January 30, 2006

Anniversary in Italy

By John "Falstaff" Hartness © 2005

"This is the best swordfish steak I have ever tasted," I said to the maitre'd. He was hovering since we were the first couple in for the dinner hours.

"Thank you, I will tell my uncle you enjoyed it."

"Is he the chef?"

"No, he is a fisherman. He caught that fish this morning."

This conversation simply does not happen in North Carolina. For one thing, all the grammar was too good. But since I wasn't in North Carolina, rather Taormina, Sicily, I didn't think too much of the statement. It was our anniversary, and we had ditched the tour group to do a little shopping and have a nice romantic dinner all to ourselves. So we meandered through the cobblestone streets of Taormina, wandered through the piazza centro and set off down a side street where I noticed a small sandwich board in front of a lighted canopy.

"Let's try this place."

"Okay, whatever you want."

"Happy anniversary."

"Happy anniversary. So where are we going next year?"

"Let's just see if they have seats first, then we can think about next year."

They did have seats, since it was only 7PM and barely the beginning of dinner hours. I love the idea of a siesta, the nap in the midday that allows everything to be postponed a little into the evening. After all, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. And Americans, but that's beside the point. The point is, 7PM was very early for dinner, so we had the restaurant all to ourselves for our anniversary dinner, from the antipasti all the way to the tiramisu, which after that meal I simply refuse to eat anywhere on American soil. It's simply a pale reflection.

The bruschetta was fresh, and sliced thin enough to be pinkly translucent. The wine was exquisite, a light and airy Aetna white, so named because the vineyard was on the slopes of that great smoking mountain where we had spent the previous day exploring. For a pasta, I chose spaghetti with sea urchin, tiny balls of sea urchin meat the size of the end of a Q-tip, with a flavor that exploded across the mouth and tongue like a rich, salty firecracker. An oddly earthy taste, sea urchin, brought out well by the slight dusting of Parmesan cheese (Suzy had made the tactical error on our first afternoon of assuming that Parmesan cheese in Sicily was as milquetoast and bland as the Americanized green cardboard can version. Not even close.)

And then there was the grilled swordfish, which I ate without the slightest interest in overfishing, endangered species, or anything else except the fever pitch my taste buds had been brought to by this meal. Light and flaky, but not dry. Exquisitely seasoned, with herbs and sea salt, the fish was substantial enough to rival any NY strip steak I've ever eaten, without the sense of substance. It was filling, yet after the meal was finished I felt almost as though I had dined on moonlight and rainwater. There was nothing to weigh us down as we thanked the nice man for his hospitality, took a photo with him for our scrapbook, and wandered back down the cobblestone alley into the night.

Falstaff is a writer, stage director and poker player in Charlotte, NC. His writing was featured in the collection My South: a People, a Place, a World All Its Own. He can be found online at Poker Stage

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