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Travel Image: Castro, Italy
 Photo: Melissa Anderson
Travel Image: Castro, Italy
 Photo: Roberta Casaligg

Castro, Italy: The Spell of the Anemone
By Melissa Anderson

The ricci is still alive when Carlo slices it in half. The spiny black anemone pulses in his hand, a slimy, briny heartbeat. With a quick motion, he scoops out its insides and spreads them over slabs of baguette.

“It’s an aphrodisiac,” Georgio says, pushing the tray toward us. “Va bene! It will make you fall in love.”

We reluctantly accept the bread, like sinners taking communion. I am not in love. It tastes like very fishy sushi. I am just thankful it does not make me vomit on our hosts.

It is 3 a.m., and the day leading up to this is the climax of a string of happy accidents.

We are staying in a posh villa in Castro, at the heel of the boot that is Puglia, Italy. A group of swank gourmets had booked the villa for a week of culinary instruction. An illness derailed the trip a week before it was to occur, and after a flurry of telephone calls, eight virtual strangers arrived to take their place.

The whitewashed villa is huge. When we arrived, we ran through its seven bedrooms like reality show contestants who have just been introduced to their stylish digs. “How did this happen to us?” we kept saying.

We heard that Armani stayed here just before us, and we ravenously devoured a bag of potato chips the designer presumably left behind. The Armani chips only whet our appetite, so we ventured into the bustling town square of crumbling stone buildings in search of pizza. It was well after midnight, and the Italians sitting at various patios were just digging into their first courses.

The Italians, with their Mediterranean skin and late business hours, did not know what to make of the pale California girls who visit the gelato stand every two hours, asking repeatedly for an ATM. The only other foreign tourists are Italians from the north.

Word traveled that we are staying in the Silvestrini villa at the end of the road, and by 2 a.m., a group of teenage Castro boys had slipped onto the grounds, eager for a peek at reclining American beauties. What they got was terrified, shrieking girls who ran barefoot to the local bar where their companions were learning the finer points of limoncello shots (lemon liquor).

Half of the locals in the tiny bar ran with us to rescue them. Our posse chased away the teens, and some of the locals stayed to keep us safe.

After an hour of laughter and several bottles of wine, we are back to 3 a.m., and the quivering aphrodisiac in Carlo’s hand. Carlo has braved the black Adriatic Sea in these chill predawn hours to scoop this ricci from the sea floor. The Italian man’s ardor for the easy charms of American women may seem clichéd, but his effort is undeniably impressive.

A year later it is apparent the ricci may have had some latent effect. One of the girls has dedicated herself to Italian lessons and writes to one of our bar rescuers who is serving in Iraq.

A faint scar on my ankle forever seals the memory of riding on the back of a motorcycle to the top of the city, where Castro intersects with the sky and the ruins of a church. None can banish the memory of the aquamarine blue of the Adriatic, the whitewashed stone buildings, the fresh peach gelato, or even the omnipresent ricci that seems to replenish itself despite frantic harvesting for the annual festival.


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