At some time during the day when we were otherwise occupied playing on the beach, a film crew came to town. That evening as we sat in the square enjoying a by-then customary pre-dinner bottle of white, we watched the crew and actors as they milled about outside the bar opposite. Obviously we were totally ignorant as to who the actors were and what they were filming. There was a mature yet glamorous diva who sat aloof in her own private gazebo, an unnaturally tall leggy young actress wearing a trench coat shorter than her mini skirt, and a stocky middle-aged father-figure with goatie and swept back Al Pacino hair. Around this thespian hub, extras mixed seamlessly with the locals. The dapper old gentleman with trilby, heavy check suit and umbrella – extra? Or the round-bellied fisherman with jeans pulled up to his armpits, belt, braces, t-shirt and white crocheted beanie hat – local?
Suddenly there was a flurry of activity to our right, much shhhing, instructions shouted over a megaphone ‘SILENZIO’, a brief few minutes of action … and then it was all over. Actors congratulated themselves as they lit up cigarettes and crew started packing their kit away. As we sipped our wine and watched props and equipment being packed onto the back of an aged 3-wheeled Piaggio Ape we wondered where it would end. Would the crew carry on and dismantle the entire town around us until we were sitting in an empty studio parking lot? Would our sea view be rolled up and tossed on a pile of other backdrops? After all this town looks like a film set – an idealised Hollywood version of an Italian coastal town. Fortunately we had done our research so this turned out not to be a facade of plywood and fibreglass, but the beautiful Mediterranean town of Sperlonga. We knew it was real, we had looked it up on Wikipedia.
An hour and a half train and bus journey south of Rome, Sperlonga sits on a headland at the north side of a sandy cove. From the sea the old town butts precariously up to the edge of the cliff and consists of a huddle of weather-beaten 4/5/6 storey stone and terracotta buildings. At the base of the town and on the northern most part of the cove is a solid angular fortification called Truglia Tower.
If you swing round to the other end of the cove you will see a cave known as the Grotto of Tiberius. Apparently this contains statues and other fascinating Roman artifacts including a giant fish-tank. However the sun was shining and the sea was calling, so we decided to save this bit of culture for a rainy day.
It rained one day. We never went.
Much more importantly, between the two lies half a mile of sand gently lapped by a remarkably warm and clear Mediterranean sea. Much of this blue-flagged beach is occupied by the uniform rows of sun loungers owned and serviced by the various bars along its length. We visited off season (end of September) so virtually all were empty, although I imagine at the height of summer the overcrowding could be hellish. If this is your thing, they can be hired for around €15 a day (for 2). However, if like us, you prefer to chuck down a towel and lie on the sand there is still plenty of free beach between the bars to set up camp for the day. At the time of year we went the beach was sparsely populated despite the temperatures still being in the late twenties.
The one very minor annoyance were the regular patrols of tat peddlers who walked up and down the beach trying to sell a bizarre selection of goods ranging from African ‘art’ and jewellery to umbrellas and underpants. Either them, or Chinese women offering massages and/or Marlboro cigarette lighters. Both struggled to understand ‘no thank you’ in any language. However, by way of compensation, Sperlonga is completely devoid of the depressing accordion playing beggars which plague most of Europe.
To get to the town from the beach you need to climb a series of steep winding stepped pathways which are flanked by autographed cacti, wild flowers and the numerous wary, tatty and unloved stray cats which sit miserably at every turn. These paths will take you to the foot of the town from where you will continue to climb steeply through the labyrinth of narrow streets and beautiful white-washed buildings for which Sperlonga is rightly famous. Unlike Rome (in every imaginable way), the old town is entirely pedestrianised.
The focal-point of Sperlonga is a square called Piazza della Repubblica which itself is connected to another (modern, less interesting) square via the Corso San Leone. It is on or around this small area where you will find the majority of shops, cafes and restaurants.
And so to the most important part of this review – you’ve spent all day floating aimlessly on your back in the warm Mediterranean sea and you’ve worked up a keen thirst accompanied by a healthy appetite, where are you going to drink and eat?
Let’s start with that pre-dinner drink. By far the best spot to enjoy this is in Piazza Della Repubblica, which, being the hub of the town is an excellent vantage point for people watching. First up is Bar Del Nibbio which has a very simple pricing policy of all wine €16 a bottle or €4 a glass and all served accompanied by a generous selection of ‘free’ snacks, typically thin wedges of cheese, good olives, small toasts topped with tomato and basil, dainty triangular salami sandwiches and crisps. In common with the rest of Italy, the range of beer offered is limited (though weirdly always including Tennent’s Super) and pricey €5 a ‘pint’. The majority of the wines available were locally produced and the ones we tried were all very good.
Across the square is ‘Bar Trani’ which has a similar but cheaper set up of wine at €12 a bottle or €3 a glass, although for this you will receive a slightly less adventurous range of snacks (olives, crisps and peanuts). They also have an ice cream parlour and serve a very good coffee. Both places are highly recommended and the perfect place to watch the to-ings and fro-ings, coming and goings of a rich cast of locals and tourists as the sun goes down.
Time for dinner, and lets start with a tiny place (about 20 covers) called ‘Mi Spizza’ (although signed ‘Pizzeria’) which is by far the best restaurant in town. The best food – tick, the most generous portions – tick, the most interesting menu – tick, the friendliest staff – tick, cheapest wine – tick, sea view – tick. This place has more ticks than Derek Jacobi in ‘I Claudius’ (Hey, nice Roman analogy – Ed). Thanks. To illustrate how great this place is I’ll describe one meal we had midway through our holiday.
