Policastro Bay (south Cilento)
We spent 5 days +1 (will explain further down) around the Policastro Bay at the beginning of May, this is our dining and drinking report.
Background: as regulars of the board know we live in Rome. We have been to Cilento twice before, but further north, in the Santa Maria di Castelabate area. This trip planning started actually as "Basilicata coast", mainly thinking of Maratea, but ended up being the Policastro area, which is the border area between Campania and Basilicata. We stayed in Villammare Vibonati and did pre-trip research exclusively on Italian blogs and restaurant review sites, mainly, but not only, Luciano Pignataro, Scattidigusto, Dissapore and 2spaghi.
What struck us overall was that the area seemed to be a culinary wasteland, caught between the era of the simple but good agricultural products of decades ago and the gastronomic awakening involving organic, local, sustainable eating in the last years: in the era of pre-packaged industrial food products at the supermarket. We took little roadtrips everyday and didn't see one single store with organic or local small scale production foods or any farms of any kind, except: We saw one single sign advertising an organic farm off of the road we were on, and when we turned into the driveway, met the owner. Upon asking him what produce they have (we were ready to buy anything - from honey, fig products, jams, cheeses, salumi to olive oil, all the delicious products that we had so often encountered in the norther part of Cilento) the answer was a very tired "almost nothing" - which turned out to be virtually nothing and broke my heart (yes, i can be a romantic sometimes).
The only good produce of the area seemed to be fish, and so we ate fish.
Following, the restaurants we visited. All restaurants with day-ahead or same day reservations, which was not necessary in the slow season, we were often the only or one of two tables. Other than these restaurants, we self-catered in the house we had rented and enjoyed the terrace and sea views.
1st day, lunch: La Cantinella Sul Mare in Villammare: cavernous restaurant (in a very positive way), white and stone walls, shelves of wines. We had the 18 euro weekday lunch menu. Breadbasket with around 10 different homemade breads and rolls was nice, but nothing like our fave bread at Metamorfosi in Rome. We got an amuse (almost a regular portion) of fried totanetti on a bed of buffalo yogurt from the famous Vannulo, with freshly grinded cacao on top. Very fresh, nice combination of flavors and textures, we loved this. Then came the first course of the menu (an antipasto), a fresh anchovies torta with a crunchy vegetal carbon topping, on san Marzano tomatoes. This left the impression of a nice idea not well-executed, esp bcs we felt the anchovies were not the freshest. Next course, the paccheri with calamari, vongole and tomatoes reinforced this. Vongole were sandy, calamari plasticky, both not very fresh. Our wine almost made up for this mediocre meal - a 2004 Fiano di Avellino by Guido Marsella, whom we had visited a couple years back. Wine seemed to be the best part of the La Cantinella experience (owner was as big a fan as us of older white wines). Service was friendly but awkward. Overall we left feeling the restaurant could have been so much better. Would go again in the busy season (hoping that ensures fresher fish), but not necessarily otherwise. We paid around 75 euros total.
1st day, dinner: Taverna Portosalvo in Villammare: very simple looking trattoria with marine decoration and a very passionate patron. The best/freshest fish counter we have ever seen anywhere - the fisherman brought in the catch as we entered the restaurant. We had the mixed antipasto platter with 4 different dishes on it (fried bianchetti-balls, marinated fish (don't remember name anymore, but pieces of a bigger fish), polipetti cooked with tomatoes and a calamari/potato dish), all very fresh and delicious and with distinctly clear flavors. I had a couple of very fresh and delicious raw shrimps. We then had a whole grilled "schianto" which had just come in - i was a bit concerned grilling might make the fish dry, but it was cooked perfectly, with a nutty taste and flakey consistency - very very good. Our wine was a 2010 Fiano San Matteo by Alfonso Rotolo, from Paestum, a very nice, mineral and full wine. This was a very good fish meal, great products expertly but simply prepared. Service simple but very nice. We paid around 100 euros. Would go back again, any time, in fact we did.
2nd day, lunch: U Zifaro in Scari: sitting under the trees on the seaside on a hot day was great. Service was friendly and direct in a way we liked. We had paccheri with vongole and cozze (clams and mussels) and their specialty, orecchiette with shrimps and pistachios. Both very nice, though not as exciting as the dinner the night before. with a nice bottle of another Paestum white i don't remember more precisely, we paid around 40 euros. Would go again.
3rd day, lunch: La Baita in loc. Santa Croce, on the hinterland/hills between Policastro Bussentino and Capitello. A very simple hut with great views over the bay, i can imagine sundown must be spectacular. This was a recommendation by the owner of our accommodation. It was very simple but we greatly enjoyed it. In the evenings they have pizza. We had an antipasti spread which included a frittata with wild asparagus, home pickled/marinated vegetables, diverse meats and cheeses, 3 different fritti (vegetable balls, rice balls and long gnocchi). Followed it by homemade pasta with a mushroom sauce and homemade ravioli with wild asparagus and cheese filling. Very rustic but tasty and lovingly made. With a very straightforward but drinkable, chilled red wine, we paid about 30 euros. Would go again.
