This past summer, my family and I vacationed in Sorrento, Italy. Located on the Sorrentine Peninsula right by the bay of Naples, this town is famous for its fabulous lemons, beautiful landmarks, and, most importantly, its cuisine. What was supposed to be a two-week trip full of salt water and sun turned into one of the most unique food experiences I’ve had. This was not so much due to the food itself, but rather because of something much more important. Now don’t get me wrong, the copious amounts of fish and pasta we consumed were delicious to say the least, but they weren’t what made me eager to share my trip with everyone I know.
A couple of days ago, I was sitting in my dorm, looking back at the pictures I took during the trip. As I scrolled through my camera roll, I stumbled upon the pictures of some of the amazing meals we had eaten at the beach club, and I began to contemplate about what exactly made this food experience unique. After all, It was just food, I thought to myself as I continued to work on my lab report for microbiology.
Italian food has always had a dedicated place in my heart. As an American immigrant from Sweden, I have gotten used to the Italian food served in the U.S. by now. American-Italian food is often full of a wide variety of ingredients and spices, which is vastly different from the food served in Italy, where each ingredient can easily be discerned from the other.
When I arrived in Sorrento, I was surprised to see menus with mostly seafood. Traditional meat-based dishes like Lasagna and Spaghetti Bolognese were nowhere to be found. I soon learned that the seafood, or frutti del mare in Italian, serves as a staple in Sorrento and the neighboring cities along the Amalfi Coast. The food in Italy actually changes with its geography. Hence, typical dishes found at restaurants in Sorrento will differ from the ones in Rome or Venice, unless the restaurant is a “tourist trap” (as my mom likes to call them). Nevertheless, wherever we went, the food was always impeccable.
Every lunch I enjoyed in Sorrento was so much more than just a plate of pasta. Leonelli’s Beach Club is a historical beach establishment located beneath a cliff in the middle of a beautiful natural bay. Dining there was a culinary experience that brought me closer to the original source of Italian cuisine. Although it wasn’t an up-scale restaurant with a Michelin star menu, the tables were covered with white tablecloths, the food was divine, and the view of the emerald-green sea with Mount Vesuvius in the background was surreal. The Frittura di Calamari, Antipasto di Verdure, and Gamberoni Grigliati became some of our family favorites; however my brother, Caspar, insisted that no dish could beat their Italian-style donut, Graffa. Of course, the pasta was always served al dente, and the simplicity of each dish brought out all the distinct flavors of the fresh ingredients.
Our server Antonio, who ended up with us for all of the 12 meals we ate at Leonelli’s (yes, you heard that right), quickly proved the passionate Italian stereotype to be true. Each morning when we arrived at the Leonelli’s, Antonio would serve us a couple of shots of espresso and ask about our plans for the day. He was truly the most conscientious waiter one could possibly imagine. Antonio quickly became a family friend and soon enough we began to exchange insights and stories from our respective lives. It felt as though we were being welcomed into a big Italian family, which is something I had only seen in movies.
In Italy, everything moves at a slower pace. As in many other cultures across the globe, eating is best when done in the presence of family and friends. No one is in a rush to go anywhere, so there is plenty of time to sit-down for several hours to eat and talk with loved ones. As a college student in the U.S., it seems as though everyone is in a rush to be somewhere. No one has the time to really take in and reflect on the experiences they have and on the people they meet.
When I came back to Texas, I felt rejuvenated. Eating in Italy is an experience unlike any other, and the people we met and the conversations we had during each meal are truly what made it so special. Simply eating the food won’t do much except please the taste buds, but being immersed by the Italian ambiance in the slow-paced environment with passionate people is what makes meals so unforgettable. Of course, Antonio played a big role in making us feel welcomed, and his passion for everything he did made us more excited to come back to Leonelli’s everyday (we even booked a trip to Sorrento for next year). Now whenever I go out to eat, I make sure to sit back, relax, and take in every part of the beautiful moment, just like an Italian would do.
Photos courtesy of Leonelli’s Beach