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Passages to Italy: Anchovy School

Everyone who spends time in Italy comes away with a story that captures the essence of the culture. Here, four American writers share their quintessential Italian experiences.

I had planned to spend just a day or two in Cinque Terre before taking a ferry to Sardinia. I wanted to hike the trail connecting the five jagged villages carved from the vineyard-terraced mountains that overlook the azure Ligurian Sea. My pensione in Monterosso abutted the family home of my favorite Italian poet, Eugenio Montale, and hiking through the lemon and olive groves was like entering the “dazed with light” landscape of Montale’s poems.

But it was a kayak I rented on the beach, not the hike, that kept me from leaving. Every day I’d paddle the two miles from Monterosso to Vernazza, the next town down the coast, where I’d stop for lunch, then kayak back again. It was the lunch I’d traveled to Italy for, and once I had found it, I wanted to have it over and over. The trip—along tide-pool grottoes good for snorkeling, their crystalline reflections playing off the cliffs—was an essential part of the meal.

Dazed with light, I’d glide over glistening schools of anchovies that would later make up my lunch. It’s said that the best anchovies in Italy come from Liguria; though I’ve never heard it explained why, I believe it. With oily fish—anchovies, sardines, mackerel—freshness is everything. I’d dock beside painted fishing boats I’d followed there, seat myself at a seaside table at a restaurant and order the morning’s catch. Not surprisingly, fresh anchovies were prepared in numerous ways: stuffed with seasoned bread crumbs and baked; raw and ceviched in the juice from those lemon groves; tossed with pasta in pesto (Liguria is the birthplace of pesto and focaccia); or as frittelle di bianchetti, fritters made from newborn anchovies. My favorite was charcoal-grilled: three charred whole silver acciughe in a green puddle of olive oil—pressed in the mountains above—studded with caperberries and served with focaccia for mopping, along with a glass of the local Vermentino, still green enough to have a hint of fizz. For dessert, Sciacchetrà, a rare regional wine with notes of apricots and chestnut honey.

It was September, white truffle season, and at night I would seek fancier meals. But those simple lunches, whose ingredients could only be found locally, that would be compromised if shipped, a meal one could have only by traveling to it, is what kept me promising myself that it would be tomorrow—yes, tomorrow would be time enough to catch the ferry to Sardinia.

Stuart Dybek is the author of the short-story collections I Sailed with Magellan and The Coast of Chicago.

Published September 2007
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