Lunch in Positano - October 1987
The Viale Pasitea winds past many a tempting restaurant on its way from the top of the town, each looking like it might be the best possible place for lunch. The view will seem unbeatable, the prices fine, and the waiters like custodians of something celebrated and wonderful which they attend with a hint of superiority. Inevitably you press on, still curious, appetite surging. The Viale seems to be leading to some Holy Grail of a restaurant. Eventually you get to the waterfront and, if you haven't been snared en route, the parade of restaurants along the front awaits you like a queue of fly traps. Chez Black and Tre Sorrelle, with their wickerwork chairs and white-linen welcome and handsome waiters, attend your pleasure. I drag myself longingly past the trolleys of antipasto, the galaxies of grilled aubergine, the bucketed rose bottles and glinting silverware; the chic ladies partaking of shellfish, the comfortable Italian males sprawled on banquets as waiters flambé and serve. A quiet hubbub of conversations fills the air and my nostrils are marauded by delectable smells. At some point I will succumb very happily, and take my place at Chez Black, but today I am going to a restaurant of elemental simplicity, a restaurant that trumps this lot hands down.
La Marinella consists of wooden floors and a scaffold. It is propped against a huge sheltering boulder and its struts stand on the beach. A really big wave could see off the whole contraption. Bamboo canes provide a roof of stripy shade. You sit with your arm on a scaffolding pole which forms the side rail and enjoy a raised-up view of the beach. There are no frills here, no menus in glass cases, but you can look across a crescent of purling surf as the waves travel in, and at the mirror of the sea igniting in afternoon light, and you can gaze across the curve of a beach dotted with overturned boats and romantic Italian couples, and the odd, beached male with a landslide paunch and a tiny paperback and a neck that rubbers round when some bella figura coquette dawdles past rocking her hips, to the great cliff that forms the edge of Positano, a buttress of limestone.
The owner is a polio sufferer. He wields his leg awkwardly around chairs, rising and sinking like a Long John Silver of the strand. He frowns as he moves, the effort of it, the effort of running this place and holding sway over customers and staff. Nonetheless, in profile, he reminds me of Herbert von Karajan, which is appropriate because La Marinella is so basic that it needs its Prospero, its coordinating maestro to make the sea sparkle and the clouds crack around shafts of light as the cruets arrive.
I take a seat; no welcome. The place seems unmanned and might even be closed, but soon enough he reels from the cabin at the end of the daïs and wheels over with a paper cloth which he stressfully clips to the table. Drawing himself up, he says: 'Etwas zu trinken?' 'Un mezzo rose, per favor.' I reply. 'English?' 'Si.' I don't make the mistake of asking for a menu.
There is a harsh shout. 'Alfredo!' Somehow, out of the back of his head, the owner knows Alfredo in the kitchen is fucking up and needs a slap, but Alfredo is in fact exactly in time as he comes onto the boards with a tray of cutlery, vinegar and oil. After a tense start the accoutrements are assembled bit by bit, a wine glass and half carafe, cutlery, serviette, basic elements, without ceremony. The good things in life are already abundant and soon the setting will be complimented with simple fresh food. I will be rewarded for not going to Chez Black and for not minding about the usual trimmings. The owner is so confident of his customers' satisfaction, it seems, that warmth of welcome is redundant.
The rusty rosé on my table is a joy to behold and the first sip consecrates a sense of well-being. Happiness is about to receive the anointing of a discreet intoxication. Soon I will be mesmerised by the granular colour on the rock and the movement of the water and the freshness of the air. I will be rewarded for my initiative in coming here, where any lone diner assumes the air of a writer, an Ernest Hemingway or Henry Miller, as he sits at the corner of the platform, profiled by sea-light, alone with his musings; and thus my mind wanders off and dwells on passing thoughts, the goodness sinking in, the view so occupying sense that being here seems like a consummation of my arrival in Positano. I feel properly human for the first time in ages. The seeping in of all that I have seen this morning now comes with a garnish of delights from the kitchen, a blur of courses: tomato carousels, fritto misto, glossy spaghetti, with its snowfall of parmesan sacredly but niftily dealt by Alfredo, and then after a ruminative interlude that sees off the wine, a final espresso to get me on my way.
I feel that Henry James would have lunched with more conscious application. That vast brain of his would be working his impressions and noticing what he noticed and recruiting information and cinching associations even while he basked in the afterglow of a glorious, a satiating repletion; and yet the sense in his writing of joie de vivre, of his delight in the Italian scene, is such that I like to think he may have day-dreamed a little, abandoning himself to the flux of sensations as I am doing, knowing that any set of impressions that stops you in your tracks has indelible value. The deepest impressions overtake thought, like charge coursing into a battery. I know not the meaning, but I certainly recognize the importance of a scene that is too spellbinding to analyse. Such prospects invite a wholesale submission. What does it do to the mind, this invasion of sense? Like music it enters the porous soul and has its effect. The day's filtration of beauty salves the psyche, and now I gaze at the rock and sky and the glitter of the sea with deep poise, not knowing why these lovely molesting picturesque swarming visions of light mean so much, but knowing that they do, and that I am reconditioned by them. Already I feel the rudiments of a creative impulse. The impression urges its representation in some unforeseeable manner, or takes its place in heart and mind as dense creative capital. Such moments can never be lost. The view is beyond all hopes of verbal reconstruction, I know; its emotion too personal, too layered, to represent directly, but it charges me with a radiant awareness of something fundamental: that this rapture is my wellspring. It can and must be paid back.
From 'The Long View' 2013