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