Monday, February 27, 2012

Elba, Il Cantuccio




We just got back from a few days on the island of Elba, taking advantage of my daughter’s days off from school on Thursday and Friday for the later Milanese Carnival. It is a longish drive and ferry boat ride away, making it a bit of a journey to stay just a little over two days, but the amazing weather, the joy on my mother-in-law’s face upon our arrival and the beautiful landscape made it well worth it.



It was our first time there in the winter and after seeing the beauty of the deserted beaches, the turquoise water and the quaint atmosphere of the seaside towns helped me understand how usurped the locals must feel in the summer when the hoards of tourists hit and sully their picturesque shores. 

  
 




The kids enjoyed the briny, fresh air and the total freedom of running around the shores choosing smooth white rocks to paint, picking shells and collecting fallen fern-like branches to use as wings. They sucked on the shells of sea snails and nibbled on fried shrimp. We went with their nonna to buy fresh fish right off the boat and she treated us to many a delicious, if not exactly light, meal.




It was difficult to dissuade her, but we did not want her to cook for us the whole time we were there and insisted on taking her out for a drive and lunch one day given the beautiful weather.





By the time it was noon the kids were starving and we found ourselves knocking on the door of a charming looking restaurant (the only open one actually) in the almost-deserted town of Marina di Campo. We were ushered into the empty rooms and seated at a table, an old glass-covered horse carriage wheel (yup, just like the one in When Harry Met Sally), by the window. The place mats were sheets of yellow paper that my mother in law explained was what they once used to wrap the pasta in at the pastifici, where people bought pasta in bulk before the days of packaging and supermarkets, when she was a girl. It was also used to wrap fried fish. It turned out to be very useful to keep the children busy drawing while we awaited out meal.




The owner/maitre (?) was not very kind to begin with and we were a little surprised given we were the only people there and it was an out-of-season week day in the sleepiest time of the year. We were not handed a menu (rich in delicious offerings of the land and sea of Tuscany) and we were curtly told they do not make pizza at lunch (my mother in law was disappointed, she had had it there before and was looking forward to it). The man went on to list the day’s specials and we were pleasantly surprised so things started looking up. Once we had ordered we were brought a basket of warm, crusty sourdough bread, quite a rarity here in Italy. It was quickly devoured and we were brought more immediately and throughout the meal (free of charge may I add).




Things were getting better by the minute. I looked around while I waited. The furnishing was simple, rustic, with a mix of old and new that is predominant in many Italian trattorias. It was actually quite charming and picturesque to sit in but the camera does not do it justice (not just mine, check out the website and prepare yourself for some pretty bad English). There were very good bottles of wine and pretty wine crates strategically placed around the restaurant, the promise of a good cellar and a reminder that this place has been serving wine since 1930. 




The restaurant started filling up unexpectedly with an array of different people. A middle aged French couple was seated near us and curiously eyed our dishes before ordering. Four builders walked in and sat at a back table, chatting away and sharing jokes with the owner and waitress. A group of fashionable young people sat in the other room and sipped wine and laughed.

Then our orders arrived and we were impressed.
  
The riso al nero di seppia, rice with black squid ink, that my husband and children ordered was served in an edible basket of crispy Parmesan. The rice was perfectly al dente, lusciously black and creamy and studded with chewy yet tender pieces of squid.





I ordered a plate of spaghettini with baby calamari. I am not exaggerating if I tell you this was one of the best pasta dishes I have ever had. The pasta was toothsome, the squid ink fresh and full of flavor and it was filled with the tiniest, most delicious calamaretti, all drizzled with top quality garlic and chili infused olive oil (incidentally, they have an impressive olive oil menu). The French tourists ordered the same and ooohed! and aaahed! the whole time they ate it. I was so in love with the dish that I enthusiastically covered our host in praise despite my initial antipathy towards him. This softened him. This and perhaps seeing my well-behaved (if I may say so myself; not always the case, but in this occasion definitely) childrens’ faces covered in black ink and nibbling on fish heads.  




Next came our three orders of fritto di paranza, generally a plate of bite-sized fried fish. This fish was actually larger in size, but it was fried perfectly, golden and crunchy with little more than a hint of grease. A squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of salt and we were set to eat, head, tail and all.