4th day, lunch: Il Ghiottone in Policastro Bussentino. The most "restauranty" of our meals. Strange beginning - although we had reserved the day before, when we arrived staff and chef were sitting together around a table and having a meeting of sorts and it took them some time to acknowledge, seat and serve us. We decided to go for the tasting menu. A panzanella torta, which was too dry and dense in the bread part (tomatoes were on top, not mixed in). A bruschetta with mozzarella from vannulo and and anchovies, very very good. Their version of mare e monti, which was a salad of tough, bland and sandy (?) pieces of octopus with flowers and wild herbs - very pretty to look at but not convincing taste- and texture-wise. Pan-fried calamaretti on a bed of fava bean puree were good but not exceptional. Malfatti pasta with pieces of a white fish i don't remember anymore, tomatoes and some broth was the best dish. spaghetti with anchovies and breadcrumbs was ok, though a bit salty. Paccheri with clams and calamari was un-fresh. At this point we stopped the menu, saying we were full - which was not untrue but had the food been better, we would have definitely eaten further courses. We were offered a very dry cake with figs as dessert. Nice service. Our most disappointing meal, as we were rather hyped about the female chef by the things we had read and were served definitely subpar quality food (especially when it came to freshness) with few exceptions. With a bottle of 2008 Cilento Fiano from Verrone, we paid a bit above 100 euros. Would not go back.
5th day, dinner: return to Taverna Portosalvo. Going back to a place you have liked the first is always a bit tricky - was it a one-off? Is it going to be as good again? We were not disappointed! This time we got two of the dishes from the antipasto platter of the first visit as normal portions. The tomatoey polipetti were again delicious (with lots of chunky, toasted bread to mop up the sauces), the marinated fish was a bit more sour this time around but still good. We then got a sautee of vongole which were very good and a st. peter's fish from the oven with potatoes was again proof they know how to cook a hole fish. Nice conversation about the food landscape of the area with the patron. We again paid around a 100 euros, including a bottle of 2011 Fiano Paestum Cumalè by Casebianche. Would definitely go back, our fave meals in the area.
The 6th day was return trip to Rome, with lunch on the road, at what some call Italy's best autogrill bcs of its closeness to the highway - the 1 michelin star Casa del Nonno 13 in Mercato San Severino. One of the most beautiful restaurants ever, in a 17th century building, with many different spaces for i formal and formal dining, cellars and private space options. We had a tour of the whole place after our meal but dined in the main room, which is the cellar. We got the tasting menu for 40 euros (all in all 8 courses) and the wine pairing for 20 euros (5 glasses). Service by patron and his wife, nice. I might have asked a tad too many questions and unnerved him a bit but the service was overall good. Very good bread/grissini selection. The amuse, head cheese on a redpepper sauce didn't wow, the sauce was nice but the headcheese a bit bland. The bufala salad, a carpaccio of bufalo meat with mozzarella, some wild greens and flowers, very refreshing and tasty. The mozzarella in carozza had a crust of nuts instead of breadcrumbs and was one of the best i ever had - it came on an anchovies mayo and wild greens. The pasta with tomato sauce was a perfect example of few very good products prepared simply becoming bigger than its parts. The ravioli filled with lamb were reminiscent of middle eastern flavors and out of this world good. The pork belly with coffee glaze was perfectly soft and crunchy at the same time, a great sensation (and taste). A passionfruit sorbet with strawberries was nicely sour to cleanse the palate. The millefoglie and baba al rhum were very good. Wines were a sparkling Fiano by villa raiano, two different fiano di avellinos by same winery, one of the most interesting and delicious reds i had lately, the 2011 jungano aglianico paestum by san salvatore (so different and so much softer than the aglianicos of the south), and a red dessert wine which i didn't care too much for. Paid 130 euros including coffee and water, which is a steal for the quality of the food and wine. Would go back.
Some random notes:
The much awarded and hyped Crivella gelato in Sapri left us cold. It wasn't bad, but rather unspectacular.
The breads of the Forno Clotilde Zicca in Sapri were nice.
The ristorante San Giorgio in Sapri, much recommended by Luciano Pignattaro, was closed when we went by to make a reservation for the next day: it was confiscated by the police due to mafia-related activity!
The original starting idea of the trip, Maratea: went there one afternoon and hated it - it looked like disneyland or an italian town in las vegas, full of tourist-geared places. We had a coffee and gelato (both unremarkable) and walked around and left in a hurry to leave the negative vibe behind us.
Please excuse any typos, this report was written on a tablet.