Volterra AD 1398

I’m a bit of a sucker for medieval fayres. Not sure why, as all the luxuriant beards and local artisans make it look a bit like history for hipsters. But it’s certainly photogenic, and the Italians do that aspect better than most. On a recent trip to Tuscany we stopped for a couple of nights in Volterra, in time for a two-day event called Volterra AD 1398. 

We started in the main square, watching some very energetic flag-twirling displays.

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Video, so you can better appreciate the twirliness:

Other parts look more like a BDSM convention.

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Love the curly beard – chain mail combo.

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The food’s usually good too, as long as you’re happy looking it in the face while you eat it.

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I opted for a cheesey sausage sandwich. The cheese melting technique was low tech but efficient.

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I had to pay with “grossi”. The exchange rate was one grosso to the Euro.

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Authentic 14th century doughnuts were also available.

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In addition to artisans, stallholders and performers there were plenty of people just wandering around in costume. Although maybe that was considered a kind of performance too.

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There was also a falconry display, although when I passed by all the raptors were resting.

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At first glance I thought this manuscript illuminator had an iPhone, but it turned out to be his palette.

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Others just sit there and soak up the attention.

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One thing seems sure: being medieval is really tiring.

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In Piazza

Exeter, where I’m from, doesn’t really have one main, central public square. It has a large lawn in front of the cathedral, a long main shopping street, some parks and some open space down by the quay on the river. But if you wanted to hold a big event for a lot of people I’m not quite sure where you’d do it. Most Italian towns on the other hand have a principal piazza which can be used for any number of events, demonstrations, or just as somewhere to hang out and feel like you’re part of the life of the town.

This summer we experienced two different Italian squares, on two different scales. Campiglia Marittima, just inland from the beach where we were staying, is a fairly small place, but of course it has a main square.

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With an alliterative eatery.

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It also, we discovered, has an annual street theatre festival called Apritiborgo. For such a small town this was a pretty good event, with acts from all over the world. The streets and squares (there are several smaller ones apart from the central square) were packed, there was a market and a few food stalls.

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The Uruguayan jugglers were fun.

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This was the first time I’d seen someone spinning a hula hoop around their nose.

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Of course the advantage to events in public squares is that people who live there get a free show right outside their window.

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Whether they’re interested or not.

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A few days later we passed through Siena. We’d not been there for over a decade, but it was much as we remembered it. Siena, of course, has a large main square called Il Campo, which is the site of the town’s most famous event: the Palio. As luck would have it we were in town a few days before the event, so preparations were well under way. In fact there are several test runs before the big day, so we got to see all the decorations, crowds and horses in action, albeit a little slower and quieter than the real thing, which we saw on TV when we got home the following week. Most people crowd into the centre of the square, so that the horses race around them. Alternatively you can rent a seat on a balcony above the hoi polloi, for around €400.

When we arrived it was still quite quiet and they were spraying the sand on the ground to stop the horses kicking up clouds of dust.

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Colour-coded children from each ‘contrada’ (a team representing a town district) were seated in a prime spot in front of the town hall.

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An hour or so later there was standing room only. Usually I hate crowds, but this was a very relaxed atmosphere.

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Again there were cheeky peekers in various windows around the square, although not many people actually live in the buildings looking onto Il Campo.

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Each team’s supporters would take turns singing football-style chants.

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For some reason only the men sang, while the women sat in silence.

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Here’s a sample of the singing and general atmosphere.

Horses and their riders emerge from under the town hall.

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After much shuffling and faffing around they line up.

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And then they’re off for three circuits. The first turn was quite fast, but they slowed down for the next two. It’s basically just to let the riders and horses get the feel of the course.

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If you want a bit more detail of what actually happens on the day, I recommend Stef’s blogpost. And here’s the actual race:

Isola Bella and Villa Crespi

Last week we found ourselves, child free, driving around the lakes of Piedmont. The kids were with their grandparents and we found a car rental company which would let us have a small vehicle for the entirely reasonable sum of €19 for two days. We sped up to Lago Maggiore to have a bit of a look around.

