During my BUCA days, Joanne and I regularly led groups of managers and chefs to southern Italy. The purpose: to immerse them in “la cucina povera” – the peasant cooking brought to America by Italian immigrants and celebrated by our restaurants.
While Rome, Florence and Venice are on many people’s bucket lists, our itineraries focused on places like Naples and Sicily, but in no way were we deprived. If you’ve only been to the more affluent north, you owe it to yourself to tour the south, where there are fewer tourists, the culture is more laid back, and the cuisine seduces with charms unique to this part of the country.
I’m thinking in particular about the AMALFI COAST.
Here’s what you do. Book your hotel in Naples. I strongly suggest THE EXCELSIOR, an elegant, well-located hotel and – important in gritty Naples – a very secure one.
The city can be dicey at night, and you’ll have to watch out for pickpockets, but spend a few days here anyway. (And be sure to have dinner at Da Dora, which I wrote about last August).
Next, set out in the morning for POMPEII. It’s well worth the 3-4 hour visit. The site is astonishingly well-preserved – especially when you realize that Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Don’t stay in the nearby town of Pompeii; it’s depressing. Instead, move on to SORRENTO, a drop-dead beautiful city on the tip of the Amalfi Coast. Great hotels and restaurants abound, and it’s a superb walking town. Not only is there a LIMONCELLO factory (that’s generous with samples) in the heart of the city, but – as Sarah Palin might say – “You can see CAPRI from here.” And by the way, Capri is most certainly worth a day trip from Sorrento. You can take the ferry, but here’s a tip: Opt for the ALISCAFI, a hydrofoil. It’s faster than hell.
On to POSITANO. Lemons are everywhere – and I mean EVERYWHERE. Markets, roadside stands, yards, balconies – they overflow with them. As you’d expect, lemons aren’t just central to the Limoncello industry. You’ll find them in refreshing, bright summer pastas ranging from lemon-scented ravioli to lemon-infused gnocchi and spaghetti in lemon sauce with cracked black pepper. One of the best that we enjoyed was a citrus-inspired shrimp risotto laced with lemon and sour-orange.
As for Limoncello: You cannot leave a respectable restaurant without a glass (or maybe you need a whole bottle) of the iconic Amalfi liquore, or digestivo. After all, the yellow blaze of the nectar contrasts so beautifully with the bright-blue sea. Especially after your third glass.
While beef, veal, butter and cream are at the core of northern Italian cuisine, the south is far too hot to sustain herds of cattle. Instead, farmers raise heat-resistant water buffalo, brought from India. And thank God they do. Their gift to us is BUFFALO MOZZARELLA CHEESE.
Amalfi’s real culinary driver, however, is its seafood – not just any seafood, but “just caught” offerings, fresh from the port. Nor can we forget the glorious SAN MARZANO TOMATOES, grown in incredibly rich lava ash soil at the base of Mt. Vesuvius. These are undoubtedly the best tomatoes in the world!
POSITANO, the central town on the Amalfi coast, dazzles as it clings to the craggy cliffs overlooking the shimmering bay. However, up until 1953, Positano was a dirt-poor fishing village with roughly half of the population having left for America right after World War Two. That is, until John Steinbeck published an essay in Harper’s Bazaar magazine entitled “Positano Bites Deep.” That was the tipping point that set Positano on a trajectory to the front ranks of jet set hotspots.
What about the restaurants?
Here are four, three of them not terribly expensive places, that we loved, and I think you’ll like, too (as long as you’re not seafood-averse).
CHEZ BLACK, right down on the water, boasts a huge outdoor patio. It’s undeniably touristy, but don’t let that stop you. The service is prompt and professional, friendly and fun-loving. They served a number of EXCELLENT, wood-fired pizzas, including the heart-shaped “Lover’s Pizza.”
Another one you’ll enjoy is the beachside DA FERDINANDO. It’s slightly more casual than Chez Black, but the food is just as refined – especially the pizza. I was also fond of the Prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and arugula sandwich on EVOO-laced, crusty and chewy, seedy bread. Salads and pastas are as they should be: perfect. Plus, the menu always features an array of simply grilled fish with lemon wedges.
LA TRE SORELLE (The Three Sisters) is also on the water. And, if memory serves me, its menu is exclusively devoted to seafood, including cuttlefish and grilled calamari. The signature pizza – with mussels, clams, razor clams, squid and shrimp – was perhaps the most memorable I’ve ever had. And that includes FRANK PEPE’S CLAM PIZZA in New Haven, Connecticut.
Finally, a SPLURGE.
Yes, for an anniversary, birthday, or a lifetime memory, maybe just once. LE SIRENUSE.
This five-star hotel and restaurant is barnacled to the side of a cliff overlooking the bay and the church of SANTA MARIA ASSUNTA, with its famous Majolica titled dome.
The name, Sirenuse, has its roots in Greek mythology. Homer tells the story of Odysseus returning home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. As his ship approached the archipelago of little islands off the Amalfi coast, the sailors heard the irresistible music of the sirens – so beautiful that the sailors couldn’t help but seek out its source and, in so doing, wreck their ships on the rocky shore. (Sirens are said to be half woman and half bird, but most illustrations that I found were half woman and half fish, like mermaids).
Thus the name: Le Sirenuse….(The Sirens).
Although Italian cuisine remains one of the world’s greats, I’ve always thought that breakfast was the weak spot in Italian cuisine. But not here! Start with a goblet of freshly squeeze blood orange juice on the terrace (just don’t embarrass yourself like I did in my youth, when I sent my first glass of blood orange juice back to the kitchen, without tasting it, convinced that I’d been served tomato juice).
Le Sirenuse will also offer paper-thin slices of prosciutto, paired with vine-ripened cantaloupe. Best of all, however, will be the SFOGLIATELLE NAPOLETANA: a flaky pastry found primarily in Naples and further south, supposedly created by the nuns of the nearby Santa Rosa convent. It’s filled with pastry cream, dried fruit and limoncello.
All rooms at Le Sirenuse have balconies – and the views are spectacular. But you won’t want to linger here too long before heading down to the fanciful, Michelin-starred restaurant, LA SPONDA. Waiters in crisp white jackets are seasoned veterans and not stiff, starchy or aloof. After all, they’re Italian. If you go, do not pass up the “loaded” seafood risotto.
As I said: It’s pricy. Expect to pay about $150 per person for the multi-course tasting menu (including wine). But don’t sweat it. You WILL NOT be sorry.
Then again, you could still enjoy Positano if you just have a slice of street food pizza and buy a t-shirt.