Forget the wine. Forget the pasta. Forget the bufala. Go to Italy for the mushrooms.
High in the hills of Calabria, in the town of Camigliatello Silano in Sila National Park, you will find mushroom heaven, where mutant porcinis rule.
Rolling into town in the late afternoon in our luggage-stuffed Fiat Panda, we pulled up to La Casa del Fungo on the main drag. There, a man easily in his 80s presided over a mushroom emporium you could smell from the street.
Giant porcinis were on display, as were all manner of funghi products. We bought a jar of porcini mushroom cream ( crema funghi porcini), took a few pictures and roared off.
In the evening, we managed to secure a reservation at the best restaurant in the region, La Tavernetta, where the owner laughed and threw up her arms when we ignored the designated parking area and just left the car directly in front of her window.
We were the only ones there. It was early June, an idyllic time of year to travel to Calabria and Puglia. It's warm, there are virtually no tourists, and you can book rooms and restaurants the day before you swing into a town. In two weeks of bopping around, we were never shut out of anywhere we wanted to eat or stay.
Inside La Tavernetta, we were ushered into the back room, an inner sanctum where the walls were stacked with wines. On the table before us lay the largest loaf of bread I've ever seen, easily three feet long by a foot wide. Next to it, a pig's leg was positioned horizontally; one of the staff sliced off some proscuitto. A local Chardonnay was poured and then salumi brought for tasting. We hung out there for a while, chatting with the staff, filling up on what seemed to be freebies.
For dinner, Adam, a trainee from Connecticut, recommended we try the porcini salad. It would be the first of four courses involving mushrooms.
The salad was divine. Actually, it was as near to a perfect dish of food as you will ever find; simple, unadulterated and fresh. Sliced paper thin, the mushrooms were laid out like interlocking medallions over the plate, floating in extra virgin olive oil and salt. Once in your mouth, they dissolved. You were left with the luxurious taste combination of butter and 'shroom all at once.
Then came the pasta. The first was a pile-up of spaghettini with mushrooms. The second dish, a ravioli, came with mushrooms and truffles. Then the main event - a serving of thinly sliced fried potatoes covered in, what else, porcini mushrooms. The potatoes, the other specialty of the region, were downright sweet. Combined with mushrooms, you just wanted to plop in a chair and fall asleep - they were that satisfying.
But you couldn't. Dessert hadn't come yet.
Graciously offering samples of everything, the servers brought us deep, dark chocolate cake and panna cotta. It seems mushrooms had no place on a sweet tray because, by this time, there was no sign of them. A plate of assorted cookies and a dessert wine also arrived, not having been ordered. This generosity, we learned, is typical of southern Italy.
"Have a grappa for the road!"
We couldn't eat it all, and took the leftovers, including a corked, unfinished bottle of wine back to the nearby country inn where we were staying. The bill, including service, was €80. At current exchange rates, that's just over $114.
We stayed at a bucolic property called Torre Camigliati (torrecamigliati.it), a magnificently restored 18th-century hunting lodge surrounded by green fields punctuated with red poppies. Adjacent to the lodge are a series of "apartments" containing a fireplace, bedroom and kitchen, with breakfast food provided, all for €100 (about $140).
Good things grow in the dark in Italy - and this is a delicious time to visit.
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