Monday, October 22, 2012

Days of Wine and Fishes – Amalfi Coast, Part 1

We’ve been back from Italy for two weeks now, but my taste buds are still reverberating from the experience. I’m tantalized by memories of fish plucked daily from the sea, tiny tender clams on fresh pasta, and piles of pomodorini (sweet, locally grown cherry tomatoes) with baby arugula and fresh, creamy mozzarella.

The food was merely icing on the cake, as I believe you could be happy there even if you ate nothing but ham and swiss on rye. We were in Positano, on the Amalfi Coast, where the towns are either perched on mountaintops or gripping the sides of the cliffs that run into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Everpresent views of the crystal clear water – in blues that range from pale turquoise to teal to a deep sapphire – are mesmerizing, and just offshore, the Li Galli islands, where the Sirens of Homer’s time lured sailors to their death, serve as constant reminders that these hills and waters have been witness to thousands of years of human history.

As in many of the coastal towns, houses in Positano are built one on top of the other, as if scrambling to keep from sliding into the sea, and most are painted white or some pastel shade, with arched entrances and wrought iron railings enhancing the old world atmosphere. The streets are often too narrow for cars, so restaurants take every opportunity to offer al fresco dining.

The main drag for the entire coast is what I lovingly refer to as The Spaghetti Road, known for its narrow lanes and hairpin curves. Driving it is treacherous and uneven, as the Italians all seem to be in training for Formula 1 participation, yet there’s the occasional delay while two giant buses maneuver to pass each other going opposite directions. I don’t have to worry though, as my husband won’t let me drive out of fear that I’ll have an “Oh, look!” moment over the breathtaking views, and we’ll go plummeting down the cliff.

Every restaurant features the fish of the day, and in that part of the world, the fish of the day was caught this morning. Sea bass, amberjack, flounder, John Dory, rock fish. And miniature mussels, blue lobster from Li Galli, cuttlefish, squid, and those tiny clams I mentioned. We had fish every which way: poached in a light tomato and garlic broth and served with pasta, or grilled in a medley with shrimp and sardines and squid, or lightly sautéed and served in Amalfi lemon sauce with sliced potatoes.

The most remarkable aspect of the food was its simplicity. While we splurged at Le Sirenuse, a really magnificent hotel with prices to match, and the food was as exquisite and complex as you would expect (see here the photo of my husband’s “vegetable salad”), everywhere else the dishes were uncomplicated but delicious presentations of regional specialties. I was struck by how easy it might be to duplicate many of them if you had the appropriate ingredients. Here (below), for instance, is rock fish with paccheri pasta, which I had at the delightful Eden Roc Hotel. You could do this, said the Kitchen Goddess to herself.

The challenge, of course, is finding tomatoes that taste anything like the pomodorini that appear to be growing on every balcony in every town in the region. Or Amalfi lemons, whose thick skin exudes a pleasantly sweet aroma and whose flesh is sour but not as bitter as the lemons we get in the U.S. Just more examples of how much difference it makes to use truly fresh and local ingredients.

So while I’m working on my own versions of a couple of these dishes, let me digress and tell you about the wines.

Naturally, with so much fish, we drank mostly white wine, concentrating on the many labels of Fiano di Avellino, which is one of the principal white wines of Campania, the region that includes Naples and the Amalfi Coast. Here at home, my husband and I have been moving away from Chardonnay, which is too heavy and oaky for my taste, and concentrating on New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. By and large, I’d say the Fiano is slightly softer than the perky Sauvignon Blanc, with a good bouquet that makes it a bit more elegant and flavorful. The wine itself has notes of honey (though it’s not a sweet wine), nuts, and fruitiness that’s more apricot and pear versus the grapefruit flavors of the NZ Sauvignon Blanc. And while it’s hard to do a side-by-side comparison of the New Zealand versus the Italian – since we have so far not been able to find Fiano di Avellino in Texas – it’s well worth looking for and goes really well with seafood/pasta dishes. The retail prices in Italy were 12-15 euros, so I would expect a good bottle can be had for less than $20.

Here are three we particularly liked, that may be available in the States:

Fiano di Avellino from Guido Marsella
Béchar Fiano di Avellino from Cantine Antonio Caggiano
Fiano di Avellino from Fuedi di San Gregorio

In addition to the Fiano di Avellino, other whites worth trying from the region are Greco di Tufo and Falanghina.

 With my next post, I’ll let you know how successful the Kitchen Goddess was at reproducing some of the dishes.


  1. This is one of my favorite places in the least my world. Where did you stay? Buca di Bacco holds my cherished memories of this magical town.

  2. I love Buca di Bacco -- such nice people. Have stayed there once. We stayed in a friend's apartment right next door to the Eden Roc Hotel, up on Amalfi Drive. And Posi has always been one of my favorite places, as well.

  3. Is your friend my high school friend, too? I never made it to Positano, but plan to this year of my/our 65th!

  4. I expect it's the same friend. I bought the stay at the last high school reunion.