Smile Politely

European Journal: Italy

Our Air Berlin flight took us from Berlin to Bergamo, about an hour east of Milan. Upon landing, we immediately hopped into our rental car and took off for Vernazza, one of the five Cinque Terre towns on the west coast of Italy.

Italy’s autostrada is no different than our interstate toll roads — easy driving and plenty of rest stops on the way. What was surprising was the quality of food available at these rest stops. When you see the knife and fork symbol along the autostrada, more likely than not it’s going to be an Autogrill restaurant. As it turns out, every Autogrill is different, and the food they serve is dependent on which area of Italy you’re in. Since we were in the Liguria region of Italy, there was pesto everywhere.

Walking into an Autogrill is like walking into a Vegas-style buffet restaurant, but smaller. There are self-serve stations with beautifully presented plates of salads and cold cuts. There are also hot food stations, each with its own cook, ready to make your lunch or dinner. The pasta station had a big pot of pesto ready, so I ordered spaghetti with pesto. The cook simply ladled a big scoop of pesto on top of a big portion of cooked spaghetti and warmed it up by swirling it around a pan. This simple dish at a road-side fast food joint turned out to be the best pasta dish I have ever tasted. Later, I tried to duplicate this at home, but failed. Maybe my proportions were off, or perhaps I was missing some secret ingredient?


We didn’t have a room reserved in Vernazza, so we ended up ringing on door bells and asking around. After looking at several options, we opted for a quiet room in a side alley. Although we had a kitchen, the local eateries were too good to pass up, so we ate out all the time. The one thing that was common to all the food we ate in this area was simplicity. Fresh ingredients, prepared simply and either dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar or served plain so that you can dress it yourself. Grilled fish was nothing but fresh fish, perfectly grilled and presented with olive oil and vinegar. Salads were simply fresh local veggies brought to your table with olive oil and vinegar. So was the antipasto frutti de mare. Spaghetti with olive oil and garlic? Just add some freshly grated cheese. Pizza with pesto? Simply a good crust topped with tomato sauce and pesto. Everything was so simple but so good. The only problem we encountered was the clock — most restaurants are closed between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., so you have to plan a little to schedule your appetite accordingly.

The Cinque Terra is a wine growing region, so we sampled a lot of local wines. But the best glass of wine I had was Mario’s house wine at Enoteca il Pirun in Corniglia, one town over and an hour’s walk along the coastal trail. In addition to grapes, lemons are also grown in this region. On another coastal trail, we came across a local man selling his lemons and homemade limoncello, a sweet liqueur made with lemon rinds. Since he was so cute, we couldn’t resist buying a bottle. We’re no limoncello experts, but his very potent concoction somehow managed to capture the pure essence of his lemons without a sour note.

After four nights in the Cinque Terre, we moved on to Tuscany and made stops in Lucca, San Gimignano, Volterra and Florence. Somehow, the food and wine in Tuscany just didn’t stand up to what we tasted in the Cinque Terre. Even wild boar, the region’s specialty that can be found in everything from stews to pastas to salami didn’t excite me. But just like the Cinque Terre, there was abundant gelato to be had everywhere we went. It became a daily routine to hunt down a new flavor of gelato Z — and some days we even splurged for gelato twice a day. Now that’s living.


We’ve been traveling for four weeks, so it’s time to head home. Our Italian experience has taught us a valuable lesson in food preparation — simplicity. This is a lesson we’ll take to heart when we try to recreate some of these dishes at home.

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