Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Final Bites

Behold: the Mediterranean Sea of mozzarella.

I have to admit, Naples was not what I'd expected. Julia had warned me of its grittiness multiple times through the planning stages of our journey, having visited before; yet the city's identity as the birthplace of pizza made it, for me, a nonnegotiable destination. As we made our way out of the train station and through the city, I examined the urban tangle of dirty streets through scuffed skyscrapers and storefronts, a far cry from the pristine, historic cityscapes I had been spoiled by in San Sebastian, Bordeaux, Florence, and the like. Even the monuments in Naples came across as somewhat shabby, their graffiti-scarred stones a stark contrast to those we'd thus far encountered. Nevertheless, we reminded ourselves that we were there not for the ambiance, but for the pizza.

Well aware of the lackluster charm offered by the city's center, Julia had secured us a hotel on the coast, and our arrival to the more scenic harbor helped to soften Naples' edge. Mount Vesuvius slept stoically across the sea, and the shimmer of the Mediterranean was captivating, its dramatic clouds rolling lazily overhead. We checked in, happy to discover that our room had a balcony offering the same views of dazzling sea and sky, not to mention the majestic Vesuvius. We spent the last bit of the afternoon enjoying these views before heading out for a stroll to scout pizza options. We were armed with over a dozen restaurant names collected from various friends who'd visited Naples, but eventually we began to realize that fantastic pizza is pretty ubiquitous in the city (especially after some conversation to that effect with a few locals on the train ride in), so we asked the hotel front desk to point us in the right direction and we were on our way.
Fact: everything is better with prosciutto.

In heaven, this would be my swimming pool.
We ate pizza all three nights in Naples, and each was better than the pie before. We kept our decorations simple, going with classic combinations like prosciutto and funghi, spicy Diavola, and of course, Margherita. Every crust was laced with char, pocked and blackened here and there by the wood fires that birthed them, and their tender, bready insides leavened the faint flavor of flour and wheat that endured as we chewed. Sauce was lightly applied, just a whisper of sweet and tangy tomato across the paper-thin layer of dough below. And around it all, among it all, above it all: there was the cheese. There is only so much one can do with the human lexicon, and I regret to say it is not sufficient to capture the experience of eating that cheese on those pizzas. Images of flowing fresh cream and melting butter flickered on the back of my eyelids as I processed every mouthful of flavor and unmistakable texture, chewing for what felt like minutes at a time. It stretched, and oozed, and sprung back devilishly, amplifying the sensation of its enjoyment. For any lack of welcome or warmth Naples may have exhibited, we forgave it all amongst those heavenly, chewy cheekfuls of pizza.

The next day we took a hydrofoil to the island of Capri. It was my first time on a hydrofoil, and I was completely unaware of the perils involved in sitting toward the front of the boat. Even after a gentle warning from a passing tour guide prior to departure, I thought little of it; after all, I had never experienced even the slightest flirtation with seasickness. But as I mentioned, this was my first time on a hydrofoil. For those of you unfamiliar with the gut-curdling watercraft, a hydrofoil is a boat that is designed to repeatedly lift out of the water as it gains speed, as less contact with the water reduces drag and allows the boat to move faster. Essentially, the craft moves like stone being skipped across the water, its hull often spending several seconds in the air before crashing back into the (in this case) already choppy sea. And though great swiftness is, in fact, achieved, its side effects warranted attendants who constantly circled the ship's cabin, offering sickness bags to all those in need. I only wish I could say the bags stayed empty.

