One strange thing about traveling alone as a woman: The night managers all want you to hang out with them. This isn’t really surprising, as they’re bored and lonely, and I’m clearly on my own; I just wasn’t expecting it. My suspicion is simply that they can’t fathom what I’m doing traveling by myself. In Roma, Simone looked momentarily taken aback when I answered that I was not in fact in town for work but for la vacanza, though as I was renting a room in a B&B, it would have been hard for he or his brother to really look out for me.
In Napoli, Alfredo offered me a glass of wine when I returned from dinner, then shocked me by pouring himself a glass and sitting down for a chat with a plate of sfogliatellini con nocciola (I ate one to be polite…they were delicious, actually). I did appreciate his wanting to chat with me despite my speaking crap Italian after a bunch of wine, but it was all just a little awkward.
Now, in Positano, the night guy, effusive Peter, offers me a glass of limoncello on my arrival home, thankfully leaving me in peace to admire nighttime Positano and the fireworks across the harbor in Praiano (I think); but he also knows exactly which room I’m in before I tell him (they must put a flag on the solo-traveler loser rooms) and insists on a friendly kiss-kiss before I retire. It’s not creepy, just awkward.
But the limoncello does make for a nice digestif after what turned out to be hands-down the finest meal of my trip so far. Luck is with me today, from learning (via Alfredo) of a post office 50m from my Napoli hotel to snagging one of the last seats on the SITA bus to Positano, I’ve been doing pretty well. (The monstrous hike from the bus to my hotel here wasn’t so lucky but also couldn’t be avoided — everything here requires belay gear.) Dinner was serendipitous, too, really: After spending a couple of hours watching embarrassingly tacky American college kids, overbronzed Italians, and Amalfi daytrippers on the beach for a while, I decided to try out the stairs instead of the road back up the hill, thinking they’d join the street eventually. They did, about 20 stories up, but conveniently deposited me right in front of my hotel. Seriously. I almost passed out at my luck.
Parking myself on a bench to catch my breath, I scoped out the two restaurants at the foot of the scala to the hotel, and decided on impulse to walk across the street to da Vincenzo and book (shocking everyone once again with a request for una tavola per una).
They must have felt really bad for me, because I ended up with one of about 8 outdoor tables, which put me basically 3 feet from passing traffic (nothing much here is further) but with a direct view of the bay. Damn.
When I’m around this much fish, I just have to go for it, and I figured with prices this steep and most of the tables already reserved, how bad could it be? That and I’d eaten a single panino all day and was starving.
So, the menu: First they brought an amuse-bouche, fried mozzarella stuffed with some kind of pesto, I think — a greenish, very delicious little bite. Next, caponata del ventresca di tonno, which was basically a cold composed salad highlighting fresh tuna belly, which I really couldn’t pass up. A little more olive oil, and it would have been perfect, but I ate every last bit of it, admiring even the knifework on the little squares of potato and zucchini interspersed with the tuna and bits of olive and peperoni.
I could have eaten my pasta dish all night, would I not gain 600 pounds and never get to the secondo (yes, I went for a secondo this time…fish are powerfulfully persuasive). Mixed pieces of pasta are thrown together with mixed seafood in a light broth — who cares, right? Probably leftovers or all the bits left over after they portioned the secondi. But holy christ, that was genius at work: The perfectly cooked, insanely fresh seafood — several kinds of clams, mussels, a huge piece of octopus, squid, and god knows what else — worked in lockstep with the different kinds of pasta, matching textures and shapes, all the different nooks and crannies of the pasta picking up different elements of the fish. Wow. Octopus and squid should be cooked like al dente pasta, who knew? Not a clam unopened, the mussels briny and plump…damn.
But oh, no, I didn’t stop there, though I kept it simple, laying waste to most of a plate of alici alla brace, or grilled anchovies. I don’t know if there’s a difference between alici and acchiugi, but I do know that fresh anchovies bear zero resemblance whatsoever to those nasty bits people toss on pizza at home, nor the quality marinated filets I sneak into sauces at home (which in Italian I know as acchiuga, for what that’s worth). The finger-size fish were gutted, then grilled with just some olive oil and lemon, leaving deliciously crispy skin and sweet flesh that pulled just taut enough to allow for basically one-stroke deboning. I didn’t manage the entire plate, but I did finish with a rather large stack of doll-size skeletons.
When I dine out alone, I will skip reading while eating if the scenery or food is worth its own attention, and needless to say, between a packed restaurant, traffic careening by about 3 feet from my toes, alici to be dismantled, and a spectacular view I could enjoy without craning, I wasn’t reading. (The small bowl of wild strawberries and cream chantilly I chose for dessert didn’t change that.)
But I did think about eating alone, eating together, and what my boys would make of the meal (the girls, I know, would take it all in stride). One would have freaked out about anchovies in general, then secretly loved them while spitefully demanding that I debone all of them. One would have grimaced and wished me a good time, likely trying none and ordering some fried shrimp. One would have made catty remarks about how much I ordered, but going nuts over the fish bonanza and absence of cheese split the plate with me and loved it. And one, I know for sure, would not only have gone crazy for the alici; he might have even picked them first, as they seemed the most radical of the fish choices, then suggested we try the octopus and artichoke spiedini as well. Alas.
I thought I made a horrible mistake landing here — gawdy, overtouristed, vertical, full of American coeds, loud tourist shops, and smoochy couples — but if for that meal alone (and the sick view from my hotel room, which may be the best extra 20 euros a day I ever spent), I’m glad I came. Tomorrow, Capri.