“…roaming these quiet, serious streets felt an awful lot like walking through Philadelphia (give or take a couple centuries).”

Salerno, Italy: May 7-8, 2019

American Food & Drink is one of the many quirky shops you’ll find in Salerno’s old quarters.

It’s a relic of outrageous limited edition food items from my 90s childhood (that have since been discontinued in the States) and a couple long-lasting staples: Oreo-O’s cereal, Pringles rice fusion snacks, Star Wars energy drinks, sweet chili Doritos, excessively buttered Popcorn, marshmallow fluff and Reese’s peanut butter in jars, and insane flavors of Skittles and M&M’s and Fanta sodas. If I had to sum up Salerno in one image, it would be that window-front, an absolute glorification of the gluttony of Western culture. On the main drag, like a knock-off Vegas strip, you can chow down on fish and chips and watch soccer at the British pub, indulge on sizzling fajita platters and frozen margaritas at the Tex-Mex saloon, or snap a picture with the plastic pirate out front of the nautical seafood restaurant. Any Italian restaurants that were on this stretch were over-the-top Italian, opera blaring and posters of pepperoni pizza on the windows, like you’re in Epcot’s version of Italy, rather than…actual Italy.

But if you knew where to look, and how to navigate the odd open and close times, this was a true FOODIE city, and so a city all for us.

Like every other stop on our tour, we timed our arrival to Salerno dead in the middle of the afternoon siesta after a harrowing bus journey from Amalfi, our tour bus teetering on the business edge of fall-to-your-death cliffs plummeting to the aquamarine waters below. What could be a ten minute journey connecting the cities via one causeway across the Tyrrhenian Sea ends up being a tedious, forty-five minute mountainside snake, often coming to halting stops and yielding to oncoming cars and Vespas at stalemate corners. Breezing through little pockets of beachy resort towns I desperately wanted to visit like Minori and Maiori and Cetara and Vietri Sul Mare, the bus window a mere arm’s reach away from someone’s bedroom, we finally descended into the port city of Salerno at its marine terminal, shipping boxes of primary colors being hauled onto freight liners, billboards overhead advertising talk and text minutes through some cellular carrier. It could have been Hoboken.

We were only here for two days before heading cross-country to Bari, so didn’t get to see much outside the central area of the city, which was a lot smaller than I expected. There was a clean but bare bones waterfront promenade running the length of the city, a large, lush park with benches, a wide, traffic-heavy boulevard (a.k.a. tourist central), followed by the pedestrian-only historic center a few blocks in, every street varying in French Colonial architecture of different pastels: peach, sunshine yellow, periwinkle. The center plaza is where we met our Airbnb host, a middle aged hip guy in a leather jacket smoking a cigarette (they all smoke cigarettes) with near-impeccable English and a penchant for mixing up idioms. We drank espressos outside a modern cafe while his wife cleaned our place and got it ready for us, he explained.

“Parli Italiano?” he began, and I shuffled through the DuoLingo section of my brain’s many open tabs, landing on “Un poco.” He chose wisely and continued in English, asking where we were from (“Philly” – *confused look* – “Philadelphia” – “Oh, like the movie!”); us asking where in the States he’s been (“I’ve only been to Seattle. But New York is like…” – *slaps table* – “…feet must be on the ground there before I die!”); me forgetting not everyone has seen NYC as often as we have and earmarking for the future to not take it for granted; him continuing, “I watch that uhh…CSI show a lot! It seems like everyone in America is running around shooting each other on the streets!”; us chuckling but not denying the unfortunate truth to that statement; him asking where in Italy we’re going next (“Bari”), and giving us the best sage advice: “Ahh, nice city. But don’t wear jewelry…uhh, gold…necklaces, watches….” Then, he gestured vaguely around him, “You know…when you’re out underneath the stars.” I think he was trying to say not to walk around at night in not-so-great areas with a target on your back, but this was way more poetic. I’m going to use that one later, I noted.

He finished by giving us the same runaround he probably gives all his guests: the layout of the city, the actual good places to eat (i.e., NOT tourist trap row), some nearby day trips, and a suggestion for a sushi place if we were into that. (We now knew where we were eating that night). At last, our place was ready. It was a charming one-bedroom apartment off the main road, hidden in a narrow alleyway behind a church whose bell clamored loudly every hour on the hour. It was the most nicely decorated of the bunch, with Spanish influence in tile and wall sconces, and abstract marionette art on every square inch. We ventured out to the centro storico for a bite to eat at Pizzaportafoglio (literally: pizza wallet), a hipster establishment that could’ve been in the middle of Fishtown with a chalkboard wall and kitschy pizza names, and which pizza was eons better than the one in Naples.