Slabs of sexiness.
Thankfully, I was able to hold at bay the re-emergence of my own breakfast, but just barely. I was a  lovely shade of green by time we arrived, and Julia suggested we forego the bus ride that could take us to the crest of the island, opting instead for a brisk walk uphill through Capri's cobblestone alleys, rife with fresh air and exquisite views. We stopped every few minutes to snap photos of the panoramic sea, the surrounding islands, and the gorgeous fig and citrus trees that seemed to populate the yard of every house we passed. By the time we reached the top, any trace of nausea had left me and I was ready for lunch. We did some exploring and eventually found a restaurant that lay a bit off the beaten path, its menu offering plenty of the two foods we sought: pasta and seafood. We sat looking out over the Mediterranean, watching clouds take shape and dissipate against a sky of brilliant blue. Our meal was equally lovely: a caprese salad to start, then spaghetti with clams for me and thick, handmade noodles tangled around an array of shellfish for Julia. When I inevitably finished my plate first, I pilfered tasty morsels of calimari from Julia's and sopped up savory clam juices with my bread, contemplating that the bites I presently chewed had likely spent the previous night swimming in the very sea upon which we gazed. It was a comforting and delicious thought. After lunch we wandered the streets for a bit more, and then made our way down the mountain. To our immense relief, the boat ride home was not nearly as illness-inducing as the trip out, and we were able to sleep for most of the way back to Naples.
Like untangling Christmas lights… only more delicious.

I spent the next day in bed with a minor cold while Julia sought out a nearby spa for a bit of pampering, and we both turned in early (after another incredible pizza) in preparation for a pre-sunrise cab pickup. By ten the next morning we had landed in Olbia, on the island of Sardinia. It quickly became evident that Olbia was far from a bustling metropolis: mid-morning and the airport was a ghost town, populated only by those of us who had just landed. We collected our luggage and made our way to the car rental desk, eager to travel in control of our own destinies after so many trains and planes over the last month. And though I had painstakingly documented every leg of our journey across the island in the hopes of navigating us with swiftness, after a few miles it became clear we would need to rely on our instincts more than our preparations. The signs for route numbers were painfully inconspicuous, and in a language not our own, common words were often indistinguishable from place names. Nevertheless, we aimed the car west, using a large mountain range to the north as an orientation point, and zoomed off into the countryside.

The landscapes that whizzed past our windows along the rural roads were not ostensibly remarkable, but they were certainly beautiful. Ubiquitous flocks of sheep dotted and flowed about the green and golden meadows like splatters of spilt grey paint, and apparently represented the most numerous portion of Sardinia's population. Autumn vineyards struck across the spectrum as we traversed the island, from earthy, vibrant purples and maroons, to glinting pale yellows, to electric greens that still clung to the fading fingers of last season's warm embrace. The highway never grew to more than two lanes, and it rarely stayed straight for very long. As the coast grew closer, we watched our surroundings climb from sheep-specked hills into woodsy mountains, then roll down into a valley that spilled toward the sea. In the coolness of the valley a dense fog had collected in the distance, settling over everything and pooling like thick chowder. We rolled up our windows as the temperature dropped and the vast, white blanket drew closer. When it enveloped us, the world vanished, and the sun above cast smoky shadows in the fog. Their muffled forms whipped by in fast-forward, morphing into clarity mere feet before we passed them and then evaporating. It felt otherworldly, and I drank in the cinematic experience.

We made it to the sleepy, picturesque seaside town of Alghero by mid-afternoon. Famished and a bit haggard from the early rise and subsequent ten-hour journey that lay behind us, we sought out a bustling cafe sporting an enticing array of focaccia sandwiches and outdoor seating. Each sandwich was built on a massive slab of halved focaccia that measured several feet in either direction, the size of a small coffee table, before being cut into smaller (though still rather large) portions. I had a brief and amusing vision of Moses descending from Sinai, holding two halves of focaccia solemnly above his head. Meanwhile, Julia ordered a couple of sandwiches for us while I grabbed two beers at the bar and found a sunny table outside. Finally able to exhale, I took in my surroundings: the familiar cackle of seagulls; the distant but unmistakable sound of lapping waves; clear waters stretched to the horizon and met sky, while a wispy net of clouds softened the sunshine. We had officially arrived at our final destination, and nearly a month of nomadic memories lay behind us.