By the time we ordered coffee, the kids were getting a little restless and my youngest was ready for a nap so we skipped dessert. Well, I will be totally honest with you, we had homemade cannoli waiting for us at home.

Our last surprise was the extremely reasonable check. We didn’t have wine or dessert but our meal of three first courses and three mains, three large bottles of water and three coffees turned out to be €88,000. Not bad for a fresh fish meal if you ask me.





The food really was excellent, the fish fresh and I will definitely go back in high season in the evening my husband to taste some more dishes and a good bottle of wine. I am sure it will not disappoint. I just hope that the sun of summer will warm up our host’s very professional yet icy mannerism.

Ristorante Il Cantuccio
Largo Garibaldi 6
Marina di Campo
Isola d'Elba
Tel. 0565.976775





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23 comments:

  1. This are the things I miss most about Italy. WEs away enjoying beautiful scenarios and discovering local food gems. And the best part is that you don't even have to plan for it!

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    1. That is one of the true treats of living in Milan: you are close to the sea, the lakes, the Alps, the country, the hills. Not to mention France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and so many Italian cities. This is what I would truly miss if I lived anywhere else.

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  2. I agree with Pola. I've been thinking about what amazing adventures we used to be able to take Roman on when he was wee. Not that NYC doesn't offer some great opportunities. Your photos are beautiful and made me nostalgic! Glad to hear your kids love fish heads and squid ink. Good stuff!!!

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    1. NYC is one of the most amazing cities in the world if you ask me, but true: you get into a car and drive for hours and you will still be in NY State (although you could turn another direction hehe). That is the great thing about Italy, and Milan in particular as I mentioned above.

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  3. Beautiful pictures, make me want to finally go to Elba...

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    1. I really suggest a trip there. It has a lot to offer.

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  4. Ooh, that squid-ink rice looks incredible. (And it looks like little mouths agree!) What a lovely little trip this sounds like; thank you for sharing the pictures.

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    1. Oh, those little mouths ingurgitate pretty much anything that goes near them. Which of course makes me happy.

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  5. The pictures are stunning!!!! Or the scenery is stunning! Aaaah, they are both stunning!!

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    1. Let's say the scenery and light helped an amateur photographer quite a bit.

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  6. very good pictures and the girl is phantastic!

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    1. Hi Lucy, thanks so much and welcome over!

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  7. I've never been to Elba but would absolutely love to go. It looks and sounds like you had a wonderful trip - the pictures of your kids covered in squid ink are amazing - a bet a lot of children would be far too fussy to try it!

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    1. Elba is definitely a place to visit if you are in the area. The trick is getting them to try stuff when they are small enough to understand. Once they realize with an open mind that it is good, they won't stop. My son is still pretty much in that stage. With my daughter, the one nibbling on the fish head,the more adventurous the food the more she likes it but she will then give you a really hard time about something really basic like squash. Go figure.

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  8. Sign me up! What a wonderful place and time you all had!

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  9. What a beautiful place to visit! And I love that picture of your little'un with the squid ink around her mouth. So adorable. Now I'm hoping that I get some baby squid spaghettini for lunch today! :P

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    1. They were ready to slather themselves in it. And the fact that it was black and gruesome looking just made it more fun!

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  10. What a beautiful day! It seems like such a nice time. The food looks incredible, too!

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  11. This is why I love 'il mare d'inverno'! You reminded me of so many trips we took at this time of the year when I was a child. We usually went to the Adriatico around Venice, since this is where my grandparents lived: the landscape is less enchanting, but the blue skies and the delicious fish is surprisingly similar!

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    1. Since I grew up in Venice, that area has a fond place in my heart. We often took our boat out in all seasons to eat the incredible fish of the area.

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  12. Hi!

    Wasnt the island Elba Napoleons first golden prison?
    Looks very pretty! mhm fresh calamari with a fresh pasta, what a great experience. thx for sharing

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    1. Hi Helene, that is right. There are two residences turned museums that can be visited, one in the main town, very close to where some of the "view" pictures were taken, and a country residence.

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