Friday, November 16, 2012

L'Isola dell'Ospitalità (The Island of Hospitality)

To start off, I'd like to apologize for having taken so long to get up my next blog post. There was some weird issue with the website that wasn't allowing me to post them, so sorry!

Anyways, this blog post is about a little island set in thousands of years of rich tradition and beauty. Ischia is a slightly less well-known island that is also in the Gulf of Naples (same area that the better-known Capri is located). The island is truly beautiful, with hundreds of thermal baths as well, but while the physical beauty of it is exceptional, the inner beauty of the people on the island is unparalleled. Never have I experienced such an overwhelmingly kind population of people. But I'll get to that later.

Instead, our story begins in Naples, where my friends Lenny, Mikey, and I, had to get on a ferry from the port to go to Ischia. Having arrived at the port 3 hours before the next ferry out, we decided to run across the street and get a slice of the famed Neapolitan Pizza. We showed up about 40 minutes before the pizzeria opened up, but they gave us a table and brought us some coffee. I had the BEST cappucino I have ever had in my life at this pizzeria! When we asked the waiter if Naples was known for coffee he told us "The coffee in Rome is like water!" and upon drinking his coffee, we realized the truth in his statement. Also, they ended up letting us order pizza before they opened anyways!

Margherita e Ripieno
The city of Naples is credited with the invention of the pizza, and their speciality is the very simple Margherita pizza. My friend Lenny and I split 2 pizzas, one margherita, and the other was a ripieno, which is a stuffed pizza with ricotta cheese, sausage, etc.. Lenny was thoroughly enjoying his pizza.

After a very long and relaxing lunch, we hopped on the ferry with excitement in our hearts waiting to see what awaits us on out across the sea. It turned out the ferry ride was quite long, but I got some gorgeous photographs along the way.

Looking back at Naples (on the right)
Seaman Leonard
Nice shot of the water and an island
My travelling companions
What a gorgeous day!
After thoroughly enjoying the open sea and sunny skies on our 90 minute ferry ride, we finally arrived at Ischia Porto (the Port of Ischia). If you look up on the hills, you can see the rugged hillside that consumes the majority of the island.

Ischia Porto
Now it is time to explain our hostel situation. So, we decided to book a hostel online through hostelworld, but as it turns out, that hostel was currently in the process of relocating, which meant that we ended up staying at a Bed & Breakfast as a temporary location for the hostel. This situation, although a bit confusing, ended up really making our weekend absolutely stellar. For starters, the owner of the B&B, Mario, picked us up at the port and drove us to our hostel, which was located on this tiny little street.

Since the sun was already low in the sky, Mario suggested we make use of the daylight and go see the Castello Aragonese, a very famous landmark for the island. The setting sun made for some amazing photos.

Castello Aragonese
Ischia Ponte
Looking up at Castello Aragonese
Small bay to the right of Castello Aragonese

Looking back towards Ischia from Castello Aragonese
As it turns out, there is a pretty cool archway as an entrance to the Castle, so we took a couple photos in it.

I'm not sure why, but I think this photo looks so awesome

Mikey hangin out
After thoroughly enjoying myself taking tons of photos and running around on the rocks surrounding the bridge, it started to get dark, so we headed back.

Once we returned, we finally had a chance to relax after a whole day of travelling, but I was curious to explore the other areas of the small B&B, so I went out into the backyard. As it turns out, our gracious host was doing some yardwork in the garden. Upon seeing me, however, him and I adjourned to the outdoor patio and hung out, sharing stories, exchanging traditions and cultures. I learned a lot about Mario, who is an exceptional person! To say that all Mario has been in his life is the owner of a B&B is to say that all George Washington did in his life is hang out on Mount Vernon. Mario was the President of the International Concierge Association, meaning that he is one of the best Concierge's in the world. In his own words, "Hospitality is my passion." Hospitality has been a family passion for years; Mario's dad worked in the same business for 40 years. Here is a photo of Mario as the President in a magazine he showed me.

President of the International Concierge Association
All the while that we were hanging out, Mario shared with me some absolutely amazing liquor and we smoked a cigar. I was so completely and utterly relaxed, it was amazing.

