Wild fennel – the taste of anise served up by silken green fronds and starbursts of sunbeam yellow. The flavor is central to one of the best dishes served in Marche – porchetta suckling pig stuffed with herbs.
I find another dish of the region that features anise. Coniglio in Porchetta (literally “rabbit cooked like suckling pig”) which is stuffed with fennel. The idea of rabbit conjures 3 stories. First, of my Uncle Angelo who had rabbit hutches behind his house in Wellesley, MA. I thought it was so cool that he had “pet bunnies.” Little did I know that they were to be eaten. Years later, my son Justin and I who had binge watched A Year in Provence ate rabbit in mustard sauce at a Seine-side restaurant in Paris. And later, on the drive in Languedoc to visit our friends a rabbit bounded across the road. It was HUGE. Justin’s comment, “Now I see why they eat them.”
Marche includes the coastline of the Adriatic. It is also known for one of the most famous seafood soups of Italy – the brodetto. Similar to bouillabaisse or cioppino, brodetto is made primarily of fish from shallow waters, red mullet and squid (ah, Nana who fried squid long before it became a thing!). A touch of vinegar, fish coated with flour and served over slices of toasted bread. No fennel here, the anisette will have to do.
Anticipation and Experimentation
Now that I’m in Civitanova Marche, I search several recommended restaurants’ online menus for porchetta or coniglio in porchetta. No luck. Instead, I seek brodetto and find it on the online menu at Ristorante Gabbiano. I call to make a reservation, but get a recording saying the number is inactivo. That can’t be, so about an hour before they open I drive into town to take advantage of the last minutes of daylight. The restaurant is charming and I make a reservation. “Sola?” They are asking if I’m alone. The word always makes me feel a bit incomplete. It’s so much less appealing than, “party of one?” Indeed, one can certainly party!
And I stroll along the Adriatic for 45 minutes.
When I return and am seated, I ask for anice secco. Even though I believe I’m pronouncing it correctly, the waiter doesn’t understand me. I know they have it – I saw it behind the bar. When the handsome bartender, who speaks English and helped with my reservation, comes to translate my request, I end up with a glass of anice secco and…a bottle of San Pellegrino! If you don’t know it, San Pellegrino is a naturally carbonated water.
Oh well, time to experiment. Presenting, as my Nana would say, a bruta figura – roughly equivalent to poor form, I pour the liquor into a wine glass, add the sparkling water, watch the louche and take a sip. Hmmmm, kind of nice. Why not enjoy the liquor as a sparkling drink on a hot evening?
Disappointment and Recovery
I search and search the menu. It looks nothing like the one online. “Do you have brodetto tonight?” I ask the bartender. Shame on me for not brushing up on my Italian. “No,” he says, “but we do have pentolaccia.”
While I wait, I am served an aperitivo of 3 mussels with a sauce of mayonnaise, parsley and dill. I am surprised by the dill. It’s the leading flavor with the parsley following. What a fascinating combination – worth remembering and easy to make for a tasting party.
When the pentolaccia arrives, abundanza! I am awestruck by the gifts from the sea: mussels and clams by the dozens, shrimp, scallops, razor clams, crab, and calamari in a broth rich with plum tomato, garlic, parsley, garlic and toasted bread for sopping (Nana would approve). If there’s wine, I’m not picking it up.
I relax into the rhythm of sipping and savoring. I find it strangely restful to be surrounded by people enjoying themselves in a language I don’t understand very well.
How do they do it?
All around me the families, groups of friends and couples are enjoying 3 and 4 courses. It’s a Wednesday night, neither a holiday or Sunday dinner! I can’t even finish one course. “How do they enjoy 3 or 4?” I wonder and, “How do they stay so thin?”
I notice that not a one is drinking anything but water or wine. Have they had their aperitif at home?