December 6, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Capri Birthday

By |2018-03-21T18:19:10+01:00March 11th, 2008|Food & Wine Archive|

e had been walking on Capri in the wilds of the island on a spectacular spring day when the inevitable smells of lunch in Italy, along with the wisteria, were suddenly in the wind. The perfume of sautéed garlic and roasting peppers led us down a tiny path from which we looked out at the Faraglione to a house with a sunny terrace partially set up with empty tables and umbrellas. A young boy appeared quite suddenly from the beach path holding a lovely fresh spigola, a succulent Mediterranean bass.

“Is this a trattoria?” I called out. “We’re starving and everything smells so wonderful, and it’s my husband’s birthday which is a very important day for me…”

He interrupted me.

“We are closed and will open in two days,” he said, “but since it is a birthday, we are open for you.”

He disappeared into a long kitchen and came back with a liter of pale Frascati, the loose wine made near Rome called vino sciolto, table settings and fresh pane casereccio, a rustic, wood-oven bread, and then proceeded to bring us homemade ravioli with a sauce of wild mushrooms and cream, the lovely fish, tasting of the sea, roasted with rosemary, garlic, and olive oil, and a salad of arugula from their garden.

Every trip I take to Italy seems to include one special meal. This was it.

The sun beat down on the Faraglione and as we ate we were soother by the music of cicadas and gentle waves on the shore beneath us. The air was heavy with orange blossom, wisteria and scents of wild rosemary and sage. Gulls cried out as they soared on the afternoon winds, and the salty richness of the Mediterranean mingled with the pungent smell of our final espresso.

We toasted one another. We settled in our chairs and dozed in the sun like dreaming cats, and only awoke when the owner gently cleared his throat and presented the bill. We thanked him for a memorable birthday gift and began our long walk back to the hotel.

There had never been such a day. The sweetness of Italy, the sensual beauty of Capri, and the exquisite simplicity of our lunch memorably condensed into a single languid afternoon.

Each time I recreate that menu I remember the soft air of Capri, the scent of wisteria, the perfection of the meal, and the generous family who ate pasta instead of spigola for their lunch.


2/3 pound sea bass or salmon

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, chopped medium

1/2 cup fennel fronds, chopped

1/2 cup Italian parsley, chopped

Juice of 2 lemons

Salt and pepper

1-1 1/2 cups dry white wine

6 Yukon Gold potatoes or any wax potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes

1 medium fennel bulb, chopped medium

Pre-heat oven to 400 F. Brush a non-stick baking pan with olive oil and lay the fish in it. Cut four diagonal slits in the fish, and press garlic, fennel fronds, and parsley down into the slits, distributing them evenly.

Brush the fish liberally with olive oil and season well with salt and pepper. Toss the potatoes and fennel with a tablespoon or two of the olive oil, a little salt and pepper, and spread the mixture around the fish, then pour the rest of the olive oil over the fish and the potato mixture. Sprinkle the lemon juice.

Roast the fish for 20 minutes at 400, pour in the wine, then lower heat to 350 and roast another 15-20 minutes, approximately, or about 10 to 12 minutes for every inch of thickness of fish. The potatoes should be well-browned and crunchy on the outside.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.