Bro time with Mario
Another cool thing about Mario is that, as a result of his former life in the concierge business, he knows EVERYONE and can get ANYTHING that you so desire. You know that whole cliche about some Italian guy saying like "Lemme know what you need, I got a guy," well he really does! From Broadway tickets in New York to Soccer Matches in Spain to Opera in Milan, the guy can get anything! He has so many connections.

The next morning, we were greeted kindly by Mario with a nice little array of tasty pastries, fresh squeezed orange juice from the garden, and homemade coffee.

The legend at work
If you look on the right, you might be able to see the record player that Mario has. It turns out his father left him a really nice collection of classical music, which we breakfasted to. Yes, in this situation, we did not eat breakfast, but in fact we breakfasted. It was an amazingly relaxing morning, just hanging out, listening to great music, and eating yummy treats.

Oh, and here is the outdoor patio, looking back into the garden.

After a very slow morning, we finally got a move on. On a totally random sidenote, check out this crazy salon!

I want Edward Scissorhands to cut my hair!
Anyways, our goal for the day was to go to the famous thermal baths of the island. Unfortunately, all the thermal spa resorts were closed because it was the offseason, but Mario told us about a public one that opens out into the sea that we could go to for free.

Walkin down the hill
Now, Mario told us about a tiny restaurant just above the cove where we could get lunch. He warned us that the portions were big, so we only ordered 2 pastas and a bruschetta. We should have heeded his warning!

The view from lunch
 Now, this restaurant boasted the ABSOLUTE BEST bruschetta that I have ever had, and I have eaten a LOT of bruschetta since I've been here. The tomatoes were so amazingly fresh!
Bruschetta Extraordinnaire!
Let's just say that there was a lot of spaghetti.... We couldn't even come close to eating it all!

Finally, around 3pm we made our way down to Sorgeto Bay. It was gorgeous!

No, this is not a professional photo :P
The only issue with the thermal waters was that because it was high tide, the waves were crashing pretty hard on the area that the water came out, meaning that it was a bumpy ride trying to balance the heat from the hot springs and the cold of the sea, but we made it work. Thermal springs in Italy are famous for their health benefits, and we managed to relax despite the constant ebb and flow of the waves.

Things got even better once we found that behind a fence there was a little cove with a hole that we could pour hot water into and draw a nice hot bath for one person at a time. Naturally, we took turns doing this.

Lenny in the bath, Mikey looking creepy up behind him

We spent a couple hours just relaxing in this manner, opening a bottle of nice wine that we bought back in town and watching the sun set. What a great afternoon!

La Dolce Vita
 Now, I mentioned before that the people of the island are exceptionally kind and friendly. Mario was the first example of this, but as a result of the smaller island population and less touristy location, this permeates through every person I met on the island. For example, when even so much as looking a little bit lost, random people would come up and attempt to help us find our way. However, nothing at all compares to the hospitality that we were greeted with during our dinner that evening.

Let me back up a little bit to explain.The restaurant that we went to is an exclusively locals-only restaurant. This is not because they don't want other people to come, but instead is because of the tucked-away into the mountains location of the restaurant. Fortunately, our hostel owner was friends with one of the cooks at the restaurant and got us a reservation, which was absolutely necessary because their specialty is rabbit, which must be slow cooked for several hours before serving. This dinner was the most amazing Italian experience I have had. The restaurant is entirely family-run and the name, Il Focolare, means "like family." The hospitality that they provide is unlike any other; they really live up to the name, but I'll get to that.

Here is a photo of the Owner (middle) and the Cook/son of the owner(left) that I found online.

Son(left) Owner(middle)
Upon arrival, we were greeted warmly and then led to a table. Soon thereafter, the owner of the restaurant, an older man came up to us and began chatting with us about American politics for a bit, discussing Obama and the presidential race. Then, he asked us a question that really stuck with me, saying "What I want to know is how did three young american college students end up in my restaurant tonight?" and, thinking back to the chain of events that lead us to that moment, I was completely astounded.

It all started when, upon having my plans for the weekends cave in due to poor weather conditions in Tuscany, my Italian professor asked me what I was doing for the weekend. Since I had no plans, she suggested I go to Ischia. Then, upon getting Mikey and Lenny to come along with me, we booked the hostel. After that, we got lucky with the switch to the B&B location, leading us to Mario. Finally, he got us a reservation at that restaurant. It just seemed like everything worked out in our favor for us to end up at that restaurant that evening. And it only got better from there.

