CAPRI ITALY Only four miles long and two miles wide, Capri defines the notion of a high-style island. It has been hosting the rich and privileged ever since the Roman emperor Tiberius built several villas there and amused himself by having his enemies.
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There is plenty of rustic charm to be found beyond the jet-set glamour of this stunning island, located off the Naples coast. In fact, to find one of Capri's most authentic country dining spots, you'll have to leave the town of Capri behind.
Take the $2 bus ride up the roller-coaster mountain road to the town of Anacapri.
When the bus deposits you, a bit weakkneed, at Piazza Vittoria, look for the footpath hidden behind the chairlifts going to the peak of Monte Solaro. Unwind with an invigorating 30-minute walk past vineyards, villas, farms and mountains to the restaurant-cum-pensione known as
DA GELSOMINA. Your diligence, and your appetite, will be rewarded.
As you sit in awe of the vista that stretches out to the neighboring island of Ischia, the homemade pastas will fortify you for the journey back. Don't miss the one called 'sciue 'sciue, with eggplant, mozzarella and tomatoes. If you overindulge, take a room for the night.
This hilly island was once a favorite haunt for the Roman. elite. Today, the look is more Prada than toga in Capri town, where the jet set settle at the GRAND HOTEL QUISISANA. Located in the town's center, the Quisisana was built as a sanatorium more than a century ago. Its 150 tiled rooms face the pool and gardens.
There's also a very hip bar and a new spa, where guests can indulge before donning capri pants, natch, and heading to the Quisi, Gourmet Restaurant. (Via Camerelle 2, Capri; 011-39-081-8370788; quisi.com)
First I have to get there. It isn't easy: take a train journey from Florence to Naples, a harried taxi ride through Naples to the port, a 45-minute high-speed ferry trip to the isle of Capri-the crossing a spectacle in itself, with Vesuvius to the east and the islands of Ischia and Procida to the west-and finally an almost vertical funicular climb from the water's edge to the center of town-Capri town, to be precise.
And there I stand, blinking in the Mediterranean sun like some newly hatched bird trying to get its bearings. I am in the piazzetta (little square), irrefutably Capri's best place to see and be seen. There are couples posing for pictures against a backdrop of jagged limestone cliffs; there are couples sipping Campariand- soda; there are couples everywhere (the island's reputation as a romantic getaway is well deserved). Just a few steps from where I stand is a small kiosk with bunches of fresh lemons hanging from its open windows and a hand-lettered wooden sign that says granita di limone. The sign, more than the couples or anything else, tells me I have arrived.
That's because lemons are the de facto symbol of Capri. They appear on street signs, park benches, door plaques and hotel insignias. They are painted on the ceramic plates and pitchers-bright yellow against a sea-blue backgroundthat are sold from cluttered storefronts wedged between high-end boutiques. They scent the soaps, perfumes and colognes sold at the famous perfumery Carthusia,
Profumi di Capri. They flavor limoncello (the island's ubiquitous lemon liqueur), tortes, tarts, cakes, cookies and sorbetto.
Then there is the iconic granita di limone that marked my arrival. Elsewhere in Italy I've encountered lemon granitas so cloying that I can't imagine they've come within five miles of a real lemon. This granita is something else entirely. It tastes of the lemons of this place, or perhaps it tastes of the place itself, all sunshine, freshness, sea air and a sort of sparkling sweetness.
"Lemons have always been on Capri.
They just want to grow here," Brunella Ruggiero tells me. She's the owner and namesake of Villa Brunella, the delightful family-run hotel I call home during my stay. "If a Caprese [someone from Capri]
SPAGHETTI WITH FRESH CLAMS, PARSLEY AND LEMON
Lemon juice is an integral part of this classic dish. Choose the smallest clams possible, and make sure not to overcook them.
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 pounds fresh Manila clams or small littleneck clams, scrubbed
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 pound spaghetti
Heat oil in heavy large pot over mediumhigh heat. Add sliced garlic and saut? until light brown, about minute. Add clams and 1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley; stir 2 minutes. Add wine; simmer 2 minutes.
