Wine and food Amalfi Coast

Amalfi Coast Cuisine

 

The Amalfi Coast is an area blessed with more than its fair share of good fortune: a kind and clement climate, stunning landscapes, and a gastronomic panorama to enchant even the most exacting of palates. 

Stretching from Vietri al Mare near Salerno, to the pastel tumble of houses that makes up the seaside town of Positano some 35 km to the north, the Amalfi Coast flaunts glittering expanses of sea on one side and the dramatic limestone backdrop of the Monti Lattari on the other. This theatrical congress of sea and mountain has been attracting visitors since Ancient Roman times, but the resulting eco-climate is also an important factor in providing Amalfi and its neighbors with an enviable variety of produce that forms the foundation of the superlative local cuisine.   

Along these hills grow a cornucopia of crops: the famously sweet cherry tomatoes, pomodori pennoli, often seen strung together and hanging from kitchen ceilings; the area’s highly perfumed DOP lemons – the sfusato Amalfitano – with their low acid content and thick knobbly skin; chestnuts from the hilltop town of Scala; hazelnuts from Giffoni; whole hillsides of thyme and oregano that dry and intensify in the summer sun, and capers that grow wild over the rockface waiting to be picked by anyone willing to gather and salt them before they blossom into flowers. And what to say of the sea? From Cetara near Vietri come the area’s famed anchovies, and tuna, and a potent fish sauce called collatura di alici, not unlike the Ancient Roman sauce, garum. From Crapolla north of Positano, the exquisite tiny pink shrimp best eaten raw, and from nearby Praiano, delicious flying squid. By day, fishermen haul their catch ashore, and sell bright-eyed sea bream, amberjack, scabbard fish, scorpion fish and little tunny to local restaurants. And as night falls, the blue black sea becomes a mirror of winking lights, as a scattering of small fishing vessels try to tempt squid and calamari to bite, plumbing the depths in search of these much loved local specialties. Add to that the area’s clams, flat lobsters, sea snails, and top quality pasta from the small town of Gragnano on the other side of the mountain, and you begin to get the (big culinary) picture.  

It shouldn’t be surprising then, that many local dishes have a mare e monti aspect, mixing produce from land and sea; pasta with scampi and zucchini, clams and artichokes or even beans and mussels – felicitous combinations that suggest that ingredients with a common geographical heritage are happy bedfellows. Ahem, plate fellows. The small towns of Praiano and Furore not far from Amalfi, for example, are probably the only places you’ll be able to enjoy the local specialty of totani e patate – an unctuous purple stew of flying squid and potatoes. So good, it is said, that once upon a time families tried to arrange marriages between the young fishermen of Praiano with girls from Furore (where the area’s best potatoes grew) in order to have the best of both worlds. Whether or not the story is true, the marrying of quality ingredients from different towns along the coast is still a favorite practice today.  

The appreciation of uncomplicated recipes that exalt the freshness of ingredients is a common theme in cooking here. Some dishes, especially those that make use of rich tomato sauces or rice, have trickled south from Naples, but others, unmistakably local, throw together a few super fresh ingredients to create a masterpiece of flavor: vermicelli with anchovies and wild fennel, linguine with lemon, spaghetti with clams (pasta here is eaten rigorously al dente, so expect to be served pasta with a ‘bite’ to it), or pesce all’acqua pazza, local fish cooked with a dash of white wine, a couple of cherry tomatoes, and a little garlic and parsley. Simplicity rules, as local chefs are convinced that fresh ingredients treated with intelligence and a light hand make for unbeatably delicious results. Imagine a lunch of sea bream cooked in a hard shell of salt and chiseled open in front of you to release its irresistible aroma, or a complete meal of fish soup, where mussels, clams, calamari, gurnard (sea robin) and scorpion fish are heaped atop garlic-scented toasts that sop up the delicate fish broth.  

Even the most elegant eateries take a rigorously local and simple approach, valuing authentic flavors over fussy extravagance. Antonio Dipino, the town’s Michelin starred chef, serves lemon leaves topped with finely chopped amberjack (local fish) that are swiped under a hot grill to release the citrusy tang of the lemon leaf, then lightly drizzled with local extra virgin olive oil. A gastronomic masterpiece of disarming simplicity. 

Street food abounds, and there are more ‘fast food’ joints than ever dotted along Amalfi’s main thoroughfare, and hidden away in backstreet piazzas and viccolette where you can pick up slices of crisp-crusted pizza, sample some golden brown arancini, deep-fried rice balls with mozzarella, or potato and mozzarella croquettes. Gelato is a must in hotter months, and the town’s pasticciere Pansa has lots to tempt those with a sweet tooth, from chocolate-dipped candied lemon peel (and orange and citron too) to warm cornetti with lemon scented cream.   

For those who prefer lunch with a view, head to the string of restaurants on the seafront and accompany a seafood salad and plate of homemade pasta with a glass of crisp, white wine, perhaps from local producer Marisa Cuomo, whose excellent whites are some of Italy’s best. Desserts are simple affairs here, as often as not a platter of fresh fruit or one of Amalfi’s delizie al limone, moist, fragrant sponge cake covered in lemon scented cream. Or you can try the unusual but delicious chocolate covered eggplant, And what visit to Amalfi would be complete without a chilled glass of the area’s popular liqueur limoncello, to for which the Amalfi Coast has so justly become renowned.  

Cooking Vacations International offers one-day cooking classes in Amalfi that include visits to local produce markets and lunch at the foot of the town’s handsome duomo.