It's that time of year again, the early months of summer, when I would head down to Ponza for my annual trip to the magical hidden gem of an island off the coast south of Rome. This year marks the first in a long time that I won't make it there, and that I won't even be in Italy during June and July. Which, of course, makes me long all the more for the blindingly sunny days and bracing swims in turquoise waters, as well as aperitivi in the main piazza with locals and visiting Romans and Neapolitans. And it really makes me miss the wonderful dining one does while on Ponza. Whether in one of the local restaurants, or cooking in one's apartment (the way to go on the island, where hotel rooms are limited and overpriced -- and which of course allows you access to your own cucina), the fresh local seafood is the focus of the food on Ponza.
To really get a feel how you'll be eating on an "Avventura Ponzese" (Ponza adventure), we should start with the pizzeria in the port of departure, in Anzio, the beachside resort town 35 miles south of Rome, birthplace of both Nero and Cicero, as well as famed site of the World War II Battle at Anzio. But for our purposes, it's where the hydrofoil departs from, and where a dockside pizzeria serves a damned good seafood calzone, rich with an herb-laden tomato sauce and stuffed with octopus, calamari, and shelled clams and mussels. Perfect for filling your belly up before the hour-long journey to the island of Ponza.
Once you arrive in the port, you can see all of the fishing boats coming in with their daily catch. Some of the white foam crates filled with maritime goodies go directly to the back door of the island's best restaurant kitchens, and some items are for sale in the island's fish markets located among the winding rings above the harbor that are the tiny piazze and vicoli of Ponza town. Among the catch are always various sizes of shrimp (gamberi) and squid (calamari), octopus (polipi) and anchovies (alici or acciughe), as well as various types of local white-fleshed fish in the bream family, prized among them the sarago, fragolino (for its rosy hue), and pezzogna (recognizable by its oversized eyes).
A great place to try the local catch, with a view of the port from on high, is at Ristorante EEA. It's fun to treat some of these restaurants a bit like tapas bars: ordering various antipasti,when they're this fresh, can be a great way to try various preparations of the local catch. Marinated anchovies are a fairly common preparation of the fresh fish in southern Italy: they have a lemony-vinegar kick and are refreshing in hot weather. Served here with panzanella, a cold summer salad made from old bread and ripe tomatoes, is a brilliant way of kicking the old standard up a notch. We also tried the octopus salad, and a tasty tempura-fried merluzzo (fresh codfish) with a sea urchin mayonnaise: fabulous.
One of my favorite types of crustacean in the world is the gambero rosso, or red shrimp. It's in fact bright red before and after it's cooked, and the flavor is phenomenal. At EEA they're done in a parmigiano crust, which worked, and highlighted the pairing of shrimp and aged cheese as one of the only examples in Italian cuisine in which cheese and seafood are matched. We continued to eat our way through pasta courses (spaghetti with pressed fish roe, called bottarga) as well as the classic southern Italian pasta pairing of swordfish and eggplant. Secondi included a delicate branzino (sea bream) with a pistachio crust. Add plenty of white wine and a gorgeous view and you have the perfect meal.
One of my favorite places to eat on any Italian island in the Mediterranean is perched above the other side of the port, at Orestorante. Chef Oreste (hence the pun) Romagnolo is a lively presence, riffing on Italian seafood classics and tweaking Italian cucina novella with local adaptations. My chef ex and I discovered this place many years ago, and I've been returning ever since with various friends in tow. Everyone is wowed by the vista, the light breeze up high, the tranquil candlelit setting, and the always-gorgeous and tanned crowd the place pulls in. The food is pricey, but it's also really delicious.
The plates that arrive from the kitchen are presented beautifully -- like the crudo di pesce, basically a mixed fish tartare, served with a citrus sauce called "acqua di Ponza" for its electric-hued aquamarine color. Another memorable and very locally-themed starter is the fish on "hot rocks." Skewered pieces of Mediterranean ricciola are sent out on a plate with a blisteringly hot sea rock, on which you sear the pieces of fish, and then you dip them into a lemon-olive oil emulsion.
It's what a gourmet Robinson Crusoe might conjure up if he'd been lucky enough to be stranded on the Pontine islands. And it's interactive. And zen! And then, to remind us we're still in Italy, the pastas are plentiful and most include some kind of shellfish or crustacean, like the rigatoni with mussels, gorgonzola, and tomatoes. A great choice is the playful primo piatto called Calamari due volte ("squid times two"): the chef uses fresh local rings of calamari and the pasta shaped like these rings, and tosses them with fresh tomatoes, capers, and wild fennel.
Paired with a crisp white with mineral and fruit nuance, like a local Fiano di Avellino or Falanghina, these seafood dishes soar. If you want a main course, there are items like the swordfish cutlet, simply seasoned, breaded and fried like a veal scaloppine might be served in northern Italy. I'd recommend, rather, that you leave room for a light dessert -- get the "chocolate salame" if it's on the menu -- and of course, the best digestivo one could have in these parts: ice cold limoncello.
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To be continued...