conversational diversion to avoid the overburdened dessert cart, returned to my tiny room and slept  guiltlessly.

* * *

The next morning as I headed to Pompeii I was glad that I had consumed the perfect last meal the night before.  For I now thought of it as a condemned man’s last meal, facing the prospect of a very real and imminent death on the Autostrade.  I had my foot pressed firmly to the floor, and if I was traveling at 50kph it was because I had a 40kph tail wind.  I watched in my rear view window as the giant vessels of Italian auto manufacture came hurtling at me like I was parked.  The wind from their passing often literally pushed my car sideways toward the shoulder of the highway.  Almost three hours of this punishment later, I was terrified, white-knuckled, and frightened to death. Upon parking my car in Pompeii I paid almost fourteen US dollars for each of three very stingy hotel bar glasses of off-brand American bourbon.  They did not help.

I do not remember eating a meal after the required passage through the ruins. There is  only a faint vision of coming ever-so-slightly back to normalcy sitting in a hard bed, eating from a large cup of tiramisu gelato, watching a really bad Italian game show on the electronically stuttering television in my room.  The three game show hostesses, who preened about while pointing at prizes, cajoling the host and humiliating contestants, were barely clad in small strands of reflective material, and were uniformly endowed with large and mobile masses of flesh.  “Ah, yes, Italy,”  I sighed.  This culturally reviving aesthetic vision allowed me some comfort as I dozed off dreaming of being handed the keys to a larger car by one of the ladies, “una prorompente donna”.

* * *

The next day the relentlessly aggressive  Autostrade afforded only a traveling view of the more modern, industrial, and least appealing neighborhoods of Naples.  After my last day of travel I simply did not wish to deal with another large city and its traffic, much less an urban area as modern as Naples seemed to be on first view.  I would skip Naples.

Again, these last minute and uninformed decisions came as a result of my terrible lack of preparation.  I was just there, acting on impulse.  And not a very rested or ordered impulse.  So I turned off the large highway and headed southwards on a two-lane road into the invitingly dark tunnels in the mountains below the city, only to suddenly emerge into daylight on the other side stuck on the incredibly fearful Amalfi coastal highway. No turning around.  A horrible driver on my best days, and having just come from the emotional intensity of the highway speed demons, I was again pulled into yet another life and death decision:  drive further and surely die at the wheel, or stop, recover my nerve and live to see another stop sign.


The town from below

But I was in luck.  I lasted through just another half an hour of driving, looking for any road shoulder wide enough to allow for parking.  Then there I was.  I parked.  Just as unexpectedly I opened the car door and was faced with the sudden and overwhelming beauty of the town of Positano, I veered right down the side of the cliff toward the town center, spied a closer spot to park, pulled over and did not start the car again for almost a week.

Because right there, dropping down sharply below the road, beside the very place I had finally stopped my tiny mobile den of torture, was the gate to a small stucco vine-covered cliff-side hotel.  It was the end of the fall tourism season, almost Halloween, and I was the only person to come knocking on the door of the establishment in almost a week.  The quiet and doting manager gave me the best of rooms, with the fewest steps to regain the road.  There was a lovely patio outside the bedroom with a view that restored my traffic-tortured soul.   A hundred meters below me splashed a deep inlet of foaming blue sea, and across the water rose a dark blue-green grove of massive olive trees.  

First things first.  On the other side of the road, only a few buildings down toward the oceanfront church square, was a modest restaurant with tables set under a tree outside.  It was a warm day, and I enquired about beer.  My waiter, very old, very well-informed and also the daytime bartender, told me that he had several excellent choices in stock, and began rattling off a list.  I mentioned that In Italian restaurants back home I had enjoyed the Moretti Pale Lager he mentioned, but he warned me off, telling me that though Moretti was an Italian brewery founded in 1859, it had been acquired, along with Dreher and Ichnusa beers, back in 1999 by Heineken.   For that reason he no longer considered it Italian.  “Olandese,” he proclaimed.  Moretti was now to be thought of as a Dutch brew.

Instead, he recommended a Menabrea e Figli Anniversario Strong Double Malt Lager, a 6.5% lager rather than the usual 4.5%, and still made the same way it was when brewing began in 1846.