First up we ordered a locally produced white wine which was light and refreshing, and at €9 a litre the closest thing you’ll get to a bargain now the pound is worth diddly squat. We opted to start blindly with the only starter on the menu which was called ‘Antipasto Misto di Mare’. We were shortly presented with a tasty platter of various warm salads built mostly around seafood and beans, followed by a bowl of mixed mussels and clams, which in turn was followed by a plate of deep fried anchovies and sardines. All was excellent with special mention going to the anchovies which were eaten whole – eyeballs and all.
For the main course Blogger-D had ‘Gemme di Mare’ which were sizeable rounded ravioli with a light fish filling, the fish being creamy yet textured and the sauce being slightly herby with a few tomatoes and courgettes, deceptively simple and utterly delicious. Keeping up the seafood theme, I chose ‘Coccella di Paccheri di Frutti di mare’ which was large flattened tubes of pasta buried beneath a bewildering array of shell-dwelling molluscs, claws, suckers and tentacles. This was all sitting in a fishy/garlicky/white wine broth and was utterly gorgeous.
All this and a litre of wine for fifty quid.
We were too full to try either of the two desserts on offer and instead finished off the evening with an espresso via a thick and SWEET Meloncello. A near perfect meal for the modest sum of €50 – we walked back to our apartment full and happy and that night dreamed of all things aquatic.
Previous and subsequent meals at Mi Spizza were all excellent particularly the a whole fish and seafood cooked ‘en papillote’, a lentil and seafood ‘soup’ and a light yet naughty tiramisu. This is a traditional family (Mother and son) run restaurant where they cook as if they were feeding fellow family or friends. All dishes are prepared with generosity and love.
If Mi Spizza is full or closed (it only has seating outside so opening times are subject to the weather), then there is a good second best and only a few yards down the street – unfortunately we didn’t take note of the name. We had 2 very good seafood pastas (€10 a piece) and a litre of good white wine (also €10) and went home happy and satisfied.
You’d be mad to go to Italy without trying a Pizza, so on two occasions we went to the cat-themed A Gambe di Gatto which sits picturesquely in one of the narrow streets just below the main square (Piazza Della Repubblica).
We made the slight mistake of ordering a starter of various deep fried things called a ‘Fantasia’ (€10). Unfortunately the batter was too thick and everything was a bit stodgy and far to heavy to start a bread and cheese based meal. The squid on a skewer and the risotto were ok, the courgette flowers and salt cod disappointing and the deep fried olive a very bad idea, but we saw another couple tucking into this same dish and they were Italian, so evidently the British don’t have the monopoly on the deep fried.
For the main event I decided to keep it simple and ordered a ‘Pizza della Nonna’ (€8) – tomato, mozzarella, garlic, chilli and basil. This proved to be the most delicious (and unusual) pizza I have had in a long career of pizza eating. The base was crisp and seemed to be egg rich and the topping was simply small sweet cherry tomatoes and mozzarella. The mozzarella had been added after the pizza was removed from the oven and so remained unmelted. It was the same mozzarella they sold in the small shop in town. The mozzarella we ate every morning for breakfast and which oozed milk when you bit into it. The most delicious mozzarella you will ever taste.
My co-blogger went for a slightly more elaborate affair of mozzarella, olives, artichoke hearts, ham and mushrooms on tomato sauce (€7.50). The reports were very favourable. To accompany this we chose a very pleasant and fruity local Shiraz (€18) and a bottle of fizzy water (€2.50). They do takeaways but for some reason they do not serve coffee.
We thought we’d try one more place before crowning Mi Spizza the best restaurant in town, so we visited Mudéjar. Looking more like a bar than a restaurant this seemed to be catering for a younger crowd and offered a menu with perhaps a slight ‘modern’ twist. The waiter rushed backwards and forward without seeming to do very much and as a result the service was woefully slow. After ordering our wine took 15 minutes to arrive. I ordered a lentil and king prawn soup thinking it would be similar to the substantial meal I had had previously at Mi Spizza. Disappointingly it turned out to be as described – a small bowl of lentil soup with 2 prawns on top. Blogger-D opted for an octopus and potato salad also assuming this would be turn out to be a whole lot more than the simple description, and again, it wasn’t. Both dishes left us hungry and underwhelmed. We were going to fill up with a dessert and coffee, but by this time 2 hours had passed so we paid the bill (€43) and left. There has not been such a disappointing end to a meal since the Tapas Seven decided it was probably about time someone checked on the kids.
So much for dinner, how about a spot of lunch? Reluctant to waste any precious beach time, we regularly ate at Lido La Casetta – an unassuming bar situated midway along the shoreline. As well as the usual selection of paninis, ice creams and snacks, this place served an excellent range of simple, freshly cooked pasta dishes, most notably the tomato penne and spaghetti vongole. Both were delicious and generously portioned and along with a mixed salad, two large bottles of Nastro Azzurro and 2 espressos came to heart-warming €22. I thought such places existed only in my imagination.
It was interesting to note that on no occasion during any of our meals did we have to sit awkwardly as a waiter with a huge grinder flamboyantly twisted out a few specks of pepper onto our plates – this seems to be an ‘added value’ service only offered in Italian restaurants outside Italy. Also, as a rule Italians tend to eat late, so don’t expect restaurants to start filling up until 9:00.
If you fancy cooking for yourself the old town offers two general small stores (superb mozzarella, parmesan and hams), a greengrocer (anything so long as it\’s seasonal) and a wine shop (good range of local wines) – all excellent. There are a couple of fish shops in the new town down the hill but we never had reason to go.
Scenes from our apartment.