Porto Santo Stefano: Romance Atop a Cliff

Trattoria da Orlando i

Trattoria da Orlando is located on what is perhaps the most romantic terrace on the Argentario promontory, about two hours from Rome and three hours from Florence. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Trattoria da Orlando

Trattoria da Orlando is located on what is perhaps the most romantic terrace on the Argentario promontory, about two hours from Rome and three hours from Florence.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Porto Santo Stefano is the main fishing village in Italy's Argentario promontory. i

Porto Santo Stefano, home to Orlando, is the main fishing village on the Argentario promontory. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Porto Santo Stefano is the main fishing village in Italy's Argentario promontory.

Porto Santo Stefano, home to Orlando, is the main fishing village on the Argentario promontory.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR

Pesce Anyone?

A brief glossary of Italian names of local fish:

Scorfano — Scorpion fish or rock fish

Spigola — Sea bass

Orata — Sea bream

Dentice — Dentex

Rana Pescatrice, Rospo — Anglerfish

Gallinella, Cappone — Piper gurnard

Rombo — Turbot

Triglia — Red mullet

Pesce Spada — Swordfish

Tonno — Tuna

Cozze — Mussels

Vongole — Clams

Gamberi — Shrimp

Seppie — Squid

Polpo — Octopus

A two-hour drive north of Rome will take you to the Argentario promontory and its main fishing village, Porto Santo Stefano. Early evening is a time of intense activity, and a great spectacle: seagulls fly overhead, following the fleet as fishermen come into port with their daily catch, the fish still jumping and snapping as they are distributed to the many restaurants lined up along the pier.

My favorite is Trattoria da Orlando at the end of the town, in its oldest section, the one dotted with fin de siecle villas perched on cliffs. The original restaurant dates from immediately after World War II and served as a canteen for workers rebuilding the piers blown up by the occupying Nazis as they were retreating northward from the Allies' advance.

Orlando is small — it seats only 30 indoors. After Easter, it moves outdoors where it seats 50 on what is perhaps the most romantic terrace on the promontory. Framed by pines and a jasmine arbor, diners can contemplate the sea and starry sky, while sailboats ply the waters headed for the islands of Elba, Montecristo and Corsica beyond.

It's hard to eat badly in Porto Santo Stefano, but owner Andrea Bulli and his wife Gisella have gone several steps beyond the usual seaside fare: spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with small clams) and frittura mista (fried calamari and shrimp).

When they took over the restaurant in 1999, they threw out the previous owner's menu, infuriating old clients but also winning many new ones with Gisella's imaginative take on old classics.

The appetizers and pasta dishes are especially intriguing: for example, souffle of sea bass, strudel of anglerfish, red tuna tartare, seafood carbonara and spaghetti d'Orlando (in which the clams, mussels, shrimp and calamari are chopped so fine they are turned into a fine seafood powder coating each string of pasta).

When it comes to the main course, Gisella Bulli follows the key rule of Italian seafood cuisine — do as little as possible to the fish, adding just the right herbs or a few slivers of garlic when necessary (no self-respecting Italian chef will ever drown seafood in a cream sauce).

Orlando serves the main course — depending on the season and daily catch — prepared one of a few ways: grilled, oven-roasted in a thick shell of rock salt, al cartoccio (baked in parchment paper), or my favorite, what's known as all'acqua pazza (literally, crazy water) — poached in water with garlic, olive oil and plum tomatoes.

As for wines, Orlando has a large selection of Italian and French origin, but the emphasis is on the territorio, the local region, with a plethora of Tuscan labels such as Pittigliano and Vernaccia whites and Morellino di Scansano and Chianti reds.

Desserts include homemade crostate (fruit pies) and cantucci (thin cookies made with almonds and pine nuts) that can be accompanied by Tuscan after-dinner wines such as Vin Santo or Moscato.

Trattoria da Orlando — Via Breschi 3, Porto Santo Stefano. Telephone: 39-0564-812-788. Three courses including wine from about 35 euros a head. From Rome, the restaurant is a two-hour drive northwest; from Florence, it's a three-hour drive southwest. E-mail: andreabulli@yahoo.it.

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