It’s obvious when looking around my writing space that I am a magazine hoarder. In different corners of the room you’ll find stacks of Architectural Digest, Veranda, House and Home, Travel and Leisure and Bon Appétit. Why magazines? They provide a quick and inexpensive escape to exotic places, and perfect for inspiration.
Some years ago, I was planning a family trip to Italy and I remembered reading an article in Bon Appétit featuring the Islands of the Mediterranean (May 2002). I recall that the island of Elba struck a chord with me because it conveniently lies off the coast of Italy , was the island that Napoleon was exiled to, and it had a sweet charm to it. The article was written by Charlotte Butzin and photography by Wyatt Counts. While loosing myself in the article, the first thing that appealed to me was the rustic and inviting look of the sleepy Elban village, Capoliveri, and the second thing was the featured restaurant – Il Chiasso.
The article described it as “the quintessential Elban culinary experience, a convivial 29-year-old restaurant on an alleyway that’s off the main square. Chiasso means “lane” – one of which in fact used to run through the middle of the restaurant and now divides it into two rooms.” The article goes on to talk about the chef, Luciano Casini, as “the quirky charmer of Elba”. His point of view was simple – “You have to love food the way you love life to do this job well.” and that summed it up for me making it easy to throw the dart on the map and take off to Elba in search of that inviting culinary destination.
You can get to Elba several ways but we (my husband, two children and myself) chose to catch a ferry from Piombino and then make our way around by car. The drive to Capoliveri was spectacular, lots of winding roads, passing small seaside towns, lush mountaintop views overlooking serene, pebbled beaches. Now keeping in mind that the article was from seven years prior, we were certainly leaving it up to chance that Il Chiasso was still around, but then again what’s a travel adventure without a bit of mystery?
We arrived in Capoliveri around noon and made our way to the square or “piazza”. It was quiet – shops were closed for siesta and only a few restaurants were serving lunch. In my broken Italian, I inquired ,at a local pizzeria, about directions to Il Chiasso; secretly crossing my fingers that the restaurant was still open. The friendly server immediately pointed towards an alleyway located steps away, and to a large white-washed wall displaying an arrow and several restaurant signs. Low and behold there was our indication that Il Chiasso was in fact still there, bringing a smile to my face and a tinge of hunger to my stomach. We made our way to the restaurant only to find it closed for the lunch hour but open at 5:00 p.m. No-one was around to take a reservation so we decided to head back to the pizzeria for lunch and then make plans for the rest of the afternoon.
We ordered a simple pizza Margherita and felt content that the culinary adventure had begun. While waiting for lunch to arrive, I observed the simplicity of the square. Cobblestone walkways, terra-cotta pots spilling over with rosemary and flowers, laundry drying in the sun – an Elban postcard in the making. I then noticed an elderly man carrying a portfolio, walking gingerly towards the pizzeria. The man took a seat at a table next to ours and the server immediately brought him a cup of frothy espresso. He then took out some artist brushes and a blank sheet of textured watercolour paper. I was intrigued.
The man dipped the thin brush into the espresso and started to paint a scene. The kids were also inquisitive so they hovered around the artist. He looked up and smiled at us. My daughter asked if she could try painting with coffee and he immediately gave her the brush, instructing her to dab coffee onto the page. She was thrilled. We got to chatting with the artist who spoke broken English and reminded me of an Italian Hemingway. He was dressed casually in shorts and a white shirt, had a greying beard and gentle eyes. He introduced himself as Paolo and said that he loved to paint and also wrote poetry. He grew up on Elba and was proud of his town. Paolo then opened his portfolio and invited me to flip through his “espresso” art. The mocha stained paper came to life with local scenes of streets, houses and buildings, but the one painting that caught my eye, and I knew I had to have ,was a painting of the white-washed wall with the arrow pointing to Il Chiasso – serendipity! After choosing my painting, Paolo scribbled a poem on the sketch loosely translated as ” being quiet and still with oneself brings light to the heart.” He then instructed us to find the local gelateria and buy the kids ice cream. We thanked him and headed off in search of gelato!
To while away the hours, we found a nearby beach to relax, have some siesta time and swim. Soon enough, the sun was glowing in the sky and it was dinnertime. We changed our clothes and headed back to the square. This time it had come to life with children chasing soccer balls, older men, sitting around make shift tables, playing chess and Italian Nonnas sharing village secrets amidst the hum of the restaurants prepping for the evening’s meal.
We made our way back to the lane towards Il Chiasso and as we approached the restaurant, Luciano Casini, the chef from the pages of the magazine, appeared in the doorway, holding a plate of pasta to take to one of the tables. It was 6:00 p.m. and the place was already abuzz. Chef greeted us, smiled at the kids and motioned us towards a table for four – once again serendipity since we did not have any reservations. The atmosphere was lively in the tiny alleyway, as it was also inside the restaurant. Plenty of wine was being poured, diners were laughing and storytelling, and the smells emerging out of the kitchen were mouth-watering.
Luciano approached our table and greeted us with a huge smile. The article described him to a tee; he sure was a charmer, sporting hip spectacles, a pink shirt and a bushy moustache. He asked us where we were from, I mentioned to him about the magazine article and he seemed pleasantly surprised and appreciative of us finding our way to Il Chiasso. A server appeared beside him to take our order but we just left it up to chef to bring on his specialties.
Chef Luciano sent out a plate of fried zucchini flowers, stuffed with ricotta and goat’s cheese cream, topped with crisp sage leaves. Decadent and delicious. The kids ate a simple spaghetti with crushed tomatoes and basil. He then brought out a platter of local, raw whole fish and scampi, asking us to choose what we’d like. My husband chose the whole fish and I chose scampi. The fish was roasted, deboned at the table and served with assorted seasonal vegetables glistening with olive oil. My sweet scampi was grilled and served on a bed of fresh spaghetti and cherry tomatoes. Both dishes were simply prepared yet full of incredible flavour. We drank a bottle of Elban rosé and chatted with a couple from Bologna. Everyone was impressed with their meals and in great spirits, raving about how special the island was. As things were winding down in the restaurant; the kids made friends with some local children and went off to play, Chef Luciano sat with us to take a few pictures and a guitarist, sitting on a bench in the alleyway, strummed “The Girl from Ipanema” – a “love life” moment to remember for sure.
So as I write this piece and reminisce about Il Chiasso and Elba island, I can’t help but think that in the end it pays to be a magazine hoarder because you never know when those pages might inspire your next travels. For me, the whole experience “brought light to my heart” just like Paolo had written.
© 2014 Ann Ivy Male