Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Europe Eating: Seaside Dining @ Sole Bar & Restaurant, Rapallo, Italy (or, a Taste of Spontaneity)

For our trip to Europe several months ago, we decided not to plan too far in advance.  We would enjoy it so much more if we didn't lock ourselves down to staying for a certain number of nights in a certain place.  The end result was that we had to pay through our noses for what accommodation was left after the best hotels were booked out, especially in the four cities where, we discovered later, our visit had coincided with Radiohead concerts (in fact the band followed us back to New Zealand and had a concert in Auckland too!).

Someone trying to sell a Radiohead ticket.
In the spirit of adventure, we also hired a car for part of the journey. Driving in Italy was certainly an experience! Before we even managed to get into the traffic, we had to wait "15 minutes" (this is Italian for an hour) for the rental vehicle to arrive, because we had requested an automatic and they had given us a manual replacement without warning, which meant they had to send yet another car over from the airport, a larger, more fuel-guzzling and expensive one.

We were terrified of driving in the cities: even without having to operate a clutch, it was too much trying to dodge pedestrians, remember to stay on the right side of the road, and worry about possibly damaging the Audi A5 with 300km on the odometer (that's right, 300km, not 300,000km!). Once we made it to the autostrada though, it was smooth sailing—our journey from Bologna westwards, along the coast towards Nice, was mostly on toll roads, where bridge after tunnel after bridge meant no mountain was an obstacle.

Our first day of driving also coincided with us having absolutely nowhere to stay.  Up till now, we had generally booked accommodation at least the night before.  This time, not having found the time, crossed with not being sure how far we could get in the car, meant we were in the wild without a plan.  Perhaps we thought we could sleep in the car in the worst instance.

After failing to find a parking space in Florence, and giving up on visiting the touristy Pisa, we had a horrendous lunch at an Autogrill (restaurant at a service stop on the side of the autostrada), before reaching the beautiful walled city of Lucca.  We did some research over drinks, and decided to push on ahead.  Our target was now a hostel in the mountains of Moconesi.

It was a good thing we aimed to get there early, because we had underestimated how difficult the narrow roads would be.  By the time we made it to the hostel, it past 6pm, and we were hungry.  Unfortunately, there was no one at reception.  Although we met a guest while waiting, there was still no staff there over an hour later. Trying the ring the hostel's number failed miserably. It was now dark, and we decided to give up and go elsewhere. There was no obvious other place to stay in Moconesi, so we selected a hotel at Rapallo, a half hour's drive away on the Ligurian coast.  As you can see, this meant making our way down crazy, windy roads, where we were tail-gated by impatient locals (who had much more practical cars) and nearly had a head-on collision with a bus heading up the mountain!

This gives you an idea how windy the mountain roads were.
It turns out it was a good thing the hostel owner in Moconesi never showed up, because we would never have experienced one of the highlights of our trip otherwise.  Our hotel in Rapallo (we just managed to check in before they closed for the night) was a mansion compared to the run-down and more expensive apartments we found elsewhere.  Our suite in the 17th century building had a sea view, a fully functional kitchen complete with dishwasher, plenty of wood-panelled cupboards and a dining table, a separate bedroom opening out onto a private courtyard, a sofa bed in the lounge area, and a massive bathroom.  If only we could have stayed for longer!

What's more, it was just a few doors down from a couple of bakers (where we bought our breakfast the next morning, including a chickpea-based thin pancake which is a local specialty) and just a short stroll to the water.  There, we had a very late dinner while looking at the impressively lit Castello sul Mare, a castle in the sea built in 1551 to fend the residents against frequent pirate attacks.

Beautiful seaside castle setting for our dinner.
There were actually a few restaurants along this strip, but we were glad we chose to eat at Sole.  This restaurant not only had impeccable service, a huge drinks menu (including a delicious range of granitas), and a good Ligurian vegetarian option, their seafood was simple and stunning.

The tuna tartare was fantastic, but the most memorable dish on the table was the taglierini al granchio, translated on their blackboard as "fresh spaghetti with crab".  We had come to expect great pasta everywhere in Italy, but this surpassed our expectations.  Even before we tasted this exquisite dish, our breaths were taken away by its presentation: served in the crab's shell, with a pair of pliers so we could crack the legs open and suck out every last morsel.

Special of the day: crab spaghetti in the shell, and a tuna tartare.
The desserts, too, did not fail to impress, with the waiter coming out with a blowtorch to create the sugary crust on our crème brûlée.  Sure, we've seen this done before, but it was a fitting end to a what turned out to be a beautiful evening.  Thank goodness for the missing hostel staff.

Crème brûlée for dessert.

Restaurant Details

Sole Bar & Restaurant
Via Montebello,14, Rapallo Province of Genoa, Italy
+39 0185 50241

Opening hours:
Tuesdays to Fridays 10am - 1am
Saturdays 10am - 2am
Sundays 10am - 1am

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