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Sorrento and environs (Southern Italy trip #3 and longest of all)

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Alan Divack Jul 23, 2001 09:23 PM

We spent our last 3 nights in Italy in Sorrento. Sorrento is a beautiful small city on cliffs over the Bay of Naples, and is conveniently located on a commuter rail line to Naples (the Circumvesuviana) which provides very easy access to Pompeii, Herculaneum, and many other sites. We stayed in the Hotel Minerva, which was immaculate, comfortable, and reasonably priced. It is on the hill on the outskirts of the city, and removed from the hubbub of the town. We had heart-stopping views of Vesuvius from our terrace, the breakfast terrace, and the swimming pools. Unfortunately we also made the mistake of asking the hotel concierge where we should go for dinner.

When we told her we liked fish, she sent us to the Vela Bianca, in the Marina Piccola, which is actually the main port for boats to Naples, Capri and elsewhere. The place was packed with American tour groups, and not a single Britisher, which was surprising since they are the dominant and ubiquitous tourist species in Sorrento. The concierge must have figured that this was the place to send Americans who say they like fish. The waiters were aggressive, pushing the exorbitantly priced lobster (could it really have been $50 a pound ?? the double conversions of lira and kilos always trip me up). Our order took far too long to prepare, especially since we had to endure an electric organ blasting pop tunes. We should have gotten up and left, but I am actually glad that we didn’t. We had the most outstanding pasta dish of our trip – tubetti alle vongole, short, fat tubes of pasta, cooked so al dente as to be a bit stiff, tossed with a sauté (sauce is really the wrong word) of small clams, garlic, cherry tomatoes, and the spicy bright green Campanian arugula (ruchetta). The ingredients were impeccable and lightly and perfectly cooked, and the texture of the clam shells against the firm pasta and bursting tomatoes was deeply satisfying. We fought over every last morsel, and this dish has figured prominently in our conversations, and in our dreams, since we returned. We also had good, if not outstanding mullet in acqua pazza (poached with olive oil, garlic, cherry tomatoes and parsley), and orate baked with porcini mushrooms.

The next day we went to Pompeii, and for lunch, we sought refuge from the sun in the restaurant at the concession area. Our expectations were low, and we really were just looking for a few minutes rest, but we ended up having a pretty decent meal. The pasta was excellent, and rather than scooping it out of the steam table in the cafeteria, they brought out fresh platters when they were cooked. We were served ziti in a light tomato sauce, topped with basil leave and slices of mozzarella which melted slightly into the pasta.

For dinner, we went to La Tonnarrella, a restaurant on the Via Capo across the street from our hotel, mostly because we were too tired to do anything else. The meal was good, though perhaps the least outstanding of our stay. One thing worth noting was the preparation of Zuppa di Pesce. We observed it both here and at other restaurants. What in the US is a soup of fish and shellfish in a brothy tomato sauce is here is an enormous platter of small fish, calamari, clams, mussels, and various kinds of shrimp, poached in acqua pazza – olive oil, garlic, cherry tomotoes and parsely. The juices are reduced to intensify their flavor, and they coat the bottom of the platter, though it is really a dish of cooked fish rather than what we consider soup. Why zuppa? It is invariably served with toasted bread to sop up the scant and intense juices. In Italy ZUPPA is more about bread sopping up liquid than it is about soup. (Hence zuppa inglese, or trifle: cake sopping up rum or sherry.)

