e were walking in Capri, in the wilds of the island, when the inevitable smells of lunch, along with fragrant wisteria, reached us on the gentle wind. The perfume of sautéed garlic and roasting peppers led us down a tiny path from which we looked out at the Faraglioni to a house with a sunny terrace partially set up with empty tables and closed umbrellas.
A young boy appeared quite suddenly from the beach path holding a lovely fresh spigola, the Mediterranean sea bass.
“Is this a trattoria?” I called. “We’re starving and everything smells so wonderful, and it’s my husband’s birthday, which is a very important day for me, not to mention him.”
He interrupted me. “We are opening in two days,” he said, “but since it is your husband’s birthday, for you we’re open.”
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 — rustic, wood-oven bread. After a short time, while we sat basking like lizards in the warm sun, he reappeared with homemade ravioli in a sauce of wild mushrooms and cream, and just as we were thinking that that was lunch, he came back out with the lovely fish, tasting of the sea, roasted with rosemary, garlic, and olive oil, and to end the meal, a salad of arugula from the family’s hillside garden.
Every place we visit in rural Italy seems to have one special meal in store for us, although eating almost anywhere out in the country is extraordinary. Summer seemed to begin as the sun warmed the sea, and as we ate, the music of the afternoon, cicadas and gentle waves on the shore below, soothed our urban souls. The air was heavy with orange blossom, wisteria, and scents of wild rosemary and sage. Seagulls sang out as they glided on the afternoon thermals, and the salty richness of the Mediterranean mingled with the pungent, rich smell of our final caffé.
We saw nothing but beauty. Our hearts were filled beyond their limits with love for our Italy and her Italians. We gazed at one another. We toasted one another. We kissed. 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 conto, a fraction of what dining costs in Rome. 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 simplicity of our exquisite lunch were condensed into one soft, languid, memorable afternoon.
Each time I recreate that menu at home I remember the magic of Capri, the scent of wisteria, the perfection of our birthday meal, and the generous family who ate pasta instead of spigola for their lunch.
WHOLE ROASTED SEA BASS or SALMON
1 3-pound sea bass or salmon
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped medium
¼ cup fennel fronds, chopped
½ cup Italian parsley, chopped
Juice of 2 lemons
Salt and pepper
1 cup dry white wine
6 wax potatoes, cut into 1 ½-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 400F/275C, pour in the wine, then lower the heat to 350F/180C and roast another 15-20 minutes approximately, or about 10 to 12 minutes for every inch of thickness. The potatoes should be well-browned and crunchy on the outside.
If you can get hold of a branch of wisteria, sniff it as you cook and enjoy a vicarious trip to the Capri of long ago…