Salty sea water is in the Italian DNA. As is freshly fried fish, ladles of slightly al-dente spaghetti al vongole and glasses poured full of ice-cold pinot grigio. Sun, sea and good food is what makes the Country and its people tick. Unite the three together for pranzo al mare (lunch at the sea) and you’re in for a full-on, real-deal Italian experience. Some may call it la dolce vita and rightly so, lunching with the sea breeze blowing in your hair and with soft sand beneath your toes is doubtlessly leisure at its finest. Yet there is even more to it than that. Pranzo al mare has become a rite of passage; the zest, the zing and essence to the Italian way of life.
Luckily, embarking on such an escapade is an easy feat in Italy. The country boasts over 7000 km of coastline and more beaches than any other country in Europe. Of all the beaches worldwide that have been awarded the prestigious Blue Flag, based on cleanliness and sustainability, Italy holds prize to a whopping ten percent. Its infamously long and narrow boot-shaped size means that one is never further than two hours from shore at any given point. For some, aka my Rome-based self, this journey from door to sand takes a mere forty-minute drive. From sand to restaurant to happily boozy, food-coma bliss; well, that’s another story. Time is then yours to revel in as you watch the waves wash up, take in the chitter and chatter, savour each mouthful of food and simply soak in the moment till the sun comes down.
I had my first encounter with the Roman seaside not long after I moved to the Capital, all of eight years ago. It was early spring; a cold, crisp yet gloriously sunny morning in March and a recent Italian acquaintance suggested we go to the sea. “Andiamo al mare?” he rang to ask. Applauding this newfound courageous side of the Italian spirit and eager, both in my excitement to explore beyond the city walls and in my new (and very basic) set of language skills, I replied, “Si, Andiamo!” (“Let’s go!”). Sunscreen in bag and swimsuit well-prepped beneath my clothes, I took the plunge and leapt into the big blue mere minutes on arrival. Emerging from the icy waters (yes, the coldest of the year!) I looked on to the beach where my friend, donned in gloves, hat and puffer-jacket, watched with dumbfounded dismay. “But we came for lunch!” he yelled my way. Goose bumps all-over, I grinned and gave him a wave. “Questi inglese…” (these English), I heard him say.
As we sat down for lunch, it became clear that what my friend lacked in nerve for March-time swimming, he made up for in appetite. The antipasti came rolling in; crudi di gamberi rossi (raw red shrimp), insalata di mare (seafood salad) and alici marinate (marinated anchovies), which made me vow to boycott the jarred, overly salted version ever since. Next came the moscardini fritti (deep-fried baby octopus) and garlic-brushed bruschette laden with telline (baby clams), two strong advocates for the catchphrase: ‘it’s the little things in life.’ Onto the primi (first-courses) where he took risotto and I, the spaghetti. Both cooked ai frutti al mare (with the fruits of the sea) and both so equally delicious for one to take trumps. The food-coma, as mentioned above, was not reached in full until our secondi had been devoured: spigola con patate (grilled seabass with roasted potatoes) that, despite its utter perfection, did have me tempted to jump back into the sea and reboot.
The maritime hamlet of Fregene, host to this very first pranzo al mare, is located in Rome’s comune of Fregene. Once inhabited by the Etruscans, it remains to this day a firm favourite amongst their ancestors; its 5km stretch of beach, which is dotted with restaurants from end to end, provides the Roman people (and me!) with the perfect lunchtime getaway. My eight years of living in Italy, however, have led me not only all the way along the peninsula but also onto the nearby islands. From the pebbly stone beaches and crystalline waters of the Amalfi coast, hidden behind vast craggy cliffs, to the white and powdery sands of Sardinia and the volcanic rocky black shore of Stromboli, the country’s coastline is imploring for exploring, its gems often too wow to seem true.
Nowadays, my early-year swims have somewhat diminished, being traded in for Italian acceptable summertime dips. My tolerance to sun and wine, thanks to regular doses of both, has much improved and the same must be said for my capacity in the partaking of multiple course meals. Little by little and day by day I am becoming Italianised. Trips to the sea, although forever a treat, are now the most faithful and familiar of joys and in taking my (sun)hat off to my Italian pal, I concur: it really is…all about the lunch.