In the spring of 2013, Henderson Productions was proud to travel with the experts from the restaurant chain, Olive Garden to explore as much about food and Tuscan life as possible. We’ve created this series of blogs which, like the region, should remain relatively timeless. Bon Apetito.
So – the setup: Two hours sleep for everyone except Paolo. Diverse personalities. Room to spread out on a bus. Luggage loaded. And we are off. Rome’s airport is far enough on the outskirts that we breezed right out onto the autostrada headed north along the coast road toward Civitavecchia – the cruise ship port and refinery town. We are headed into Tuscany following the equivalent of US Hwy 101 in California – glimpses of the very blue Mediterranean Sea on our left and the Eponine mountain range on our right. Paolo points out interesting tidbits along the way including the current green in fields is either wheat or soy. Artichokes, asparagus and fava beans are already in season. The trees are either long lines of classic Cyprus, Med pines (yielding pine nuts) or silvery olive trees. Occasional fully-loaded orange or lemons tree pop up with some color.
A Paolo quote: “During the winter the sun is like our blood. It goes underground and starts to warm our feet and lift up so the leaves can grow.” Charming. Evocative.
We followed the Med. coast road north past Civitavecchia into Etruscan territory with modern power lines and towers the only impediment to century-old vistas in all directions. Past Vulci and Grosseto and Orvieto through grazing sheep and laundry day and growing fields. Watching crumbling rundown farmhouses and solar paneled greenhouse operations with newish elaborate casas perched on little hills. Rows of pines looking like acacias on African pampas and cypress gave away ancient paths and crisscrossing checkerboard fields. Slivery olive leaves glittered in the lovely warm sun. Paolo remarked he hadn’t seen the sun in a couple of weeks and snapped pics from the bus as we meandered our way north.
Then we turned left into a series of camping grounds at Orbetello looking lonely and sad and missing their 200 thousand owners for the August vacation beach breaks. This is the Italian tourist coast wedged between Rome and Pisa/Livorno where Germans and Americans and British rarely visit. The mountain town of Porto San Stefano is a carbon copy of Portofino or Cinque Terre but not registered on on-Italian maps. With one-way streets we go up and over the mountain to come back down into town and our lunch break. GO to Porto San Stefano. Go before Roman hoards ascend in August. Sail into that lovely harbor if you can by boat. Or drive there. Go. Think about more than a day trip. Every bed and breakfast, cabin and hotel has a view.
Our first meal. We are in trouble. Restaurant il Veliero. Oh my. Family-style and greeted us at the door. For almost 2 hours the food kept coming. First, appetizers of 5 different right-off-the-boat cold fish dishes. Local, unbelievably fresh olive oil was plunked in the middle of the table and subtly drizzled over most options. Smoked swordfish, seabass, shrimp salad, skewers of battered langostinos wrapped in spaghetti and quick fried. YUM.
Then prima piatti – wait, that WASN’T the first course? – of steamed fish with tomato and veggies with a side of roasted potatoes. Secondi piatti – a HUGE platter of a sea salt encrusted sea bass lit on fire like baked Alaska! Photos all around. Applause even from other tables having their Sunday afternoon family meal. The sea salt was chiseled off for the most succulent fish ever. The final course was homemade tiramisu followed by espresso. Four bottles of local white wine plus multiple aqua sens (with) or con (without) gas littered the table.
This was LUNCH. I was grateful it was super heavy on protein. Conversation was exploratory as we all got to know one another. Animated, we were all still very tired. It was a perfect setup for a lovely 2-hour drive through Tuscany to Fizzano with multiple snoozers in the back while Paolo and I quietly snapped pics from our front row perches.