Today I started daydreaming about some time that I spent in Italy a few years ago. A good friend rented a massive house on a hill in a sleepy Tuscan town as a birthday present to herself. Over the course of two weeks friends came and went, and house dinners were collections of food finds we had each discovered on our respective journeys through the countryside. One night I provided porchetta I had bought at Dario Cecchini's butcher shop in Panzano, the famed butcher who recites Dante and plays opera while slicing your meat. Another night, my contribution was a nicoise salad, made with Italian canned tuna in olive oil.
One day we planned to meet my friend Nicolas, a Belgian who works for the Italian chocolate company Venchi. Venchi's chocolate is very, very good, and I have a particular place in my heart for their Cuor di Cacao, tiny squares of ultra-bitter chocolate. Nicolas was a new transplant to the company headquarters, in Cuneo, Italy, near the Alps, and didn't know much about the great Italian villages. We checked a map and agreed to meet halfway, in a seaside town called La Spezia. After lots of wrong turns in Tuscan towns, we finally arrived. La Spezia, as it turns out, lacks all the character, charm and beauty of the nearby tourist hot-spot of Portofino. It's a working town, a port city that still boasts a very active port--and not much else. The pink buildings lining the waterfront were black with grime, the streets were almost completely devoid of people and I saw a rat the size of a small dog emerge from a trashcan. Bella Italia this was not.
We wandered for a while looking for a place for dinner. One shack on the water looked promising until we walked closer and the smell of rotting fish brought tears to our eyes. Finally, we settled on an ordinary restaurant with an unsurprising menu and a surly waiter.
We ordered the fish for two, a whole fish roasted over vegetables. For the first time since arriving in La Spezia, we were pleasantly surprised. The whole fish, of name unknown, arrived in a broad copper pan, gently laid across thinly sliced potatoes and cubes of tomatoes, seasoned simply with fennel and red pepper flakes. The potatoes were crispy of the edges and silky where the fish had protected them from the heat. The fish was tender, moist and perfectly fresh. It was a great meal, made more so because our expectations had been so low. Though Nicolas had forgotten the promised chocolates, much to the dismay of the gang back at the house, we were able to find the autostrada home, cutting our four hour voyage down to a mere two. Though we vowed never to return to La Spezia, here I am, years later, recounting a splendid meal in a town hardly worth another thought. Bella Italia, indeed.