Blu Aubergine Blog

ESCAPES: Isola di Ponza, Italy -- Part I

Shhhhh. Don't let the word get out. Ponza, an island escape off the Mediterranean coast between Rome and Naples is a hidden gem -- at least as far as foreign tourists go. And we who've enjoyed the island for years for its unique natural beauty, its bountiful fresh seafood and local vegetables, its impossibly clean aqua waters, its open-air bars and restaurants with jawdropping views, its cute shops open until late...well, we'd like to keep it somewhat hidden.

Here, wandering the steep and winding streets, one hears almost exclusively Italian, with its various dialects, Neapolitan and Roman being the most pronounced. And this is refreshing in Italy, a country with so many gorgeous and enchanting spots that seem to have been discovered and sometimes overtaken by foreign tourists.

And what an enchanting and gorgeous spot it is. Ponza is one of the group of isole pontine, and along with its nearby sister island, Palmarola, offers some of the most beautiful landscape off the coast of the Italian peninsula.

Palmarola isn't really an inhabited island, but you can take giri (tours) around the island by day, stopping for swims along the way. There are plenty of places to drop your anchor, countless gorgeous coves and charming spots to share with other visitors, or in which to find oneself alone, in pace. Those arriving in sailboats can even stay the night in one of these beautiful coves, and wake up in the morning to an invigorating swim in crystalline waters teeming with tiny fish. On Palmarola, there are also a couple of lunch spots that serve up the fresh catch of the day, and do excellent pastas and specialty items. We indulged in a local zucchine in scapece (sauteed and cured in vinegar, garlic, and a bit of peperoncino), and an insalata di polpo, fresh-caught octopus salad, a classic antipasto from Italy's central coast on down to Sicily.

The Chiaia di Luna beach is a stunning stop-off, with various grottoes and a vista from the water where you can take in the vertiginous limestone cliffs that drop down into the sandy beach below. The sapphire water that meets the white cliffs offers a truly stunning juxtaposition of color and light.

When returning from an island boat trip, the thing to do is to share aperitivi with friends in the main piazza overlooking Ponza's harbor. Italian pre-dinner drinks, like the classic spritz, or any variation on alcohol or soda with a bitter like Campari or Aperol, are a must. The scene at our favorite, Bar Tripoli, is always lively -- and you're sure to make new friends with vacationing neighbors, sailors, and various ponzese (Ponza locals) as colorful as their island houses. Plus, the view at dusk is hard to beat.

QUICK BITE + ESCAPES: Mangiare al Mare!

There's nothing that captures the essence of the estate romana (Roman summer) like eating a seafood meal at the beach. Rome is only 22 kilometers (about 15 miles) from the Mediterranean Sea, which makes it an easy day trip in a car or even on a scooter. If you're free, it's great to go midweek for lunch, when it's less crowded, or on the weekend mid-afternoon to stay for aperitivi, sunset, and a seafood dinner. Dining alfresco while looking at the water really heightens the enjoyment of a great meal of antipasto, pasta, frutti di mare, and pesce.

Along the coast near Rome, the beaches of Ostia, Torvaianica, and Fregene are filled with locals coming to enjoy the sun, the sea, the sand, and the foods of summer. Popular dishes include antipasti like alici marinati (marinated fresh anchovies), and polpo con patate (octopus and potato salad), dressed in extra virgin olive oil with a spritz of lemon. These dishes are perfect with a crisp white wine or even a glass of prosecco, as is customary as an aperitivo in Italy. 

After the antipasto, moving on to a primo piatto featuring local ingredients is a must. The classics? Either spaghetti con le vongole veraci (spaghetti with tiny clams in a garlic, olive oil, and white wine sauce), or pasta allo scoglio (a mix of shellfish, shrimp, calamari -- whatever is local and fresh -- with tomatoes, olive oil, parsley, garlic, and a splash of white wine). 

In Lazio and south, oversized paccheri are often featured with shellfish -- we enjoyed this one particular version with shrimp, cherry tomatoes, and arugula. No matter which pasta you choose, these dishes are made to then"fare una scarpetta," using some crusty bread to sop up all the delicious sauce. The go-to main dish along the coastline, the dish by which you can judge a restaurant's seafood chops, is the fritto misto, or mixed fish fry.

Here, pieces of calamari, baby fish fried whole, and shrimp so tender and delicate you eat the shell and the legs along with everything else -- are dusted lightly with flour, tossed in the fryer (olive oil gives the seafood great flavor and crispness), and gently sprinkled with sea salt. A squeeze of lemon at your discretion. When it's not done properly, it's very average, but when it's prepared well, it's the essence of the mare mediterraneo: the perfect Italian summer meal.

Allora, tutti al mare!