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Report on trip to Southern Italy (part 1), and breaking the rules of chowhoundery

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Report on trip to Southern Italy (part 1), and breaking the rules of chowhoundery

Alan Divack | Jul 11, 2001 09:31 PM

We recently returned from a week in Southern Italy, spending one night in Naples, 4 in Amalfi, and 3 in Sorrento. In the course of our visit, we violated several important rules of chowhoundery:

**If you leave the big cities, rent a car. Chowhounds should be prepared to do what it takes to go to the food, it can’t come to you. If not, prepare to spend a lot of your vacation on buses and trains.

**Never ask a hotel concierge where to eat, especially if you are staying in a resort town. Much more reliable are taxi drivers, book store owners, orthopedists, members of the clergy other than rabbis, and railroad employees. (We were sent by a concierge to a vile tourist trap, yet somehow, miraculously, managed to eat fairly well.)

*If you are going to southern Italy, plan to spend more than 14 hours in Naples.

*Avoid resort towns that cater to tourists from the UK. (Sorrento is like Brighton with more garlic.)

In spite of transgressing these principles, we managed to eat quite well. It is often said that it is hard to get a bad meal in Italy – perhaps not universally true, but it certainly worked for us. In this and subsequent postings, I will relate how:

First, Naples. We arrived at our hotel (the Mercure Napoli) across the street from the Castel Nuovo and the Marina, at about 11:15 pm. My wife wanted to go to sleep immediately, but I convinced her that the best way to avoid jet lag was to go out and have dinner. This was a bit specious, since one could argue that it was almost dinner time in NY and eating a big meal at midnight would actually heighten the lag, but no matter. She was fortunately too tired to argue.

We went to Ciro, on Via Sancta Brigida, primarily becuase it was a very short walk from our hotel, and had a wonderful light late meal. We both had pizza margherita, hers plain, mine with anchovies. They were wonderful. Margherita is your basic tomato, mozzarella pizza with a bit of basil for garnish.. It is served in individual sizes, the crust was light and crisp, the cheese excellent, and the tomatoes were note sauced but barely cooked to concentrate the flavor and remove some of the water. It whetted our appetites for more Neapolitan pizza, but our longings were unrequited since we had to leave the next next morning. Preceding the pizze we had a nice mixed salad, and sauteed zucchini buds. We had wanted to order stuffed and fried flowers as an appetizer, but they had just run out – after all, we did not order until nearly midnight. But it was a very fortunate disappointment. The buds were sauteed in olive oil with garlic, salt and pepper, and had a wonderful, elementally vegetal flavor. They reminded us a bit of fiddleheads, though it is years since we have eaten them. We ended with a dish of fragoline del bosco, miniature wild strawberries that were dressed with lemon juice and sugar, and one of the joys of a visit to Italy around this time of year. My wife said that she was very glad that she let me drag her out.

Italy is not known for breakfasts, but our hotel (Mercure Napoli) managed to put out quite a nice spread. It seemed designed primarily to satisfy Northern Europeans looking for sliced cold cuts and cheeses, but to do so with excellent local products. Most noteworthy were the sliced salami, excellent fresh ricotta, and best of all a ricotta salata (ma non troppo?). This was a ricotta salted and pressed much more lightly that which we get in the US, so that it just held together. Both ricottas were like milk stopped in its tracks, concentrated, and raised to a higher level of consciousness. The buffet also included wonderful, warm miniature sfogliatelle, and fruit. It was here that I had my first Italian white nectarines, firm, tart, sweet and perfumed, a life-transforming experience for the rest of the trip.

Boy, did we wish we had more time in Naples. More to follow.

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