My Best Food Moment of 2012
Given the galaxy of experiences a year can bring, digging around for a superlative moment is a bit of a silly pursuit, and not something I normally do. But here’s one particular story that rises to the top of my memory bank this year. It’s an example of how serendipity and food can interfere with the mundane to produce the sublime.
I was in Turkey, first, though that’s not where this takes place. A friend’s wedding had brought me to Istanbul, where I had been fortunate to visit once before. Originally, my post-wedding plans were to spend a week traveling around the south of Turkey with a hodgepodge of friends’ friends. But poor weather and misaligned travel objectives (ok, my overarching desire to drink coffee in the sun, eat delicious things and generally avoid several 12-hour bus rides) pushed me to look for an alternative. I was close to cutting the trip short and flying home, frankly. But the night before we were supposed to leave Istanbul, a random search of flights revealed a round trip to Naples for an unmissably cheap price. Italy it was!
The friends I polled in the brief hours between this decision and my arrival in Italy were nearly unanimous in their recommendations: Skip Naples, they said. It’s ugly. It’s dangerous. There’s nothing to see. Take the train straight to Rome and Capri.
So I followed their advice. Except for a brief pause in Naples. A pause for lunch.
Having bussed from the Napoli airport to its train station, I lugged my roller bag through the terminal. I had one hour before my train. I had just landed in Italy. More specifically, in Naples. I wasn’t going to grab a train station sandwich.
Past confused travelers looking for sightseeing tours, I wound my way to the informazioni. In my best “Italian” accented Spanish, I tried to convey what I was looking for. I have an hour. I need to find a delicious pizza.
Slowly the man understood my insistent request. A smile crept over his face. I should send you to Da Michele. But you do not have time. He started scribbling on a piece of paper. There is a place, here, two blocks from the station. They will make you a great pizza. I know the chef. Give him this paper, and he will treat you well.
It’s hard to know whether to follow a recommendation like this in a town as well-touristed as Naples. Savvy travelers are taught to be wary of kickbacks and any establishments near hubs like train stations. But I got a good feeling from this man, and I didn’t have much of a choice. My time to eat was running out.
My roller bag and I took a bumpy ride the two blocks to the place where this restaurant was supposed to be, past a mishmash of signs for buffalo mozzarella and unsavory-looking characters. It was hard to find. I got frazzled. I took a wrong turn. I lost time.
By the time I found the place I had lost the nerve to relay a message to the chef and just sat down. Platters of fresh looking antipasti were staring me in the face and I was hungry. A waiter smiled at me with curiosity as he poured water. I didn’t see any tourists. To my left, two well-appointed businessmen shared plates of tomatoes and raw fennel with parmesan. I’ll have that, I told my waiter. Then I’ll have a pizza.
When my antipasti arrived, the businessmen leaned over and smiled and gestured. You copied us!
They asked where I was from and why I was taking pictures of food.
New York! Another patron in the restaurant exclaimed, I have family there!
My lonely lunch as a solo traveler had turned into jovial restaurant-wide banter in fragmented Italian, Spanish, and English. I couldn’t tell if I was in on the joke or I was the joke, but I didn’t care.
Meanwhile, my businessmen friends got deep into a conversation with the waiter and called over the chef, conspiratorially. I cleaned my plate of the olive oil-drenched vegetables and sat back in satisfaction.
Are you ready for your pizza? The waiter smiled at me. I was.
The pizza came.
The pizza was shaped like a heart.
The pizza was shaped like a heart. I had been on Italian soil for less than two hours and a restaurant full of new friends who I would never see again delivered me a pizza in the shape of a heart.
Maybe the pizza was the best I ever had. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the flavor of pure happiness was all that mattered in that moment. That’s the moment that got frozen in time.
I don’t think I stopped smiling for the rest of that day. Certainly not as I left the restaurant and said goodbye to my new friends. Not as I thanked and re-thanked the train station information man who sent me there. Not as I boarded a train to Rome. And definitely, definitely not as my seat mate introduced himself: Ciao, I’m Armando. I study sustainable wine making in Pisa. Where are you going?