Add fresh lemon juice. Cover and simmer until clams open, about 6 minutes (discard any clams that do not open).
Meanwhile, cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite. Drain. Add pasta to clam mixture and toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to large bowl. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons parsley and serve.
CREAMY LEMON TART
This tart has a looser text ure than typical lemon tarts. Chill overnight before serving.
10 TO 12 SERVINGS
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon sugar
2-1/4 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons (about) water
5 large eggs
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons grated lemon peel
FOR CRUST Using electric mixer, beat unsalted butter and egg yolks in large bowl until fluffy. Beat in sugar. Beat in flour and salt just until blended, adding water by tablespoonfuls if dough is dry.
Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface. Gather dough together. Shape dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate i hour.
Soften dough slightly at room temperature before rolling out.
FOR FILLING: Whisk eggs, sugar, cream, lemon juice and grated lemon peel in medium metal bowl to blend. Set bowl over saucepan of simmering water (do not allow bottom of bowl to touch water); whisk slowly but constantly until mixture thickens and instant-read thermometer inserted into mixture registers 160°F about 20 minutes. Remove bowl from over water. Cool mixture to room temperature, whisking occasionally.
Preheat oven to 350°F Roll out dough on lightly floured surface to 13-inch round. Transfer. dough to 10 inchdiameter tart pan with removable bottom.
Fold in dough edges, forming doublethick sides. Freeze crust 15 minutes. Line crust with foil; fill with pie weights ofdried beans. Bake 15 minutes. Remove pie weights. Bake until crust is golden and cooked through, about 30 minutes longer.
Cool crust in pan on rack.
Spread filling evenly in crust. Chill overnight to allow filling to set.
GRILLED STRIPED BASS WITH
LEMON AND FENNEL
For best results, usea grill basket. It should be big (nough for the fish but snug enough to keep the fish and lemon slicesfrom moving around. The one we used in the Bon
App?tit test kitchen was 17 by 6 inches.
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 1-1/2-pound whole striped bass, cleaned
1/2 cup (packed) coarsely chopped fresh fennel fronds 5 1/8-inch-thick lemon slices
could have only one tree in the garden, it would be a lemon tree," she says.
We're sitting in her small garden overlooking the sea. There is not just one lemon tree, but at least a dozen of. hem in weathered terra-cotta pots. They wear their finery all at once: bright green leaves, shiny yellow fruits-as well as small limegreen unripe ones-and ivory-colored blossoms smelling of honey and vanilla.
"We have lemons all year round on Capri," she says, offering me a thimbleful of homemade limoncello. The iridescent yellow liqueur is thick and icy cold with a delicious citrusy bite. And the recipe, Brunella says, is facilissimo-simpler than simple (see box).
"Of course," she adds, almost as an afterthought, "the lemons must be from Caprior at the very least from Sorrento. And they should be just off the tree and untreated."
The superiority of Capri's lemons, and their pride of piace in both the culinary and the physical landscapes, is a notion I encounter again and again as I explore the island.
And explore I do. I follow a bend in a walkway andfind myself under a canopy of bougainvillea and jasmine. It is so quiet.
The silence is broken only by the sounds of crickets and cicadas and the click of my sandals as I continue past gated whitewashed villas with names like li Sorriso (the smile) and Il Sogno (the dream).
Behind each gate invariably lies a garden. One such garden belongs to the famiglia Buonocore, owners of the eponymous ice cream, pastry and sandwich shop famous for its capril? cookies, rich with almonds, egg whites and the fine zest of the family's own lemons.
"We plant more trees every other year," says Giovanna Buonocore, picking up a lemon and running afingernail along its skin. "Do you see?" she asks me as a fine spray-the essence of lemon itselfwafts through the air. "This is what you need," she adds. "The oil from the skins."
I do see. Maybe I've never paid quite such attention before, but this surely seems like the lemoniest lemon I've ever seen.
