Long before the book “Eat, Pray, Love,” I went to Italy to find myself. I was twenty-five, unhappy and a religious Jew. This meant I was strictly kosher, and the list of foods I wasn't allowed to eat was extensive.
I arrived in Rome with a guidebook and dictionary, but no itinerary. After considering the names on the destination board at Termini train station, I bought a one-way ticket for Naples. It was March, already cold and rainy, and I thought "finding myself" might be made easier by a warmer climate.
On the train from Rome to Naples, I chatted with a computer-geek Roman who'd grown up in Naples and was on his way to visit family. He recommended his favorite place to eat along the Amalfi coast and before he could sing the praises of the not-to-be-missed specialty, I told him that I kept kosher and what that meant.
He was incredulous. Surely, I would at least try the seafood while in the region, he said. Just one dish of risotto pescatore, he suggested, and then I could resume my kosher ways. I should have just said that I'd do it, but for some reason I told him the truth. Kosher is kosher. No seafood risotto. No spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams). No cozze alla marinara (mussels in tomato sauce).
Clearly, the seafood deprivation horrified him most of all. After his shock subsided, the guy was just sad for me.
But I'd been kosher all my life. I didn't know what I was missing and didn't care. Food was part of my life, but it wasn't a major focus. All that was about to change.
I arrived in Naples in the late evening, with no place to stay. I wandered around the centro storico — the historic center — and looked at a few budget accommodations until I decided on a small pensione. I hadn't eaten since breakfast and discovered that the supermarkets within walking distance were already closed. If you're not strict about the laws of kashrut, you can eat in any restaurant and stick to the vegetarian items on the menu. But if you're strictly kosher and traveling, bread, peanut butter and tuna are your staples. It was late and I was hungry and stuck without a cracker.
I walked into a random place. There were red-and-white-checked tablecloths, and the proprietor did have a mustache. Why should Italy bother breaking out of stereotype when it's so perfect the way it is?
It was 8 o'clock and still completely empty. I sat down in the quiet space, took out my dictionary and asked for a plate of spaghetti.
"Sensa sugo," I said to the owner. No sauce.
He shook his head. He said something I didn't understand. He pointed to a few items on the menu and tried to get me to order one.
"Sensa carne," I said, trying to get him to understand all that I could not eat. "Sensa frutti de mare. Solamente spaghetti." No meat. No seafood. Just spaghetti. And because I was strictly kosher, I added the final bombshell.
"Sensa formaggio." No cheese.
He was as horrified as the nerdy Roman on the train. He again pointed to dishes on the menu, but I shook my head.
The man wasn't angry. But he also wasn't willing to make me the food I asked for.
As lovers of Italy know, eating in that country can be a spiritual experience. It's the freshness and quality of the produce — this was a "locavore" country long before the term was coined — but it's also the attitude of the inhabitants towards food and eating. The proprietor of the nameless trattoria into which I had stumbled refused to allow me to eat something just for the sake of sustenance. That isn't how it's done in Naples.
He patiently named ingredients, which I looked up in my dictionary. I learned that aglio means "garlic." Prezzemolo is "parsley" and peperoncino is "chili pepper." Olio di olive, I could figure out. I finally agreed to the ingredients. He nodded and went to the kitchen, satisfied. Minutes later, he placed the dish in front of me and my life changed.
I can't say that everything changed at that exact moment. Change happens in increments, but the pasta I ate that day guided me in a certain direction.
I eat everything now. I've been fortunate to return to Italy many times, some of those trips before the Euro turned the country expensive. I've had meals that excited me and overwhelmed me with gratitude. When I was twenty-five, such a hedonistic approach seemed wrong. But when I let go of the heaviness weighing me down and shifted my focus onto simple pleasures in life, like eating good food, I became a much happier person.
And no matter where I go or what I eat, I still remember that simple dish of spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino: garlicky, basic, satisfying and gorgeous. It was one of the best things I've ever had in my life.