WHENEVER I have a chance, I visit the smallest internationally recognized sovereign state - and, to boot, the oldest republic in existence: San Marino. I have two good reasons for it.
The first is that my wife, Margaret, and I spent our honeymoon there. We were living in Rome. It was then fashionable in Italy to honeymoon abroad: Algiers, Istanbul, Cairo - foreign, faraway, and romantic places.
To follow fashion, we chose a foreign and romantic, though not faraway place: the Republic of San Marino. From Rome, we could reach San Marino quickly by car. South of Venice and east of Bologna, this foreign country is in the heart of Italian gastronomy. We never regretted our choice.
The second good reason is that San Marino is the best antidote for end-of-the-trip blues. If you're like me, when the time arrives to come back home, the uplifting feelings of newly acquired knowledge, experiences, and tastes are mixed with a touch of regret for not having had more time - for having to leave something out, unseen, untasted.
With San Marino, that's never a problem: You can see the whole country in two or three days - or less, if you're a fast walker. It's the size of Manhattan - 23 square miles, which include the capital and the six villages that make up the whole real estate.
And most of it is vertical. From whatever direction you approach it, you can spot San Marino from miles away. It rises 2,200 feet straight up, perched on top of Mt. Tital, its three towers dominating the landscape. Whether you come by train, bus, or car, you can enter the old town only on foot. Its medieval character is kept intact.
Tantalizing odors waft from the various restaurants passed on the way, hinting of the superb, no-nonsense cooking of that region. Many of the restaurants have tables set in terraces with views so breathtaking that they cannot but help you appreciate of the food.
There are no Michelin-star restaurants, but it's very hard to find a poor meal - and just as hard to find nouvelle cuisine here. The cooking adheres to the canons of Romagna cuisine: good, fresh ingredients, cooked in an uncomplicated manner and served in generous portions.
These ingredients include not only all that the richest and best cultivated farmland in Italy produces, but also the tasty fresh fish of the Adriatic Sea.
There is no major fishing industry here, but the Adriatic coast is dotted by a wealth of small fishing villages that ensure the supply of a daily catch. San Marino is only a few miles away from them.
Representative of the restaurants is Ristorante da Lino, owned and run by the Ugolini family: Papa, Mamma, and son Franco.
The food served is traditional family fare: from minestrone, baked lasagne, and tagliatelle to ``Brodetto'' (fish soup of the Adriatic) and veal cutlets, from sausages to homemade desserts.
Son Franco fills many positions, depending on where he is the most needed: buyer, manager, cook, and waiter. He is most talkative, too, not an unusual quality - together with joviality - for people of the region.
Commenting on the portions' size, he asks, ``Have you seen a fat person around?''
He then explains: ``Here, local or tourist, you march up and down, up and down all day. It gives you a healthy appetite. You eat healthily, but you burn it off!''
The subject turns to history and how San Marino passed on the chance of more space. It refused the offer of Napoleon, who - in admiration for this small but indomitable bastion of freedom and democracy - wished to donate lands to the tiny republic.
``If we had said yes, perhaps now I wouldn't be able to serve you this kind of prosciutto!'' Franco adds.
The prosciutto with fresh figs that he had just served was tender, lean, and sweet, but we failed to see the connection.
Franco explained that he makes his prosciutto from pigs that, like the locals and the tourists, go up and down, up and down, all day on small farms terraced on the mountainside. As a result, they grow muscular and lean.
Moreover, the prosciutto hams are so sweet because they are hung to dry naturally and slowly in the cool, clean mountain breezes.
``The only land Napoleon could offer was down in the plains,'' rationalizes Franco, ``and there my pigs would have grown fat and lazy. No good!''
A plate of homemade tortelloni with basil and tomato sauce followed. Tortelloni are three or four times as big as tortellini - which gives a better chance to taste the fresh pasta they are made of - and filled with a mixture of ricotta and swiss chard. Then we had to taste the sausages (homemade from the same mountain pig, Franco reassured us) with broccoli-rape greens.
After having eaten the food, seen the sights, and enjoyed the breezes, you begin to understand why Franco is not planning to leave or - for that matter, why a stonecutter named Marino chose the top of this mountain for some peace and quiet.
Here are some recipes typical of the region from my and my wife's book, titled ``The New Romagnolis' Table: Classical and Contemporary Italian Family Recipes Designed for Today's Faster Pace and Lighter Palate'' (Atlantic Monthly Press, $15.95).
