Amalfi Coast/Naples Report
Drew a lot from the CH posters who reported on meals in the area. Thanks!
Coming down from Central Pork here in Le Marche, I wanted to eat fish. In all, it was pretty much a let-down. There’s nothing really spectacular about the fish on offer – either at the fishmongers or in the restaurants. Preparations tended to be uninteresting to the point of blandness. And be prepared to open wide your wallet.
A good central location for exploring the AC. Alfonso a Mare (http://www.alfonsoamare.it/english/Default.htm) was a solid CH recommendation. The unusually generous portion of octopus salad was fresh and quite good, as were the spaghetti with claims. I’m not a limoncello fan, but theirs was delicious. We asked for and received nonna’s recipe from the proprietress.
La Strada (no website) was forgettable. The clams in the pasta with clams were sandy. However, they offered to replace it (declined) and removed the dish from the bill without being prompted; the over-priced sea bass baked in salt was soggy and flavorless.
Pizze from both La Brace and San Gennaro were run-of-the-mill and absurdly expensive.
For drinks, Bar del Sole, smack in the middle of the main drag, offers reasonably priced wine and cocktails and fantastic local olives.
Markets are somewhat scarce in the area, but Tutti per Tutti (http://www.marinotuttopertutti.it/eng/default.html) has a great selection of everything you need for cooking at home. The local salame I tried was really good.
The best part of the area doesn’t cost a dime: the Path of the Gods. Not being a revenue generator, there’s not a lot of signage invested in locating it from Praiano. You can avoid the lengthy bus ride to Bomerano, the customary start of the trail, and instead hike up to it from Praiano, but it’s about a 45-min vertical climb. Once you hit the trail, the path to Nocelle is not at all challenging and affords spectacular views. The reward at the end was Ristorante Santa Croce: simple cooking, beautiful vistas, and sane prices.
We left the car at the docks in Amalfi and from there took a bus up to the lovely town of Ravello. Driving the road would have been harrowing, even for these parts. Lunch at Ristorante Garden (http://www.gardenravello.com/en/restaurant/the_restaurant.asp) was fine, though unspectacular and slow-paced. Jackie O (with Caroline in tow) apparently stayed at the hotel, spending her time partying with Gianni Agnelli. A framed article references a telegraph she received from JFK: “More Caroline, less Gianni”. The gardens of the Villa Cimbrone at the top of the town make it worth the trip, as others apparently found as well (Garbo, Longfellow, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams).
Beautiful town, crassly commercialized for the upscale set. We hadn’t planned on eating there, so I lacked any information. The waterside restaurants all appeared similar in menu and pricing, with nothing notable on offer. At the suggestion of others in our party, we wandered into an outdoor restaurant just above Santa Maria Assunta (the Byzantine Black Madonna is definitely worth a look) whose name I’ve now forgotten that offers pricey, undistinguished fare to quiet, middle-aged, upper-class Americans (or so it appeared). A tip for those driving into Positano: take the road all*the*way*down to the center, where the pedestrian zone begins and the road forks to take you back up. There you’ll find a parking garage with rates of € 4/hour, a real bargain in its own right, given that street-side parking is € 3/hour.
Naples and Environs
Hit four pizzerie culled from the Serious Eats list (http://slice.seriouseats.com/archives/2006/02/a_slice_of_heaven_naples_pizza_at_its_source.html), plus several street slices. My favorite was Di Matteo (http://www.pizzeriadimatteo.it/): really fresh ingredients, well-seasoned, almost enough char (good char is hard to come by unless you ask for it). A neighboring table had the pizza fritta, a new one for me: two pizza rounds filled with ricotta (I believe) and then deep-fried (hence, I guess, why some local pizzerie also advertise as friggitorie). It comes out resembling something like a naan: you puncture it to deflate it, slice it, and dig in. The neighboring table told me that, while heavy, it’s “ottimo”. Also had a tasty arancino.
Kate’s favorite was Da Michele (http://www.damichele.net/), perhaps in part because it reminded her so much of Pepe’s in New Haven for its rustic interior and simplicity of the pizza. There’s pretty much only one style – a margherita – but it’s damn tasty. Quite a crowd had gathered outside on a Saturday night at 8, waiting for seats, but FOH moves people in and out quite quickly.
