“Il Giardino di Epicuro” means, “The Garden of Epicurus.” Epicurus was a pretty sweet ancient Greek philosopher, who among other things, believed that to achieve happiness meant to be self-sufficient, free from fear, absent of pain, and surrounded by friends. Antonio, the man who runs this top-rated restaurant outside of Maratea (a town in the Basilicata region of southern Italy), embodies these characteristics. He has studied food all over the world in search of the best flavors. With stints as a chef in a 3-star Michelin restaurant in France, cultivating the finest black beans in Brazil, and teaching Italian cuisine to the hottest chefs in Napa Valley, Antonio chose to come home to his small village of Massa and replant his roots on family land. Antonio was one of the founding members of the ‘Slow Food Movement.’ In 1986, a McDonald’s opened up across the street from the Spanish Steps in Rome, prompting a group of chefs, farmers, and restaurateurs to quickly react. The Slow Food movement is (according to Wikipedia) “…an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming of plants, seeds and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem.” Back to Antonio.
He looks like Antonio Banderas’ swollen Italian cousin. He sounds like Dos Equis “the most interesting man in the world,” only with a deeper voice. His cadence is slow, deliberate and extremely effective. He speaks with such certainty that you trust every word, but at the same time, you question whether or not he’s a Bond villain. Unseasonably large amounts of rain had driven off potential customers (witnesses?) on the night we chose to go, meaning Jill and I had the entire restaurant to ourselves. We were literally surrounded by awards on every inch of the walls (is that a Nobel Peace Prize?) and we had Antonio’s unwavering attention. Was this all part of an evil master plan?
First course: three meats, three cheeses, three sauces. The spread was enormous. Everything local, organic and sustainable. He cured the meats himself, all from pigs that had family names. He built up the sauces with such nuanced complexity that you could taste your childhood. He even milked the fuckin goat to make the cheese. Everything was incredible. It was like being in an episode of Chef’s Table. We had been alerted by reviews online that we shouldn’t eat before arriving because the courses and portions matched Antonio’s larger than life personality. He would casually swing by and pleasantly inquire how we were enjoying each new taste we were discovering on our plate. He was knowledgeable and kind until Jill made a fateful mistake.
Thinking she’d be smart and save room for the remaining bounty of goodness that was headed our way, Jill elected to pace herself. She had tried all of the offerings of the appetizer round, some of them multiple times. She had eliminated every possible combination of sauce/meat/cheese, but neglected to consume them in entirety. Everything was delicious and with her current strategy, she hadn’t missed a thing. This, however, would not stop our culinary guide from providing her with some further direction.
His delivery was cold and direct. Jill snapped right to action and immediately made the remaining morsels disappear. He meant business. It was so effective how the simple removal of the word “please” from his sentence revealed more details about how powerful he was, but more importantly, exposed his secret evil diabolical plan: Antonio was going to kill us with great food. Lots and lots of great food.
The next course, or “Primi,” was pasta three ways. It is worth noting that, from our experience, it is extremely rare to receive three different pasta dishes for the price of one. When describing the seasonal pasta specials, Antonio hesitated before offering, “I’ll tell you what…I’ll make you all three.” We were served fettuccine with locally harvested Porcini mushrooms, ravioli stuffed with ricotta and homemade (of course) sausage, and Black Truffle gnocchi. Do you know those picnic paper plates that have separated sections for your entree + sides? We were served on beautiful ceramic versions of those. The pasta was brought out in large family style serving dishes and then personally transferred by Antonio to our segmented plate. He was meticulous to make sure none of them touched.
The porcini mushrooms were incredible. They were locally sourced and handpicked from the highest peak within 100 kilometers, which Antonio free climbed without the aid of a rope. I’m sure butterflies told him where to go. I’ve never had mushrooms that good in my life. They had the texture of a perfectly cooked filet mignon; slightly crisp exterior with butter like tenderness in the middle. I could become a vegetarian if we had these in California. The ravioli was fantastic, but the true star was the black truffle gnocchi. The sauce was so savory. The pasta had been created from scratch, hand rolled only hours ago. Hands down, this is the best single dish we had in Italy.
Jill and I looked like stuffed pigs. She was sweating and the buttons on my shirt begged for mercy. We had another entire entree course to go when we finally experienced a sign of relief, a glimmer of hope. Another couple walked through the door and sat at a table on the other end of the restaurant! Thank God, thank all of the gods. Thank you, Epicurus. With a new set of customers to vie for his attention, Antonio would no longer be perched at our side; a prison guard overseeing our force-feeding of delicious delicious food.
Our ‘Secundis’ arrived. I got a Yule log of spiced andouille sausage and Jill had a bone-in veal tenderloin from what I can assume was the largest calf in recorded history. I also began sweating, the knife slicing of the sausage proving to be exhausting. Two gross fattened sweaty pigs, senses dulled to lethargy. “How is it, my friends?” It’s good. It’s so good. It’s so good it hurts. Please make it stop. As I did my best to flatter Antonio away from the table, I noticed Jill’s cheeks had fattened like a chipmunk. It quickly dawned on me. Oh my god…
“Psst…Jill!” I did my best to muffle, “what are you doing?!?”
Her response was incomprehensible. Her eyes spoke for her as to say, ‘what else am I supposed to do?’ Or maybe I misread, ‘I’m doing my best.’ With her stomach at maximum capacity, apparently, Jill’s strategy for clearing her plate was to hide food in her cheeks. I doubt she planned to save it for later. I struggled to finish the last of the sausage, drenched in fatigue. Jill hid her remaining bites under the bone. The annual half marathon we run was less strenuous than this meal.
“May I offer you some dessert?”
“We can’t do it. There’s just…there’s just no way.”
The ever-growing taxation on our digestive systems had exhausted our pleasantries. He brought us complimentary dessert wine, one distilled from fresh blueberries and the other from wild fennel. They were, as you can imagine, delicious. Antonio reappeared to hand me the bill and Jill a flower snipped off a rare cactus. I unfolded a small piece of notebook paper to find a single handwritten number: 60.
This meal should have been AT LEAST 60 Euro per person and could have deservedly been much more. An entire carafe of the best homemade house red wine, three incredible courses, and a personal tour of his private collection of liqueurs distilled by his father. We were baffled. We tipped him generously, thanked him profusely, and waddled to the safety of our rental car.
We left overly content; literally. The experience was truly amazing. For the first time in our lives, Jill and I were in presence of a culinary genius, and quite frankly…it was a little scary.