There are certainly worse ways to end the day...
The sandwiches, rustic and freshly made, most definitely hit the spot; the focaccia bore the unmistakable Italian soul in its crumb that comes from scant salt and good olive oil. Mine was filled with creamy goat cheese, prosciutto, and arugula: simple and satisfying. Julia ordered a bit more boldly: a tuna sandwich with chopped soft-boiled egg, tomato, anchovy, raw onion, and barely cooked pancetta. Her boldness was apparently rewarded, as she continued to gush praises for its nicoise-reminiscent combination. We ate ravenously, recharging our bodies and souls with sandwiches, sun, and sea air: what else does a human need? When we arrived to what was to be home for the next five days, we couldn't have been more delighted. The property of Villa Mosca was tucked inside a flourishing garden, peppered with flowering succulents and tangles of green plucked straight from the seaside dunes themselves; it all sat perched atop a hill and looking out to the Mediterranean, an actual oasis amidst the unassuming Alghero, with some of the best views we'd seen yet.

Moments later, she was 300 feet out at sea!
Though dropping off our rental car at the nearby airport sounded simple enough, the unpredictability of Italian small-town life unfolded: as had been the case in Olbia, the Alghero airport was completely deserted, including taxis. Several apathetic airport employees, two broken pay phones, and over an hour later, Julia was miraculously able to procure a lone cab driver to take us home, where hot showers washed off the long day of travel. We napped, waking just after sunset and already feeling settled. Though the day had been warm, the evening was cooling fast, weather reminiscent of Northern California; and as I surveyed the sea and the surrounding cliffs, I was momentarily transported to the Golden Gate, and it felt like home. We walked into town along the town's turreted coastal wall as night fell, observing several antique catapults along the way. Though they looked like they belonged in museums, young children clambered about the ancient weapons like jungle gyms while their parents chatted nearby. I was beginning to like Sardinia.

King me!
We found a restaurant called La Lepanto, and though it was sparsely populated, the menu appeared promising. As we settled in, I perused the wine list with excitement: Sardinian varietals are not frequent on the typical American wine list, but my experiences with the crisp whites and character-rich reds the island is known for have all been outstanding. I selected a bottle of Canonau Riserva grown nearby; Canonau is the name given to Grenache in Sardinia, and the bottle was every bit the mouthful of red fruit I'd expected. Spice on the nose and hints of oak on the palate, its tannins were gentle and fleeting, though its flavor clung to our cheeks after we swallowed. As we sipped our wine and buried our noses in its bouquet, an amuse bouche arrived: a tidy cylinder of caponata sitting on a shard of the impossibly thin and crispy Sardinian flatbread known as pane carasau. Simultaneously elegant and rustic, the dish was a cozy nod to an Italian classic, and a tasty start to the meal. By the time our plates were clear, an entire basket of pane carasau had arrived to the table, and we delighted in clicking and clacking our teeth through its contents.

Flexing my mussels...
Our next course was mussels, far and away the best I have tasted in my life. Their flesh bore detail and intricacy that was downright sensual, and their briny flesh was as plump and juicy as pork fat. As you chewed, their flavor melted onto your tongue, delicate sweetness and sea salt decorated with roasted cherry tomatoes and a handful of fresh Pecorino. We made tiny bites of mussels with pane carasau, the textures contrasting playfully against one another; clinking our Canonau, we toasted the island of Sardinia as we introduced it to our stomachs. Next came more shellfish: juicy clams decorated a plate of handmade spaghetti in front of me, while a head-on prawn took center stage in front of Julia; beneath it was a nest of cocoa fettuccine hiding tender chunks of juicy prawn and thinly sliced baby artichoke that whispered of anise. The sweetness in the shellfish blended with the earthy cocoa in the pasta as you chewed, synthesizing a beautiful new way to appreciate chocolate. The dish was as inspiring as it was delicious.
They huddled together in fear when they saw the look in our eyes...

