When I was 26 years old living as a student in Florence, I befriended an American woman – also a student – who was dating a man from Positano.
This woman brought me to that mystical town wedged into the craggy mountainside just south of Naples three times. Each time, I found myself disappearing into the rough slate stone and became one with the landscape. A form of creative camouflaging that emboldened me to court a wilder, more feral part of me.
It was traveling at its finest – foreign and visually stunning surroundings serve as an invitation to peel back a layer of protective tissue, revealing a part of yourself normally kept tucked away. The psychological shock of being in a new place reveals this. It’s no wonder that, most times, these parts of ourselves disappear the moment we step back into our regular lives, which are designed to accentuate that which is dependable, predictable, eminently knowable.
The plight wrought by the pandemic has a complicated multiplicity to it. There’s our collective plight that spans a vast expanse of loss – from not being able to gather in groups to exercise or share a coffee to being forced to say good-bye to a loved one through a hospital window. It’s unclear what the ramifications are for the health and well-being of a human race that has been largely cut-off from human contact for more than a year now. I suspect it’s a thread we will unravel for years to come.
Not being able to travel has, for me, prompted a sort of spiritual existential crisis. I travel to learn who I am. Without being able to physically dislocate, I’m left to my routine feeling adrift, remote, suffused with longing to know myself with fresh, feral eyes.
In Positano I met a man with blue eyes that had no bottom, no origin point. An ideal place to lose oneself. He was so strange, so beguiling, so entrancing that I couldn’t resist tethering myself to him.
He was unequivocal and plain-spoken about his unavailability. It was only ever going to be physical for him. Yet I was sure if I stared into those eyes hard enough for long enough, I would become the person he was sure he didn’t want.
It was on one of those trips to Positano that I ate the best sandwich of my life. It was nighttime. We were on a beach. There was a live band, a round full moon hanging above us illuminating the dancing crowd with the strength of a stage spotlight, and a raucous, bon vivant-type atmosphere that can only be described as intoxicating.
The sandwich? Couldn’t have been simpler. An Italian Italian beef or sorts. A hoagie roll, sliced ¾ of the way down the side, dunked in jus, then stuffed with not one but two sausages and a heaping serving of sauteed rapini. My feet sank into the cool sand as I ate standing up, quick to lick up the meat juices dripping down my fingers. As soon as I finished, I went back to the tent for another one.
I asked my friend’s partner how to make it at home and he shrugged and put his hands in the air – Brianna, è semplice. The sausage in the juice with the bread and the rapini è basta cosi. Semplice. He made it sound as simple as learning to tie your shoe or play a C scale on the piano. Indeed, if we want it to be, cooking can be just that.
Here’s a recipe for my favorite way to eat rapini, my favorite bitter green of all the bitter greens. Maybe it’s because of all the olive oil, but this tastes so luxurious to me I sometimes forget I’m eating vegetables. It’s especially delicious on a sandwich, either with a smooth cheese like stracciatella or braised Italian sausages like that one night in Positano with a crowd full of people dancing under a full moon.
Sauteed Rapini with Garlic and Chili
- 2 bunches rapini, ends trimmed, rinsed
- ¼ C olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 T chili flake
Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Salt generously. Blanch the rapini until just, about 1 minutes. Drain well in a colander and spread out of a sheet tray to cool.
In a wok or a medium-sized skillet, gently heat the garlic in the olive oil. Cook over medium-low heat until tender and slightly colored, 4-5 minutes. Add the chili flake and let sizzle for 30 seconds. Turn up the heat to medium-high, add the rapini and sauté vigorously until the rapini is coated with the oil and wilted in the pan, 3-5 minutes.
Once cool, squeeze the greens dry and roughly chop.
This dish is good served warm or room temp.