From there, we moved on to Sorbillo (http://www.accademiadellapizza.it/#). The 90-minute wait went by in no time thanks to the great street theater. You can get some rough local wine by the glass from the little dispensa next door to keep your spirits up. Had a white with pesto. Interesting flavors but not stellar.
Earlier in the day, we tried Ciro a Mergellina (http://www.ciroamergellina.it/home_it.htm) after emerging from the tour of Naples Underground (really a must: http://www.lanapolisotterranea.it/home_ing.htm). The pizza (basil, mozzarella) was fine, but the restaurant was too fancy-schmancy and priced accordingly.
Our only proper meal was at La Stanza del Gusto (http://www.lastanzadelgusto.com/). Sending out a big thank you here to jen kalb! It was Kate’s birthday, and we were joined by her parents and some other family members. The upstairs rooms were closed (too hot, we were told), but they accommodated the six of us at a table on the sidewalk, which turned out to be the best room. We opted to share three five-course tasting menus, plus four supplemental dishes. It wasn’t a lot of food, but we got to try a significant amount of the menu. Everything was outstanding, a real treat. I’d be hard-pressed to single out a favorite, but the gnocchi di pane were just superb, as was a dish incorporating whipped mozzarella. Buoyed perhaps by all the Greco di Tufo, Falanghina, and house-made amaro, I felt compelled to crush chef-owner Mario Avallone in a big bear hug and shower him with “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!”
Viva Lo Re (http://www.vivalore.it/home.htm). Again, thank you so much, jen kalb! Somewhat difficult to find coming off the autostrada from Pompeii, but now I know: if you can get yourself to the Herculaneum site, you’re close (all told, about 20 minutes by car from Pompeii). This is some of the most creative cooking I’ve had in Italy. Four of us shared two antipasto courses with an assortment of five or six fish preparations (tempura, mousses, dumplings, mini-soups), three primi (the paccheri with gamberetti were outstanding), and a main of fish. Although wine is the star here (wine racks line the walls of the dining rooms), I opted for a N. Italian pale ale, which hit the spot after a hot morning in Pompeii. Price was € 88 and was the best cost-to-value meal of the trip. VLR is not to be missed when in Ercolano.
Kate and I took the ferry from Naples to Ischia, where we caught up with her family, who had chartered a catamaran for week-long sail along the coast. We hitched a ride with them to Capri and then made our way to Anacapri, passing through Capri Town and its veneer of luxury catering to the daytrippers off the cruise ships. This island seems to have perfected the practice of separating tourists from their money. Having been taken for € 30 for two G&Ts and an Aperol spritz at an unprepossessing caffeteria (and carrying on a perfectly pleasant conversation in fluent Italian with the charming, elderly proprietors), we asked Franco, the gracious owner of our B&B (http://www.capri-ilgiardino.com/Templ...) for a recommendation for dinner: we wanted to eat fish and we wanted reasonable prices. He reserved a table for us at Il Cucciolo (no web site). Our waiter knew that the reservation had been made for us by a local, so we felt comfortable ordering off menu. We shared one fish antipasto (two oysters, three small-ish scampi, and a bit of thinly sliced crudo of something), one plate of paccheri with gamberetti, and one average-size baked sea bass (unadorned save for a side of sautéed potatoes), plus a bottle of Falanghina (we stressed reasonable, and I think we were charged a respectable € 18 for it) and a shared dessert. Other than the dessert (a traditional Capri torte using almond dough as a base), which was quite good, and the stunning view, the rest was simply passable. The bill totaled € 128. It was as confounding to Franco, who asked about our experience, as it was to us, and he lamented the gouging by hospitality operators on and around the Amalfi Coast . His suggestion when travelling in these parts: ask first what anything costs before committing to order it – a glass of wine, a bottle of water, a piece of fish (and beware the dangerous per-kilo pricing) – especially where the operator doesn’t post the required list of prices. Duly noted.
I agree with your take on the Amalfi Coast seafood. Other than in Cetara, which of course is far off the tourist track, there really wasn't much to write home about. I understand that the waters in that part of Campania have been so heavily fished that all that's really left are anchovies and some sardines.
And I'm glad you found Viva Lo Re. We loved it so much that we had lunch there two days in a row--once before visiting Herculaneum and the next day after a trip to Pompeii. (BTW, I heard that the owner/chef once operated a restaurant in NYC.) The fritto misto was the best we had in Italy and even rivaled the ones we had in Andalusia.