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Anne's Travel Notes - Ischia, the Island of the Universal Garden

Anne Robichaud

In the 16th century, a visitor to Ischia wrote: "you will see with infinite marvel that this island, almost like a small garden, embodies all the elements of the universal garden of the earth." In the 18th century, the philosopher and theologian George Berkeley paralleled these words when he wrote: "Ischia is the epitome of the world. It seems like an enormous singular orchard."

I was last in Ischia over 35 years ago while doing my junior year abroad in Rome. A friend and I hitchhiked south for a three day weekend and on Saturday, hopped a boat for Capri. As I recall, in those days tickets could also be purchased on board the ferry. In any case, I remember that when the ticket collector came around, we realized that we did not have sufficient funds for a return ticket to Capri. Of the two of us, I spoke the most Italian so was given the task of explaining our embarrassing plight in my limping Italian.

The elderly ticket collector exclaimed, "Mamma mia! nessun biglietti per Capri!? ...e non vedete Ischia!? Non potete tornare in America senza aver visto la mia isola!" Chagrined that we risked returning to America without having visited his native Ischia, the ticket collector issued us tickets to Capri, then on to Ischia, then back to Naples. When I thanked him and asked how we could pay, he told us quite solemnly that he would bill the US Embassy!

I remember very little of that brief Ischia sojourn (we spent a day there) and I returned there for the first time just a few days ago - at the enthusiastic urging of my Roman friend, Silvana, who has spent two weeks in May for the last three years on Ischia.

Nature's prodigious gifts to Ischia result from the shaping and molding of the island by thousands of years of volcanic activity and telluric movements. Already in the 8th century BC, the Greeks were well aware of the island's natural treasures, for 29 natural thermal baths, 103 thermal springs and 42 mineral water springs lace the island, resulting in its appellative, "isola dell'eternal giovaninezza" (the island of eternal youth).

Silvana has a "problematic" knee and her friend, Carla, suffers from sinusitis. Italy's national health care plan cares for all of our medical needs and even contributes to spa treatments. For a total cost of just 50 euro, every year Silvana and Carla take full advantage of Ischia spa treatments aimed specifically at their respective health woes: 12 treatments of about three hours each!

May is off season for the hotels, so they offer attractively low rates. Their hotel was full but Silvana found me a lovely nearby hotel, Hotel Parco Conte (www.hotelparcoconte.it), overlooking the sea, just above the tiny port town of Casamicciola. Family-run and immersed in a garden of lemon trees, loquats, cherry trees, chestnuts, palm trees, and endless floral species, Gabriella and Lorenzo's home-now-hotel is a haven for their clients, some of whom have been coming faithfully for over 20 years. The ambience, the pool with thermal waters, the warm hospitality are certainly key factors. But the cooking also plays a leading role! Gabriella told me that years ago, her mother did all the cooking for their guests (having learned from her mother) and her father did the shopping daily for the foods as well as the accounts. As Gabriella's mother became elderly and infirm, Gabriella took over the kitchen while also doing all the shopping and - after her father's death - the accounts as well.

The hotel has grown now and Gabriella oversees the accounts and daily grocery selection ( the word "shopping" slights the meticulous care with which Gabriella chooses daily the best and freshest ingredients for all meals) while the cooking is done by the quiet and attentive Maria, who faithfully follows the treasured recipes of Gabriella and her mother and grandmother.

Gabriella's recipes have appeared in two Italian cookbooks (which have not been translated into English, alas!) which she proudly shared with me, both bearing dedicatory inscriptions hand-written by the grateful authors. Ugo Morale's book lauds Gabriella in the preface: "Gabriella ... gentle master of all the fragrances of the Ischia and Neapolitan kitchen .... (creating) a hymn to the joy of the palate and - why not? - to the very joy of living".

Gabriella has generously given me permission to share a few of her recipes which embody the flavors of Ischia.