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The weather was fine, and on the spur of the moment we took a ferry into the lake to visit Isola Bella. Apart from a tiny village (full of restaurants and souvenir shops) by the harbour where the ferry docked, this small island is taken up almost entirely by a large stately home and the attached gardens. I had little interest in the palazzo, but we had to walk through it in order to access the gardens, so we found ourselves slaloming our way around groups of trudging tourists as they gazed at a large collection of uninspiring paintings in overwrought gilt frames, spread across a ridiculous number of drawing and function rooms.

The route was long and winding with no possibility of short-cuts, but eventually we found ourselves back out in the fresh air and entered the gardens. These were the most intriguing aspect when seen from the water as we approached:

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Here’s the view of the other side:

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And looking back towards the mainland.

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See that lacy white thing on the lawn on the right hand side?

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Albino peacock!

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In fact there were two, one on each of the twin lawns. And they regularly called to each other and put on displays for the smartphone-wielding tourists.

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Our lodgings (and, er, dinings) for that night were a short drive away next to Lake Orta. You may remember that we’d been to this area before a few years ago, and in fact we had driven past and noted Villa Crespi as an intriguing-looking place. So of course this was our destination this time. As the hotel website tells it, “Cristoforo Benigno Crespi, a pioneer of the Italian cotton industry, while travelling on business in the Middle East was bewitched by Baghdad and its charms and in 1879 finished his own magnificent Moorish villa”. This is the view of the tower from the terrace outside our room.

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The elaborate stucco work continues inside:

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And the view from our room towards the lake wasn’t bad either.

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After a bit of relaxation we headed down for dinner. Chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo is originally from Naples. Hence the title of the tasting menu: “Itinerary from the south to the north of Italy”.

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The opening selection of amuse-bouches.

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I didn’t take notes, but I recall that the round buns at the top were focaccia (my wife’s only complaint of the evening was about this inauthentic version of her home town’s speciality), the green blobs at the bottom were crackers with gorgonzola and celery, and the macaroons at left were savoury.

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First course: oyster in a creamy radish sauce. I’ll never be enthusiastic about oyster but this slipped down easily enough, aided by the sauce.

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Raw shrimp in a “pizza”-style sauce (tomato, mozzarella, oregano). Strange and memorable.

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Linguine with squid and a rye bread sauce.

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Red mullet, aubergine, and a smoked provola cheese sauce. Fantastic. This dish was one of the motivations for buying the chef’s recipe book before we left the next day.

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Pigeon with foie gras and chocolate crunchy bits. My son was incredulous when I told him I’d eaten this bird, and asked me “Did they clean out all the poo first?”

It was a surprisingly large amount of meat and we started to feel full at this point.

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But then…CHEESE TROLLEY! A good range, although the waiter didn’t give us too much time to find out what each one was, and just gave us a selection.

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Pre-dessert was an alcoholic sorbet to be sucked up through a straw from inside an edible white chocolate cup.

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Ice cream and fruit.

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More nibbles. We were really full at this point and didn’t finish them all.

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Pretty, though.

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After this there was also a couple of sfogliatelle, but we really couldn’t manage those so we asked for them to be sent to our room and we had them the next morning.

Oh, there was also some good wine.

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But in spite of our bursting bellies it had been a very enjoyable meal. One of the best for a while, in fact.

At breakfast the next morning I saw mention on the menu of cereals, but couldn’t find them anywhere. Only after I’d had my fill of bread and cheese did I notice the small jars on the buffet which, on closer inspection, were revealed as bespoke cereal containers. Rice Crespis!

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I can see us coming back here in the not too distant future.

Fine

Most Italian words are recognisable as such, but occasionally you’ll come across one which could be confused with an English word. This one, for example.
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Of course this means “end”, and is pronounced “fee-neh”. It’s not warning you that you’ll have to pay a fine, or happily asserting that everything’s just dandy.
The example which most amuses me is the one which can sometimes be seen at the entrance to road tunnels. If there’s a motorway exit immediately after the end of the tunnel, there’ll be a sign for the exit, followed by the words “a fine tunnel” (at the end of the tunnel). Which leads me to imagine a whole series of similar signs adorning other types of Italian transport infrastructure saying things like “A fantastic bridge”, or “A wonderful bypass”.