The owner is a strong advocate of the Slow Food movement, meaning that all of our food was fresh and locally produced, and the idea is to not rush through a meal, but to make a whole evening out of it. That we did! First, the owner stood there with us for quite a while, helping us pick out several items on the menu that looked particularly appealing. Finally, we figured it all out and our dining experience was ready to begin!

First, they brought us out a warm welcoming place of small appetizers :) Next came our grilled vegetables platter. I was astounded by the amount of flavor they could produce from the zucchini and carrots. After that, they brought out our pasta dish, which was a green pasta in an amazing tomato sauce. Immediately after bringing out that dish, the waitress (one of the owner's daughters) came out, informing us "my brother made this for you" and gave us each a plate of delicious lemon risotto! More free food!

Finally, we were ready to feast upon the main entree, the real reason that we came to Il Focolare this night: the famed rabbit! First, a little backstory: The island of Ischia has grown rabbits in trenches for around 2000 years, a tradition passed down from generation to generation known as Coniglio Da Fossa (Rabbit from the Pit). These rabbits are slow cooked in clay pots for hours on end, saturating in a delicious oil and veggie sauce. Il Focolare grows, kills, and cooks their own rabbits. In the past 20 years, the island has begun cooking seafood so as to appease tourists, but the true dish of the island is il coniglio da fossa, so here it is!

The rabbit was absolutely delicious! I doubt I will ever bother trying rabbit again because nothing can possibly top this and would only taint my memory of the taste of rabbit. We ate every bit of the rabbit: the white meat, the dark meat, the lungs, the liver, the intestines, the brains, and even the heart! Yes, I ate bunny heart. Yes, I do feel like a Satan worshiper who deserves to be smitten by God. I don't know how I'm going to face the bunnies back home when I return. They know. They all know, and judge....

Bunny Head
To finish our dinner, we ordered a creme brulee, which was, like every single scrap of food I ate this evening, spectacular. Overall, the quality of the food here may have been the highest I've ever had. Yes, I've had better food as a single dish, but over this many different food items I have never had such consistent quality.

Now, once we had finished eating, one of the owner's sons (and also the cook who made us the risottto as well as the friend of the hostel owner as it turns out) came over to us and asked us if we were done. Upon confirming, he said "follow me" and then proceed to grab a plate of roasted chestnuts and a bottle of homemade liquor known as Centerba (100 herbs) and then take us into a backroom wine cellar (cantina).

For the next hour, the four of us hung out around a large stone table, with the brother sharing so much of the culture and traditions of Il Focolare, Ischia, and Italy in general with us. He told us the history of the cellar. Apparently, it used to be a place only for men, but has developed into a backroom where they only take certain guests of the restaurant (we felt very very special being brought back there). This experience was completely unexpected and just utterly amazing. There is a true kindness nestled deep in the heart of the family that runs Il Focolare, and I am extremely grateful for the experience they gave to us, really making our weekend incomparably exceptional.

Mikey and Lenny, Centerba, and Chestnuts
There was even a couple of small tunnels leading out the back of the cantina. They are still in the process of expanding them. Check it out!

Lenny attempting to pickaxe Mikey in the face

Me in the tunnels!
Before leaving, we got a couple more photos in the cantina.

Now, we still hadn't paid yet, so upon finishing up in the cantina, we went over to our waitress and asked to pay. Not only did they give us 2 free dishes during the dinner, bring us back in to their cellar and give us free roasted chestnuts and homemade liquor AND give us an unforgettable cultural experience of a lifetime, but they gave us 10 euro off our meal as well. And that is not all!

The brother even DROVE US HOME across the island back to our B&B. We thanked them so many times for all of the kindness and generosity they showed 3 strange american college kids and all he said was "This is our life. To give is our passion." I LOVE ISCHIA!

After having a day and particularly a night like this one, we decided that nothing could possibly top it, so why try? Therefore, here ends the story of a truly wonderful weekend. God I love Ischia. If anyone is ever in Italy, go there! Also, talk to me first so I can set hook you up with the right people and the right places!


  1. Mario sort of looks like an Italian Don Draper

  2. Hahaha thats mostly just the photo in the magazine... not so much in real life, but i definitely see what your saying