Friday, April 9, 2010

Italy: Culinary Culture in Campania

When life gives you lemons, you must be on the Amalfi Coast. The best thing about Italy is how it's simplicity is it's true sophistication: as cliche as it is, Italian food is all about quality and in wonderful quantities. I've always wanted to go south of Naples to the lemon filled terraces of the Sorrentine Peninsula, home to limoncello, spaghetti alle vongole, parmigiana di melanzane, frittura di pesce and other Neapolitan classics. We packed our bags and appetites over the Easter Bank Holiday and visited Sorrento, Amalfi, Ravello, Capri and Naples. What jet-setters! Or rather bus-hoppers as that is how the locals commute to get around the bendy coast! After an elimination as difficult as the annual Masterchef finals, here are the highlights...

Sorrento: Spaghetti alle vongole, or quite simply Spaghetti with Clams. A simple sauce is made after cooking garlic, olive oil and cherry tomatoes and mixed with clam juice or sea water, it becomes a tasty seafoody emulsion to coat that perfect al dente pasta. 

Ravello: The charming and exquisite Da Salvatore restaurant perched on a cliff with jaw-dropping views of Amalfi beneath. A meal for two with half a bottle of wine was 65 euros, an absolute bargain for what we had.

An artistic amuse bouche of pimiento, anchovy (which was so fresh it was near raw), vinegar and tartar cracker.

Smoked grouper with a fennel and walnut salad, accompanied by a blood orange jus. The orange jus was so incredibly sweet and perfectly reduced, and married so well with the smoky grouper.

Ricotta gnocchi tossed with porcini mushrooms, with buffalo cheek stewed with vegetables. Porcini mushrooms so soft but yielding in their earthy flavour, their texture was almost like roasted aubergine. The buffalo cheek was tender and marbled, with slight hint of pimiento heat from the vegetable stew. A new and awesome flavour combination.

Ah, il limone! Endless yellow ovals dangle from trees on staggered terraces all around the coastline, to add zest and tang to cakes, sauces and fashion the infamous limoncello. Hundreds of bottles spill out from touristy stalls, and very often next to it is it's lesser known cousin, meloncello. Admittedly, sometimes the orange hue borders on neon but it's not half as scary and actually more drinkable than limoncello.

Naples, oh vainglorious Naples! Filthy and frantic on one street and overwhelmingly grand on the next. We arrived here on Easter Sunday to find most restaurants closed. Perhaps a school child's error being in Roman Catholic Central on a key date in the Christian calendar, but La Cantina del Sole in the Old Quarter was a wink from above. It was your quintessential small Italian outfit, run by only a few staff, with plenty of charm. The dish that stood out was the octopus, mushroom and tomato starter: I can sincerely say to never have eaten octopus as fresh as this and for it to come as it did! Up to now, those suckers have always been chopped up and hidden amongst other herbs. The meat was softer than squid, not chewy and interesting to be pared with mushrooms. Kinda like the sea and forest coming together?

And finally, la pizza. Naples' most famous export was truly best saved for last. Again, I risk the cliche but it is just crazily fresh and simple ingredients in abundance which sum up the Italian kitchen. The real deal is not a thin or thick crust but somewhere in the middle, and for what I could see, how good the pizza oven then was to singe and bake this to perfection. All pizza bases have this whiff of garlic that brings it all together. There are endless pizzerias on every corner of the city, but the one we tried and loved was the Antica Pizzeria del Borgo.

All you need in this part of the world is lots of appetite and time to eat your way through. Oh and to work it all off, a hike up Vesuvius or wonder around ancient Pompeii. Buonissimo!

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