Most of our time in Italy was spent in Amalfi, where I was attending a conference at the Cappuccini Convento Hotel, about which more below. During the conference, we took all of out meals there, so my culinary impressions are limited. With the exception of the first meal (spaghetti alla pescatore, fritto misto of fish and seafood, and a fresh fruit compote), all of out other lunches and dinners were served as buffets. I think that our group of about 40 people, eating all at once, overwhelmed the staffs attempt to keep us fed.
The food was very good, though not great. Highlights were the antipasti, which included anchovies, which were very different from what we usually get here. They were pickled and tart with a texture similar to herring, rather than salty and somewhat fishy. The best of the antipasti was a salad of arugula (called ruchetta here, and with leaves that were darker, smaller, and much more peppery), baby shrimp, and shredded cheese. Most days there was also a grilled smoked mozzarella wrapped in lemon leaves, which was tasty, but probably would have been irresistible if it were served hot and fresh.
The best items were the vegetable contorni, which included roasted pepper and olive salad, eggplant in various guises, fried zucchini, and best of all, zucchini in scapece sautéed zucchini lightly marinated in olive oil, garlic, vinegar and herbs. The fish dishes were also good, including fried smelts, whiting, calamari and shrimp; grilled calamari,; and wonderful fried little sole dotted with lemon herb butter; grilled (and very thin) swordfish steaks with garlic and mint, and a baked fish that I could not identify, but a bit like a porgy. The veggies and fish held up very well on the buffet.
The same could not be said of the pasta, largely because when set out in advance for so many people, it was lukewarm and not particularly al dente. They also tended to oversauce the pasta, which was not the practice elsewhere.
On our last day in Amalfi we went up to Ravello which we had a very good meal at Cumpa Cosimo. We started with a mediocre seafoood anitpasto, which was OK, but repetitive. Everything had the same slighltly pickled flavor. But, it was uphill from there. We had outstanding spaghetti a la pescatore, which was extremely al dente pasta with a small amount of intense sauce of oil, garlic, tomato, and parsley, with lots of mixed seafood. The oil dominated , and the pasta was so al dente as to be noticeably stiff. We thought this was unusual, but this turned out to be the norm for the rest of our trip. My wife had a steak, a thin but rare ode to fat, blood, garlic and salt, and I had a simple rabbit stew that was falling-off-the-bone tender but still juicy. The food here was very straightforward and homey, and it was good to have a freshly cooked meal after eating off a buffet.
The hotel was a restored medieval convent, with breathtakingly spectacular views of the coast, esp. from the terrace where we took all our meals. It was not overly comfortable, however. Many of the rooms, and esp. the meeting room for the conference were very stuffy. (I dont know if they had heard of AC, or even fans.) Perhaps a better choice for the fall or spring than the summer, but who can complain? The service was also a bit odd, but I think that that was because we may have been caught in a regional war of attrition waged by the local staff against the conference organizers, the staff ("This is Campania, what can you expect?") of a Roman foundation.
Did we violate another rule of chowhoundery : "Leave your hotel!!!"? Who cares? We will have to go back.
More to follow.