A quick escape to Sardinia in San Francisco: my favorite restaurant

I’m having the pre-book jitters, in a big way.

The thing about writing a memoir is that when you’re writing it, alone in your office, you get obsessed with trying to strip things down to an essential emotional truth, more naked than naked. It doesn’t matter, because there you are alone in your office with nothing but a dirty coffee cup staring back at you. Who cares if you’re naked.

Then it hits you that the damn thing is going to published. That people are going to read it. Your mom is going to read it. The guys you dated and gave fake names to and then described in the book may read it. Friends you went to high school and college with are going to read it. People you don’t know are going to read it and cast judgment on you. They will compare your book with Eat, Pray, Love, even though you wrote your first memoir before Elizabeth Gilbert wrote hers. They will call it “chicklit.”

Then you will want to call up an airline and book a ticket somewhere far, far away, which is your usual antidote to any kind of stress.

Instead, you have to stick around, send out emails announcing the book, do all the social media networking that is required these days, and pray someone buys the book. You have to write targeted Facebook ads and personal essays that tie in with the book and go on the radio and try to explain just what the heck you were trying to say.

It’s all overwhelming. The thought of being so emotionally naked in just a few days is freaking me out.

So tonnight I went to yoga with a friend, which was calming. Then, since we were nearby, we went to my favorite restaurant in San Francisco.

Here’s another time when I ought to keep things to myself, but instead I am spilling the truth about something that ought to be kept private. My favorite restaurant in San Francisco: La Ciccia.

“La Ciccia” means a full, happy, chubby belly, which is the perfect antidote to stress. We popped in to the restaurant and Massimo and Lorela made us feel right at home, speaking in Italian, greeting us like family. All my worries melted away with a glass of prosecco and the anticipation of a Sardinian meal.

We were just going to have appetizers, but one thing led to another. There were grilled sardines on the menu, for instance. And there was spaghetti with bottarga. When there’s spaghetti with bottarga on the menu, there is no way to say no. Then there was tuna with an olive sauce. And carta da musica, the flatbread with rosemary that is famous in Sardinia. Massimo brought out some housemade spaghetti with tuna conserva, just because he knew I would like it, and I did; I nearly swooned. He also brought some fresh ricotta and some little hot pepperoncini with tuna stuffed inside, along with some cherry tomatoes with little anchovies…I was transported to Sardinia. WE had vermentino, we had cannonau, we had a wonderful time.

I was with my friend Cecilia, a size 0, who managed to put away half a plate of the tuna conserva before an entire portion of the spaghetti with bottarga. After the main dish, Massimo brought over some gelato he’s working on: one with bottarga, another with goat cheese and fig, and another with malvasia and dried prunes. The bottarga gelato was interesting–how often do you get a fish aftertaste with gelato? The others were perfectly sweet and balanced.

The atmosphere at La Ciccia is so friendly and unpretentious, and the food is so good, that I was in Sardinia for a few hours this evening, where nobody speaks English, and nobody is going to read a new memoir coming out on Tuesday. On Tuesday, I’m sure my dread will be replaced with good cheer, since I’m fortunate to have so many friends and well-wishers in my life, but for today, I was happy to escape to Sardinia, right here in San Francisco.

Gourmet readers want a real gourmet magazine, not junk food.

I do not want forty more recipes for cheesecake. That’s what the Internet is for.

The Times ran a story today about the demise of Gourmet magazine and how its readers aren’t flocking to Bon Appetit or other cooking magazines as predicted. I’m not surprised that loyal readers, who have followed the magazine and the brand since 1941, aren’t switching. Gourmet readers began reading during World War II, and developed the habit of saving back issues and recipes, filing them away as treasures and resources, like loyal readers of National Geographic. When Conde Nast bought the magazine in 1983, those readers stayed on, and assumed that their loyalty would be rewarded.

