Felled by a sucker punch

Chaos reigns in a Neopoli­tan restau­rant

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - DON GE­ORGE

AS a trav­eller, I am a fer­vent fol­lower of the Culi­nary Chaos Prin­ci­ple. This prin­ci­ple is based on the the­ory that the uni­verse is like an all-you-can-eat buf­fet that is pro­ceed­ing ever so slowly but in­eluctably past the prime rib, the tan­doori chicken and the kung pao shrimp to­wards the baked alaska.

Our goal is to sam­ple as much as we can be­fore clos­ing time. The best way to achieve this goal is to leave your menu se­lec­tion in the good hands of chance.

Life on the road af­fords many ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­ni­ties to cul­ti­vate the Culi­nary Chaos Prin­ci­ple.

You en­ter a smoky six-ta­ble den at the end of the world. The griz­zled pro­pri­etor wipes his hands on his Jack­son Pol­lock apron and leads you to a crumb-cov­ered ta­ble, then presses a tattered menu into your hand. This is the Spe­cial Guest Menu and fea­tures a kind of English you’ve never seen be­fore.

But never mind. You de­cide to start with Shoo Race Soap, pro­ceed to Mixt In­tes­tine Bean Luck, tuck into a Rusted Ship Chup and end with Frooty Coost­ard Frayed Kek.

If you’re re­ally lucky, the pro­pri­etor will sim­ply wag his head to in­di­cate that they don’t have any English-lan­guage menu at all. That’s when the po­ten­tials of the Culi­nary Chaos Prin­ci­ple pos­i­tively shine.

I have been graced with the gifts of this prin­ci­ple all across the world, but the meal that lives most mem­o­rably in my mind took place in Naples.

My wife and I spied a tiny restau­rant that was full of peo­ple and walked in. The owner greeted us warmly in Ital­ian and bade us sit down. Other din­ers smiled kindly and then re­turned to the de­li­cious­look­ing food in front of them.

The owner raised an imag­i­nary glass to his mouth — Vino? — and re­turned with two glasses of strong red wine and a menu that was en­tirely in Ital­ian. I looked around. The owner and his wife and a young as­sis­tant, their daugh­ter we later learned, were cook­ing the food in full view of the din­ers.

The menu seemed to be ex­tremely lim­ited — a salad, a few pas­tas, a fish dish. That was it.

We looked at ev­ery sin­gle dish on the list but couldn’t recog­nise even one. Still, it would have been too easy — and fun­da­men­tally an­tag­o­nis­tic to the Culi­nary Chaos Prin­ci­ple — to sim­ply point at some­one else’s plate and say, ‘I’ll have what he’s hav­ing.’

So af­ter some de­lib­er­a­tion we bravely pointed to a dish in the pasta sec­tion. I imag­ined this would bring us the won­der­fully aro­matic dish that our neigh­bour was savour­ing — a glo­ri­ous heap of spaghetti twirled in a thick sauce, with hints of herbs.

We waited and waited, watch­ing the wife place hand­fuls of pasta into a large boil­ing pot and pour them out a few min­utes later, per­fectly al dente, we were sure. Other din­ers who came in af­ter us got their plates of pasta, but still we waited. Fi­nally, the owner emerged from the kitchen, proudly look­ing our way.

We watched ex­pec­tantly as he ma­noeu­vred two heaped plat­ters through the ta­bles, sub­tly show­ing them off to other pa­trons as he passed, and placed them be­fore us with a the­atri­cal thump.

On each of our plates was a tiny pedestal of pasta. And crowning each pedestal, over­whelm­ing the plate so that it slith­ered off the sides, was a huge oc­to­pus, lightly doused in a brown sauce, star­ing dole­fully at the fam­ished, flum­moxed for­eign­ers who had pro­posed to eat it.

These oc­to­puses were moun­tain­ous. There was no avoid­ing them, no push­ing them to the side of the plate, no cov­er­ing them with bread. The pasta was merely a warm-up act; these puck­er­ing, pre­his­toric pro­tu­ber­ances were the stars.

What to do? Eat it, of course. We­couldn’t lose face by ask­ing the owner to bring some­thing else. We had or­dered it, he had made it — with con­sid­er­able pride, it seemed, from the way he con­tin­ued to beam at us from a cor­ner, wait­ing for our first ap­pre­cia­tive bites. Why, I won­dered, hadn’t I j ust pointed at my neigh­bour’s pasta — he who was even now fold­ing his nap­kin and ris­ing to his feet with a most sat­is­fied smile?

Or why hadn’t I walked back to the kitchen and told the cook with a ges­ture and a smile that I cov­eted the pasta she was de­vot­edly plop­ping into a pot?

Well, what would learned from that?

So I broke off a hand­ful of bread, took a big gulp of wine and cut into the oc­to­pus.

I

have

It was as­ton­ish­ingly ten­der and the brown gravy was un­ex­pect­edly de­li­cious. In fact, it was so ethe­re­ally ex­quis­ite that . . . Well, no. It was not an edible epiphany. It was still oc­to­pus.

By al­ter­nat­ing pasta, bread and wine with bites of oc­to­pus, I man­aged to get down about a dozen fork­fuls.

We nod­ded and smiled broadly at the owner, and tried to ex­press our ad­mi­ra­tion for this sin­gu­lar spe­cial­ity of the house. But fi­nally I gave up the pre­tence and pushed and prod­ded the oc­to­pus around on my plate un­til I had de­voured all the strands of pasta I could find. It was time to raise the white nap­kin of sur­ren­der.

As the owner be­gan to gather up our plates, we served the sen­tences we had con­cocted.

We praised the restau­rant’s in­ti­mate at­mos­phere and its friendly din­ers who seemed to know each other so well; we ex­ulted in the open kitchen where we could watch him and his wife and daugh­ter work; we mar­velled at how they seemed to use only very fresh in­gre­di­ents and how their lim­ited menu meant that ev­ery­thing they did, they did very well.

He lis­tened to our English in­tently, if quizzi­cally, and nod­ded and smiled un­til we were done. And when we rose to leave, he rushed from the back of the restau­rant to guide us to the door, pumped our hands vig­or­ously, then pressed his hands to his heart and said, I think, that when we re­turned to his city, we should con­sider his hum­ble restau­rant our Neapoli­tan home away from home.

We walked into the gar­licbright street that lilted with the cries of ven­dors and chil­dren, flap­ping laun­dry and honk­ing horns. We held hands and smiled. The Culi­nary Chaos Prin­ci­ple was alive and well; the proof was right in­side. This is an edited ex­tract from Lonely Planet’s By the Seat of My Pants: Hu­mor­ous Tales of Travel and Mis­ad­ven­ture, edited by Don Ge­orge (Lonely Planet, $24.99).

IGOR SAKTOR

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