Felled by a sucker punch
Chaos reigns in a Neopolitan restaurant
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.
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).