Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Destinazione Paradiso: La Piazza

We left the highway at the exit for Taggia, and were immediately pulled over by Carabinieri for a routine document check. It was a spring day, and we were on our way to lunch in the village of Pompeiana, but first a few laughs over the rental car registration with the authorities, who were very polite, helpful, and curious about our trip, the areas we would visit, why we spoke the language. After a few minutes, they waved us on our way, and we wound down the mountainside, through Taggia, along the river, to the coastal highway, poked our way through several stoplights, then took the left up the hillside next to the Lidl store, to Pompeiana.

My anticipation was high, and I was nervous: we hadn’t called ahead. What if they were closed today? And it was the late side of lunch, after 1:30. What if lunch was over and done with? Well, if they were there, the worst that could happen would be a sandwich, or perhaps a bowl of soup, and a glass of wine. And if they weren’t there… In my mind, all my fingers were crossed for luck, while my real fingers took the car up the familiar hairpin curves, between the ranks of greenhouses bursting with foliage, be they weeds of abandonment or real crops.

Then we were in the village itself, at the piazza, and so, at the bar and café, La Piazza. There was the main church, the dangerous intersection with the traffic mirrors on red poles, the view down toward the sea over the red rooftops.

I stopped the little rental car right in front of the doors. Behind the gingham curtain the lights of the café were visible, and we sighed with relief. Deirdre jumped out to make the first hellos, and I parked the car in the lot below. It was a beautiful day. Sandra and Gianni were there.

There were embraces and smiles and exclamations and admonitions (“you didn’t call!”), and one table still set for lunch. It was the same table at which we had sat the last time we had a meal there. We sat. Carafes of red and white wine appeared. There was discussion of the 18 months since we had last seen them, what was new in town, and in their garden down the hill, where they grow for the café. Lasagna appeared, and disappeared. Gianni had grown an eggplant that had yielded forty fruits over several months time. “It just wouldn’t stop!” Then came the meat and potatoes. The potatoes…
They were cut up, par-boiled, then sautéed in olive oil, and had a perfectly light brown crust, and plenty of salt. Needless to say, the oil was extra-virgin Taggiasca, brilliantly fresh and fruity. And there were big wedges of lemon to squeeze over everything. “Yes, lemon for the meat,” said Sandra, “but especially for the potatoes.” The lemons were probably from a tree within 100 feet of the café, as there was one in everyone’s yard.

I have always loved potatoes, but Sandra’s pride in those potatoes revealed how much she and Gianni revere the potato as a food, as important as the delectable spring lamb on the next platter. And they were so deliciously crispy and creamy, and bright with oil and lemon, and it was a spring day, and we had made it to la Piazza, and there was a table, and Sandra and Gianni were there, shaking their heads in disbelief, and smiling.

Sandra’s Potatoes
I asked Sandra what kind of potato she prefers, and she answered either Yukon Gold or traditional white, waxy potatoes (not floury baking potatoes) medium sized. So that’s what I use, looking for potatoes that are about the size of a large lemon, what I call a medium-sized potato.

Scrub your potatoes and cut them up this way: in half, then long quarters, then into chunks about ½ inch thick. Put them in a stockpot or saucepan and cover with water, add some salt, and bring to a boil with a lid on, askew. Once boiling, lower the heat and simmer until the center of a big piece pokes just tender with the tip of a small knife. Drain. (At this point you can either proceed directly to finishing, or you can hold the boiled potatoes until you need them. If you are going to hold them, rinse them in cold water to stop the cooking, and fridge them if you’re not going to use them until the next day.) Turn the potatoes into a large skillet over medium-high heat, and oil and salt them well with your best extra-virgin olive oil and salt, and for god’s sake, do not skimp on either. Maybe some black pepper, too, if that suits you. Saute the potatoes until golden brown, and taste and correct the salt if needed. Serve with lemon wedges.

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