Everything else was closed as we strolled the remainder of the old quarters that felt like a timid, PG version of Naples, and into the new fashion district, separated only by the vast piazza with New Orleans-style provisions around its perimeters, salmon-colored stone and lanky palm trees a la Rodeo Drive. We longingly window-shopped at the high-end designer stores, snapping photos of the funny American-sounding names of the food places: “Yoself” for custom fro-yo and colorful crunchy toppings, “Mr. Whippy” for gelatos, “Alcoholic” for vodka cocktails. Having seen all there was to see here, we headed back down to check out the park at the ocean no one swam in, its rocky shoal keeping the few ripples of wave at bay. I was anticipating food trucks or cafes at the very least, but was met with a relatively quiet, routine place where locals convened to walk hand in hand, jog with headphones in, or take a seat on a bench to eat a sandwich on their lunch hour or make up or break up.

Taking a seat at one of these benches under a squat palm tree, I realized far too quick that it was already beginning to feel a bit purgatorial here, reaching a literal and figurative midpoint where we inadvertently flipped the switch to travel autopilot. I wouldn’t go so far as saying it was boring (I was still in brand new territory, after all), but roaming these quiet, serious streets felt an awful lot like walking through Philadelphia (give or take a couple centuries). People LIVED here, and we were just a nominal little part of their daily minutiae, another sneaker disappearing around the corner, a squiggle signature on a cafe check, a new face on your walk to grab this morning’s newspaper. I see them in the background of my food-in-the-air photos, tired from a day at work on their feet, dreading that meeting tomorrow, worried about their ailing parents, remembering their child’s appointments. Salerno was their home, and it wasn’t always exciting or new or interesting. At the end of the day, it was just another city, after all.

We scoped out the restaurant right by the park that our host recommended, Me Geisha, a trendy, low-lit sushi bar, already knowing that arriving precisely at their 5:30 opening time was downright rude, but we were starved. They, as expected, told us to come back for 6:45. It was well worth the wait. Feeling woefully underdressed and dumpy in the sleek, velvet booths, amidst the strikingly beautiful brunette servers, we Googled our way through the all-Italian menu, figuring that any sushi is good sushi. An extremely close second to Shabu in Amalfi, some memorable rolls included something with ahi tuna and lemon crunchies on top, and an incredible roll with kobe beef and sriracha at $30 a pop. With two bottles of white on ice, it was by far the priciest meal we had in Italy, but entirely worth every Euro, even when they (maybe not accidentally) added something called a “Pornstar Martini” to our bill, which I brought to their attention with a broken “Non abbiamo questa.” I burned behind the ears, but was proud that I – sort of – remembered how to get my point across without looking it up. Wanting a sweet, we headed back to Mr. Whippy in the fashion district for some gelato (sorry not sorry, one of those Italian food items that was way over-hyped for me). We fell asleep cramped up on the Airbnb’s loveseat watching Italy’s version of Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, every so often being woken by the loud group of friends drinking in the alleyway beneath our open balcony windows.

Our second and final day there, we awoke and attempted to take a crack at the strange stovetop coffee pot in our apartment, that same antique-looking pewter spout that was in Atrani that we never learned to use because of the readily-available cappuccinos at the cafe. We failed miserably, moving on to the backup plan of “American” coffee that was essentially a plastic carafe you plug in that heats up water to pour over filtered bags of ground coffee. It came out the color of brass and tasted like watered-down sludge, but we were desperate for caffeine so each trudged through a teacup of it. Not sure what we wanted to do with our day there, we perused the in-house brochures and pamphlets provided, ruling out Amalfi and Naples for the obvious reasons that we were just there, and Paestum (ancient Greek ruins an hour away in the countryside), as coordinating multiple trains to buses to taxis was not worth looking at a few columns from days of yore (at least not to us). We instead decided to explore Salerno a little further, first purchasing our train tickets for the next day to Bari in-person and in-advance, so we headed out in the direction of the train station, down the entire fashion walk. I got hungry for a mid-morning bite and stopped in a weird convenient store for a delectably almondy, crispy, powdered sugary sflogliatelle that was far superior to the one in Naples, even if it was already hours old.

