Evening in Naples. The whole population was strolling through the squares and along the major streets, and we drifted with them, looking for a restaurant. There didn’t seem to be any on the main streets.
Then we looked uphill. (Like most of Italy, everywhere in Naples is uphill from everywhere else.) Forty or fifty feet above us hung a restaurant sign! And getting there only required a short stretch of mountaineering up the narrow side street. (And apologies to anyone who lives with hills. I’m used to New Jersey, where we consider the average floor hilly. Italy is different.)
It was a little place, with quick, friendly service. We studied the menus for a few minutes and made our selections, then told the waiter what we wanted. A little pasta, some chicken for my husband, some rabbit for me, a little wine.
Or we thought we told him. A few minutes later the waiter was back with salad and some of that wonderful sourdough Neapolitan bread. We hadn’t ordered salad, but maybe it was included. And it was very good. Then, when we had finished the salad, the waiter returned with the centerpiece of our meal.
And what a fish. About a foot long, poised upright in the dish as if it were still swimming, perfectly baked. The waiter turned it from one side to another so we could admire it, then carefully separated the flesh from the skeleton and served one fillet to each of us.
Well, what could we do? We have some restaurant Italian, but not enough to deal with a situation like this. So we ate the fish, and it tasted wonderful. It was the best garbled dinner we’ve ever had, so good that when we got home I did a little cookbook and fish store research, and I’ve been trying to copy The Fish ever since. I’ve come close; but it’s hard to equal that mix of perfect presentation and complete surprise.
(How to cook The [Jersey] Fish:
Take a whole fish, two or three pounds, preferably something in the bass family. I think the original Fish was a bronzini.
The fish should be cleaned and scaled, no more.
Sprinkle lightly inside and out with salt and rub with lemon juice and olive oil.
Settle the fish upright in a baking dish long enough to hold it and put it in a hot oven, 400 to 450 degrees, for about twenty minutes.
Coax the meat away from the bones and serve. You’ll be left with the tail, fins, head, and bones in the pan.
Have a nice glass of Italian wine with The Fish, and be happy.)