No: the booby prize after all those years is a subscription to Bon Appetit. Not a bad magazine, but not Gourmet, and the readers know it. In this age when building a brand is everything, I can’t understand why a magazine company would just throw away one of its best. It seems to be emblematic of all the bad moves the magazine industry has made in recent years, pumping up circulation at the cost of its loyal readers. The magazine industry has been trying to train its readers not to be loyal–to get Gourmet this year for $6.95, and when that expires, to switch to Bon Appetit. This kind of an approach isn’t sustainable, and makes for mass-market magazines that have no personality.

I had the privilege to write for Gourmet a few times, and the way the magazine treats its writers, with old-school respect, is one of the reasons it was able to attract the best writers in the country, and not so well-known ones who would put huge effort and soul into their articles to see them published in the pages of Gourmet. Gourmet cared enough about its readers to send writers and photographers to other countries to search out the best restaurants and artisanal foods.

I’m not a chef or someone who knows (or cares) about the politics within the restaurant industry; I’m a writer who is passionate about what food has to say about culture. Gourmet gave me the opportunity to travel to Peru, to learn why that country’s cuisine is suddenly taking off, fusing a number of disparate traditions. I was able to go to the  Aeolian islands, in search of my favorite dish in the world, pasta with fennel and sardines, and to understand how such a great cuisine developed on such dry, hardy islands.

The editors at Gourmet were always meticulous, particularly in making sure writers saw changes to their stories and were okay with them. If this seems like the least respect an editor can offer a bylined writer, it is, and yet it is hardly the standard in an industry that is increasingly dumbing-down and condensing any story that has a point of view, a voice, an in-depth look. I was outraged to have lunch with a Gourmet editor who told me that when they shut the magazine, they’d been given no warning–no chance to trim budgets, to take another approach. Off with their heads.

So, no, after Gourmet, Bon Appetit won’t do. I want a narrative and gorgeous pictures–what magazines do best, and what magazine companies, in their off-base desire to compete with new media with circulation numbers, not quality, are killing off–not just an intro and some recipes for Festive Summer Brunches. I want food writing to take me to somewhere I love, somewhere I can dream about, even if it’s my own not-so-splendid dining room. I do not want forty more recipes for cheesecake. That’s what the Internet is for.

So I mourn Gourmet’s passing, but think it could be an opportunity for someone who would buy it and keep creating the magazine that its readers love. Instead of pumping up the circulation and relying so much on Cartier watch ads, make readers PAY for what the magazine is worth. I’d pay $100 a year to get Gourmet back. So would many of its readers–enough to create a wonderful, if little, magazine.

When Home Competes for an Ardent Traveler’s Affections – and Wins

When I stepped off a ship last October after a month at sea and saw the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, gleaming in the morning light, my heart fluttered. It was the same giddy feeling I’d had the first time I saw the bridge, 25 years ago, when I drove someone else’s Buick Riviera all the way from Denver to California and finally through the tunnel that frames the bridge’s magnificent towers, the bay and the city beyond: I’m home.

But as I disembarked, I had to rub my eyes as it slowly dawned on me that the Golden Gate Bridge was not where it was supposed to be. It was in Lisbon, of all places, and I wasn’t yet home. I was staring at the 25 de Abril Bridge—built by the same company that constructed the Bay Bridge and painted international orange; a San Francisco mutt of a bridge—and I yearned for the real thing.

That Portuguese bridge, built with 2.2 billion escudos and as many good intentions, sort of spoiled my trip to Lisbon. Not that Lisbon isn’t a fine place to visit: It’s full of cheerful tile-faced houses, nice statues of Vasco da Gama, excellent grilled anchovies and boutiques where French clothes cost a lot less than they do in France. But even though Lisbon is an old town—settled 3,000 years ago and founded, legend has it, by Ulysses himself—the capital was destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt 20 years before the Spanish ever laid eyes on Mission Dolores, and that faux bridge kept making me feel like the city was a second-rate San Francisco. Hills? We’ve got hills. Hippies with tattoos? We invented them. Ocean, wine bars, restaurants? Check. And you call this an arboretum?

