t was August in Milan and the heat had the city roasting in hell. Johnny called, said he wanted to talk to me. “Get down here, Pescatore, it’s cooler on the coast.”
He was in Liguria. Small town, not exactly on the coast, but close enough. I knew the area. Vermentino territory: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
What with the heat and my brains on slow boil, I took him up on it. Climbed on a train and sat back for the ride.
Once in a blue moon I’d write for him and his crime rag CNI — Cronaca Nera Italiana. He never paid his writers, so the work was pro bono, but maybe he’d run into money somehow. Maybe that’s what he wanted to talk about. A job? I could always dream.
He was there at the station, smoking his half-chewed Tuscan cigar, waiting with a paper stuffed under his arm in Bermuda shorts and a Panama hat and knock-off rubberized Birkenstocks and short white socks that matched his shirt.
“Pescatore!” Johnny grabbed my hand and shook it. “No time to waste. Let’s get some food.”
I had no objections. It was cooler than Milan, but not by much. A five-minute walk took us to a square with a fountain in the middle, the city hall plastered with commemorative plaques (Dante had been there) and a handful of restaurants with chairs and tables set out under canvas awnings.
Johnny led the way to one of them, picked out a table and flagged down a young woman in a short black skirt and fluffy white blouse. He didn’t bother with the menu, he knew the place.
“Anchovies, Pescatore, acciughe marinate al limone. We’ll start with that. And then, what, spaghetti alle vongole? You like fish, right? Clams? And after that, they do octopus, I know you like octopus.”
He was right about that, but what was the rush? I asked the young lady about the octopus dish. Was it a salad? A reasonable question, given the heat.
She didn’t know, said she would ask.
“Whatever,” said Johnny. “He’ll have the octopus.”
“I’ll have the octopus,” I said.
“Pick the wine, Pescatore.”
I looked up at the waitress, asked what she could offer in the way of whites. “Vermentino, I presume?”
“Of course.” She rattled off a list of the usual suspects.
“Villa Linda, by any chance?”
“Let me find out.”
She was back right away with the bottle.
“Perfect,” I said.
The anchovies were excellent, the spaghetti a little on the salty side. The waitress cleared the table.
Octopus coming up. One of my absolute favorites.
Johnny cleared his throat, prepping for the pitch. “So, Pete. What are you writing about these days?”
“Get to the point, Johnny. What do you want?”
He fished his cigar from a pocket, pushed back from the table, and lit up. “Listen, Pescatore. You already write about wine for New York, right?”
I nodded. Get on with it.
“So I was thinking, you know, you should write about food.” He waited, puffing. No response from me, so he plunged on. “You could go, you know, to these high-end places, hoity-toity haute cuisine, you know what I mean…”
“You want me to write about food? For you? For CNI?”
He leaned forward, elbows on the table, eyes aimed into mine. “Why not?”
I could think of a dozen reasons why not but in the meanwhile our second course arrived, fried fish for Johnny and…
I reached for my glass, took a long drink, set it back down. I was staring at a steaming plate of potatoes mixed with chunks of chopped octopus, white suckers and pinkish-purple skin still clinging to the tentacles.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” I picked up a fork, poked at the beast, took a nibble. Hot. Too hot to eat. I peered at the potatoes. They had skid marks where they’d landed in the frying pan. “It’s a 100 in the shade and they fry up yesterday’s leftover lunch and, and …” I sputtered to a halt.
“See?” said Johnny. “Pete Pescatore, food critic.”
“This isn’t food,” I said. “It’s, it’s … why do they do it? Do I look like a tourist? And look at yours — frozen calamari, frozen shrimp, frozen moscardini in soggy batter — you call that a fritto misto?”
“Outrageous,” said Johnny, grinning now. “Downright criminal.”
Later that night, heading back to the station and his car, I said, “You set me up, right? You knew it was bad.”
“Yeah, but not that bad.” He laughed. “At least the wine was good, Pete.”
“No kidding. Saved the day.”
• The wine that night, excellent, was a Villa Linda,Colli di Luni D.O.C. Vermentino 2014 from La Pietra del Focolare. 98 percent Vermentino, two percent Albarola. From vineyards in Ortonovo. Recommended.