7 things to do in Naples

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I recently spent nearly five days in Naples. It was my first time there, but with any luck it won’t be my last. Of the expectations I had, some were confirmed (great pizza), others debunked (less squalid and dirty than I thought it would be). In many ways it reminded me of the Italian town with which I’m most familiar: Genova. It’s an old port with a ramshackle central quarter full of narrow, dark winding alleyways which are great fun to wander, good seafood, and some great scenery close by. But let’s break this down into numbered points, shall we?

1. Pizza

Naples claims to be the home of pizza and, more specifically, of the Margherita pizza. I was very slightly sceptical about their claims to make the best pizza in the world. Just because you did it first doesn’t mean you do it best, and I’ve had great pizza all over Italy and beyond, but I was willing to give them a chance. Some places are more traditional and stringent than others, and offer only the two old recipes margherita or marinara. Marinara is just topped with garlic and oregano, and as far as I’m concerned no cheese = not a pizza, so I wasn’t going to let “authenticity” concerns hold me back. Our first visit was to a place called Brandi, which has a plaque outside asserting that the margherita was “born” there in 1889.

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My wife ordered one of those:

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while I went for one topped with sausage meat and broccoli leaves.

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You notice at once certain characteristics of Neapolitan pizzas: they’re thin, slightly soggy in the middle, and have a pretty thick, gummy border. I tend to prefer just a little more crunch in my crust, but I didn’t let this put me off and finished it all (I’ve never understood people who leave the crust on their plate).

The other place we tried was also pretty famous, and pretty busy, but we managed to beat the queues by arriving as soon as they opened at 7pm (Italians would eat later than that). Sorbillo’s is slightly less venerable than some other Neapolitan pizzerias, being less than 100 years old, but it’s still one of the best regarded. It has impeccable credentials in the sense that it’s recognised as a Slow Food establishment, and they’re involved with Amnesty International (hosting meetings, and you can order an Amnesty pizza as a way of donating to them). Here’s part of the menu.

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And here’s what I ordered: topped with ‘nduja (soft, spreadable, spicy southern Italian salami) and cacioricotta cheese (harder and more mature than normal ricotta. All I can say really is that it’s probably the best pizza I’ve ever eaten.

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If you want a more comprehensive overview I recommend this post, in which one guy ate at 12 pizzerias in Naples in the space of 24 hours.

2. Fried pizza (and fried food in general)

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For some reason Neapolitans love fried food. I’ve never seen this many chip shops in Italy before. Not that they approach British or Belgian levels, but they’re pretty common. And they deep fry all kinds of things. Even so, I was shocked to find out that they also deep fry pizza, which sounds like the kind of thing you’d find in a place like Glasgow, alongside deep fried Mars bars. But no, it’s a thing here, so of course we had to try it. We went to a pizzeria called Dal Presidente, which is known for specialising in this stuff. Like many Neapolitan restaurants the walls are plastered with photos of visiting celebrities. Many of these are unrecognisable unless you know a lot about Italian TV or music, but there was a picture of Bill Clinton. The US president visited during the G7 meeting held here in 1994, and the restaurant was renamed in his honour. In fact we saw photos of Clinton in almost every eatery we visited in Naples, which makes you think he did nothing but eat the whole time he was here.

We started our meal with a selection of other fried nibbles, including the quite well-known arancini (rice and various other savoury ingredients in a doughy fried ball).

 

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That was already pretty filling, so we were somewhat dismayed to see the size of the fried pizza (one to share between the two of us) when it arrived. Fortunately a lot of that was air, and it deflated in front of us.

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It was filled with ricotta and little slivers of pork (“cicioli”), and in spite of being deep fried it wasn’t heavy or greasy. Still something of an acquired taste, perhaps, but I’m glad we tried it.

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3. Coffee

Coffee is another of those things where you could be forgiven for thinking “Well they have that all over Italy. Do I have to go specifically to Naples?”. But it’s different in Naples, you see. Not in every bar, but if you choose the right one they’ll prepare it in a special way. The coffee here is stronger, so they often assume you’ll need sugar in it, and you have to ask for it “amaro” (bitter) if you don’t want it sweetened. And if you do want it sweet, rather than just giving you some sugar to add yourself, they’ll often prepare a bowl with a creamy mixture of sugar and coffee which is then spooned on top of the espresso where it sits, like a syrupy topping.

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And if you’re stopping for a coffee you should probably also have a sfogliatella, which is a typical Neapolitan pastry made of many ruffled layers and filled with ricotta.