Perhaps because I’d traveling for more than two months, I felt homesick. But San Francisco always tags along when I travel, eventually making me feel jaded about even the most exciting places. Paris seems so gray and serious next to San Francisco’s coastal light and whimsical dollhouses. Helsinki is matter-of-fact and boring compared to our free-spirited city. In Manhattan, 200 people snake in a line through Trader Joe’s just to buy dinner, the storied Greenmarket has paltry pickings compared with the Ferry Building, and the sidewalks are slush pools in winter (or it’s beastly hot and muggy in the summer). Don’t get me started on Los Angeles.

That sense of comparing everything to home doesn’t just happen in the cities. I can be standing on the cliffs of a pristine Sardinian coast, awestruck, and the thought will occur to me: “This is almost as pretty as Point Reyes.” When I rent a bicycle in Stockholm and pedal through its lovely parks, I can’t help thinking that from my house in the Haight, I can bicycle across the bridge into Rodeo Valley and see a bobcat in the wild.

So why travel? For one reason, I can’t help it; as Vita Sackville-West wrote, “I have got the Wanderlust, and got it badly.” San Francisco attracts free spirits (it has the highest population of Aquarians and Leos per capita of any major city, and if I need to explain that to you, you haven’t been here long enough), so I’m at home where I’m restless. For another reason, my neighborhood is foggy and depressing as hell in the summer. Some days I feel as if I’ll scream if I see another grimy suburban kid eating old pizza crusts in front of one of Haight Street’s 18 head shops, trying to sell the contents of a free box for buds. Other times, San Francisco seems too precious and pretty: When I watch people in Hayes Valley waiting 45 minutes for a fetishistic cup of coffee, I want to flee to a country where they draw you a quick, perfect espresso, as they’ve been doing for centuries, and you can bolt it down at the bar and get on with your life.

And so I travel. Sometimes I’m so infatuated with a place I forget about San Francisco for a while. Southern Italy silenced the craving I always have at home to be perched on a stool at A16 watching baby fava beans drizzled with olive oil come out of the oven, or sitting at a table at La Ciccia eating pasta fregola or grilled fish. In Tallinn, Estonia, I was too enchanted with the winding medieval alleys and blossoming trees to consider how much I love walking the quaint and curvy streets above my neighborhood, and how lovely the pastel Victorians on my street look when the periwinkle-blue ceanothus trees are in bloom.

After a week or two of traveling, SF starts cropping up in my consciousness, often as a negative comparison, the way a new crush sitting in a cafe always seems more handsome and exciting than the guy watching DVDs on the couch back home. In Copenhagen, I cursed San Francisco’s bike lanes, which you have to share with Muni buses, while northern European cyclists have concrete barriers between themselves and 10-ton vehicles. St. Petersburg made me realize how puny our museums are compared with the collections of Catherine the Great and subsequent Soviet plunderers.

But that initial phase doesn’t last. After a month on the road, San Francisco beckons irresistibly, no matter where I am. Two years ago, I was so tired of the fog in this town that I bought a little house in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (where real estate is considerably less dear than in SF), thinking I’d live there half the year. I thought I could be happy in that artsy colonial community, eating tacos, listening to live music, and basking in the brilliant sun. But little by little, SF snuck up on me. The vegetables in San Miguel were shabby and tasteless compared to the ones at home, and there was nowhere to buy Greek yogurt, not to mention bottarga. The burritos in the Mission were better. Mexico’s yoga teachers weren’t as good as mine. I missed the community of writers I work with, South Park on a sunny day, skimming through the shelves in the Booksmith, the shopkeepers on Haight who know me by name, running into random friends I’ve made over 25 years and bicycling across the real Golden Gate Bridge.

Little by little, I’ve found myself spending less time in my second home than I’d imagined, and more time in my first. That’s the best thing about being a San Franciscan: My wanderlust gets to thrive in both directions.

Laura Fraser’s first memoir, An Italian Affair (Pantheon), spent 22 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list; the sequel, All Over the Map (Harmony), hits bookshelves June 1.

Originally published in 7×7 Magazine