The following day we went to Ercolano, an industrial suburb of Naples, with the ruins of ancient Herculaneum, which I highly recommend if you are in the area. It is both better preserved and far less crowded than Pompeii. On our way back to Sorrento, we stopped for lunch at a trattoria called Cagnano, which is on the Via Roma, just of the street that connect the excavations with the train station. We had excellent spaghetti alle vongole, with the cherry tomato sauce almost a conserve and oodles of sweet clams, and a cavatelli with tomatoes and mozzarella. For a main course, we had a local fish, sort like a very mild bluefish, that was pan roasted with garlic, parsley and olive oil This was exteremly simple, and actually one of my favorite dishes from the trip. We drank a delicious local wine that was sort of effervescent, like a vinho verde. It came from a bottle with no label, and I doubt that it would travel much beyond Naples. Our meal here came to about $30. When we were finishing up some locals came in and negotiated their meal back in the kitchen with the dour old guy who served up, presumably the owner. The guests emerged with a platter of raw mussels and a whole boiled octopus, about the size of a softball, which they proceeded to dismember and eat with oil, lemon and salt. This was not on the menu, and we would have loved to see the rest of what they ate.

That night, we had dinner at a restaurant called "The Garden", an outdoor garden terrace was just off the main drag, the Corso Italia, in the old quarter. The restaurant was filled, mostly with British tourists, and the one table of Italians who ate there that evening ordered pizza. We had overall one of the best meals of our trip. My wife had scialatielli, a thick homemade ribbon-like pasta that is softer than macaroni but was cooked considerably more firmly than most pasta in the US. It was dressed with sauteed raddichio and lots of tiny clams in the shell. I ordered paccheri with potatoes and mussels. Paccheri are tubular macaroni that are so large that the wall collapses when they are cooked. My heart sank when they brought out the dish, since it had no potatoes that I could see, and the mussels were already shelled. But it was truly delicious, and once I started eating I could see what was going on. The sauce did have potatoes, but they had disintegrated into the garlicky olive oil, giving it heft and sweetness. It bound the mussels to the paccheri some of which swallowed up the mussels in their floppy interior – shells may have ruined the effect here. The mains were equally good. My wife had orate baked with lemons. We had heard that the lemons in Campania were sweeter than elsewhere, and we believed it only after eating this dish. The sauce was and intense broth of the fish juices and lemon, intensely cirtrusy, but not particularly sour. My mullet in acqua pazza was the best poached fish of the trip, with the juices livened by a bit of hot pepper.

Sorrento has several good places for ice cream. Our favorite was a Salon de The on the Corso Italia between the Circumesuviana Station and the Piazza Tasso. We also had some excellent Sfogliatelle, at a pastry shop whose name I forget. It had a large red awning, and was at the end of the Corso Italia near the beginning of the Via Capo. They stuff the pastries with two different fillings – a ricotta, or a semolina cream. We gave a slight edge to the ricotta, but the semolina was mighty good as well. For those of you who aren’t familiar with them (aka out-of-towners – forgive my NYC chauvanism) sfogliatelle are like Italian cheese danish with an truly indescribable crust -sort of like a puff pastry made by someone who was drunk and most fortunately ruined it by making the layers too tough, and rolling them out so that they are too crooked. I have no love for puff pastry, but there is nothing like a good sfogliatella. While Campania has earned the worlds gratitude for its pasta and pizza, it has received insufficient thanks for sfogliatelle.

This is the last of my reports from our recent trip. Sorry for the length of all of these postings, especially since we did not seem to venture into too many unexplored waters. Writing this has definitely helped me to savour some very pleasant memories.

One final, general lesson from all of this – if you are traveling in Naples and Campania, treat yourself to Arthur Schwartz’s Naples at Table before you go. He gives some great tips on places to eat, but even more so, he is a sure guide to the local cuisine (who would know to order scialatielli otherwise?) and the culture, and much more valuable than most guide books. One of our great regrets is that we did not make it out to Seliano, an agrotourist farm that he wrote about that has its own buffalo herds (and mozzarella!). And, when you come home you can cook up some of his recipes, most of which are fairly easy, as direct and straightforward as the food we enjoyed. We had a wonderful pesce in acqua pazza last week.

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    pat hammond Jul 23, 2001 10:24 PM

    Worth waiting for, Alan. Thanks for these wonderful and evocative reports. pat

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