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4. Churches

Yes, we did manage to get some culture in Naples in between face-stuffing activities. There are any number of churches and arty artifacts to gawp at, but if you only have time for one you must go to the Cappella Sansevero. This is the one which contains the amazing “Veiled Christ” sculpture, made out of a single lump of marble. No photography is allowed inside so the photo below is from the official website, which is richly illustrated and full of information about the chapel and its creator Raimondo di Sangro. The picture doesn’t really do justice to the delicacy and realism of the sculpture, and the chapel is also decorated with several other stunningly realistic and intricate statues. And if you’re there make sure you go down into the basement to see the creepy “anatomical machines“, which are basically real skeletons with fully preserved circulatory systems. No one knows quite how they managed to make these with mid-18th century techniques, but they’re very impressive. I was so impressed I bought the souvenir bookmark.

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While we’re talking about religious knick-knacks, Naples has a thing about “presepi“, or Nativity scenes. Again, you see these all over Italy, but they’re bigger and more elaborate here, with whole shops (sometimes whole streets) dedicated to enormous displays of dioramas and figures ranging from Lego-scale to Barbie-scale.

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I saw this one outside a workshop in a side street. Obviously it will be painted later, but I quite like the monochrome look.

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5. Via Toledo

Naples is great for people-watching, and Via Toledo, one of the main shopping streets, is a great spot (or strip) for it. The best time to go may be early in the evening, as everyone comes out for a leisurely stroll before going out (or home) to eat. I saw a lot of memorable and interesting faces and once again felt the urge to take my camera out and photograph them, but various practical problems would prevent that. I also thought of buying a GoPro camera, mounting it on my head or chest and just walking along the street, filming the people I passed. Again, I can think of several obvious reasons why that’s a bad idea.

Via Toledo is also a good spot for one of Naples’ less obvious (to me, anyway) shopping opportunities: shirts. This area has long been known for its gents’ tailoring, and it’s one of the few places in the world where I’ve seen almost as many menswear shops as there are for women. I ended up buying six shirts, which is almost unprecedented for me. That’s all my clothes shopping done for the rest of the decade, barring accidents.

6. Capri

The island of Capri is a short boat ride away from Naples’ port. One of the main attractions on Capri is the Blue Grotto, so imagine our disappointment upon arrival at the port when we were told that the grotto was closed that day because of rough seas (they weren’t that rough, but the entrance to the grotto is small so I guess they have to be careful). So instead we just wandered the town and sat on the cliffs looking at the view, which was quite pleasant enough. Capri seems to be something of a celebrity magnet. Everywhere we went there were signs boasting that a certain hotel or restaurant had been visited by Pablo Neruda, Churchill, Lenin. The restaurants in particular had a much more impressive visitor photo display thatn most of the places back in Naples, with the likes of Beyonce, Spielberg, Springsteen, and Stallone prominently featured. We had lunch in the place with a photo of Nicolas Cage.

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7. Vesuvius and Pompeii

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We took a combined day trip (there are plenty of companies offering this) to these two related sights, which are only a short drive south east of the city. The Pompeii complex is far larger than I imagined, and we spent an enjoyable couple of hours wandering around looking at ruined (and not so ruined) buildings.

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The partial remains of murals, mosaics and statuary were especially interesting and evocative.

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I mean, look how engrossed by it all these British school kids are!

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The Romans may have been good at building straight roads, but they were less successful at making them flat.

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It’s not far from there to the car park halfway up the slopes of Vesuvius. In the background of this shot you can see where the lava flowed down the hill during the 1944 eruption.

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Then you just have to walk another twenty minutes to reach the summit.

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Don’t ask me for any details about the volcano. When it comes to vulcanology I’m something of an igneoramus.

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Unfortunately the day we were there it was cloudy so the famed view across the bay towards Naples looked something like this:

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But if you want to see across the rooftops of the town you can do it from within Naples itself. Take the funicular railway from near the top of Via Toledo up to the Vomero district, and from there you can see the whole city laid out before, and a cloud-obscured Vesuvius in the distance.

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It’s obviously a popular spot to sit and have a drink, judging from the amount of discarded bottles on the nearby rooftop at bottom right…

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Lots more photos in the flickr album. Go take a look.