The show-stealers of the meal, and on par with Julia's veal chop from Paris, were the Gamberi Rossi, head-on red prawns. We paused momentarily as the dish was placed on the table, savoring the aromas that drifted off the autumn-hued shellfish, then went to work disassembling the prawns like yummy little puzzles. As we sucked our respective heads, their robustness overwhelmed us, seafood flavor as sweet and clean and pure as I've ever experienced, the very essence of prawn captured in hot liquid form. It's impossible to attempt description of the experience without breaking the damn of sexual innuendo wide open, so I will show some restraint. Suffice it to say, they were spectacular, and could convince even the most squeamish diner to suck some head.

Holy moly, it's a cheese donut!
Dessert was a seada, a traditional Sardinian dumpling of soft, springy, fresh sheep cheese nestled in a pocket of puff pastry and drizzled with honey. It was our first experience with the regional treat and we we were infatuated with its textures and flavors alike: flaky surrounded chewy, smeared in sticky; meanwhile, mellow fruity notes from the honey faded into the buttery dough before finishing with a salty punch and a hint of tang from the cheese. We devoured the seada and finished the Canoneau, then struck out into the night, following Alghero's seaside turrets back to our hotel.

For my birthday, we kept things simple. After chocolate croissants and exquisite cappuccinos at the hotel, we got lost among the inner alleyways and cobblestone streets of Alghero, window shopping and getting a feel for the city and its people. By noon, we had been walking for a couple of hours and decided it was time to seek out lunch options, ideally to bring back to the hotel and enjoy in front of the view. No sooner had we considered our mission than we were stopped dead in our tracks by the familiar, intoxicating aroma of roast chicken, its perfume penetrating directly to our brains and hitting all the right buttons. We followed our noses into a nearby store and discovered spits of roasting chickens, spinning lazily and dripping their miraculous, browned, umami juices onto chunks of potato below. My stomach rumbled as I eyeballed the well-done corners and cripsy edges spiked throughout the potatoes, and I communicated to Julia with urgency that she absolutely must specify the crispy bits when she ordered. In addition to a whole chicken and only the brownest, most amazing potatoes of the batch, we also got some caponata and a couple of cippolini onions that were roasted and stuffed with buttery breadcrumbs. We picked up a loaf of bread and a chilled bottle of Vermentino at a market on the way home, along with some mineral water and snacks for later. It was the least extravagant, most unassuming birthday lunch I've ever had, and it just might have been the best.
Few are aware that Boston Market got its start in Sardinia.

Dinner was kind of a bust: upon arriving to the restaurant we'd been excitedly anticipating for my birthday, we discovered it closed for the season, so we settled on a small trattoria tucked inside a quaint alley. We at some good fettuccine and drank some decent wine, but when a very large, very beautiful pizza arrived to a nearby table, it became clear we might have erred in our order. Not ones to waste time on menu regret, we comforted ourselves momentarily with memories of Naples, and then enjoyed the rest of our meal. The next day we spent the entire morning strolling once again, taking in the historic and seemingly undisturbed status that Alghero had enjoyed over the last few centuries. One got the sense that little had changed since the city's catapults were operational; between that, and its location on the edge of a seemingly endless sea, it felt isolated and protected, like a city sitting on a cloud that existed outside of time. It occurred to me that such a place was not a bad spot to spend a few days before plunging back to earth and returning to our lives at home.

We snagged a couple more sandwiches from the focaccia shop on our way back to the hotel, returning to our panoramic terrace for the the rest of the afternoon. When it came time for dinner, Julia used the leftovers from the previous day's picnic to make a hearty chicken soup; it was the first home-cooked meal we had eaten in weeks, and it couldn't have been more appreciated. Putting the warm soup in our bellies as night fell and the temperature dropped, we were as content and elated as we'd been at any point on our trip. After dinner, Julia found Dumb & Dumber in English on television, and we nearly did backflips with excitement. Falling asleep on our island in the cloud, it became clear that we were gaining appreciation for the simple things.

