The idli welcomes me into the day like a slightly flattened moon that has landed on my plate. You could rest your cheek on it, but the best thing is to feel its porous warm surface on your tongue, to savor its innocent taste. Three to four inches in diameter, the idli, a steamed cake traditionally eaten at breakfast, has tiny shallow craters over its surface where the batter has bubbled. What does it taste of? Of soft dough. It comes with coconut chutney—fresh grated with a bit of chili—and sambar, a spicy stew made with tamarind, lentils, and spices. The idli to me is emblematic of the purity I often encounter in the city of Chennai.
This is about Italy’s secret coast—the other Sardinia. Not the Sardinia of the Aga Khan, yachts, celebrities, oligarchs, and tycoons. Not, in other words, Porto Rotondo, where Italy’s Caviar Left came every summer to populate a brand-new colony built to its high-flying specifications. That vociferous, in-your-face Sardinia reminds me of the film Swept Away, whose director, Lina Wertmüller, was inspired by my aunt, the designer Mariuccia Mandelli, who founded Krizia; her even more formidable sister Giancarla; and their court of influential intellectuals and entrepreneurs. Lying topless in the sun—it was part of the liberation of forceful women nurtured in a traditional society—they conducted lively conversations, mostly about politics, that anyone might have mistaken for fights and that resounded across the wild Mediterranean maquis.
First you have to learn to pronounce it, so that years from now, when you are old and gray, standing at a counter and in need of the magical potion, it will sound right: granita, rhymes with margarita. If you’re in Italy, you have to add di caffè, a coffee granita. (I won’t discuss other flavors such as lemon, which are also classics.) Here is what it looks like at the Antico Caffè Greco(86 Via dei Condotti; 39-06/679-1700), in Rome: a chalice of frosted silver, bearing a small mound of frothy brown ice with a generous dab of whipped cream (real cream). The recipe is something of a secret (it consists of water and coffee, some sugar—not too much—and in some cases a bit of liqueur). Italians say, “Anche l’occhio vuole la sua parte”—the eye wants its share, too. When I see a granita coming toward my marble-topped table on a hot day, the sight alone makes my temperature drop. The fresh flavor of chilled coffee fills my mouth as the ice melts and mixes with that rich, room-temperature cream. It is a completely addictive combination. I have to have one every summer afternoon when I’m in Rome, at around four, an antidote to the heat.