Place is the place from where you sit to view the space.
I wrote that sentence as the opening line for an epic poem that I started years ago but didn’t finish. Hundreds of pages of sheer poetic genius but alas, not much plot. Actually, there was a plot ― I just didn’t get around to including it.
I was reminded of the sentence when I began to consider how to best describe a certain pizza experience that I had last summer in Calabria, Italy. Yes, food is important, but setting matters also. In the 1976 story “Confessions of a Crab Eater,” Calvin Trillin theorized that “the quality of food a place offers is often in inverse proportion to the splendors of its scenery.” I have found this true many times, but it isn’t always the case, and it certainly wasn't at Gypsy.
I imagine Mr. Trillin would agree that the meaning of “splendor” can vary. Whenever I eat pizza at old spots in New York or some other city I fixate on visual details that would not qualify as “splendor” in the natural beauty sense of the word, but because of their history and lack of pretension or irony, they do cause my heart to go thump-thump: old cash registers and ovens and floured aprons; colors that don’t exist anymore in paint or appliance stores but that survive as walls and counters and floors of old places such as pizzerias and auto repair shops; signs of all kinds; and best of all, people (especially pizza-makers) and how they work ― in particular, when they are busy.
Mark Iacono at Luclai, Brooklyn NY, 2009
The age of a shop’s interior (or that of the person making pizza― or another food) can add layers of story to a customer's food experience. But there are young guys and new places that pull off the new in an old good way. The Zen expression of Mark Iacono at Lucali, where warm lighting replaces fluorescence to render a Rembrandt-like canvas of pizzeria romance. And at Cotta-Bene, at Third Avenue and Carroll Street in Brooklyn, where I enjoyed several squares of “Grand Ma Josie” the other night. Besides being a good spot for pizza, Cotta-Bene also succeeds in the marriage of two normally disparate vibes: Pizza Counter Vibe and Comfortable Restaurant Vibe. Nice job, Cotta-Bene!
Anyway, back to Calabria, Gypsy, and “place is the place from where you sit to view the space.”
Where the fish get cooked at Gypsy.
In Calabria I encountered more better splendor than that at my favorite gritty spots in New York. I should add, by the way, that Rossano, the town we stayed in, is not a fancy place. From all appearances, it is a vacation spot geared toward Italian working-people. But let’s face it: sitting on a chair at a table on a platform on a beach in Italy eating pizza and fresh fish and drinking wine, all for about $12 per person, wins. When you look north along the shoreline and factory smokestacks in the foreground supplement the beauty of those distant shores beyond (which, in this case, were a segment of a turn from the outline of Italy’s boot-like shape) ― it wins. Even if such splendor happens to indicate a decrease in food quality, let's forgive a little.
So hey, you hardcore connoisseurs and critics and celebrants of all things new and gastro-cultural: relax a little! Overlook slight imperfections if you happen to find yourself in the presence of real splendor. Eat pizza somewhere different, perhaps at this treehouse in Japan ― or at Gypsy, in Calabria. Enjoy life!
We were lost from the moment we arrived in Rossano because all I had brought were turn-by-turn directions printed from Google. Note to everyone: don’t do that. As soon as we passed a street without a sign, we worried that it could have been our turn. Under the belief that perhaps we hadn’t yet traveled the stated 5 km from our last confirmed turn, we drove a bit further, passing even more streets without signs. (In Calabria, we passed very few streets with signs.)
It was a town. Cars were everywhere. Because of the traffic ― and because I figured the chances of finding an English-speaker were slight ― I drove on for longer than I should have. "Stop and ask someone," my wife kept saying. "I'm hungry," my daughter kept saying. Nowhere, nowhere, nowhere to pull over. Finally, a gas station. No attendant to help motorists, so I went inside, leaving my wife and six-year-old daughter in the car.
Everyone seemed busy: one employee was cashiering a trickle of customers; another was managing an instant lotto game along the lines of “Quick Draw” (a New York bar game in which a new set of numbers ― and thus, a new opportunity to bet money ― is announced on a screen every four minutes); and most of the customers in the store were playing this game. (Here’s an article that describes New York's “Quick Draw,” and how Governor Andrew Cuomo would like to allow it in more places.)
The people of this store were friendly and many offered to help us. The problem, of course, was language. I can lure someone in with a solid sentence or two of Italian, but I don’t fool them for long. And once an Italian becomes aware of my limitations, he/she bows out of the conversation.
But something had to give, and after several broken conversations, it was decided that one of the bettors ― he wore khaki pants and a tucked in and buttoned short sleeve shirt, and appeared to be in his mid-60s; it was a Tuesday afternoon ― that in his own car he would lead us to the B&B, which it turned out was just five minutes away, but on the outskirts of town. “Are you sure you don’t mind?” I asked him.
Tenuta Santa Caterina, the B&B in Rossano where we stayed, was outdoor home for many cats.
Rollover photo to see my daughter's fave cat. At the end of our visit, the owner offered any or all of them to us for keeps.
So this is how it went in Calabria. Though I often felt a little insecure when it came to directions (and we got lost several times), we did reach each destination during our three days there. Honestly, our success was due to the warmth and generosity of every Italian we met ― but especially Fulvio, the proprietor of Tenuta Santa Caterina, the B&B where we stayed.
