The “Busy” Scene on the Aeolian Islands

Fresh prawns.

The Aeolian islands are called the gourmet islands. I think they may have styled themselves as this as a tourist attraction. Conde Naste Traveler magazine called them this and based the article around a female Michelin star chef who owns Signum on the island of Salina, the second largest of the Aeolian islands. Lipari is the biggest.

The upstairs of the catamaran.

Getting to the islands is by boat or catamaran. Of helicopter if you want. The catamaran from Milazzo on Sicily took under two hours. The port restaurant at Milazzo is really good. Best bread I’ve had, excellent sandwiches, good beer, and well, overall better than they need to be for having a captive audience. The ferry from or to Naples from Salina is about six hours and I wouldn’t recommend it. The air conditioning only worked well on one side and because the Italians have a severe fear of upsetting their digestion, those that had sat over there were wearing their jackets and scarves but refused to move. Even in the windy cold side of the boat, it was still only 80 F or 27 C. The hot side of the boat was 99 F or 37 C (I carry a thermometer with me for just this sort of situation). When I opened up some of the vents to get more air, I had many fingers waggled at me to stop. The toilet also became somewhat of a fetid horror.

A view from one of the Relax Salina Boats.

Getting to and from the islands is fairly easy as there are ferries and local boat companies that stop at the various islands including Stromboli, famous volcanic island. Ask at your hotel or B&B. Everyone knows everyone on these islands so they will all have a cousin or brother or son who has a boat.

The social media director was way fly and hip looking.

But, the islands are famous for their food scene. The restaurants I liked in Santa Marina on Salina were Lo Schiavo, nni’ Lausta, and Mamma Santina. Down in Lingua, there is a restaurant, Il Gambero, on the harbor which runs a shuttle (the dad runs it) to Santa Marina. Try the local speciality called “pane cunzato” a sort of large garlic bread with various toppings. I loved it because they used raw garlic. Although seafood is the speciality, there are vegetarian options on all the menus.

Imagine this fresh tuna from the fish shop.

If you have an opportunity, buy the fresh tuna tartare at the fish shop, Pescharia A Lampara (there is only one fish shop). It’s so fresh and glistens like rubies.

Linen in all sizes.

While resting between meals, buy linen and crochet. If you can afford it. Some of the nice dresses were handmade and cost 700 euro. Be aware that this is small town life so many shops close for lunch. But a few don’t and most have air conditioning. The people are generally friendly. The main street of Santa Marina is mainly pedestrian making for good shopping and eating. And people watching.

View from Hotel Mercanti di Mari

For happy hour, go to the Hotel Mercanti di Mari by the harbor where they have a make your own bruschetta station. Drink wine and admire the view of the harbor.

Unusual bread at the local bakery.

If you want a nightclub, go to the Porto Bello restaurant by the dock. Just be aware that any shenanigans you take home with you will be known all over the island. If you don’t mind adding to the local action, then never mind.

The main street in the morning when the delivery trucks are allowed in. Nni’ Lausta on the left has a secret garden.

The reason many go is for the food and one could just visit Salina and eat well. But, stay a while longer, and become part of the local soap opera scene… I befriended a local, not knowing that he was a local passionate about more than fish. When I described this local casanova to the manager at the place where I was staying, she said with a wise nod that she knew who I was talking about . She added, “he is busy busy all the time”… on an island with as many bikini clad tourists as this one, one can see how he constantly had a fresh “catch.”

One of the many gourmet food stores.

Otherwise, sit back and enjoy chatting with the locals and soaking up the local. If you imagine a BBC feel-good romantic comedy, then you get an idea of what I saw in this little island buzzing with flashing smiles, bronzed arms, and twinkling glances.

Nni’ Lausta’s upstairs terrace is perfect for an assignation. Or just a rest from the heat of the day.

Why Italy Does Not Need Michelin Stars

The best pickle I’ve had in Italy but is it worthy of a Michelin star? Signum.

Some of the worst meals I’ve had in Italy have been in fancy expensive Michelin star restaurants. Some people get super excited about Michelin stars and deem those restaurants better than others. I do not get it. The Michelin star system started out as a way to get the tires worn out. Italy does not need these fancy restaurants. Actually the Michelin star system has nothing to do with how fancy the restaurant is but solely the food, cooking, and constituency of those things. The general public seems to not know this. Michelin is not even all over the world yet (they say that they are taking is slowly). Michelin has not reached South America yet. Imagine that! There are restaurants in Lima that should have a star, but Michelin hasn’t gotten there yet. If consistently making good food was really the reason to give a place a star, then many more would have them.

Eggplant parmesan with anchovy from Mamma Santina, Salina. Not by a Michelin chef. But stellar nonetheless.

The food in Italy is already natural, local, and delicious. The various types of Italian cuisine (there are many) are based on local, simple, and delicious. Michelin seems to go for innovative, expensive, and small portions. Add to that how hard it is to get a reservation at a Michelin star restaurant, and it is just not my idea of a good food experience. Some of the finest dishes I’ve tasted were not by a Michelin star chef.

One thing that many people like about small portions is that it allows them to try many things and it is a form of portion control. You can try that anyway in Italy. The portions of appetizers and first courses are not necessarily that huge. Or share with a friend. Most restaurants will even split the dish onto two plates.

Bao at the Michelin star chef’s place, Signum.

The last Michelin star restaurant experience underlined why Italy doesn’t need Michelin Star restaurants. One of the dishes “invented” was a bao, a steam Asian style bun. But it wasn’t as good as the authentic ones and I do not think it highlighted the ingredients. Then we had an appetite stimulant of pickles which were the most sour I have had in Italy. I can see how this was innovative for Italy where sour is not sour. One dish was a roasted escarole (half an escarole head). It cost 38 euro.

Caponata at Signum. One of the normal dishes there.

I guess my biggest peeve with these restaurants is that they are so pricey and pretentious. Most of the places on my list are not expensive, and not pretentious. Nothing makes food taste bad like attitude.

The current system where restaurants are listed in the Michelin guide is just like Yelp or TripAdvisor. The guide in Italy is Gambero Rosso. The Michelin guide is separate from a chef earning a star, of which there are 367 (318 have one star) in Italy. I am glad when a woman gets a star but I don’t think that makes the overall system better. The Michelin guide badge is a round red sticker that you can see on many restaurant doors alongside the ones for TripAdvisor.

I tend to use Google ratings because I like the democracy of the system. It relies on average eaters reviewing places and not a specialized team of experts who want to wear out your tires in France. In Italy, most restaurants make consistently good food. Or consistently bad. Try them for yourself.

El Chato – The Food Revolution Is Coming

12719416_10154035309304618_2582625394252442684_oEven if I’m not a fan of molecular gastronomy, I can deal with a bit of foam on my plate once in a while, if it tastes good! The desserts at El Chato (Diagonal 68, #11-29) are light and refreshing (note cucumber foam in the photo). The amuse bouche of pork rind was as light as pop rocks candy on the tongue. Delicious! The main courses and salads seemed healthy and did not taste as fancy as the treatment they received (pork shank brined for six days, then smoked for three etc.). Several of the dishes had smoked components which is not one of my favorite flavors. But, that’s just me.

When we went, one of the chefs came out to introduce each dish to us. Leonardo was extremely friendly. Plus, he worked at Noma in Copenhagen for seven months. Chefs like him could be the start of the Colombian food revolution. He told me that El Chato is closing for a re-vamp of their menu and restaurant. It will be interesting to see what they come up with. 12916965_10154035309209618_2448080628793039209_o