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Only Fish
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Only Fish

If Only Life Were Always So Simple

30 Days in ItalyFrom 30 Days in Italy | Travelers Tales

“It was Bonnie Smetts’s perfect small tale “Only Fish” that brought the biggest smile to my face. Racing from restaurant to restaurant trying to find that perfect “vibe” is just as consuming a preoccupation to a guidebook writer as to a traveling chef. Yes, I thought, I’ve been there.” - Tony Wheeler, from the Introduction

EACH ITALIAN TRAVEL-MORNING as I head off to see the shinbone of a saint or a (now bloodless) Renaissance anatomy theater, my husband crisscrosses the street in front of me like a hound on a scent. I hold back as he disappears into backdoors of restaurant kitchens or reads menus posted out front. My husband is a chef, and he’s in search of what food-people call the vibe. I wait for the magic words: “That’s it. We’ll come back here tonight.” Those words mean my husband is happy to accompany me the rest of the day.

MonegliaOne rainy week in a small Italian beach town with a single pizzeria, the balance between my husband’s hunger for extraordinary dining and my insatiable appetite for the bizarre tipped precariously to my side.

Jeff would have protested a visit to the church I spotted at the summit above the beach but any destination was an excuse to be in the heated car. We found the narrow lane leading into the backcountry and climbed up away from the sea. Halfway to the top, Jeff suddenly stopped, “Go in and make a reservation.”

No kitchen check, no menu review, only a faded sign with a ship’s wheel.

I hopped out and went into the restaurant—I’d learned to trust his instincts. “Buongiorno, buongiorno,” I called out into the silence. A young man appeared and I asked if dinner was being served that evening.

“Yes, yes, but it is a meal of only fish.”

“Great, fish,” I assured him, wondering why he was warning me about fish, the Mediterranean was directly in front of me. I watched over his shoulder as he wrote our reservation in his book. Due stranieri, we were the two foreigners, no names required.

We never found the church that afternoon but at 7:30, pressed and dressed, we returned to the restaurant. The entrance was dark, but the little dining room glowed. Six tables were dressed in crisp white linen and lit from above by globes of hand-blown glass. The young man who had taken my reservation introduced himself as the chef’s son. “Come in, come in. Prego, prego.”

A local couple dressed for a special occasion joined us; a German couple who’d hiked up from the train station completed our party. The dining room sat suspended at the edge of the cliff. Our table had a prime view of the curve of the bay and the rugged outline of the peninsula that hid this spot from an army of tourists nearby. A few lights sparkled in the town below as the sun faded and we turned our attention to dinner. Edoardo, playing host and sommelier, poured champagne and set out a bowl of pine nuts and white raisins. Polite greetings passed among the three tables and then we began to eat. Our first course was a delicate octopus and tomato salad. Local white wine replaced the champagne, Edoardo attending to each of us as if we were his only guests. Like an orchestra warming up, each couple began to add sounds to the room. “Hmm.” “Ohh.” “Ahh.”

Sautéed squid glazed in an earthy porcini mushroom sauce followed—it slid down silky and smooth. Then came calamari and vegetable tempura, light, fluffy as lace, and topped with crunchy black caviar. We six guests were starting to nod at one another in appreciative accord. We savored each dish and luxuriated in each wine. The grand maestro in the kitchen, as yet unseen, had us in his control. The portions were perfect and I sensed that he was determined to take each of us all the way to the end of the meal.

Fish dish He slowed our pace with an intermezzo of aioli whitefish and then a clatter from the kitchen announced the end of our pause. Edoardo emerged with inky squid stew. As soon as each table was served, as soon as we were caught in the rapture of the ink, he popped out of the kitchen with his camera and said, “Cheese.” We were caught with black teeth and dirty napkins. By now the six of us were laughing and talking the international language of food. Even the older Italian couple, serious about eating and a little reserved, was laughing along with us. The Germans, world travelers, second-time diners here, were eating at full tempo. The noise in the room had peaked and we were having a party.

Without announcement maestro Compiano made his appearance. In chef’s hat and apron, a Santa with cherry red cheeks and a smile, he came in carrying his masterpiece: six baby lobsters, steamed bright orange and sporting tomato-red pinchers, climbed the sides of an upright celery stalk. We gasped. Then one tiny lobster at a time, we deliriously ate our way through to the finale. Symbols crashing, violins playing madly, I could hardly hear from the sounds of pleasure in my head. Our eating was done, our ohs and ahs subsided, and our conversations returned to our individual tables. Only then I remembered Edoardo’s warning about fish—fish, fish, only fish—and I smiled.

DesertThe chef returned with his crepe cart for an encore. From a pan of flaming banana liquor, crepes were the closing cadence, our sweet goodnight kiss.

Last to leave the party, Jeff went to settle our bill and I went to gather our coats. When Jeff did not return, I knew he had made his way into the chef’s kitchen. I heard the sound of two cooks talking the common language of food, and I put our coats back on the hook. The night was about to begin anew—just as it had after meals with gangsters in Rome and farmers in Umbria. This time we would be sharing the ritual glass of grappa with Signore Compiano.

Late afternoon light woke me the next day and I finally asked, “How did you know last night would be go great?”

“If a place can survive for so long that far from the waterfront, it must be good, ” he said. Simple. Instinct.
That night in Liguria, Jeff and I had slid from our parallel universes into a new one together—and we didn’t want to go home.

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