There are many places you can go when you are traveling in Calabria near Catanzaro … you could see Le Castella, visit the ruins in Roccelletta or spend a morning driving through Sila Piccola in La Sila National Park.
And that, my friends, is what I want to talk about today.
If you’ve spent much time on this site, you know one of my favorite destinations in Calabria is La Sila. Maybe it is because I grew up in flat-land, Texas and love the idea of driving through winding mountain roads. Maybe it is the clean, fresh air-99.9% pure, or so they say … or maybe it is the view, from every little corner, of a glistening lake, a canopy of pine trees or a village, with bright Italian roofs dotting the landscape.
Or maybe it is because *the best restaurant I’ve been to in Italy* is located there.
Yes, I said it. The best restaurant in Italy.
… or at least, the best one I’ve been to … Villa Marinella.
Last fall my husband and I accidentally discovered this place when our old-faithful Silan restaurant of choice was booked. We drove the kilometer or so to Villaggio Racise and pulled in front of Villa Marinella.
They were busy-hustling and bustling, serving diners, smiling at each other, ensuring a positive pranzo experience for everyone they saw … even us.
“Do you have a reservation?” They asked.
Blushing, we looked down at the floor … “No, we don’t.”
“That’s ok!” The handsome, if I can say so, server told us. “We’ll find something for you. Just give us a few minutes.”
And they did.
I can’t remember all of the details, only dish after dish (after dish after dish after dish) being plopped in front of us-grilled eggplant and zucchini, stuffed eggplant, homemade sausage, cheese and prosciutto, five-count ’em … five!-different samples of primi plates, including porcini crepes and spinach cannoloni … and homemade wine-direct from their personal vineyard near Lamezia-all for, get this, €18 a person.
We’ve returned to Villa Marinella several times since that day, usually for special occasions-like my birthday in January or a beautiful spring day in May and we love to take our friends there when they are visiting.
Just last week, we went again. This time, the restaurant was bare-just one other family in the corner and Luigi, the same cute, friendly server, grinning at the door.
“Is it too late?” We asked, since it was well after 2:00 and we knew the family-only staff might want to rest before the dinner rush.
“No,” he insisted. “Not at all. Choose your seat.”
We did and he immediately came over to offer suggestions.
“Our friend is here from Spain,” my husband told him. “So let’s just do a small antipasto-only with homemade stuff.”
“It’s all ours,” Luigi told us. “How about some prosciutto, salami, cheese and a mixed hot antipasto plate to share?”
“Ok,” my husband said. “But not too much and really, only bring the stuff you make yourselves.”
“But we make it all ourselves,” Luigi repeated proudly. “Even the prosciutto, it is ours, too.”
We ok’d the antipasto order and moved on to first and second plates.
“We have gnocchi alla crema di zucca,” he said, and listed a few other pasta dishes made with mushrooms and meat.
Luckily for me, I misunderstood “all zucca,” thought he said “alla zucchine” and ordered a sampler primi plate with half of the gnocchi dish and half pasta with pancetta and mushrooms.
And it was the best lingual mistake I’ve ever made.
Luigi and one of his cousins brought out the primi plates and both boys dove head first into my plate of gnocchi.
“They are fabulous.”
“Best thing I’ve ever eaten.”
“His mom made them,” his cousin said, as she dropped off a few more plates and bounced back to the kitchen.
“Your mom?” I asked Luigi. “Mamma mia-che brava!”
“Yes,” he nodded, the same proud, patience smile fixed on us. “She makes all of the primi plates.
“My aunt makes all of the second dishes, my uncle and cousins do the cold antipasto, my sister does the hot antipasto and together my uncle and sister make desserts and “command” the kitchen. My dad organizes the main dining room and works the bar and my brother and I seat people, serve them their meals and work at the register.”
His eyes twinkled. “We all work here together. From the time we are about seven we start carrying water to people, offering them coffee, talking to our guests. We are so lucky.”
He turned toward the kitchen.
“Oh, by the way,” he told the boys, as he turned back to look at us. “The sausage you are eating is from our final pig last winter.”
He pointed out the window, “We have all of our gardens over there-and when we aren’t here, we are all together over there working in the land.”
He let out a long, happy sigh. “There is always something to do.”
He smiled, shrugged and walked away.
I continued to work on my gnocchi mountain, my head spinning in a drunken stupor, as the soft potato dumplings and light cream sauce danced on my tongue. The boys, already digging into their sausage and Silan potatoes, were quiet. There was nothing else to be said.
We all felt we had been let in on a family secret-a little slice of the Bianco family’s life-a tale that made us love them-and their homemade everything-even more.
88050 Villaggio Racise
I think the pillars of a great restaurant are fresh ingredients, consistency and service-and Villa Marinella has all three. What do you think is the most important thing to look for in a restaurant?
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