Spaghetti with bottarga, the must-order at La Ciccia.
My family and I just got back from two weeks in Rome and Praiano, a town along the Amalfi Coast. The Amalfi Coast might rank as the most beautiful and welcoming place I've ever been. The food is amazing, the vistas are outrageous, the near death experiences driving around hairpin roads gives you a new appreciation for life, and the water is as warm as the people. There might be nothing wrong with the Amalfi Coast.
But traveling always gets me thinking about authenticity, a notion that we chase here in San Francisco. Considering the transient, border-crossing world of food, it always strikes me as pretty bogus. But as to why we romanticize authenticity? I have a hunch that it has something to do with the fact that as Americans, we doesn't necessarily have a strong food heritage ourselves. (Sure, we can talk regional barbecue and Creole food like gumbo, but I'm talking strong as in Italian pasta tracing back to like Sicily circa 1154.) We're looking for roots, even if they have to be borrowed.
So now I'm working on an essay for San Francisco's September issue about this very topic which means that, of course, I've had to eat at restaurants that people consider authentic. Italian restaurants run by Italians, for instance. And I don't think, when it comes to Italian food, that any restaurant has as much cred in this department as La Ciccia in Noe Valley. Which is why I found myself there last night, chatting with Lorella and Massimiliano, the always kind and welcoming husband-and-wife owners—the type of people who make you feel like you're old friends of theirs even when you're not. I had braised squid, followed by La Ciccia's now famous spicy octopus stew in tomato sauce (SF Weekly kindly ran the recipe for you intrepid home cooks), roasted cauliflower with olives, a pizza bianco with radicchio, and of course, the spaghetti with bottarga, because it is obligatory that one orders this delicious dish when you're at La Ciccia. Oh, and chilled red wine from Sardinia. The pleasures of slightly chilled red wine are immense.
Even though my whole plan has been to blow the notion of authenticity out of the water in my forthcoming essay—it's going to be scandalous I assure you—there was definitely something incredibly authentic our dinner last night. And not so much the food. It had more to do with the fact that Massimiliano and Lorella and I chatted about their recent return from closing the restaurant for a bit—something I'd assumed they'd done because they'd been remodeling. But no, it was their annual trip to visit family. Generally speaking, go-getting, workaholic Americans don't close their businesses for weeks at a time when there's money to be made, ailing parents or not. It's just not how we roll.
So sure, anyone could recreate La Ciccia's octopus stew—maybe even open a restaurant serving it. But this view on life—this way of living—is something I'd consider truly Italian, perhaps truly authentic.
Have feedback? Email us at email@example.com
Email Sara Deseran at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Sara Deseran on Twitter @sdeseran