Palazzo Petrucci

I think it’s fair to say that I would happily have eaten pizza for the whole four days I recently spent in Naples. And yet one evening we tried a local Michelin-starred restaurant called Palazzo Petrucci, just for the sake of variety. There’s also a two star in Naples but it’s farther out of town and we wanted to stay more central. It’s located right in the centre of the old part of town, in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. The white building at bottom right is Petrucci Pizzeria, but the place we wanted was hidden in the corner. See the white rectangle just to the right of the base of the obelisk?

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I’ll zoom in a bit:

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Once through this discreet entrance you find yourself in one simple, high-ceilinged room. Off to the left is a stairway leading up to the kitchen, which can be seen through that window at the top. To be honest I found the décor a little uninspiring: stark and uncomfortable, in spite of the use of warm colours. But the friendliness and competence of the staff compensated.

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We chose a tasting menu, but first came an amuse-bouche of salmon, octopus, salad and pepper sauce. There was another ingredient but in the notes I took on my phone auto-correct changed it to “gremlins” and now I can’t remember what it actually was.

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The first proper course was a kind of “stracotto” pork croquette, on top of a thin slice of lobster, with truffle “caviar”, rice chips and cabbage. The wine was Vermentino. “Stracotto” literally means “overcooked”, or cooked until it’s falling apart. The croquette was nice but it felt a little out of place next to the other, more delicate and subtly-flavoured elements.

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The soup course. I probably wouldn’t have chosen a cold lemon soup if I were going à la carte, but that would have been my loss because it was lovely. On top, julienne of squid, star anise, and bread cubes coloured with squid ink. And accompanied by a lovely glass of Sancerre.

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 After the soup comes the pasta. Spaghettone, anchovies, seaweed crumble, and a glass of Vallicelli.

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The service was moving quite fast. Almost too fast. I don’t like too long a pause between courses, but here they were almost bringing us the next course before we’d finished the previous one, which made us feel a little rushed. In fact I decided to blame this rushed feeling for the fact that I forgot to take a photo of the main course, which was lamb with mint, apricot, and pecorino. The wine was a slightly weird and bitter unfiltered Bourgogne.
Now we moved to dessert, and were given a glass of not too sweet Passita from the nearby island of Ischia. This accompanied a yoghurt mouse with coffee.

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 Caramel mousse and a passion fruit crunchy ball with a liquid centre. Top marks for the caramel dribbles around the outside.

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The inevitable petits fours.

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All very pleasant, and recommended if you want at least one meal in Naples that isn’t circular and doughy.

Bookalokal: Sicilian

We don’t often choose Italian when we eat out. Partly because my wife likes to make Italian food at home. Partly because we go to Italy fairly frequently and get our fill of fresh local specialities over there. But this weekend we had the opportunity to attend a bookalokal event featuring Sicilian cuisine. Sicily is one of the parts of Italy I still haven’t visited, so I was keen to try it out.

We arrived at Emanuela‘s house in the Ixelles quarter of Brussels and were welcomed into her living room for an aperitif. Her two daughters were bustling around in the kitchen and after a few minutes came through with a plate of mozzarella pastries they’d made themselves.
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We were then joined by several other guests, who were a varied and interesting group: an Italian tenor, a German-born European Commission translator, a Flemish-Catalan singer and a doctor from Ghent who specialises in allergies. Plus Emanuela, who has professional experience in the catering industry, and her lawyer husband Giorgio.

The first dish was caponata, which is a Sicilian aubergine salad with peppers, capers and sweetened vinegar. On the right, more aubergines with mozzarella and mushrooms. As Emanuela explained caponata is one of those dishes which everyone does a little differently, but I was more than happy with her version: the vinegar adds a little sharpness but without making it too sour. Nicely balanced. We all had two portions.

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The pasta is another Sicilian recipe: pasta alla norma. Aubergine, tomato, ricotta and basil. Another winner.

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And finally for dessert: biancomangiare. This is a far cry from the “blancmange” we were served in the school canteen back in England, and the almond milk, cinnamon and pistachio flavours made it a very satisfying and light dessert.

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Our hosts were warm and enthusiastic and we chatted for quite a while with the other guests about favourite restaurants and recipes. It was a very enjoyable evening and one we’re keen to repeat soon.