Surely there are plenty of mad women in the village of Le Forna on Isola di Ponza, but it’s the mad chefs of Le Forna that captured our hearts and stomachs. From crusty pizza to oily, inky black spaghetti, to delicately fried fish, to impressive apertivi, to a feast on a boat, these men know how to cook!
Le Forna, Ponza
This is Chef Maurizo’s restaurant and it’s the unofficial town hub for locals. Maurizio can keep an eye on the traffic outside his kitchen, so he’s ready when the fisherman comes to drop off the anchovies, the lady who salts them comes to pick up and drop off, the beer man shows up after being delayed on the mainland for 2 days by bad weather, a boat captain who needs a translation for his advertising (but really just wants to hang around and talk), the guy who builds awnings that Maurizio has declared an artist, and the occasional group of tourists who just enjoy Maurizio’s company. (That would be us!) Going for a swim meant walking by Maurizio’s, which meant we were offered something to eat or drink every time we went by. This is sincere from-the-heart hospitality at its finest. Not to mention that an ice cold Prosecco tastes exceptionally good after hiking up the steep steps from the sea.
Maurizio is also a mad scientist when it comes to liqueurs. He brewed up a batch of a thick boozy licorice liqueur that would make our Finnish friend Kevin give up his beloved Panda candies and move to Ponza. Kev, forget the Ullr and come to Ponza!
Another time Maurizio was brewing up ‘myrtille’, a sort of herbaceous blackberry digestivo that is perfect after a meal. Maurizio kindly gave us a bottle to take home, and we’re doling out our last precious sips of Ponza.
Come to Il Maestrale for the excellent pizza and fish, but you’ll keep coming back just to visit with Maurizio.
Le Forna, Ponza
This would be my fantasy restaurant. A shack, stuck into the cliff rock, right on the sea. A kitchen filled with good music, loudly clanging pots, a barefoot cook, sometimes a dog, and always a few children. Eccentric, eclectic, and absolutely delicious. Because it’s so hard to find (you either have to find the right foot path and walk down about 150 steps, or come by boat) it feels like a private social club. Not the stuffy club scene, but the grubby sea wolf and wench club.
I have no idea who owns the kitchen or is actually in charge; it seems like a loose confederation, but there is clearly serious attention being paid to cooking the food. The dude who takes the orders must sit down with you and explain what is available that day. Even his young apprentice Franceso needs to sit with you, and if you don’t know the type of fish that is being offered, they will happily draw a picture of the fish.
There is no reason to come here for a quick bite, it’s a place to linger, relax, enjoy the people watching and mangia bene. The menu changes every day, with super fresh fish and lobsters a speciality.
We had already met one of the chefs, called Mangia Fuoco, up at Maurizio’s, so the first time we walked in we were greeted with a bellowing “Hey New York!” and that’s pretty much the way we were greeted each time we went back. If you care about strict restaurant rules, this is not the place for you. If you want to eat ginger flavored tuna tartare, an incredible plate of fried fish, spaghetti sauced with the strange but super delicious rana pescatrice, or a tomatoey moon fish appetizer, then this is the place for you.
Relax, enjoy, let time drift by and be happy it is summer time in Ponza.
TripAdvisor says they take reservations, but I sincerely doubt that. I think someone there might have a phone, but your best bet is just come and hang out.
A Boat ride to Palmarola
One of the best day trips to do is to take a boat tour over to the spectacular small neighboring island of Palmarola. There are a number of boats that do this, but our loyalty belongs with Captain Francesco and his boat, Fauno.
Why is Captain Francesco mad? Because no one else will thread the needle between the razor sharp volcanic rocks like Francesco. He’s a confident daredevil, maybe a pirate and a show off, but always extremely careful. His boat tour will wander around the Ponza coves and grottoes for awhile. He likes to get up close and personal with Grotte di Pilato (Pontius Pilate’s Caves...and yes Pontius hung out here, and Nero was born on the island. This island has some serious history.) Then he heads over to the marvelously awesome volcanic island of Palmarola. There are swimming stops, always different because of the weather and wind, and when you are good and hungry, he makes lunch. His wife makes the pickled zucchini and eggplant that come on top of the bruschetta, a very hard crust of bread that is dipped in sea water to soften it before being served. This is followed by an excellent pasta dish, sometimes made with swordfish eggs and finally some coffee. It is absolutely perfect.
He lives up in Le Forna, and you can buy a ticket from the little Everything Shop on the main drag in town, or you can just meet him in the port. The boat leaves promptly at 10:30 and gets back when Francesco feels like coming back (usually around 5:00 pm). It’s the best bargain in town.
Main Street, Le Forna
(I’m sure the street has a real name, but it doesn’t really matter)
The Marlin Bar is right at the curve in the road, before the bus stop, and down a few steps. Mind your head if you take the direct route and step over the benches to find your seat on the little outdoor patio.
Devilishly handsome Clemente is the resident mad bar man and this guy knows how to do aperitivi!
The cocktails come out on pieces of beautiful olive wood that Clemente has created. The drinks are surrounded by all sorts of treats: spicy olives, pickled vegetables, soft balls of fried cod, every day it was a different feast.
He also makes one of the best mojitos this group has ever tasted, perfectly balanced between rum, lime and soda water.
Everyone shows up at the Marlin sooner or later, including my favorite dog, Johnny. It’s an aperitivo oasis after a hot salty hike up from the sea.
La Tartaruga Bar
Almost across the street from the Marlin is La Tartaruga and it’s more of a traditional Italian bar. Serving Neapolitan style pastries and cornetti (cornetti are croissants, but Italian style.) with excellent coffee in the morning, and switching over to light bar food and drinks in the afternoon. Flat screen TV’s play music videos, soccer matches and sometimes the news, and everyone stops there at least once a day.
The barmen aren’t really mad, they are just madly efficient and good at what they do. This bar is hopping, people come in waves, and Fabio and Andreas just roll along taking care of everyone.
We were there long enough to watch the transition from early tourist season into nearly high season, so some new barmen joined the ranks. I’m sorry I don’t know your names, but hats off to you as well, because La Tartaruga was always the best place to start our day. And the people watching isn't bad either!
Quick Tips: Le Forna is the largest village outside of the port town. It's perched high on the hills and has terrific hotels, restaurants and access to the sea by foot. There is even a sandy beach over by La Marina. Access to the island is by ferry or yacht. If you are taking the ferry, you can depart from Anzio, Terracina or Formia, but Formia has the most options. Take the public bus instead of your car, driving is hair raising and parking is impossible.There are plenty of taxis at the port to take you to your hotel.
We’re back on the mainland now, back in Montone, and getting back into the swing of things, but I sure am missing the Mad Men of Le Forna!