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Vacation and travel have a marvelous ability to focus our priorities. We pretend to care about the hike in the morning or beach time in the afternoon, but the most entertaining part is really sorting out the next meal.
On vacation, we actually have the time (meaning, we allow ourselves the time) to sit, breathe, relax, have an aperitif, try multiple dishes, take wine with each course and so on. We actually consider the view and take part in real conversation (as opposed to the survival conversations we have at home). In short, we have civilized meals, digest our food and enjoy our companions (hopefully!).
Dining at vacation time reminds us that all the details of a meal are important: the texture of linens, the smell of bread, the way people move around the space, the sensation of certain glasses or silver in our hands. It all matters. I always return from a vacation intent on participating more completely in the moment.
With all of this in mind, here are three of my favorite travel destinations that combine inspiring scenery with a local cuisine that is both satisfying and intellectually interesting.
1) In Italy, Taormina, Siracusa and the east coast of Sicily are marvelous for beaches, ancient history and Greek ruins— and for a melting-pot cuisine that began forming more than 3,000 years ago with Greek and Phoenician influences. Some of the most interesting uses of spices from the Middle East and Africa are found in the cooking here, as are a particular blending of savory and sweet— Sicilian sweets made with the fantastic local pistachios and almonds are a must. Favorites for me are often crudi, raw seafood dishes. One of the best is an antipasti at Nero d’Avola, a small restaurant in Taormina where Juli, the chef/owner, is a huge champion of naturally produced Sicilian products. The dish is formed almost like a taco: a slice of incredibly sweet lemon is filled with thin slices of raw bluefin tuna heart, Juli’s own bottarga (tuna roe), orange filet and sweet basil. Drizzled with delicious olive oil from Mount Etna, it’s a stunning dish.
2) Piemonte, in northern Italy, is home to the most famously age-worthy and complex red wines in the country, Barolo and Barbaresco. Winery visits are usually quite personal in comparison to California, Bordeaux or Tuscany, where wineries are often larger and at times corporate-owned. Here, families are often hands-on. And many seemingly simple restaurants excel with the classic Piemontese dishes: carne cruda (raw veal seasoned simply and just so), vitello tonnato (chilled cooked veal with a tart tuna mayonnaise— this may not sound special, but I have dreams about it), agnolotti dal plin (tiny, pinched, meat-filled ravioli) and tajarin (tagliolini with a flavorful pork and veal ragu). The most wonderful time to visit is autumn, when white truffles are in season, one of the world’s great delicacies at its source and its most reasonable price. Most of my favorite places feel as though I am dining in a private home. Ristorante Il Centro in tiny Priocca is a great example of that. The menu is whatever the chef is in the mood to prepare and is in season. Her daily antipasto is always elegant and varied. If rabbit is offered as a secondi, order it, along with financiera (a very old-fashioned stew of organ meats, amazingly rich and delicate).
3) In Spain, Catalonia is great for those with strong food and wine interest and short attention spans— there is so much to see and do. From Barcelona to tiny coastal towns and Pyrenees foothill villages, and from simple tapas bars to some of the world’s most interesting Michelin-starred restaurants, there is great variety and high quality. A great favorite for seafood near the old port is Passadis del Pep. I have never visited and had less than 10 amazing plates of varied, beautiful and sometimes unlikely seafood. Cigalas (crayfish), sea cucumbers, any and all clams, conchs and Mediterranean fish and shrimp are the specialties. Another small place in the same neighborhood is Suquet de L’Amirall. The namesake seafood soup is worth the trip, as are the chef’s creative snacks.
One of the world’s most fun markets is the Boqueria in Barcelona. Do not miss sampling all the different ages and varieties of jamon Iberico and bacalao (the world’s greatest hams and salt-dried cod). Excellent day trips from Barcelona for meals are easy to make to Gambrills, Girona or Olot, and interesting wine visits to high-quality Cava producers are easy.
As the years pass, I continue to love to travel and explore the tables of many different regions. At the same time, my desire to return home and share and translate what I have found with the people that I care about grows even stronger.
Tony Foreman is a restaurateur and co-owner of the Foreman-Wolf group.