Postcard from Tuscany
Forte dei Marmiâs culinary highlights include octopus tentacles. (BBC)
Forte dei Marmi is where Italy’s super-rich come to play – and Italians do rich like no one else on the planet. This Tuscan seaside town keeps its secrets from stranieri (foreigners); driving along the coast, all you see are the evocative, ’50s-era signs of the exclusive bagni (beach clubs), hedges grown high to shield them from hoi polloi. Everyone rides round the Beverly Hills-ish avenues by bicycle, pretending they’re really simple souls, despite being swathed in Roberto Cavalli.
Italian food snobs say that nobody comes to Forte to eat. If that's the truth, they're missing a trick. Yes, there are cynical operations - you can spot them by their air of cod-rusticity and Russian clientele - but they're easily avoided.
Each bagno has its own restaurant, miles away from mere beach bar. Our hotel, the Franceschi (hotelfranceschi. com) is the very epitome of understated Italian, faux-Anglo, stylishness. Its salons, rooms and gardens wrap us in opulence; but even better is its ownership of bagno Orsa Maggiore (ristorantelorsamaggiore. com), just about the coolest in this whole lengthy strip - at the last count, there were about 90 bagni in a Euro-chomping row. This, with its New Englandy, beach-hut design, is where the designer-kaftan-clad beautiful people come to play, flattered and schmoozed by handsome waiters in blinding white suits and turquoise cravats.
And the food? Serious, serious stuff: blood-red Italian tuna, just seared, on a salad of fresh oranges, frisée, radish and volcanic salt; rolls of delicate sole wrapped round taggiasca olives wrapped in lardo and served with almost Jöel Robuchonrich potato purée; vast octopus tentacles, like something from The Deep, grilled on volcanic rock into superb, smoky tenderness; thrillingly al dente paccheri, vast pasta tubes, with scorpion fish. This, the rosé, the acres of beach and sea: I'm in some kind of sybaritic heaven.
More luxury awaits us at Lorenzo (Via G. Carducci 61; 00 39 0584 89671), the town's only critically-lauded restaurant. Camp? I'll say. Everything from the branch-shaped lighting to the jewelled clasp for hanging my (sadly, not designer) handbag is quite brilliantly over the top. The cadaverous Lorenzo himself oversees proceedings, whipping-up fresh mayo for treasured customers (clue: not us).
Service is so slick it's almost balletic. But there's nothing here to over-excite the wealthy clientele, or even challenge their snowy veneers: spaghetti allo scoglio (with seafood) tastes much the same whether or not it arrives under a silver cloche, and tricksy stuff like sashimi with, um, cinnamon, shows they're better sticking to the classics. There's an ethereal and exquisite take on fritto misto with almost translucent prawns. Diners unashamedly check out other diners: there's a lot to goggle at in this fabulous freakshow. We notice metal bars bolted low down on the wall, presumably for holding onto when the bill arrives.
We're directed by a local to 'a simple beach shack' for some of the best fish dishes on the coast: Bagno Bruno (Via Arenile; 00 39 0584 89972), where Signora Alice rules the roost. By Forte standards it may be simple, by anyone else's, it's a swanky, old-school restaurant, albeit with plastic chairs on the terrace. I ask the bustling, small person if she's Signora A-lee-chay in my best Italian pronunciation - turns out she's from Glasgow.
She brings us spaghetti laden with the titchiest, sweetest clams the size of Tic tacs - pity the poor soul who has to shuck these - and minuscule cuttlefish scented with chilli and sage, their juices staining the linguine a delicate rose. There's a fresh, luscious vermentino, the ideal foil.
In town, amongst the Prada and Versace stores, the bars and cafés offer ever more fabulous people-watching: the weirdly fusty but wildly fashionable Caffe Principe (Via Giosuè Carducci 2, 00 39 0584 89238), where all the seats face the street, of course. Or the amazing cakes and snacks in chi chi Pasticceria Soldi (Via Roma 4; 00 39 0584 787227) - ciambelle, crostate, begnè, bite-sized prosciutto rolls. The name translates appropriately as Money Cake Shop.
We also visit (weave drunkenly by bike, rather) the other bagni. It's a whole other world behind the lofty hedges. Our new favourite lunch-spot is venerable, by Forte standards, Maitò (maitoforte.it). In the evening, it's the usual roll call of spaghetti con arselle (spaghetti with tiny clams), fritto misto and grilled fish, but during the day it serves stunning stuzzichini: thin pizza bread stacked with mustard-laced radicchio and anchovy-scented courgette flowers, or the milkiest, squidgiest mozzarella surrounded by piled-high crostini. There's raw beef, the famous Tuscan Chianina. I may be a philistine, but it feels great to be eating some meat.
As a sulky, luxury-starved teenager, driving in the back of my parents' car past Forte's rich people's playgrounds to our far less glamorous holiday destination, I longed to penetrate their unblinking façades. Is it what I hoped it would be all those years ago? Rather poignantly, it is.
Marina O'Loughlin, London newspaper Metro's restaurant critic, has remained incognito for 11 years. She regularly travels the UK and abroad in search of culinary adventure.