Gastronomy 101, a blog about food and Los Angeles restaurants

RESTAURANT: Ristorante Belvedere, Monterosso al Mare, Italy

We started off our second-to-last day in the Cinque Terre by taking the train to Vernazza for breakfast:

There was supposed to be a market that day, but since the weather was threatening, there were only a few meager stalls, mostly selling non-food items. We had our breakfast and walked around the village a bit. Vernazza used to have a river flowing all the way through it, but now the river has been shunted underground at a certain point. If you walk to the top of town you can see it, along with some ducks and geese that hang out there to get fed by whoever comes along.

J. and I then went to sit and have an espresso and wait for the train to Corniglia, the only town we hadn't yet visited. Corniglia is home to the local nude beach (which we skipped) and is the highest of the towns, elevation-wise. We had to walk up a buttload of steps to get there. Look at me go:

That's actually me going down (a lot faster than I came up), but I did come up them as well. There is a bus that takes you up to town, but we had to get some exercise, because one of the things that was waiting for us at the top of the stairs was:

Gelato! Other things that we found there were a gorgeous view off a terrace at the edge of town, narrow windy streets that were like a cool labyrinth, and a little square with some restaurants where we had our lunch. My parents had decided not to go with us, but on our way out, we also found them, sitting on a doorstep eating gelato. It runs in the family.

On our way home, the train broke and we had the pleasure of sitting in the station for approximately 1 million years in the sweltering heat. When the train finally got going I got to hear the best conversation ever, which was German kids discussing Beavis and Butthead:

"What does this mean 'T.P for my bunghole?'"

"Bunghole is an asshole."

"Bunghole is asshole?"

"Yes, well, that's what they call it."

"So why does he need a tepee for it?"

"It's toilet paper. T.P."

"Oh! I never understood this until now!"

When we got back we had our usual siesta and then cards at the wine bar, and then we wandered down to our dinner destination, Ristorante Belvedere. On our way, we found the town vending machines, which include beer. That's one of the perks of living in a society where the drinking ages are lower and more lax. By the way, I have yet to meet any teenage alcoholics in Europe. Just FYI.

And then it was dinner time. J. and I started out with the vegetable soup with pesto, which we had heard good things about on the eGullet forums. It was good ... it was pretty much like eating a bowl of pesto soup.

For our main course, we ordered the "Anfora Belvedere," which was listed as fish cooked in an earthenware pot. We thought this would be like what my mom got the first night, which had been described as fish cooked in a special pot. What we didn't realize was that "anfora" is italian for "amphora," which is Greek for "big ass jar." We also didn't realize was that "fish" was someone's abbreviated translation for "all the ocean creatures of the world."

We started to get a clue at about the time they wheeled over a special table to go NEXT to our table just for our dish. Then they brought out a bowl roughly the size of a small bathtub. Then they brought out the amphora, which pretty much looks like your basic amphora.

Here is where it turns into that part at the circus where the little supertiny car pulls up and 3 million clowns hop out, and it is HILARIOUS. Because they overturned this jar and out comes some swordfish, several thousand mussels, squid pieces, prawns, and then just when you think it's done, out pops two lobsters in the shell and a whole goddamn octopus, which sits on top of this pile of crustaceans like the king of the mountain. I wasn't quick enough to snap a picture because the waitress immedately started butchering the octopus and giving various pieces of machinery with which to eat our food.

My first helping looked like this:

Yeah, that's right, I am about to eat an octopus leg:

That may be routine for all of you seasoned and jaded food blog crazies out there, but I generally don't eat anything that I could easily imagine might come back to life and grip onto my tongue with its evil suckers and wreak all kinds of supernatural horror on me.

But I ate it anyway, because I didn't want to be rude, and it was delicious. That octopus leg was, in fact, the most the delicious part of this meal (except for the lobster, because ... please, it's lobster).

That bowl up there made up about 1/10th of what was in our entire meal and I am afraid J. had to take the lion's share, but I still ate an octopus leg, several hundred mussels, a swordfish, a lobster and a prawn or five. We almost finished it ... by which I mean, there were only 3 gallons of soup left at the end.

There also was a little gatto who took one look at us, and said: "Turisti!" He knew we had no idea what we were ordering, and so he came over and parked himself under my chair and got himself a seafood surprise. Normally I don't feed animals table scraps but I had to see if cats like octopus legs. They do.

On our way out we saw a table of four grown men sharing one Anfora Belvedere. They are obviously locals and know that the menu is lying when it says that two people could consume this dish. Now I know.

After dinner we hung out for a while and watched the locals play a heated game of bocce ball. It was hard to tell, because the two teams' balls looked almost the same, but I think that shiny balls beat dull balls that night, which is the case so many times in life.

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I love love love love OCTOPUS and I am even more jealous of you than I thought I was before. Great trip diary.

The best octopus I ever had was at one of Mario Batali's restaurants, called 'Esca' (though I guess I don't want to get into my Mario worship again, like I did below). Just grilled on top of marinated white beans. Fantastic; still one of the best dishes I've ever had. This was in 2001, btw.

said by Jeremy at 7:06 PM Delete

I've actually been tempted to try octopus a lot recently. They have a tentacle on the menu at the nearby tapas restaurant, maybe I will try it next time.

I was nervous because I had heard that octopus can be rubbery, but this one was incredibly tender.

By the way, cooking octopus with a cork does not stop it from being rubbery. I just learned that from my man, Harold McGee.

said by KT at 7:38 PM Delete

I bet its one of those self-actualized myths -- like if you belive it, it'll be true . . .

said by Jeremy at 12:30 AM Delete

I wish that would work for me. I have believed I was going to win the lottery for years and it has yet to be true.

said by KT at 9:34 AM Delete

"Oh! I never understood this until now." is the greatest.

said by Anyanka at 1:06 PM Delete

you mean your octopus tentacle didn't come to life and try to asphyxiate you? what kind of octopus dish is that? don't tell me they actually cooked it!!

said by Eddie Lin at 11:08 AM Delete

Ha ha! That dining experience is for next year, when I go to Asia. I think octopus is the only thing I have ever seen eaten live besides bugs and it looks a little thrilling, actually--having to catch your food yourself right before you eat it. Even if it's not that much of a challenge to get it.

Anyway, baby steps ... first dead, then I will work up to fighting an octopus to the death inside my mouth. Meanwhile I will simply read about it on your blog.

said by KT at 11:12 AM Delete

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