8.07.2012

Amalfi Coasting


If there was ever a country that loves food, in season, as is, at its best, it would be Italy. Going South to Amalfi for an unusually relaxing European trip, I knew what to expect. Italy has a way of surprising you along the way though, in a humorous adventurous manner, be it a strike of an airline, bus route change announced as you've already boarded or an interesting new travel companion. I've learned going with the flow is usually not optional and always results in something pleasant eventually.
From weather to food from a little past experience and some voracious research before leaving expectations were set; time spent on SlowFood and Chowhound was educational (and the best part of planning). The coast is the perfect representation of the basic concept of Italian food. Stick to what you know and what you have, when you have it. This is not to say that you can't find haute cuisine options, but rather to highlight that most seem to adhere to that general standard, especially in the less metropolitan coastline. Research aside, in practice popular tourist attractions generate many a tourist trap restaurant and traveling with more then 3 companions usually requires reservations. This does take away from spontaneity, but as long as you give yourself options leads to much more enjoyable experience, for at least 1 meal a day…that is unless you have a thought-diverse set of companions (read: only visited 3-4 places researched).

Our itinerary took us from a short stint in Rome to Capri, onto towns of Sorrento, Amalfi, Positano, Ravello, Manori and back to Naples through Pompei. The highlights for me were Capri and Ravello; Capri for its island atmosphere and gorgeous waterscapes; Ravello for farmland winding up along the hillsides and tourist-less streets. I would come back to either in a heartbeat.

Oh the open air markets of Europe, how I love thee! I’ve written time and again that I could happily skip a museum trip or the best restaurant if I could just visit a local bazaar. For me, there’s nothing better. This is where you meet the real cooks, see and taste the real food of wherever you are, especially if where you are is in Italy at the beginning of June. People watching is in full gear here. Loud marketers discuss prices and latest local news, like Nicola’s dinner with the other woman or the audacity of stupid _fill in the blank_ tourists touching produce. Foraged mushrooms, fresh picked berries, tomatoes still attached to the vines, and spices line Campo di Fiori, a foreground to the restaurants and gourmet shops lining the piazza. Shop windows adorned with hams strung up to the ceiling, mozzarella bobbing happily in buckets, olives, anchovies, and fresh baked bread. Do I have you salivating yet? It’s Hanukkah in June here (if not a very kosher one).
It’s not much work here to convince friends to wait 2 hours for a shop to reopen from a lunch break because it just has to be experienced, while grabbing a kilo of sour cherries, small, translucent red, bursting with tart flavor, that cramps your jaw muscles and glasses of fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. I have smart friends.

Rome was of course not without adventure, the second evening a certain restaurant seemed to have “lost” our reservation and was unwilling to accommodate us sitting outside at one of the 3 available tables --- they preferred to have us at the table close to the kitchen with limited air rights. Proud tourists that we are, we decided to leave and find another alternative, turning to the Zagat app on a whim. Calling ahead, we were happy to find we’d be seated outside. Fifteen minutes later we landed in a neighborhood, close to the Tiber, right behind the oldest Roman synagogue, only to be told that the kitchen was closed. In true Italian style, a friend explained that this is bopoti-bapoti-unacceptable (thanks Family Guy). We were indeed seated, and served oil-ridden roasted artichokes and bacala. Lesson learned about Zagat.

The trip really started in Capri. Learning how to relax in Italy, without feeling the need to see a bit of history is tough. This is not your normal beach vacation. But once you see the view in Capri, everything falls away to the background. It really is breathtaking.

We visited the only restaurant where I made an advance reservation from the States - Paolino Lemon Trees. I can easily say, this was the most memorable dining experience of the trip, and perhaps ever, for me. Was it the atmosphere of the tables set under lemon trees in a grove, garlands of lights in the moonlight, following Tony Bennett to the bathroom to confirm his identity, incredible food and wine, mandolin-accompanied songs, attentive, personable service, or just a result of exceeded expectations? I don’t know. I do know that an endless, home-style buffet of antipasti of marinated anchovies, smoked mozzarella, stuffed zucchini-flower fritters and multitudes of stuffed/raw/fried crustations; salt-encrusted Dorado for four deboned tableside, and the lemony al dente pasta was perfect. Here, started the unending train of “gifted” limoncello aperitifs that only ended on the flight back to the States.

Though a little restless from sleep-eat-drink-eat-drink-eat-drink-sleep pattern in context of a European vacation, this was an enjoyable trip. Amalfi is a place I’d like to return to without hesitation, on an empty stomach.