Saturday, August 15, 2009

Great Food Away from the Tourist Traps

I have heard it said that it is hard to get a bad meal in Italy. Indeed, any establishment that tried to serve one would not be in business for very long. Even the Autogrill’s (the fast food establishments along the major highways) offer some reasonably priced fare that could easily pass for something authentic in a stateside Little Italy restaurant. But as for traditional sit-down restaurants, the real trick in Italy is to find a place that not only serves delicious fare but does so at a reasonable price. The best ones are usually the smaller, family-run affairs, off the beaten path and away from the tourist traps.

Susan and I found one such gem on our ascent up Mt. Etna. Just beyond Taormina off of highway A-18 from Messina to Catania, about 10 kilometers up from the Fiumefreddo exit and toll plaza, the winding road takes you through the small town of Linguaglossa. Just beyond the town, the road resumes its hairpinning ascent through vineyards and olive groves that cling to the Etnean foothills. If you aren’t paying attention, you might miss a small sign that says “Trattoria Le Sciare”.

Arriving around 12:30, we were among the first patrons filtering in as the owners were setting the outdoor tables for lunch. The choice of tables was either under a bamboo awning or in the shade of several olive trees behind the restaurant. If there were any indoor tables, I didn’t notice them.

The one page menu included a standard antipasto, and a choice of four pasta dishes as a primo piatto. We both chose to have our pasta alla norma, i.e., a fresh tomato sauce interspersed with fried egg plant and covered with freshly grated hard ricotta cheese. Similarly, seconds were limited to four types of meat (veal, ribs, lamb, and sausage), all cooked on an outdoor grill whose aromas did a great job of enticing clientele. While Susan forewent a secondo piatto in favor of a simple green salad, I couldn’t resist the veal, dressed with a touch of olive oil and fresh herbs.

Each course of the meal averaged about five euros (seven dollars). Beverages were also reasonably priced, albeit of limited variety. For example, the wine list offered a modest choice between “house red” and “house white” for three euros (about $4.20), which wouldn’t even get you a skimpy glass of wine in the USA, but here it got me a full 750 ml bottle of what was apparently their own vintage from the surrounding vineyards. It was absolutely delicious, lack of label notwithstanding, and it broke my heart that I was not going to be able to drink it all. I was wishing that my winer buddies were around to share it with me, but because Susan was available to drive, I did indulge in a second glass.

With that and a good shot of espresso, we were on our way for the rest of the trek up Mt. Etna, to enjoy the scenery and the delightfully cool temperatures that came with the higher altitude.

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