Mark Damon Puckett
Imagine this: In Sorrento, Italy, a hotel sits on the side of a hill above the Gulf of Naples with views of the city and Capri to the left, Ischia in front, and Mt. Vesuvius to the right. Ignoring the concierge's advice to get the bus back to Vico Equense and double back on the train, we instead walk single-file on the narrow sidewalks down a hill, stopping to gaze at the landscape across the blue water as maniacal scooters, cars, and buses whoosh past.
After trodding many miles and several hours down perilous Italian roads through Seiano, Meta, Piano, and S. Agnello, we arrive in the visual magic of Sorrento to a downpour. Doused, we duck into a café for cold beers.
What we find is a "ristobar" with an interior as colorful and softly lighted as a cathedral. Chandeliers of hams hang from the ceiling and we, awed tourists, blend in with ease with casual locals into the three-floored restaurant. Welcome to Zi’Ntonio ristorante and pizzeria.
The kind owner, Mariano Russo, buys us a bottle of red wine and prosciutto and mozzarella for my girlfriend Rosey, our chef friend Pauly, and me. We protest over the kind gesture but we are not allowed to pay.
The warm reception beckons us back the next night when we sit for a full-course meal in the downstairs grotto-like dining room. Mesmerized by the soft glow of yellow lighting, the warm interior propels me to get up and take photos on all three floors.
A spectacle is laid out before us with waiters circling elegantly and regulars entering and smiling. Mariano says hello again, welcoming us back. As we watch 5-foot-long pizzas brought out on long boards to clapping diners, our eyes are drawn to colorful dessert carts.
Our meal, shared by the three of us with a bottle of Chianti Castiglioni and a bottle of Morellino di Scansano, begins with impossibly thin and succulent prosciutto treccia and lightly fried calamari and shrimp, fresh from the Gulf of Naples.
We move onto cannelloni Sorrento-style with rich cheese that is impossible to resist; mussels with tomato and garlic, glistening with a juicy sauce to sop with bread; and a caprese salad.
The main courses include a just-caught grilled fish fillet with extra-virgin olive oil and lemon; veal escalope in white wine sauce; and chicken breast Milan-style that is moist with a crispy outside. Dinner is punctuated with a soft, rich, and tart lemon cake for dessert.
Not wanting the dinner to end, Rosey and Pauly order Grand Marnier and I, a postprandial gin and tonic followed by three cappuccinos.
Walking upstairs after the meal, Rosey takes a photo with me and Mariano, our arms around each other; a new friendship forged over food.
Leaving and walking through the purlieus of Sorrento, I think to myself, Zi’Ntonio is a memorable feast. It is the culinary rhythm of Sorrento, a hymn to Italian food with its grandeur and simplicity.
If you ever visit this sublime spot in Sorrento, will you say hello to Mariano for me? And thank him for his reception and never making us feeling like strangers. Are you there yet? I am. My mind never left. My palate is still dreaming.
Mark Damon Puckett has written for Saveur and Greenwich Magazine. He is the author of The Reclusives, YOU with The Ill-usives, and The Killer Detective Novelist (October 2012), all available on amazon.com and bn.com. Please visit him at www.markdamonpuckett.com.