Lingering memories of an Italian feast

Isn’t it strange how a meal at an unfamiliar restaurant can suddenly whisk you back to a memorable dinner from another place and time?
That happened to me the other night while I was enjoying dinner with friends at Nico & Vali, a family-owned Italian restaurant in Plymouth. It was my first visit, but I immediately felt at home. The staff was friendly. The rustic décor, open kitchen and a cupboard stocked with sauces, olives and pasta, created the warm ambiance of an Italian home, and I found myself drifting back to the Amalfi Coast.
One evening last summer, after a long day kayaking along the rocky Mediterranean coastline, my friends and I hopped on a bus from Amalfi to another seaside village, Praiano, in search of a small wine bar recommended by a co-worker. It took us a while – and a bit of walking – to find the Vivaro Wine Bar but it was well worth the effort. The tiny restaurant, perched high on a cliff high above the sea, was a one-man show.
Chef Gennaro greeted us, poured wine, and offered bread, even as he tended to other customers drifting in from here and there. The gregarious Gennaro had command of his bar, not much bigger than your average living room, and welcoming with walls painted deep sea blue. The furnishings were simple and soothing: white wicker-and-wood chairs, tables draped in white cloths and window-wells filled with jewel-toned bottles of wine.
When the chef returned to take our orders, he supplied no menus. Gennaro simply asked what we liked and retreated to the kitchen to stir, chop and create. More bread and a Caprese salad arrived. I can’t recall exactly what my friends ordered – some sort of pasta with a meat sauce – but I couldn’t resist fettuccini with fresh mussels and oysters from the sea below, his recommendation. Served in a light wine sauce, the meal was a feast, and much more than I could manage. A plate of Pecorino and Parmesano with a dab of honey and balsamic completed our dinner.
How Gennaro managed to host, wait, pour wine and cook in an even such a small restaurant still amazes me. But his hospitality, coupled with a sumptuous fare, the casual, comfortable atmosphere, and stunning view of the Mediterranean combined to create an unforgettable meal and evening. I can’t help but drift back.

Greg Tasker
Greg Tasker is Detroit News Arts and Entertainment Editor and has been writing about travel for more than a decade. His travel stories have appeared in AAA Living, Frommer's Budget Travel, Scouting, AMC Outdoors, Vermont Life and Island Life.