Gabriella's Recipes

Tonnarelli alla Diavolata ("Diabolical" Pasta)

Ingredients for 5 persons:

  • 1 lb pasta - shell-shaped or elbow macaroni
  • 2 anchovies
  • handful of oregano
  • 6 black olives in pieces
  • handful of pine nuts
  • handful of fresh basil, shredded into small pieces by hand
  • red hot pepper, small
  • 1 - 1-1/4 c. canned tomatoes or of very ripe fresh tomatoes (Roma variety), cut into small pieces
  • 3 T pecorino cheese, freshly-grated
  • 3 T Parmesan cheese, freshly-grated
  • extra virgin olive oil, q.b.

(q.b = quanto basta, ie, whatever is needed...a typical note in many an Italian cookbook as no good recipe can be truly precise!)

Sauce: Heat 2 garlic cloves in olive oil until golden, being careful not to burn the garlic nor to let olive oil smoke. Stir in the 2 anchovies (well-rinsed if they have been packed in salt), the oregano, olives, pine nuts, and red peppers. Add tomatoes, in small pieces and salt (to taste). When tomato sauce is ristretta (that is, most of the water of the tomatoes has evaporated), add handful of fresh basil.

Cook pasta until al dente ("to the tooth", i.e. NOT too soft!) and drain, saving some of the brodo or pasta water (always do this when making pasta so that you can dilute the sauce a bit, if necessary). Add a bit of the brodo if pasta not sufficiently liquid. Mix pasta with sauce, adding both cheeses. Serve.

Pasta e Patate all'Ischitana (Pasta with Potatoes, Ischia Style)

Ingredients for 5 persons:

  • 1/2 white or yellow onion
  • 1 cup or so tomato pulp, canned or fresh (if fresh tomatoes, only very ripe ones - Roma variety)
  • handful of parsley
  • 1 stalk of celery, finely-chopped
  • handful of fresh basil
  • 6 medium-sized potatoes, cut into tiny cubes
  • 1/2 pound (approx) small, tube-shaped pasta
  • extra virgin olive oil (q.b.! - see recipe above)
  • 1 T approx butter
  • Parmesan cheese

Cook finely-chopped onion in olive oil and butter until golden. Add tomatoes, finely-chopped parsley, celery and basil (torn into tiny pieces by hand). Add potatoes and salt and pepper to taste and simmer over low heat, adding hot water as needed. When potatoes are nearly cooked, add pasta (rice may be substituted, though to be added when potatoes are only half-cooked). Simmer until cooked and serve. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Polpettine all'Ischitana (Small Meatballs, Ischia-style)

Ingredients for 6 persons:

  • 1 lb. ground veal or mixture of ground veal, ground chicken, ground pork (use less proportionately of the chicken)
  • 1 - 1/2 - 2 c of bread, taken from center of loaf of excellent bread (Italian-style or French, but coarse in texture)
  • water
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 clove garlic, finely-chopped
  • handful parsley and handful of basil, both finely-chopped
  • grated lemon rind
  • 1/2 t. sugar (* a bit of sugar often added to meatball and tomato sauce recipes from Naples south)
  • 1/2 c Parmesan cheese
  • pinenuts
  • currants

Sauce: 1/2 onion, 1 - 1- 1/2 c. tomato pulp, canned or of very ripe tomatoes, Roma variety, 1/2 c. white wine, basil.

Soften bread in water, then squeeze out all water well. Mix ground meat, softened bread, beaten eggs, parsely, basil, garlic, handful pinenuts and same of currants, sugar, salt and pepper to taste. Form into small balls - about 2 in. in diameter - and fry in hot sunflower seed oil (or other seed oil, not olive oil).

Drain on coarse paper or paper towel.

Saute until golden olive oil, onion. Add white wine - let wine evaporate. Add 1 c. of tomato pulp and finely-shredded basil. Add meatballs to tomato sauce and simmer briefly. Serve.

Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2006. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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