"We use the skins to make things like tortino di limone [lemon and ricotta torte] and torta Caprese al limone [a lemony interpretation of the island's delicious almondand-chocolate coke]," Giovanna says. "And we use the juice to make sorbetto." In fact, the Buonocores' sorbetto is the island's best.
So glorious is the relation between Capri's lemons and all things sweet that one could imagine that the story ends there. But it doesn't. Because more than any fruit I can think of, lemons-Capri's lemons-are as happy in a savory state as they are in a sweet one.
Here's the evidence. At the charming Da Gelsomina, a country restaurant and inn located on a magical hilltop a 30-minute walk from Anacapri (the island's other major town), fresh anchovies are marinated in olive oil and lemon juice; at Le Grottelle, a trattoria perched among pines on a cliff overlooking the spectacular Arco Naturale, tiny clams are laced with garlic, white wine and lemon; and at Da Gemma, afamous old pizzeria-with-a-view whose entrance is tucked into a covered alleyway near the piazzetta, slices of mozzarella are grilled on fresh lemon leaves.
But nowhere are Capri's lemons more revered than at Da Paolino, a restaurant where yellow-clothed tables nestle in the shade of a lemon grove, and the waiters' vests are decorated with lemons, as are the plates.
Tkitsch lemon motif would verge on if the food were not so superb.
There are lemon-scented vegetable and seafood antipasti; delicate tagliolini with lemon; creamy risotto with lemon, rucola and shrimp; simple grilled chicken with lemon; and even simpler green salad dressed with olive oil and you-know-what.
When I tell Paolino's grandniece Michela that I have no room for dessert, she offers me a canarino (little canary), a drink made with boiling water, lemon juice, lemon zest and a touch of sugar-Italy's fail-safe remedy for overindulgence.
If it is hard to get to Capri, it is even harder to leave, especially after five fabulous lemon-filled days. While I've recorded Brunella Ruggiero's limoncello recipe, I doubt that I shall ever make it myself-not with my store-bought lemons grown who knows where, picked who knows when. Anyway, it will be years before I need more. My suitcase is filled with bottles of limoncello-given to me as symbols of a Caprese hospitality that is as bright and sweet as the Caprese lemon itself. Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat). Whisk first 3 ingredients in medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Make three 1/2-inch-deep diagonal slits in skin on each side of fish. Brush fish generously inside and out with garlic oil. Sprinkle fish inside and out with coarse salt. Stuff slits with half of fennel fronds. Place remaining fennel fronds inside fish. Place fish in grilling basket. Top fish with lemon slices, overlapping slightly. Close grilling basket (fish and lemon slices should be secured by basket). Grill fish until cooked through, about 10 minutes per side.
Remove fish with lemon slices from basket and carefully transfer to platter Serve.
Lemonjuice and peel offer a double punch of flavor in this delicious dish. Serve the risotto Italian-style as a first course, or Americanstyle as a main course.
6 FIRST-COURSE OR
4 MAIN-COURSE SERVINGS
6 cups canned low-salt chicken broth
3-1/2 tablespoons butter
1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large shallots, chopped
2 cups arborio rice or medium-grain white rice
'4 cup dry white wine
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
cheese (about 3 ounces)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons fresh lemonjuice
4 teaspoons grated lemon peel
Bring broth to simmer in large saucepan over medium heat. Reduce heat to low; cover to keep warm. Melt 11/2 tablespoons butter with oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and saut? until tender, about 6 minutes. Add rice; stir 1 minute. Add wine and stir until evaporated, about 30 seconds. Add 1-1/2 cups hot broth; simmer until absorbed, stirring frequently. Add remaining broth 1/2 cup at a time, allowing broth to be absorbed before adding more and stirring frequently until rice is creamy and tender, about 35 minutes. Stir in cheese and remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Stir in parsley, lemon juice and lemon peel. Season risotto with salt and pepper Transfer
to bowl and serve.