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Footloose in Italy

Good Food and a Slow Pace on the Isle of Ischia

November 22, 1987|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

ISCHIA, Italy — It's difficult to understand why the licentious Emperor Tiberius chose to bypass this lovely island in the Bay of Naples to build his villa and satiate his appetite for the bizarre on nearby Capri in the 1st Century.

Capri has become an ultra-chic watering hole taxed to capacity by summer crowds, while emerald-green Ischia still goes about things in the old way and in its own good time.

Indeed, locals invariably greet each other with the island's traditional Che cosa mange oggi, "What are you eating today?" It's heard almost as often as Ciao in other parts of Italy, proving that good food is still a basic and very important part of the simple island life.

Ischia loses a measure of that simplicity during spring and fall, when its many mineral and thermal spas are most active with foreign visitors. And while the Italians come here on holiday in summer, somehow the island manages to absorb both groups without undue chaos.

Ischia Porto is the largest town. Half a dozen other villages and spa centers are spread across the island along narrow and very rustic roads. Expect to see lots of donkey and mule traffic, plus radiant roses everywhere and a scenic spellbinder around each curve.

Here to there: Alitalia will fly you to Naples, Lufthansa via Frankfurt, Pan Am and TWA to Rome, Alitalia on to Naples. Take a hydrofoil from Naples to Ischia in 45 minutes for about $9, twice the time on a monohull boat for $2.

How long/how much? At least two days, longer for a full-fledged spa treatment. Food and lodging prices have continued to climb in Italy, and we'd have to call Ischia's prices high moderate to expensive.

A few fast facts: May, June and September are best months here, midsummer fairly crowded, much of the island closed during winter. Most use the three-wheel minitaxi for about $1.15 per kilometer, twice that at night. Hard bargaining always a necessity.

Getting settled in: Hotel Conte (Sant' Angelo village; $76 double, half-pension) is on southern coast, one of the most scenic areas that is lately gathering a bit of Capri chic.

No car traffic in town, your bags carried to the hotel by donkey. Modest and informal throughout, but the spectacular setting on a small promontory and fresh seafood in the vine-strewn dining room make up for the lack of elegance and big-hotel amenities.

Il Moresco (Via Emanuele Gianturco, Ischia Porto; $99 to $130 double) may not be the island's most expensive, but we think it has the most charm.

In its own pine grove with lush gardens directly on beach, Moresco is a Moorish study in white stucco, each bedroom with terrace or balcony, gorgeous public rooms with shining red tile floors, Moorish arches, dramatic Chinese porcelain figurines. Two dining rooms and bars, tennis courts, beautiful pool, spa and health program. Really a marvelous hideaway. We fell in love with the place.

Nuova America (Sant' Angelo village; $99 double, full-pension, $107 July through September) is for the super budget-minded who want bed and all meals in one place. Very simple in and out, some rooms with balconies above water, no beach or frills.

Some hotels that quote you half and full-pension prices can be talked into a bed and breakfast arrangement if business is slack, so give it a go if you would rather dine out.

Regional food and drink: Most island families have coniglio alla cacciatore for Sunday dinner, roast rabbit served with bucatini, a type of pasta with sauce of red peppers, garlic, tomatoes and red wine. You'll probably find it in a trattoria, surely on Sunday.

Penne siciliano is another favorite, pasta with a sauce of eggplant, mozzarella and red peppers. And a dish with the island's name, alici all'ischiana, is fresh anchovies in lemon juice and olive oil, sprinkled with marjoram and oven baked, heavenly.

Desserts are a big thing here, the sweeter the better. Try baba con panna, a rich pastry with whipped cream and shaped like a mushroom. And profiteroles are just as popular, little cream puffs filled with ice cream.

Ischia's white wines are so good that you can always order the vino di casa and get a good carafe. And the blood-red orange juice of southern Italy is delicious.

Moderate-cost dining: A place like Alberto's (just outside Porto Ischia) is one of the reasons we look forward to an Italian trip: waves lapping outside the window, owner in jeans and work shirt, tantalizing aromas of fresh seafood wafting from the kitchen, generous dishes finally appearing, followed by a finger bowl with carnation and lemon slice. After pasta alla vongole, a huge pile of grilled shrimp, fish of the day and a large carafe of Ischia white, you walk home singing from Alberto's.

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