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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE
| SETTINGS: Stops on a Tasting Tour of Orange County

A Traveler's Pizza de Resistance

Sapori, 1080 Bayside Drive, Newport Beach. (949) 644-4220.

November 25, 2000|DAVID LANSING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I definitely bonded with Mr. Ferragamo," says the woman across from us, placing a hand on her heart. We are sitting in the Rome airport waiting for our flight to be called. The woman counts her lira, debating a trip down to the row of duty-free shops selling leather handbags and silk scarves, freshwater pearls and Besame chocolates.

"Bonded?" asks the woman's husband. "We should be honorary members of the Ferragamo family considering how much you bought."

The couple, who are from New York, are trying to consolidate the contents of several plastic bags into a leather carry-on. "How 'bout you?" asks the husband. "Get some good deals?"

"Oh sure," says Jan.

"The dollar is so strong," says the woman. "I saw this exact same handbag in New York for $450 and I got it in Rome for $300. In fact, I got two of them. What'd you get?"

Jan peers into a nylon athletic bag, left over from our son's days as a high school water-polo player, and says, "Let's see--we bought some cheese in Sorrento." She pulls out a plastic bag containing craggy wedges of pecorino, gourd-shaped caciocavallo and a chalky round disk, the size of a hockey puck, that we call the mystery cheese.

Jan hands the white hockey puck to the horrified woman from New York. "Smell it," she says. "What do you think it is?" The woman from New York holds the cheese several feet away from her face, hands it off to her husband, and announces she is going off to get rid of her lira.

"I wonder if that cheese is what smells," Jan says, pulling out bottles of Chianti and limoncello, a half-eaten loaf of rustic bread, plastic bags of bruschetta spices, packets of vegetable seeds (arugula, plum tomatoes and a pale purple eggplant called melanza lunga cima viola), a flank of prosciutto the size of a leg of lamb and a dark jug of olio extravergine di oliva.

"Nope," she says, discovering a small greasy bottle in the bottom of her bag. "It's the truffles. They're leaking. Damn." Jan gets some napkins and dabs at the truffle juice spreading across the bag like an oil spill on the ocean.

The first time we went to Italy, years ago, Jan bought gold in Florence, leather in Rome and glass in Venice, but that was then and this is now. This time she came back with several tins of Caffe Kimbo and leaking jars of truffles. We smuggled back crumbly cheeses and cured meats. And though we'd eaten nothing but pasta and pizza, fresh mozzarella and briny olives for a week straight, what Jan wanted, the minute we got home, was more Italian food.

Good Italian food. Something tangy like the tomato sauce on the homemade ravioli at the trattoria in Anacapri or the anchovies on the quattro stagione pizza in Ravello. So we went to Sapori, near Balboa Island.

I like to pretend that I am an adventurous eater. I am not. Our first day in Positano, we walked down 475 stairs (believe me, I counted them) to the beach and had lunch on the veranda of a hotel less than 50 feet from the Mediterranean. I ordered bruschetta, calamari fritti and linguine with clams.

A week later, at our final dinner at the Palazzo Murat, we sat on the patio lit with tiki torches and votive candles, and I ate calamari fritti and frutti di mare, which is linguine with clams, shrimp and squid. As a house appetizer, our waiter brought out a plate of bruschetta. In between those two meals I must have had calamari or pasta with clams three or four more times.

At Sapori, I listened to Carlos describe the specials, including a fresh swordfish rubbed in pepper with a mango sauce, and after much consideration ordered calamari fritti for an appetizer and linguine with clams in a white sauce.

"You're so predictable," Jan said. "Why do you always order the same thing?"

"Because it's good," I told her.

Jan, on the other hand, orders the strangest thing on the menu and then says, "Well, that wasn't exactly what I thought it was going to be."

How can you even imagine what pickle fish, which she ordered one night in Italy, is even going to taste like?

There is one dish that Jan always orders when she goes to Italian restaurants: arugula salad. Arugula is, for her, the litmus test of a good restaurant. In a salad of mixed greens, she will pick out the arugula the way some people dive for cashews in a nut bowl. She will make strange noises while eating it and thrust it in your face to sample. "Here, try this arugula."

At Sapori she ordered the insalata tricolore and quickly pushed the butter leaf and romaine aside searching for what the Italians call rucola. "Yum," she said, eating the green spears one by one. "Want some?"

"I'm very happy with my bruschetta," I told her.

"Bor-ring, she said.

In Ravello, which sits atop a ridge of Monte Cerreto gazing down at the Bay of Salerno, we wandered down a little alley off the duomo, which ended in a courtyard with ceramic plates lining whitewashed walls.

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