After confusing the hell out of the ticket cashier by saying we wanted to go to “BARE-REE,” and him correcting us after I finally just pointed at the map, “Oh! BAH-DI!”, we spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering further inland, where the centro storico meets the confusing 1/3 modern, 1/3 mid-century, 1/3 medieval residential sections. We ambled into the courtyard of a gorgeous old church with the tombs of some apostle right outside and lovely hanging plants, past the gorgeous green space where a single bistro chair sits in its own secret garden, and underneath the skeleton of an ancient viaduct dripping in ivy, a crumbling infrastructure from the B.C. days. I’ll give Salerno one thing…it’s definitely not lacking in urban charm.

We worked up quite the appetite aimlessly wandering and went on the hunt for a local, authentic Salerno lunch spot, but it was, of course, the afternoon siesta when hunger struck (why didn’t we time our growling bellies just an hour earlier?) The main strip of Westernized restaurants that never close ended up being our saving grace and so we picked the least tacky of them all, In Rada, a decently classy bistro with outdoor tents for dining and a great selection of pizzas, albeit overpriced. We sunk our teeth into surprisingly delicious focaccia-style flatbreads drizzled in heaping tablespoons of rich olive oil and topped with prosciutto, arugula, parmesan, tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella (we never NOT ordered this wherever we went), and a hefty coating of black pepper. We washed them down with Peronis in tall glasses and I reminded myself not to judge a tourist trap by its worst tourist, but rather, by its best food. Meandering down to the sandy shore, we sat and lazily people-watched, already discussing where to eat dinner, deciding we’d wait until very late (around 8 PM or so) since any earlier was frowned upon.

Night fell and we probed the narrow alleyways of the old corridor, hangrily ferreting out any place with available seats. After an hour of searching, what we would come to stumble upon would end up being the most memorable meal during our entire two-week stint in all of Italy. It was Cicirinella and it was quintessential, hole-in-the-wall, pure Italian magic: splendid from the second we eyed its open-air kitchen and walked its crooked floors under the domed, cavernous stone ceilings, even better when we were seated next to the inlaid, dusty wooden shelving of hundreds of bottles of aged wine, and a cherry on top when we were poured complimentary glasses of prosecco to pair with the tapenade and focaccia for the table. The menu was simple, the dishes clean-cut and flawless, the servers gorgeous. We ate and drank our way much too fast through every course, popping open a bottle of white to first dig into the pasta (smooth and creamy zucchini risotto, rich spaghetti puttanesca, al dente), then the entrees (massive metal pots of fresh, plump, salty and sandy mussels taking a steaming lemon and white wine bath), and finally, making room for desserts (panna cotta with a nutella mirror glaze and a deconstructed puff pastry covered in nutella). Very few meals in my life have come close to topping this.

We hustled through designer row on the way to the train station the following morning, still half asleep and sort of dreading the very long ride across the country to our next destination. Hiking backpack straps digging into my shoulder muscles, I observed the passersby in the neighborhood lazily beginning their routine as the sunshine first peaked onto the salmon stepping stone: the business owners unlocking their doors for a busy day of shopping, the servers cleaning up espresso cups during the morning rush, the old man bunkering down his newsstand fort, toothpick in his mouth, and I realized that we, too, were passersby to them, the American couple with their green and red backpacks either coming from here or going, they weren’t sure which.

I complained that we didn’t at least buy a cappuccino or one more sflogliatelle at the hip cafe before hitting the road. But we were cutting it close and needed to find our platform. As we waited, about to hop aboard and immerse ourselves in the humdrum of a whole brand new city, I negatively thought about all the stuff we didn’t do, places we didn’t see, food and drink we didn’t imbibe on. What they don’t tell you about traveling is that, at some point, you’re gonna reach a point of exhaustion, and that a lot of the exhaustion is a constant, nagging pressure that you’re not doing enough with your time and that you must SEE and DO. But as we stepped up to our cabin and took a seat, my shoulders relaxed, my jaw unclenched, my forehead loosened, and I drifted off to a dreamless nap, finally content with what we DID do and see. Because although Salerno was, truthfully, just another city, it assessed my travel exhaustion and said, “Come in, take a seat, make yourself at home,” quietly serving me a home cooked meal, and asking nothing else of me.

© 2020 Andrea Festa

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