I want you to close your eyes. Ok…read the next paragraph first, then close your eyes and imagine!
I want you to think about the greatest meal you’ve ever eaten. Maybe it was a holiday. Maybe it was a home cooked creation worthy of a five-star restaurant. Maybe it was on vacation. Maybe it’s your favorite comfort dish that you can make in your sleep that’s always incredible. I believe everyone should experience, at least once, a meal that’s so good it’s unforgettable. Do you have one? Are you thinking about it? I want you to tell me what it is in the comments because I’m about to tell you about mine, and I believe we should trade culinary and cuisine secrets so that we can all be eating more unbelievable, unforgettable meals!
The best meal I’ve ever had was on the battlements of the old fort at Ristorante Belforte in Vernazza, Italy. How good was it? Good enough that this past summer when Josh and I travelled to Switzerland and back through Italy we briefly considered building Vernazza back into our itinerary despite the fact that it was almost three hours out-of-the-way. It might be fair to wonder if the meal was actually as good as I remember, or if it was a product of my falling head over heels in love with Vernazza as a town on the whole. I’m not sure it really matters. The setting and atmosphere can be just as important to the experience of the meal as the food and wine.
COURSE 1 – My perfect meal starts with “warm sea salad Vernazza style.” If I’m honest, what I thought this was when I ordered it was warmed seaweed with…whatever a Vernazza style dressing was. In fact, if you google warm sea salad, you get a lot of seaweed recipes. However, what arrived was something else entirely!
That ^ is a warm sea salad, and “Vernazza style” means whatever came fresh off the fishing boats in the Vernazza harbor that day! This “salad” is really just gently cooked and marinated seafood, including shrimp, squid, scallops, and mussels, with lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, and fresh herbs and spices. What this means for my perfect meal is 1. It can’t be recreated at home because we can’t get seafood that fresh just feet away! also 2. Recreating my perfect meal the restaurant I ate it at is probably also impossible because they’re never going to get exactly that same mix of seafood from the boats from day-to-day. They can certainly get closer than we can here, but that dish was truly a product of whatever came off the boat that day. Meaning June 20th, 2016 was as much an ingredient in that meal as anything else.
Assuming you’re close to fresh seafood, or you’re willing to overlook the fact that the “secret ingredient” of seafood directly from the Vernazza fishing boat is not able to be duplicated, you can attempt to recreate this first course at home. We actually saute mussels this ways quite successfully at home, and provided you use fresh herbs and good olive oil, you can actually duplicate many of the other flavors very successfully. Try Italy Magazines WARM SEAFOOD SALAD recipe to learn proper cooking/steaming times for your seafood, and prepare a fresh and easy “dressing.”
COURSE 2 – If you’re reading this, and this meal sounds good, then my hope is someday when you make it to Vernazza, you will order this dish. I’m paying it forward, becasue I only knew to order this dish because two friends had gone through the region, and both told me to eat the “black pasta” at the “fort restaurant.” What’s the black pasta? Squid ink tagliolini with shrimps and seaweed.
If you google photo search for squid ink pasta, pictures of Ristorante Bellaforte’s pasta come up as some of the first search results for what this dish should look like and be! It’s dark color make it instantly recognizable, though interestingly enough, there isn’t a ton of agreement on what adding squid ink to the pasta accomplishes: some say a brininess, others suggest it’s nothing but coloring, still others attribute health benefits like antioxidants and added iron. This was by far the best pasta dish I’ve ever eaten, but whether it was the squid ink, or just the fact that the pasta was rolled by hand that afternoon and the shrimp pulled from the sea just hours before, I can’t really know. It was briny to be sure. The pasta was packed with all the flavors of the sea (be it from the ink or the shrimp). The sauce was not heavy and perfectly balanced.
The trick to recreating this dish would, again, be finding the freshest seafood you can to maximize the flavor. You also need the squid ink pasta, not impossible to find in co-op grocery stores or speciality markets. Here again, the fresher the better. If you can find a handmade refrigerated option instead of dried and boxed, that’s going to be your best bet for authentic flavor. Assuming you’re squared away on the tricky ingredients, than this recipe for SQUID INK PASTA WITH SHRIMP AND SCALLOPS will get you close on the balance and sauciness of the rest of the dish!
DESSERT – Our actual dessert was not something listed on the menu. After sitting at our table for hours watching the sun set and sipping glass after glass of local wine, our waitor came to the table to offer us complimentary dessert courtesy of the chef as we celebrated our first anniversary. The closest thing on the menu to what we had is Chef’s Bellaforte Lemon Sorbet. Our version was blended with local limoncello and vodka, whipped into an icy, foamy, slurry of deliciousness. You would not think this would be difficult to recreate at home; however, it’s again the freshness and quality that we just can’t seem to get stateside! If you’ve got good, authentic Italian limoncello and a decent vodka at home, you’re halfway there. But it’s the lemon sorbet, made with local, fresh lemons ripened in the Italian sun, that is unrivaled by anything you’ll find in the freezer case.
We have come close! Ciao Bella has a Sicilian Limone sorbetto that packs a lemony punch equal to our perfect meal. The ratio of vodka to limoncello to sorbet is part of the mystery of this dessert as well. There should be enough of each to make the dessert feel “boozy,” but not so much that you have the overpowering burn of alcohol. This is one to experiment with on a warm summer day, or as things start to thaw this spring and you need a touch of sunshine at the end of your meal!
What’s your unforgettable meal? A recipe you’re willing to share? A dish that defies description? A lucky find at a restaurant you’ll never visit again? A favorite that you go back to over and over? Leave me a comment and share any details you can about how I get this incredible cuisine! Bon apetit.