The tomatoes taste richer on Capri. Something in the Mediterranean sunshine and volcanic soil imbues a cleaner, more tangible flavor. The mozzarella tastes fresh and creamy against the crisp body of the tomato, against the familiar tang of basil. Dizzy with dry red wine and the sun bouncing off the blue-and-white striped umbrellas scattered across the rocky beach below, I lick at clear drops of tomato juice streaming down my wrists.
La Fontelina perches on a remote corner of the island, a breezy boat-ride away from the dilapidated fisherman’s port, gelato stands and cobblestone stairwells that meandered into the glamorous belly of the city. The restaurant, enclosed only by a tastefully thatched ceiling, opens up to a small inlet defined by towering, golden cliffs. The water is warm, blue and thick with bubblegum-pink jellyfish and naked, tanned bodies shimmering shamelessly in the afternoon light.
The boats, docked and bobbing against the shore’s knobbed contours, look like toys from my perch, where I sit greedily licking at my tomato-juice wrists like a happy, drunk cat stretched out in the sun.
My friends and I have ordered simply so as to taste each ingredient like a piece of art in and of itself, unmarred by another. When the server brings bowl after bowl of ricotta ravioli nestled in beds of marinara, we eat silently. Slowly cutting into the thin, hand-made pasta with our teeth, probing our tongues into the soft, rich give of the ricotta. The sauce, like the tomatoes, is cleaner and more than I’m used to. The tomatoes are enough in themselves for a sauce, flavorful and refreshing, only lightly seasoned with basil and oregano, almost sweet against the wine’s bite.
While I eat, I lock laughing eyes with my friends. They glance up, for a moment in time, their cheeks fat with pasta. We taste bites of each other’s same dish, shave off scalloped edges of one another’s ravioli. Seeking community and confirmation that we are all lost in the same soft, buttery delusion.
I remember the meal most for its small weight in my body for the rest of that afternoon. Afterwards, we took a boat past the toned bodies slipping through the waves to the Blue Grotto just down the coast. A handful of gondolas sidled up to our boat.
Violent blue eyes peered out from the nut-brown folds of an old man’s face, stained and creased by the fierce Italian sun. Rearranging the lines in his face, he smiled up at me and offered a hand that felt like wood, honest and warm. I clambered into the narrow, dilapidated gondola. Cool water kissed my face. The old, blue-eyed man rowed us to a small black hole that waves had punched into the island’s steep, craggy cliffs.
The old man motioned with those nut-brown hands to lay back. Confused, I pressed the knobs of my spine to the convex floor of the damp, rocking hull. To my surprise, the old man did the same. He wrapped his calloused hands around a frayed rope attached to a bolt in the cliff and stretched into the inky abyss. Hand over hand, he tugged our horizontal frames through the tiny opening. I held my breath as wide blue skies gave way to black.
I sat up. My eyes took a moment to adjust, so the grotto came alive in pieces. The water beneath us glowed a violent blue the same hue as his eyes. Thin gondolas danced rhythmically, silhouetted against the azure, luminescent world below. Oars and black fingers kissed the water’s surface. Further into the gloom, I could just make out the edges of this holy, blue cavern.
“Jump in.” His words, soaked heavily with the lilting Italian cadence, surprised me. But the whole of this place seemed to agree. I eagerly clambered out of the gondola and into the water’s warm, glowing embrace. My skin looked black against the water’s glow.
And then the old man with the violent blue eyes began to sing. His voice, deep and buttery as the ravioli warm in my belly, rumbled and echoed Italian opera through the grotto. Voices joined in, tumbling from black fingers and shifting silhouettes, harmonizing and rocking to the same lazy, rolling rhythm of those boats on this tiny, glowing fragment of the sea.