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Jun 26, 2008 08:26 AM

Campania report: Positano, Castellabate

Just got back from 10 days in Campania where we ate very, very well indeed. We started off in Positano, which was relaxing and delicious. We ate several times at Max Ristorante in the center of town, which was right near our rental apartment, and had some excellent meals - particularly the fennel carpaccio and the spaghetti alle vongole, which was out of this world good, with teeny tiny tender clams. I have always hated clam sauce the way it is made in the US, but on the Amalfi Coast I was converted forever. We also had a nice meal at La Cambusa down by the main beach, where I had fried baby calamari and paccheri pasta (large tubes) with monkfish, both excellent. We also took a water taxi to the nearby village of Praiano and had a solid meal at Il Pirata on the cliff, which did not come as highly recommended as Armandino's, but had the better view.

The wine and food of the Amalfi Coast, particularly the insanely delicious and fresh seafood, is definitely worth going for, but we did find Positano far too touristy for our taste -- everyone speaks English the second you walk in the door of a shop or restaurant, there are gazillions of gift shops selling tacky clothes and ugly "art," and the beach isn't that great, either. However, it was relaxing and uncomplicated, with great views to contemplate as you open that second bottle of wine on your terrace. Would definitely revisit the Amalfi Coast, but would stay in one of the other towns there - Praiano or Ravello, and rent a car to explore. (The cost of taxis and boats was nothing short of ridiculous.)

After our stay in Positano, we headed south to the Cilento Coast, which is about a 2 1/2 hour drive down the Campania coastline. All along the way were an unbelievable number of farms and an entire strip of highway devoted to the making and selling of the famed mozzerella di bufala. Though we didn't really have time to stop and check them out, it was clear that this is a solid chowhound-type destination, very much off the beaten tourist track.

We stayed four days in a town called Castellabate, a medieval hill town that is perched on a mountain right next to the beach, where the resort town of Santa Maria Castellabate is located. SMC was definitely the more touristy of the two places, thronged with Neapolitan families enjoying a beach holiday and stores selling cheap beach balls and water wings. Castellabate is a 20 minute bus ride up the mountain, and here we stayed at a place called Albergo di Castello, a rustic and charming hotel run by a woman named Franca di Biasi, who also cooks up an incredible feast every night.

These meals were, without a doubt, the highlight of our trip! Franca and her wonderful staff brought out course after course of homestyle cooking - fresh figs, marinated anchovies, fried stuffed zucchini flowers, baked mussels, mozzerella di bufala, various pastas, delicious chicken and roasted whole fish - and we ate until we burst every night. We got to try many local specialities that we probably would not have ordered off the menu, and it was an experience that I would recommend to all chowhounds headed to Italy. There are supposedly other really good restaurants in the town, but we never made it to any of them - the minute we smelled Franca's cooking wafting up towards our room we realized it would be crazy to go anywhere else. Our final night there, we had a Neapolitan rice casserole known as surtu - baked rice, tomatoes, mozzerella di bufala, sausage, meatballs, and who knows what else - that was the best thing I ate on the whole trip, and it was followed by a sublime homemade tiramisu and limoncello - a great way to wind up our vacation.

The only downside of our experience at Albergo di Castello was the lack of air conditioning - though we hardly expected it in an old hotel, the nights were very hot and stuffy in mid-June, and we did not sleep as well as we ate. We would definitely go back, but fall would probably be a much more pleasant time to be there. All in all, though, a fab experience and recommended to all Campania-bound chowhounds.

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  1. Great report ... sounds like lots of fun and great food. Where did you find the boat to Praiano? Did you go also to Armandino in Praiano? Any other dinners or lunches in the Positano, Nocelle or Montepertuso area around Positano? We're going to do the hiking and beaches in a couple weeks and we can't wait!

    4 Replies
    1. re: PeggyD

      PeggyD, I'm going to Praiano in August and looking forward to some hiking (to further stimulate my appetite for all that delicious food). Other than your restaurant recs I would love to know what kind of footwear I need for these hikes. (Just for a frame of reference I'm from Massachusetts and I think its crazy to hike on the Appalachian trail without sturdy boots as its narrow and rocky whereas out west on the Canadian Rockies I found sneakers fine for the wider former cart paths used for hiking)

      1. re: heypielady

        According to the book I bought -- Sunflower Guide to that area -- the walks look beautiful, and several are former mule paths, and everyone in the photos was wearing nikes. Most of the hikes are 2 hours or less, but you can loop them together, and only a few are marked for needing hiking boots, which we did not want to carry. What I had in mind was leaving Positano each morning, getting in a great hike, take photos, check out some of those smaller, old mountain towns and have lunch at the "off the beaten track" local places, before starting back to Positano. Then ... veg at the beach and go out for a lovely dinner, wine & get ready to do it all again. I will report back in when we return. I heard of a restaurant near Praiano where you have to hike 1.5 hours to get to the restaurant, and there is no other way to the restaurant, except by boat. I need to find the name of that place and we'll check it out one of those beautiful days!!

        1. re: PeggyD

          Ooo yeah. Do report back. Your itinerary sounds like my kind of day. Do you like that book? Maybe I'll pick it up.

          1. re: heypielady

            Yes ... the Sunflower Guides are great ... I bought via Amazon, but it took a while to deliver, and it shipped from London, so it must be a foreign publication. Also, I ordered a used book as the hikes are on paths that are centuries old, so I did not need to wait for an updated reprint, which Amazon said is likely to publish before 12/08. We are big walkers, but not real hikers ... not sure what the difference is ... but it seems that Sunflower caters mostly to walkers anyway ... and lists the cutest little towns, tells you right where to refill your water bottles, and gives you a couple tips on grocery places to buy a sandwich ... we will picnic in each of the towns, if we can find someplace to buy the supplies ... we weren't keen on carrying food & drinks in the backpacks ... according to the Sunflower guide, this should be possible. Getting in some good exercise early in the day, and see those beautifuly sites, we are able to eat that wonderful Italian cuisine every night and still fit our clothes upon return. Pasta, pasta, pasta!! I'll let you know how it goes on our return!!

    2. Excellent report! Makes me want to jet over to Campania this minute!

      1 Reply
      1. re: erica

        Love Campania, and know this area especially well. Last summer we accidentally found the Ristorante di Arlecchino; it's just off the beach in SMC. After a long morning and early afternoon on the beach we enjoyed a most memorable lunch here. Excellent grilled fish; apps were especially tasty--try the sardines. Lots of Italian families sharing extended tables.