What I learned on my most recent trip to Italy.
- #10. It IS possible to have a bad meal in Italy. Mario, the super concierge at our hotel on Ischia, wasn’t surprised when I confessed our dinner the previous evening had been disappointing. It was, the Hub and I both knew, our own fault. Instead of going to Mario for a restaurant recommendation, we’d tried to solo, eating at the place other economists had recommended. When Mario heard where we’d gone, he looked pained. “Was good when the papa was there. But the sons…” He shook his head. “They can’t make same food. And their wines?” His voice dropped to a sorrow-filled whisper. “I had to put them on my blacklist.” Looking around to make sure nobody was looking, he showed us an actual list, written in black ink, of places he refused to recommend.
Mario took the failure of my day-trip to Capri as a personal challenge. His impossible mission was not just to help me avoid a hotel full of economists, but to schedule my trips for the amazing sights and above all tastes of Ischia. We filled map after map with directions, arrows, and X-marked highlights.
- #9. In concierge speramus nobis. (In our concierge we trust.) Soon my backpack was stuffed with maps with the best beaches marked, driving and bus routes drawn, hot springs and spas circled, and above all, the carefully curated restaurants that met Mario’s high standards—accompanied by business cards with the name of a particular chef or owner hand-written by Mario. Those cards were better than currency, as they would inevitably be exchanged for an exquisite amuse-bouche and the personal attention of chef, wine steward, and owner.
- #8. Know when to walk away. With Mario’s blessing and assurance that nobody on Ischia would drive like Naples taxis, the Hub was reluctantly willing to tear his attention from the Money Supply for one day. Mario rented a car for us, and we set out to drive around the island. Or at least…that was the plan. We got as far as the first beach at Barano, where we left our bright orange little rental car with parking attendants, assuring them we would only be an hour or so. Then we walked down stairs and onto a gorgeous beach lined with beach chairs and umbrellas, and learned that the beaches all had private owners delighted to allow us on their beach—if we each rented a chair for a day. The Hub went back up to inform the parking attendants that we might be a bit longer and I adjusted my umbrella.
- #7. Know when to run.
After the obligatory dip to verify that the Mediterranean really is so warm and so salty that you can’t help floating, we hopped and ran and screamed back to our chairs along an erratic route designed to use every patch of stade that might keep us from setting our feet down in the fine beach gravel already heated to flesh-sizzling levels under the merciless Italian sun. Indian vendors carrying the contents of entire dress or jewelry shops on their backs vied for the attention of tourists in rented lounge chairs. Chinese men and women with bottles of oil strapped to their bodies suggested, “Masaggee?” [Image: sorry, I left my phone in the car, so here’s quick sketch of the beach. The umbrellas changed design every fifty yards or so, indicating a new beach owner, but the vendors remained the same.]
- #6. Beach umbrellas: know when hold ’em, and when to fold ’em. (And when to go for the water taxi over to Sant’Angelo). The painfully scenic pastel buildings and tiny winding streets of the old fishing village where cars aren’t allowed made the lure of the beautiful little water taxis irresistible. When the offers of “Masaggee” turned to a nonstop stream of oil-wielding vendors who seemed to feel that standing in front of us and simply repeating the only word they apparently knew (other than “Visa/Mastercard”), we folded up our beach umbrellas, flagged down a passing water taxi, and headed for the pastel walls of Sant’Angelo.
Once over, we pulled out one of Mario’s helpful cards, and soon were eating fresh fish on a shaded balcony overlooking an impossibly blue sea.
- #5. There’s no such thing as “No” to a concierge. According to Mario, Giardini La Mortella—stunning gardens and concert venue developed over five decades by composer Sir William Walton and his wife Susana Walton—were a must-see. And we were in luck, he told us. Trinity College Choir, visiting from Cambridge, was performing that very night. I admitted I’d already tried to get tickets, and been told the concert was sold out. Mario gave me his “Have I taught you nothing?” look, and picked up the phone. Five minutes later, he handed us tickets, along with the all-important business card with a name scrawled across.
- #4. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. I pocketed the theater tickets, but knew the really hard part was coming. “Mario,” I began. “We’re going to need dinner.” He brightened and reached for his card stash. “Before the theater.” He looked appalled, checked the theater reservations once more to verify that we would indeed have to be there by 7PM, and frowned. “You need to eat at FIVE in afternoon…” He shuddered. “That’s-a not dinner. Here, we call that breakfast.” I gave him my cheesiest grin. He looked physically ill but reached for the phone. After a long conversation which I suspect included apologies for insane “Americans, you know” clients, he handed over a card with a name scrawled across. “Best restaurant in Forio. They are not open at that hour but give this and see what happens.” Later that afternoon, we’d just (finally) left the beach, and our sand-covered selves headed for the aptly-named Oasis restaurant in Forio.
