When you first walk in the door of Le Meraviglie del Mare ('the wonders of the sea') the only clue that the owner, Peppino Codisco, is a former professional fisherman is the painting of him high above the counter which shows him at work on his boat out on the Adriatic (below right).
We're in the small seaside town of Martinsicuro, the most northerly part of the Abruzzo coastline that lives in the shadow of the bigger and more famous resort town of San Benedetto del Tronto five miles away in le Marche.
We find ourselves in these parts every year in early September and have come to this unpretentious seafood restaurant many times because the food is always good, the prices always very reasonable and the welcome is always genuinely friendly.
Even after a whole year has passed they welcome you back like old friends. It's a classic Italian family restaurant in every sense with Peppino's wife cooking up a storm in the kitchen, and who better than a fisherman's wife to man the stove?
Their son Antonio handles everything front of house with aplomb and is always better attired than his dad, though to be fair Peppino doesn't just walk around glad-handing everyone and making small talk like most restaurant owners, instead he's busy serving food and clearing tables with the rest of the staff. No airs and graces here. Which is why if you haven't glanced up at the painting and noticed the resemblance, you won't have guessed that Peppino is the boss.
Martinsicuro itself is a very pleasant, if unremarkable, seaside town that will never appear in a glossy travel magazine but for those who like to experience Italy as Italians do and hear nothing but Italian spoken it has a certain appeal and the same can be said of Le Meraviglie del Mare, where I have only heard Italian spoken and for which there is only one solitary foreign review on TripAdvisor. You should make an effort to visit this restaurant if you're in the area if for no other reason than finding a restaurant in Italy these days that is frequented almost exclusively by Italians is not easy.
We always gravitate to a few dishes that we particularly like so, as for any restaurant review, we can only speak to that part of the menu that we know well. We always start with a big bowl of Cozze alla marinara (fresh mussels), prepared simply as they always are in Italy with white wine, lemon, parsley and a hint of garlic (note: I said a hint of garlic only, this is Italy not France so don't expect your Moules marinières to be reeking of garlic).
The Seafood risotto is very good here but as I'm never going to make a Fritto misto at home, that's what I go for next, my mother-in-law too. There's typically a choice when ordering the fritto misto of either normale or senza spine (ie without bones) and it's worth paying slightly extra to not have to bother with any bones in your fried fish plate.
The origin and purpose of the fritto misto was to use all of the very small fish caught in the net alongside the main catch that weren't substantial enough to be sold separately. Like whitebait in England, but with more batter and a greater variety of fish.
Every fish restaurant in Italy worth its salt will have fritto misto on the menu but this is a dish that in many places can arrive soggy and a little greasy instead of how it always is here, crispy with a nice crunch to each bite.
I've never been disappointed with the fritto misto senza spine at Le Meraviglie del Mare and nor has my mother-in-law who has 7o years experience as an adult munching this dish up and down the Adriatic coastline.
Elena will mostly order the Guazzetto. It's a dish that is always so generously proportioned that I know I'll get my chance to help out at the end when it's all hands on deck with the crostoni di pane (grilled bread) to make sure none of the fabulous liquid at the bottom of the pan goes to waste.
Dipping the bread into the pan to mop up the juice at the end of a meal is called fare la scarpetta in Italian
The guazzetto will typically include several types of fish, including il pescato del giorno and the carcasses are always included to add flavor to the dish, but it actually takes very little skill to remove all the meat in a well-cooked dish like this.
Peppino has brought to the restaurant one other custom common to the local Marchigiani and Abruzzesi fisherman of the Adriatic. It is the particular coffee drink that keeps them warm during long cold winter nights fishing at sea and you can order one at the end of dinner here. It's called a Caffè del marinaio and can be made in a regular Bialetti caffettiera by adding rum and the local dry anisette liqueur (called Mistrà) to the water in the base of the Moka. In effect a type of caffè corretto but with the booze boiled together with the water instead of added at the end to the brewed coffee. As they say, when in Rome........
Like other seafood restaurants in Italy, Le Meraviglie del Mare has a busy banco della pescheria (fish counter) during the day selling both fresh fish and pre-cooked items to consume at home. And Peppino still goes out on his boat to fish when permitted by the various annual moratoriums that have been introduced along the Adriatic coastline to prevent overfishing.