Grand dining on Ischia

I received an invitation to celebrate the 60th birthday of Kwabenar LaVerte Mathis, an old and dear friend of almost 50 years. The celebration was held on Ischia, a resort island off the coast of Naples, Italy, that is known for its thermal pools, steam baths and therapeutic waters.

The trip, May 26-June 3, ’03, was booked and coordinated by Liz Morris of Omega Travel (phone 703/246-9259 or fax 888/380-9805). The airfare was $725 round trip, and my single room at the 4-star Hotel Hermitage & Park Terme cost $844.

I was thankful that dinner for us had been arranged at the Clipper restaurant on the waterfront. The staff prepared a delicious mixed grill of fresh seafood, salad, wine, liqueur and dessert for $50. It was the first time I had a salad with ripe cherry tomatoes, not the hard kind we get in the States. Needless to say, it was wonderful and welcomed after a long travel day.

When I arrived for breakfast, several people from the group were already seated. No one sat alone for long; new guests would introduce themselves to whomever was sitting alone and soon fill up another table. There were over 60 travelers in the group from the U.S. and the Virgin Islands.

After lunch at the hotel ($25), we toured the island. At one of the shops the owner gave each of us a glass of Limoncello, a liqueur made from the famous island lemons. They also sold a melon liqueur and grappa, which I had never tasted before. It was as clear and as potent as vodka.

I accompanied some of the ladies into town to exchange money and shop. Before I left home I had bought euros at the rate of €75 per $100; the exchange had dropped to €72 per $100.

The many boutiques offered ample opportunities to purchase unique gifts, including clothing, shoes, jewelry, pottery and local liqueurs. We walked leisurely down the winding streets, visiting almost every shop along the way, finding new restaurants and sampling the many flavors of gelato.

Several in our group returned to the hotel to pamper themselves at the spa. The California massage was one of the most popular. Lasting a relaxing hour, it was soothing rather than vigorous, and everyone felt it was well worth the time.

That evening we dined at the Neptunus Restaurant in San Angelo. The owner, Giuseppe, made everyone feel at home. The meal started with sparkling wine and went on forever, about 10 courses. I had never had fresh anchovies before and the Neptunus chef served them grilled and deep fried. Delicious! The meal cost about $45.

The next day we took the ferry from Ischia to Naples, then went by bus to Pompeii ($60). Pompeii wasn’t the only city destroyed by Mount Vesuvius, but it has become the most famous. It was quite beautiful, evens in ruins.

One still can see the vibrant mosaic work and frescoes. The ancient ovens that were used to bake bread look very much like the pizza ovens of today, and a stone lingam imbedded in the cobblestones pointed the way to the ancient red-light district. We also saw plaster casts of people and animals caught and encased by volcanic ash.

The closing dinner was held at L’Albergo della Regina Isabella. Hors d’oeuvres and sparkling white wine were served on the terrace. The group sang “Lean On Me” and came forward to pay homage to LaVerte in poems, remembrances and dance.

Of course, the food was wonderful: Neapolitan fried appetizers, marinated mixed fishes, flat pasta with mussels and clams in a rosé sauce, risotto in champagne sauce, baked sea bass in a salt crust, mixed green salad, Regina Isabella lemon sorbet, baked loin of veal with truffle sauce, château baked potatoes, aubergines Sorrentine style, buttered spinach, fresh sliced pineapple served in the shell and birthday cake.

The meal, at $70, was accompanied by a white Biancolella-d’Ambra, a red Per e Palummo-d’Ambra, a Vino dei Poeti sparkling wine and espresso and Limoncello.

It was a wonderful trip. Only LaVerte could have invited people to travel halfway around the world and gotten such a positive response. All of his friends, without exception, were full of the joy of the moment. It was truly something to write home about.

Washington, D.C.