Italy Part 5 - Hunting Rabbits
Had I not stumbled across Stanley Tucci’s searching for Italy series on CNN, I never would have heard of the island of the beautiful island of Ischia, let alone made the effort to visit Capri’s less famous and less traveled island neighbor. The 3.5 hour ferry ride down the Amalfi coast into the open bay presided over by Mount Vesuvius was spectacular and also a worthwhile commitment. Tucked in the mountains on the top of the island of Ischia, lives an iconic restaurant full of rich history and tradition, La Trattoria Il Focolare. To get there from the ferry requires a 25 minute drive through streets so narrow, you must keep your arms and hands tucked inside the vehicle like a ride at Disneyland. I would never recommend attempting these streets without a seasoned local driver.
Arriving on top of the mountain the vista opens to the blue waters miles below and you are greeted by the d'Ambra family who have been living these culinary traditions for centuries. Loretta and Riccardo, who sadly passed during the pandemic, assisted by their 8 children, gave life to the idea of the restaurant in 1991. Silvia, the family agronomist, aka soil and crop expert, closed the restaurant to the public for lunch and created a syllabus of adventure through all they do on their beautiful mountain.
We started in the wine cave where we learned how unique the gôut de terroir, taste of the soil affects everything from what can grow where, to the taste of the wine and ingredients they use to create their exceptional experience. Silvia shared a map of the island and how the various mountains create a kaleidoscope of climate conditions and growing regions in such a relatively small space.
Upon exiting the cave, we all donned our Il Focalare shirts and headed to the kitchen to meet her brothers, two of the most talented and passionate chefs we have ever had the pleasure of knowing, Agostino and Francesco. Famous for their wild rabbit dishes, we began by learning the steps they go through to make it. We moved on through a series dishes, each better than the last from eggplant parmesan, to fried ricotta balls, to lemon cream...we had it all.
This was Katie's face when she tried the ricotta balls. Priceless
None of us paced ourselves well in the teaching kitchen because everything was so delicious. When we sat for the actual lunch and tasting of the rabbit we had to gather our second wind because the culinary adventure that ensued was mind blowing. My favorite dish was almost like a savory creme brulee, it was a simple truffle, egg custard with shaved black truffles on top, I could have eaten the entire plate. When the wild rabbit arrived, you could feel, smell and taste the love in this tradition. The meat melted in our mouths and I will never forget the look on Camden’s face when she realized how something she never considered food, could be so surprising and delightful.
We had an emotional heartfelt thanks and farewell with our wonderful hosts. Our hope is that some of them will be able to visit us here at firefly to experience our traditions, unique ingredients, exceptional dishes, amazing team and midwest hospitality. Agostino visits his friends and mentors in the states frequently and has promised to try and visit. When the time comes, we intend a special event where our fireflies can welcome one of the most expressive and talented chefs on the planet.
Our driver took us down the harrowing mountainside back to the ferry. It was FULL and all of us were sitting outside, when the wind and the waves picked up some pretty funny moments ensued and those on the lower level, Katie, David, Casey and Riley began receiving cold blasts of the Atlantic. Katie’s reactions were priceless and we had a blast rewatching them over and over.
Arriving back at our airbnb after hours on the hunt for culinary experiences, a day I didn’t think could possibly get better, took a turn for the otherworldly. One of the best nights of our lives and outside of food, many of us considered it the highlight of our trip.