Saturday, April 26, 2014

Postcard from Tropea

After a few days in Sicily enveloped in R's family and among his friends, we vroomed off for a few days alone in Calabria. A colleague-turned-friend in NYC had invited us to stay in one of his family's guest apartments in Tropea, and although we had both been there before, the thought of a different beach, different cliffs, and the promise of very, very spicy foods sent us over the Straits of Messina on a ferry to the Italian mainland.

A little under three hours after leaving Sicily behind, we pulled up to a courtyard where our friend's sister met us. She ushered us in and to a little table under an arbor speckled with jasmine and orange blossoms where we had a caffè and a chat before she took us down to the lungomare (boardwalk) and then back up through the clifftop centro storico (old town) for a tour to re-familiarize ourselves with the town.

Around 5PM we settled ourselves into one of the piazzas and ordered a round of beer and pizza topped with 'nduja (a Calabrian specialty, essentially a spicy pork paste that you can smear on anything and everything. Sort of like a savory Nutella). We had planned to head out for dinner on our own later, but when we were invited to her family's home for a special meal, we jumped at the offer.

A few hours later we were ushered into a gorgeous dining room painted a deep, Renaissance red with beautifully-framed historical maps and old family photos on the walls and white marble busts and rich wooden sculptures lining the bookcases and shelves. My eyes weren't focused on the decor for too long because set down at my place was something far more intriguing.

The father had heard about my love of all things spicy, so he had me join him in his pre-meal ritual of a plate of fresh, hot peperoncini (red chilies). I ate a few his way: raw, drizzled with verdant olive oil, and then made up my own way: chopped finely and mixed with the fava beans I had shucked a moment before. He was fascinated and deemed my way the new house antipasto.

While we indulged, the mamma was finishing up dinner, which began with a Tropean specialty: spaghetti ai cipolli di Tropea. Tropea is known for its sweet onions (similar to Vidalias, but much more intense). They've found a million and one ways to eat this cleansing and fortifying vegetable, but one of the preferred for cooler weather is to slowly saute and steam the onions in their own liquid with a few swirls of olive oil, grinds of fresh black pepper and a spritz of red wine before tossing it with spaghetti and liberally lashing on the parmigiano.

When the plate was passed to me there was absolutely no way I could deny a serving, even with my dietary preferences, and let me tell you: it was amazing.

(And I had a second helping!).

The pasta was followed by vitello tonnato, roasted artichokes, and sauteed mushrooms before a light dessert of crema pasticcera (similar to a pudding) served with cherries.

Lightness aside, we still took a long walk before going to bed that night.

The next morning we found "our" cafè for the trip in a side piazza and sat down for a cappuccino for me, and one for R as well, plus his usual cornetto alla marmelata (croissant filled with apricot jam), followed by an espresso. Since the weather was still quite cool (about 50F, such a strange April in Italy!), and it was very gray and cloudy out, we lingered with a second round of coffee and chatting until the sun finally burned through around 11AM. Then we took a drive out to Capo Vaticano before returning to Tropea for a walk on the beach.

By then the salty air had done its trick and we were famished. We came across Mare Grande right on the water, so we settled in and asked them to please bring us a grilled platter of whatever was caught that morning, with a bowl of local tomatoes, Tropea onions, and peperoncini, plus a carafe of mineral-y wine from the region.

All you see in the picture below, plus two espresso after, cost €30—about half of what a tourist would pay in R's well known and well-trafficked hometown. Knowing that made the meal all the better, of course.

By the time we'd finished the sun was high in the sky and we meandered our way right onto the beach for a nap just up from where the waves were breaking. At that point, sitting right in the sunlight, the temperature had gotten up to about 75F—perfect dozing weather.

When we yawned ourselves awake we headed back up to the main town to finally indulge in something I had seen noted on a chalkboard outside a gelateria the day before: cipolla di Tropea gelato and 'nduja gelato.

Being the one who always orders the most insane-sounding thing off the menu, I had to have it. The onion was a little intense on its own, but when paired with the 'nduja, it was seriously delicious.

That evening we headed out for cocktails in the piazza before dinner at Da Cecè. Then a deep sleep before waking up the next day to another coffee in the piazza and the drive towards home—which involved stopping at a roadside stand to stock up on 'nduja, cipolla di Tropea and strands of dried peperoncini.

We were back in Sicily by 4PM, just in time for a little rest on the terrace and a freshening up before going out to enjoy an aperitivo at Metropole, an 18th century noble-residence-turned-hotel in the 19th century, but under renovation ever since my first trip to Taormina almost a decade ago. So nice to finally enjoy the atmosphere (and the view!).

One year ago: Supposedly sweet Hudson Valley high

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