I asked what he thought would be a small appetizer plate that would complement the cold beer.  “Le sarde fritte,”  he answered, and ten minutes later the largest small plate of fried sardines I had even seen appeared on my table.  Crispy and light, sprinkled with coarse sea salt from nearby Capri and a squeeze of local lemon.  I instantly knew I was home, and began to speculate on delaying my return flight.

When I returned to my room for a late afternoon nap, I heard an ominous creaking overhead.  I opened the patio doors, looked up, and there, a few meters directly overhead was a large burlap bag tied to a double cable and moving with a sway toward the road.  The pulleyed ropes came from the other side of the inlet, where three workmen stood, one sealing the bags -- full of olives from the trees surrounding them – and two handling the ropes strung through the trees, carrying the crop to another pair of farmers loading a truck at the top of the cliffs.

I went to sleep that afternoon to the rhythmic squeaking of the pulley wheels as hundreds of kilos of olives passed overhead.

Yes, basically I ate and drank and slept and ate and drank again.  And slept. A very basic definition of restorative vacation, I know, but it worked.  I stopped dreaming of being eaten by Lamborghinis at high speeds and priests peddling plastic fried chicken.

Not that everything was organized around formal sit-down meals.  There were simple pleasures, like  the consumption of incredibly floral white grapes I found displayed in large mounds at a tiny outdoor stall near the hotel.  Each orb was a perfect delight.  I have never spent so much time with a single piece of fruit, a carrier of flavor which one encountered first as a deeply flowery scent upon biting.  Most of a morning was spent sitting on a cold stone bench in the sun, watching the sea, eating just that small handful of grapes.

Later that day I ventured further down the slope toward the town center, and found another treasure.   Cut into the mountainside facing out onto a drop of hundreds of meters to the sea there was a cave.   A well-wrought cave, its walls, ceiling and floor covered in blue and white tiles.  A slight musical echo seemed to actually mute the voices of the crowd gathered for lunch.   I decided to forgo a menu and again rely on the intuition of someone who was there on a daily basis.  My waiter did not disappoint.  I was brought a roasted golden pepper stuffed with fresh tuna and green savory herbs.  I double-tipped.

After almost a week I decided  that the hassle of rescheduling and rebooking my flight would destroy the tranquil state of mind I had achieved during my perfectly uneventful stay in Positano. I would crash early on Sunday to be ready for the return drive, leave on Monday and travel straight to Fiumicino for my Tuesday morning departure.

So Sunday noon found me down by the sea, looking up the various streets for the site of a comforting farewell lunch.  The search itself, and the menu reading,  provided substantial pleasure in themselves.  And an increase in appetite.

As it turns out, in this case the content of the meal was secondary.  Even though it was a course of tantalizingly varied antipasti followed by an exquisitely grilled octopus served with a large seafood arancini, a battered and fried rice ball dotted with green peas, diced pieces of calamari, shrimp and fish, and a molten cheese center.

No it was not the meal that made the day special.  It was the setting and the company that sent me on my way happy.  The restaurant was small inside, but had an enormous garden dining area, covered with a still-leafy grape vine and ripe hanging clusters of dark fruit.  I was again the sole tourist, but the space was filled with families having a traditional Sunday meal together.  The table next to me was occupied by eight people: five children of varying ages, the two parents, and the parish priest.  Laughing and eating as a family.

The priest could not have been more in tune, alternating playing with the children with showing them how to behave properly, instruction given in what was obviously a fun way.  The kids were laughing.  The parents were beaming.  Obviously this rural man of the cloth was a far away from the stodgy industry of the Vatican as the current Pope Francis is from his predecessor.

I ate and watched and grew happy myself, remembering a long-ago time when my grandparents and my parents brought their own parish priests over for the bonding Sunday meal, an era when religion was not such an isolated and cold creature unto itself.  Religion, which I long ago shed, had once been a source of comfort in good times and compassion in bad.

The next morning, musing in the quiet rattle of my moving bucket amidst the terrors of driving towards Rome once again, I thought how literally and metaphorically my trip had come full circle.   I had found something I thought I had lost, however disconnected and small.  A priest whom I never actually met had helped allow me further passage through this life.  It was the display of a very old style of religion at table that had helped calm me.

The arancini didn’t hurt, either.


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