When we arrived at the restaurant, they graciously accepted Mario’s card, and handed us a handful of tokens for the shower. We emerged, sand-free and changed into concert clothes, to find they had opened just for us. Our table waited on a shaded veranda overlooking a stunning sunset view. As we ate the fresh fish and drank the suggested wine, we agreed Mario would NOT be adding this place to his blacklist.
- #3. Looking for love in all the night places.
La Mortella by day is stunning. By night, it’s a fairyland of water features and trees and winding paths. We made it to the open air theatre in time to see the Trinity College Choir take the stage. Their beautiful voices enchanted the mostly German-speaking audience with early English music by composers such as King Henry VIII. The audience looked confused as the varied program swiftly moved to incorporate spirituals, swing, pop, and everything from rock to Beatles to the theme from Spiderman. (I particularly loved the confused faces of the audience as the choir danced through a lively version of Teddy Bear Picnic.) But as the sky darkened and the concert went on, we started to hear a background sound. Over the comfortable murmur of flowing water and night sounds, came…well, screaming. Someone, somewhere nearby, was torturing something. Lots of somethings. By the time the choir finished, the screams had reached horror film level. Clearly, large numbers of things—cats? howler monkeys? tourists who hadn’t booked through Mario?—were voicing their objections to being ripped limb from limb. As we were leaving the concert and heading toward the shrieks, I stopped an usher. “What’s all the screaming?” She looked me straight in the eye and said, “Frogs. They look for love.” We passed a pond on our way out where the love-starved amphibians send their pleas screaming into the night. I wished them luck.
- #2. Great pizza comes to those who wait. And wait. And wait…
Having learned our lesson from Mario, when we got back to Naples we asked the hotel concierge to recommend a good pizza place. “Is’a Naples. All pizza is good. But…” He looked worried. “We have one place that is best in Naples. And Naples has best pizza in the world. Only they might be crowded.” He thought about it. “A big crowd.” The Hub was dubious, hungry, and still wide-eyed from our death-race taxi ride from the port. But I was adamant. You don’t come to Naples—birthplace of the world’s most perfect food—and not go for their best pizza That enthusiasm lasted until we walked the few blocks to L’antiqua Pizzeria da Michele. “You will know when you get there,” the helpful hotel concierge had told us. “There will be some people waiting in street.” We came around the corner to find a crowd blocking the street.
The Hub worked his way through and came back with a blue slip of paper bearing the number 43—and the information that they were currently on number 54. The restaurant estimated that it would take an additional three hours to make it through all the numbers up to 100 and back up to our number. I thought the Hub would cry but I was on a mission to sample the World’s Greatest Pizza.
ME: “Let’s walk around Naples a bit and come back.”
HUB: [looking happier] “Could we go past that gelato stand? Then stop for a beer and maybe some food? How about that pizza place just across the street?” After a few hours, of this fun, he was NOT happy. “It’s just pizza. Pizza Hut will bring it right to us.”
A little over three hours later, our number finally came around and the guy guarding the door carefully let us through to pizza paradise.
We were waved to the end of a long table, which I was thrilled to see was directly in front of the ovens.
A wave of our server’s hand directed us to the menu on the wall. As this consisted of your choice of two varieties of pizza accompanied by beer, Coke, or water, ordering was quick.
And preparation was equally fast. The pizzas were prepped and cooked for a couple of minutes, then slid in front of us. The moment of truth? My mouth had an orgasm. I’d had the world’s best pizza, and life was complete.
[Apparently Hollywood agreed with our hotel concierge, as Julia Roberts also enjoys the same pizza in this clip from Eat, Pray, Love.]
- #1. And the top thing I learned in Italy? They take flushing very seriously. The more posh the loo, the bigger the flush. (I’m guessing Nutella Matriarch Maria Franca Fissolo, the richest person in Italy, has a toilet flush that covers an entire wall…)
Bathroom in our hotel in Naples.
Who says travel isn’t broadening! Here are the earlier posts about our trip to Ischia, Italy.
What was the most surprising thing you learned on your latest trip?