I took the night-trip into Tijuana because I wanted the experience of crossing the border, soaking in the culture, eating the food, and hearing the language.  No, not really.  I went because I was twenty and I could legally drink in Mexico.  That was all.  That, and the bar was complete with girls who blew whistles and poured tequila down your throat as well as an outdoor volleyball court complete with sand.  One of my male companions that night would have his glasses stolen by a stripper when the amount of money he tried to give her wasn’t enough.  On a positive note the tacos were two for one dollar and did their job soaking up the cheap mescal. Not long after this trip I would get a hold of my Canadian friend’s resident alien card and drink for the remaining four months of my twentieth year on American soil.  So suffice it to say my first trip out of the States wasn’t very life changing nor eye-opening.  And all I brought back was a giant ceramic donkey and a hangover.   Thankfully, it would not be my last trip beyond the US border.  The next time I would venture out I would have a slightly more sophisticated modus operandi.

Fast-forward four years.  I’m sitting in my European Geography class as a senior at San Jose State University.  This was my favorite class because my professor was kind and smart and he let my put my feet up on the chair next to me, eat my breakfast, and drink my Coca-Cola.  And our mid-term assignment was to read a travel book and write a book report on it.  Yeah.  So, I loved this class.  I soon found I had very little to contribute to discussions as everyone in this class had been somewhere or everywhere and I had been nowhere.  When we would talk about European affairs, either political, social, or environmental, everyone else had a story about their time spent in Ireland, Greece, Norway, or Poland.  Should I pipe in with my story about Tijuana?  Best not to.  It was somewhere mid-term (perhaps while writing that taxing book report) that I made a vow to myself that I would travel that summer.  I just wasn’t sure where.  I was working at a French restaurant at the time, and had taken four years of French, so that thought crossed my mind.  Plus the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and fromage.  I was pretty set on France until I got home one day and was excited to see that month’s Bon Appetit magazine waiting for me in my mailbox.  The cover was very simply a picture of a pasta dish with the words Rome Florence and Venice, all in bold.  I obviously wasn’t very firm in my decision to travel to France because my mind changed right then.  Which pretty much sums up my love for food when my plans to travel across the world can change on a dime, or a picture of pasta.  My new goal was to travel not for the geography but for the cuisine. I had also, up to that point, taken four classes in art history and knew it would be thrilling to see some of the classics in person.

I got to work that day and in a matter of minutes made plans with a co-worker and friend to visit Italy that July.  Making such decisions today is a bit more difficult.  Plane tickets were purchased within the week.  I bought travel books, read up on places to visit, things to eat, and where to stay.  Little did I know that all my preparations would matter very little.  The minute I set foot in downtown Rome, tasted my first unplanned gelato and took a right instead of a left, I knew I cared not at all about what I supposed to see.

I had never been anywhere for such a long period of time where I didn’t speak the language.  But it was quickly evident that mattered very little.  I communicated with smiles, nods, points, and an overuse of the word “grazie”.  And of course the language of food.  The people were kind and the more we ventured off the beaten path, the kinder they were.  And the better the food got.  I knew I was headed in the right direction when pepperoni and spaghetti with meatballs was nowhere to be found on a menu.  In Rome, I ate the best gnocchi of my life.  Homemade and topped with a meaty tomato-cream sauce and served to me while sitting in a small restorante void of toursits.  Dried, cured meats hung from the ceiling and giant wedges of cheese sat out on the counter. Though we unintentionally walked in not long before closing, the owners insisted we come in and sit (lots of smiling and pointing, again), brought us our orders and then sat in the back and ate a late lunch, themselves.  Table wine and big platters of food shared between them.  I’m pretty sure I had never been that happy before that moment.

Pizza, cheese, wine, mixed with heat and the smell of old buildings filled the next three weeks.  After Rome, we took the train to Florence, then to Venice, then Naples.  In Florence, there was a caprese salad with buffalo’s milk mozzerella, and the deepest, most reddish-purple tomatoes I have ever seen.  They actually tasted more colorful.  The food in Venice was delicious, too, but unfortunately more saturated with tourist spots.  I had to try a bit harder to find the treasures. But they were there! Here in the States, every table is automatically set with salt and pepper.  In Italy, it was olive oil and sometimes balsamic vinegar.  Bread came with the meal, not before.  It was meant to soak up sauce, not fill up on before your meal arrived.  It was also here that my love affair with sparkling water, or acqua frizzante, began.

I had no intention, originally, of visiting Naples but did so upon the instance of a friend who had spent a year in Italy during college.  She said it may not be the obvious choice but that the food would be the best.  My friend and I left Venice and boarded the train to Naples.  It was a long, beautiful journey down the length of the boot. But, eight hours later, we arrived after many games of cards and snack cart panini.  Naples was immediately not as striking as the other cities we had visited.  Many streets were lined with dumpsters and the air had a trash smell.  But I mean this in the most respectful way possible.  To this day, when I smell an outside garbage bin I become nostalgic.  It was, however, easier to find the good food.  The best food.  Naples is famous for being the birthplace of pizza and it’s everywhere.  And it’s the best anywhere.  Yes, even better then New York.  It has ruined me completely for pizza in the States.  The crust has a way of being crunchy and crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside, which is quite a feat being that it is only a millimeter thick.

Our second day in Naples brought us to a restaurant that sat along the ocean.  Modest in

appearance and reasonable in price, I wasn’t expecting to have the best meal of my life there.  I ordered a seafood dish because, well, we had a view of the Tyrrhenian Sea and it seemed fitting.  Seafood pasta seemed a good bet.  The pasta in Italy is some of the best in the world, dry or fresh.  The charming waiter delivered the dish in a giant bowl.  The noodles swirled around generous amounts of mussels, clams, prawns, and chunks of fish filet.  The seafood was all cooked perfectly and the pasta was al dente.  But the sauce!  It was the sauce I will remember forever.  Mostly because there really wasn’t one.  It couldn’t have been more than seafood stock and olive oil with a touch of salt and pepper but the flavor was unmatched and it was the ideal viscosity, coating every noodle.  To this day I haven’t been able to reproduce it.  Maybe it’s better that way.

I was ready to return home after the long trip but I was also sorry to leave.  I think that’s the mark of a perfect getaway.   Being that my funds were limited and I didn’t have much room in my suitcase, I didn’t buy many souveniers.  But I took home a world of memories.  Worth far more than a ceramic donkey.  And I have since purchased the Bon Appetit again.  That one stays in plastic on my bookshelf. Grazie, Italy.



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Emma Leigh

Born and raised in San Jose in 1980. Writer, traveler, home cook, and business owner.

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