Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples that is the home of my ancestors and husband, is a food lover’s paradise. Americans often consider food, such as pasta and pizza, as “Italian.” That’s definitely accurate, but each region of the country is known for its own particular dishes. Ischia is no exception. When in Ischia do as the Ischitani, and eat this:
Coniglio all’ Ischitana
Undoubtedly, the most famous dish in Ischia is coniglio all’ Ischitana, which is rabbit in a white wine, tomato-laced sauce. This is always surprising to visitors, who imagine seafood as the only viable option on an island. The truth is that wild rabbits were in great abundance in Ischia. In addition, the island’s beauty lies in its great dichotomy of the sea and mountains. As a result, much like its landscape, its cuisine nods to both.
If you want to sample rabbit, you can do it at many restaurants on the island. But you should call ahead and alert the staff because the chef needs to get a fresh rabbit and take the hours necessary to cook it. Less adventurous eaters might want to avoid the organs and stick with the meat. However, Italian children often fight over who gets to eat the kidneys, and the eldest usually stakes claim to the brain. They say it will make you smarter.
The best way to enjoy rabbit is at the home of one of the natives. If you can find people on the island, who are friends or family of yours, they will make the traditional Sunday meal of rabbit. The sauce from the rabbit will also be used to coat bucatini pasta. An invite, however, must come with a warning; the Ischitani will kill the rabbit in front of you to prove it is fresh. Avert your eyes. There’s no going back after the Easter bunny gets slashed in front of you. It could ruin the meal, and it’s truly too delicious to miss.
Obviously, an island surrounded by sea is going to have the best seafood you will ever eat. Literally, I’ve watched fishermen pull up an octopus from the sea, bag it, and hand it to a consumer in one fell swoop. It doesn’t get fresher than that. My first stop on every trip to Ischia is for either mussels or clams. But I also savor octopus, which is especially good with potatoes or in a cold salad. Never say no to the fried calamari, which are almost never rubbery like you often find in the United States.
Shrimp, fried or as the star of the sauce in a pasta dish, offers deeper flavor. Part of the reason is Italians cook shrimp and fish with the heads on them. This can be quite shocking to some Americans. My sister-in-law made my brother remove the heads before she would eat shrimp at my wedding in Italy. The look may be a turn off, but the taste will have you going back for seconds. Give it a try even if you don’t like seafood in the States. It’s a really different taste, much milder and even sweeter in some cases. Just beware, that the whole fish you are eating requires lots of cleaning and careful attention as you’re eating. You could end up choking on a bone.
To start, I have to give credit where credit is due. Naples is the home of pizza’s invention. You will find the ultimate, best pizza there. However, Ischia is a province of Naples, and there are plenty of people from Naples living on the island, who have brought the tradition with them. As a result, you can get the next best pizza in Ischia.
My sister-in-law and her friends from Italy famously ordered one pizza pie each when they were visiting the United States many years ago. They ended up with a hotel room overflowing with pizza, far too much for the few people eating. The opposite is true in Italy. Pizzas are single serving dishes, cut into four slices each. They are artisanal and made to order.
You can find some unique pizzas, such as the one above made with ricotta, mortadella, and pistachios, which is on the menu at Ischia’s La Rosa dei Venti. Or you can delight in the simplicity of the Margherita pizza, which is made with rich ingredients, including tomatoes plucked right from the vine, basil from the garden out back, and fresh mozzarella made in nearby Naples.
Tomatoes in Ischia are juicier and have more depth of flavor than almost any I’ve ever eaten. The only other times I’ve experienced the same high quality tomato is when I’ve eaten them in nearby Naples or from my father’s garden. There are so many ways to sample these on the island, especially if you’re there during the summer months.
My favorite way is either atop bruschetta or crusty Italian bread. Usually, the tomatoes are coated with salt, olive oil, basil and sometimes oregano and garlic. For a kick, you might add red pepper flakes or fresh hot pepper diced and with some seeds. This is the breakfast of champions or at least my peasant people dating back to when they were up at dawn to feed chickens and tend to the grape vines and other fruits and vegetables in their working garden. Nowadays, it’s often a Sunday night snack (after the huge family meal at lunch).
Well, I’d certainly be remiss if I sent you to Italy and did not tell you to eat pasta. The natives sometimes eat pasta for lunch and dinner. Although people have been more cognizant of how carbs can thicken the waistline, Italians relish their pasta dishes. In Ischia, you can find a number of solid pasta dishes worth trying.
My absolute favorite is linguine with white clam sauce. But you might also enjoy pasta alla Genovese (with beef and onions), pasta e fagioli (known as pasta fasule by Italian Americans), or a creamy Alfredo-like sauce with ham. My in-laws often eat pasta with a simple tomato sauce and fresh ricotta.
The healthier among us might opt for pasta and chickpeas and pasta with lentils, both of which are commonplace on the tables of Ischitani at lunch just ahead of the daily siesta. My husband and his friends dive into plates of pasta with sea urchin during the summer. Truly, there are as many variations on pasta as you can imagine.
Nearby Naples is famous for its mozzarella di Buffalo and fior di latte. This not even remotely close to the fresh mozzarella found in the United States. There’s more of a bite to the taste. You don’t refrigerate it. Instead, the mozzarella is placed in its own milk and sits on the counter.
Most often, you eat it sliced right out of the bowl. It might be paired with crusty bread and salumi, such as prosciutto. Or you might sample it in a Caprese salad with tomatoes, basil, salt, and olive oil. Once it is more than a day or two old, you are likely to use it for cooking in pasta dishes, pizza, or eggplant parm.
I can’t sing the praises of gelato enough. It is the most soothing, delightful treat ever. Period. The creaminess of soft-serve ice cream with the all-natural ingredients make gelato a miracle in a cone. The photo is of the flavors of nocciola (hazelnut) and fior di latte (flower of milk) and it is the stuff my dreams are made of. You’ll find a variety of flavors, including Kinder Cereali (based on a popular candy bar), Nutella, green apple, cantaloupe, and stracciatella (vanilla with frozen chocolate swirls throughout). I bet you can’t concentrate on the words right now. Understandable.
Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press, 2012). She also has written the Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus.com since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10.