Zuppa di Pesce d'Ortona (Fish Soup From Ortona) For soup 4 tablespoons olive oil 1 dried red pepper pod, seeded 2 cups peeled plum tomatoes, in chunks 1 sweet pepper, roasted, in strips 1/4 teaspoon oregano 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste Freshly ground pepper 1 packet Italian saffron (.005 ounce)
For fish 1 merluzzo (small cod, about 3/4 pound) 1 small red snapper (about 1/2 pound) 1/2 pound halibut steak 1/2 pound shrimps 2 pounds shrimps 2 pounds mussels, cleaned 1 pound squid, cleaned, cut in rings 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 4 to 6 slices fried or toasted Italian bread
Put olive oil in the bottom of a big, heavy soup pot and saut'e pepper pod until dark brown. Discard pepper, and let oil cool a moment before adding plum tomatoes. Then raise heat until tomatoes start to boil. Lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes, or until tomatoes have blended nicely with oil, and liquid has reduced a bit.
Add roast pepper strips, oregano, salt, and pepper. Bring pot to a boil. Cover pot, lower heat, and cook for 5 minutes.
Meantime, chop off heads and tails of cod and red snapper; shell shrimps; and put fish heads, tails, and shells in a second pot in water to cover with 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to boil, cover, lower heat, and simmer for 15 minutes.
Cut cod in half and add to first pot. Strain broth from fish heads and add to first pot. When pot boils, add red snapper. When pot boils again, dissolve saffron in a tablespoon of hot water and add to soup. Then add halibut.
Return pot to a boil, lower heat, and simmer about 5 minutes. The timing here is important: The minute the red snapper and halibut are tender, add shrimps. As soon as shrimps are tender, add mussels and squid and cover pot. Cook about 3 minutes longer, or until mussels have opened up.
Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve with toasted or fried Italian bread. Serves 4 to 6.
Fettuccine alle Noci (Fettuccine with Walnut Sauce) For sauce 2 1/2 cups light cream 1 cup walnut meats, coarsely chopped 1 teaspoon dried sage leaves, crushed, or 6 fresh sage leaves, cut in strips Pinch of white pepper 3 tablespoons unsalted butter 3 slices (3 ounces) prosciutto, cut in julienne strips 3 to 6 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese or to taste
For pasta 6 quarts water 6 teaspoons salt 1 5-egg batch pasta all'unovo cut into fettuccine, or 11/4 pounds egg noodles
Combine cream, nuts, sage, and pepper in saucepan as you put pasta in boiling salted water. Bring cream to a boil. Lower heat to medium and simmer, do not boil, until the pasta is cooked. Drain pasta thoroughly, and add to saucepan. Add butter and prosciutto strips, and toss over medium heat until the pasta is well mixed with sauce. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese. Serves 6.
Costolette di Maiale Panate (Breaded Pork Chops)
This is the same sort of recipe as Veal Chops, Milanese Style: thin pork chops, dipped in beaten eggs and bread crumbs, are fried crisp and golden and served with lemon.
12 thin pork chops (1/2 inch thick) 1 to 11/2 cups unseasoned bread crumbs 3 eggs 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste 1 1/2 lemons 1/2 to 1 cup oil
Have your butcher cut the pork chops so they are no more than 1/2 inch thick. Cut off any excess fat around edges, and pound them with a meat pounder on the flat side of a big butcher knife to make them even thinner. Put bread crumbs on a big plate. Beat eggs in shallow bowl, adding salt. Dip chops, one by one, in beaten eggs, then press them into the bread crumbs. Pat them well to make as many crumbs as possible stick to chops. Let stand a few minutes.
Heat oil in a wide frying pan, put in chops, and fry them on both sides to a golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve hot with lemon slices. Serves 6.
Ciambellone (Ring Cake) 3/4 cup golden seedless raisins or 1/2 cup raisins plus 1/4 cup candied citron 7 tablespoons lightly salted butter 1 whole egg plus 2 egg yolks 1/3 cup sugar 2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour 4 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup milk Grated peel of 1 lemon Confectioners' sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
Soak raisins in 1 cup warm water to soften. Melt butter in heat-resistant glass mixing bowl over warm water over medium heat.
Cool a few minutes. Add sugar, and eggs. Beat with electric mixer 3 minutes, or until well blended.
Sift flour twice; add baking powder and salt. Then sift once more directly into egg mixture, adding a little at a time alternately with milk, beating at lowest speed.
Add grated lemon peel. Beat 15 minutes after all flour and milk are in. Remove beaters, scraping off dough.
Butter a spongecake or angel food cake (tube) pan and dust with 2 tablespoons of mixed flour and confectioners' sugar. Toss out any extra. Spoon dough into pan.
Bake about an hour, or until golden brown on top (which cracks as the cake rises) and a cake tester comes out clean. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar as it cools in pan. When cool, turn out on a plate, and cut as you wish. Serves 10 to 12.
G. Franco Romagnoli and his wife, Margaret, are co-authors of several cookbooks. They have been hosts of the public television show ``Romagnolis' Table'' and own a restaurant of the same name at Boston's well-known Faneuil Hall Marketplace.