Pacific Northwest in the Sardinian Northwest.
Sunday we woke up refreshed and full of energy. After breakfast we took a couple of the hotel's bikes through town and out toward Alghero's beaches. The ride was an easy one, and it felt good to be on a bike for the first time in over a month. I put some distance between Julia and myself, as she tends to prefer a more leisurely speed when she rides, but eventually I stopped to wait for her near the beachfront. To reach the sand, one entered through a small patch of forest, uncannily reminiscent of Northern California, and once again I was back in the bay area. Had I not known better, I could have easily mistaken my current surroundings for the edge of Baker Beach. But a few more steps and my feet were in the sand, bringing me back to Alghero, completely mesmerized by the impeccably clear sea that lay before me, beckoning. I began our interaction with innocent flirtation, taking off my shoes and socks and rolling up my jeans, but that lasted less than five minutes: I craved more. I dashed back to the sand and threw my jeans and t-shirt over a tree. Diving into the cold water charged me with electricity, and I spent the next half hour splashing around like an otter. Julia, being part mermaid and rarely shy about her body, donned a 'European' bathing suit and joined me. We air-dried in the sun after we'd had our fill of saltwater, then made our way back to town. Swimming had filled us with the hunger of beasts, and we took down several beers and two very large pizzas, dining outside of a pizzeria at the edge of town. A day at the beach and all the pizza we could eat: I felt like it was still my birthday. We were so full stuffed our final gorge in Sardinia that we ended up skipping dinner, falling asleep with bellies full of pizza and dreams full of sand and sea.
Is there anything more beautiful on a Sunday afternoon?

I see you checking out those curves...
The next day we flew out of Alghero early and were in Madrid before noon. It had been 27 days traveling, sleeping in other people's beds, living in other people's languages, and we were ready to head home. But we had unfinished business in Madrid... very delicious unfinished business: El Mercado de San Miguel. When we'd been in the city nearly a month ago, a day full of eating (shocker) had brought us to San Miguel too full to take advantage of such a culinary playground. This time we had eaten minimally all day, arriving to the market armed with hunger and ready to do some serious damage. We started with an array of overstuffed olives: tangy sheep cheese, chorizo, sun-dried tomatoes, and pickled anchovies were among some of the treasures within, each an almost overwhelming mouthful of flavor. Smiles stretched across our bulging cheeks as the first bites of delicious sustenance made their way into our bodies, fireworks on our tastebuds kicking off our last big meal in Europe. From there, we strode purposefully to a crowded bar at the other end of the market, where we were able to get glimpses of a lone, badass chef behind the scenes pumping out a familiar lineup of traditional Spanish eats. We started with a hefty portion of tortilla, all soft potato and sweet onion, that reminded us what Spain does best. Next were seared scallops, still attached to their shells and caramelized to a spectacular, rich reddish-brown on their ends and dusted with paprika, as visually stunning as they were succulent. We followed up the bivalves with some good old patatas bravas, Spain's spicy (and better) version of french fries with ketchup. As we finished the last bits of tender potato, my eyes were drawn to a tantalizing cone of fried squid walking by in the hand of a passing woman. I had been eyeballing this particular treat since our first visit, and as I took my last swallow of wine, I decided we had to have it. A beeline for the vendor with Julia in tow, I ordered a large, opting for tentacles over rings. A squeeze of lemon was all it needed, and we tore through the crispy, chewy knots, sitting outside on the market steps and people watching. Baklava and honey cake were our sweet kiss goodbye as we bade Adios to El Mercado de San Miguel.
It's nice to let the scallops feel right at home until the moment we devour them...

We took our time walking back to the hotel, savoring our last day abroad. It seemed poetic to me, however unintentionally so, that we began and ended our adventure in the same city; like arriving to the last page of a book and then nostalgically flipping back to its first. I drank in the street's views and smiled, both for the memories behind us, and for home that awaited us on the other side of the ocean.