That first night, when it came to choosing a dinner place, Fulvio suggested Gypsy, a pizza and fish restaurant in Lido Sant’angelo. Due to its picturesque location at the sea I was suspicious ― but I wasn’t about to make trouble. Earlier that day, my obsession with finding a legit lunch place in an area known for mozzarella di bufala had caused a fiasco because I wouldn't stop at a restaurant where there were tour buses parked outside. The buses were there because the place was across the road from an Ancient Greek temple (photo below, or for more info: Paestum, Campania).
Having driven for an extra half-hour, completely famished and cranky, we arrived back to the same place with the buses and ate there. The buses were gone, but the place was still serving lunch. Of course it was delicious: it’s Italy. So with that having occurred just hours earlier, the glare I caught from my wife meant I’d better listen to Fulvio and get us to the Lido pronto.
From the frontside, Gypsy looks like a nightclub in the Miami of my imagination. When I first saw it, I thought to myself that there was no way the food would be good. But the nightclub looking front wasn’t exactly it. You must go around the back to the beach side of the place, for the restaurant.
Tables on a platform under an open-sided wood structure painted white extend outward and onto the beach. That's where we sat. Once they brought us some wine, a Limonata, water, and bread, our hunger and jittery nerves settled and we finally soaked in the scene that, for now at least, we owned: no one else was there until later in our meal, when other customers began to arrive.
I had a plate of grilled mixed seafood and some of my daughter's margherita pizza, plus my fair share of lemon torta and chocolate tartufo. The seafood included medallions of two types of fish (sword and something else), a couple types of shrimp, and several wide slices of calamari. The simplicity of the preparation (lemon, parsley, olive oil, salt, and pepper ― if my memory serves me correctly) allowed the freshness of the fish to shine through. Perfect in every way.
Our second meal at Gypsy occurred during lunch on our third and last full day in Calabria. I decided on pasta with seafood because I spotted someone else having it and it looked good.
Beer on the beach, not a lot of people, a jellyfish incident and a couple of random vendors: we captured the day using the cellphone camera. Click the above photo for a slideshow from the day.
Our third and last meal at Gypsy was dinner that same evening. We each had pizza. Mine was the "Calabrese" ― a margherita with mushrooms and spicy Calabrian sausage (6 Euros). By now, we were regulars. We learned from the waitress that the owner had been a fisherman and has high standards when it comes to quality of fish. It showed. Thanks to our repeat visits and my brave attempts at speaking Italian, the owner got to know us and sent us some free mozzarella di bufala and ricotta di bufala that last night (the ricotta was the best I've ever had).
Here’s the thing: food like this is standard for Italy. First and foremost, good places serve food that comes from nearby, and they don’t make a big deal about it. And so together, Paestum and Gypsy reminded me of something really important: perhaps in many places food quality is in inverse proportion to scenic splendors ― just not in Italy.
Below is another slideshow, this of photos of our pizzas being made that last evening. After the meal, we stopped in for dessert at Yogurtlandia, where the only option was plain (barely sweetened) frozen yogurt, but where you can choose from many options of toppings and sundae-like sauces, any of which get layered into the frozen yogurt instead of just going on top. Duh!
Such a magical place Rossano, and ― so far as I can tell, entirely off the English speakers' radar. See for yourself: search the internet for "Gypsy in Rossano Calabria" (alternate spelling "Gipsy"). Not much there. Same with Yogurtlandia. But they're there. Oh yeah, they're there!
If, upon reading this story, you decide to visit Rossano, here's some helpful information:
The town has three sections. Lido Sant’angelo is the beach area at the water. About 1½ miles up a hill from Lido Sant’angelo is Rossano Stazione -- the “new” Rossano town ― it’s where the train station is and it’s where we got lost when we arrived. Up above, about three miles away from Rossano Stazione, is Rossano Storica ― the oldest section of the town (11th Century BC).
Indeed, our getting lost had to do not only with lack of good signage, but also because we didn’t know that Rossano has three parts and that the main highway has two sections with slightly different names: “Strada Statale 106 Jonica (SS106r)” and “Strata Statale 106 Ionica (SS106).” What’s up with the “J,” by the way?The Italian alphabet does not include “J.” What gives? Here's a map of the area.
I certainly recommend Tenuta Santa Caterina as a great place to stay. Not only is the owner (Fulvio) incredibly helpful, but the rooms are air conditioned, there's a swimming pool, the price is right (our room for 3 was 100 Euros per night), and ― if your timing is anything like ours was ― you could have the place virtually to yourselves. Request a room on the second floor.
Why did we choose Rossano? We chose it because of its proximity to Terravecchia, the Calabrian town from which two of my wife’s great grandparents emigrated. I also chose Rossano because it has a licorice factory.
Coming soon: Part 2 of our Calabria story, including the licorice factory, Terravecchia, and climbing hills (in a car).
Ristorante Pizzeria Gypsy (alt. spelling, Gipsy). Viale Sant'Angelo Lungomare, Rossano, Calabria, Italy. Map Gypsy. Hours: Lunch & dinner. No website. No Facebook page.
Tenuta Santa Caterina (B&B lodging). Contrada Santa Caterina 80, Rossano, Calabria, Italy. Tel. 011 338 2854958. email firstname.lastname@example.org. Map Tenuta Santa Caterina. Website.
Getting to Rossano, Calabria. The drive from Sorrento (where we began our day) takes about 3½ hours without stops. It's about 5 hours drive from Rome. We flew back to Rome out of the airport in Lamezia Terme, less than 2 hours from Rossano. The current summer fare between the two cities is $87 one way. Use http://www.skyscanner.com/ to find low cost flights within Europe.