This post originally appeared in the February 18, 2023, edition of Eater Travel, a biweekly dispatch from Eater’s staff about navigating places where food is the main attraction. Subscribe now.
Visiting a new place can get overwhelming quickly. But I learned a trick that I think everyone should adopt: Before setting out for the day in said place, pick an “arbitrary stupid goal.”
I learned about the arbitrary stupid goal (or ASG, as I will call it moving forward) in 2019 when the Eater Book Club (RIP, for now) read Tamara Shopsin’s memoir Arbitrary Stupid Goal. Tamara is the daughter of the late Kenny Shopsin, who helmed the legendary NYC grocery-turned-sandwich-counter Shopsin’s, “one of the quirkiest restaurants in the city” according to Eater NY critic Robert Sietsema. The book takes the reader through outlandish tales of the shop and its regulars, and the author’s experience growing up in the bohemian Greenwich Village in the 1970s.
But the part that really stayed with me was the book’s title. Kenny Shopsin taught his daughter about the ASG, or “a goal that isn’t too important, makes you live in the moment, and still gives you a driving force.” The ASG is “a decoy point that keeps you bobbing along, allowing you to find ecstasy in the small things, the unexpected, and the everyday.” I really latched onto this idea. I often get overwhelmed by choice when I travel, so having an ASG (usually a food-based one) has helped me get out of my hotel room, my comfort zone, and back into an exploratory groove.
Last summer my fiancé and I wanted to travel to the Amalfi Coast, but had decision paralysis over which of the 13 towns along the mountainside we should stay in. In our research we came upon Conca dei Marini, a tiny sliver of a town where the sfogliatella pastry was invented by nuns in the 1600s at the Monastero Santa Rosa. That was enough for me to click “book” on an Airbnb, and a new ASG was born. We’d travel to Conca dei Marini to try the pastry (a favorite of my family’s growing up) in the town where it was invented, and let everything else along the way surprise and delight us.
Conca dei Marini won our hearts over the other more-crowded locations along the coast, with its charming restaurants (there were only two!), breathtaking views of the Tyrrhenian Sea, and Bar Santa Rosa, a cafe that serves as the neighborhood’s coffee shop, sandwich spot, gelato shop, bar, and general hangout.
At Bar Santa Rosa, a stone’s throw from the gorgeous Monastero Santa Rosa itself (of which the outside looks as it did in the 1600s, but the interior has been renovated into a very fancy spa), I learned that Raffaela, the baker/owner and chief Instagrammer, takes much pride in baking the pastry as close to the original recipe as possible. The sfogliatella proved a worthy goal, with a sweet ricotta-and-cream-filled center, the crispiest dough I’ve ever bitten into, and topped with a rich marinated cherry or two.
We had one of the pastries each day of our stay. Without making them an ASG, we would have missed the simple pleasure of flaking dough all over ourselves while overlooking the quaint lemon trees, the steep mountainside, and the peaceful sea.