Date Night in Rome

Date Night in Rome – cheap wine, an ancient Roman garbage dump, and butchered animal scraps.

The boys were more than happy to stay home with Nonna and eat a big plate of her pasta e fagioli, while Stefano and I enjoyed a rare evening out together – even more rare in that we are in Rome.

Date night in Rome is a definite treat.  The setting sun illuminates the pastel facades of the city’s palazzi, making the everything glow with intense color.  The air finally cools, a breeze picks up and people emerge from their homes and offices to enjoy their marvelous town.  Restaurants and bars buzz, and the many outdoor concerts and festivals are jammed with people.

We decided on dinner at an osteria that we’ve heard a lot about lately – Flavio al Velavevodetto. We first read about Flavio al Velavevodetto in London’s Guardian newspaper.  Then, Kathy from a Food Lover’s Odyssey wrote about it.  Researching it further, we discovered that food writer Elizabeth Minchilli featured it on her blog, as well.  We used to be suspicious of local places that had been reviewed and publicized by the Anglo world, but we’ve come to realize that some of these food reviewers really know Rome, and Roman cuisine.  Plus, the name itself is playfully fun – velavevodetto is Roman slang for, “I told you so.”

As it turned out, they were right – it is a fabulous place!  But before we jump right to the end of the story, we need to explain a few things about date night in a Roman osteria.  You see, it involves cheap wine, an ancient Roman garbage dump, and butchered animal scraps.

Osterie Romane
Osteria comes from oste, or ‘host’ in English.  Traditionally, osterie served wine and very simple food.  More recently, osterie have simple menus and are usually known for serving traditional dishes in a relaxed, neighborhood atmosphere.  They have slightly more informal origins than trattorie, although the two have in common that they feature local food and are usually less expensive than a ristorante.

Monte Testaccio
Some of the best osterie are found in the ancient Roman neighborhood of Testaccio.  Testaccio takes its name from Monte Testaccio, a man-made hill 35 meters high made up of broken clay pots called anfore in Italian or ‘amphorae’ in English, that date back to Ancient Rome.  The amphorae contained olive oil, and were broken and discarded in an orderly and systematic way on the hill.  According to wikipedia, the remains of up to 53 million olive oil amphorae make up Monte Testaccio.

Flavio al Velavevodetto is located along Via di Monte Testaccio, and its dining room rests up against Monte Testaccio.  At the back of the dining room, three arch windows were cut out of the wall and covered with glass to display the amphorae behind them.

La Cucina Romana
Offal (noun).  The internal organs and entrails of a butchered animal.

Throughout history, Rome has been an important city gastronomically.  However, as social classes formed and became increasingly disparate, Rome’s poor became skilled at making good use of what is called il quinto quarto, or the ‘fifth quarter’ of meat, referring to the organs, entrails, brains, of the animal as well as less prestigious cuts of meat such as oxtail. These are carefully prepared, often in umido, stewed for hours in seasoned tomato sauce.

The menu at Flavio al Velavevodetto was typically Roman, and the atmosphere was one of a true Roman osteria, albeit one with a Michelin recognized kitchen.  There were a few tourists, but the place was packed with Romans of all ages, too.  The cute couple next to us who looked no older than their late teens conversed as they ate their generous plates of oxtail in tomato sauce, while two middle-aged Roman women finished off their dinner with a glass of amaro, a bitter, after-dinner herbal liquor that serves as a digestif.

Here were our choices:

I primi piatti
Stefano ordered a first course of rigatoni con la pajataLa pajata is made from the intestine of a veal that has been nourished with its mother’s milk only, and is a delicacy only a true Roman can appreciate.

Cara ordered ravioli alla velavevodetto.  These were filled with fresh cow’s milk ricotta and spinach, and served in a sauce made from minced herbs (mint, mentuccia romana, basil, oregano, thyme, and majoram) blended with ricotta salata, garnished with split cherry tomatoes and a dollop of ricotta.

Our first courses were so good that had the meal ended then we would have gone home satisfied and happy.  But alas, there was more…

I secondi piatti
A true Roman, Stefano ordered trippa alla romana (tripe), the culinary term for the lining of the first chamber of a cow’s stomach  Cara ordered the misto umido, which consisted of one meatball, one oxtail and one involtino alla romana (a thin strip of beef rolled tightly together with herbs and a piece of prosciuto), all slow-cooked in a delicious red sauce until tender and savory.

Contorni
We ordered a delicious side dish of escarole that was boiled and then sautéed with black olives, capers and pine nutes, and a salad of mixed baby greens with a side dressing of olive oil and anchovy paste.  The side dressing was actually designed to dress le puntarelle, a delicious Roman chicory, but sadly there were none that night.

Vino
There is no wine list at Flavio al Velavevodetto.  Instead, patrons are invited to walk right up to the shelves storing the wine selection and choose a bottle that suits them.  The quality and selection of wines was inpressive, and the prices were very reasonable.  Cheap wine, in other words, but very good wine.  We chose a 2007 Poliziano Asinone, and were delighted.

Dolce
We’d heard about Flavio’s variation on the classic Italian dessert tiramisù, and decided that we had to share one to try it.  Absent were the savoiardi and liquor characteristic to the traditional tiramisù recipe.  Instead, a very smooth, very eggy mascarpone cream sat on top of a tablespoon of espresso on the bottom and a crumbly cookie in the middle of a simple Italian water glass.  Pieces of fudgy dark chocolate floated in the middle of all of that goodness, while a pool of chocolate rested on top.

Stefano told the friendly and helpful waitstaff that second to his mamma’s dinners, it was the best meal he has had since returning to Rome.

Pasta fredda al salmone e sedano (Smoked Salmon Pasta Salad)

It’s been a few weeks since we’ve posted a new recipe on Due Spaghetti.  The pace of summer is supposed to be slower and more relaxed, but June has been a whirlwind so far.  On a positive note, we are getting closer and closer to moving back into our house.  Our friend Tiet, a true artisan cabinetmaker, is almost done making our walnut kitchen cabinets, and they are beautiful.  The hardwood floors are in, and we’re picking out paint colors.  If all goes well, we will return from our July trip to Italy and move back in.

We are looking forward to that trip, to spending time with family and friends and to finally slowing down.  We’ll spend a week in Rome with Stefano’s family, celebrating the 3rd birthdays of our nephews Davide and Flavio, and catching up with our 8-year-old nephew Damiano.  Nonna Maria will have all 5 grandsons home at once, and the cousins will be happy to be together again.

We’ll spend the second week touring Northern Italy.  Our first stop will be Trentino, in South Tyrol along a road called the Strada del Vino  in the midst of vineyards and wineries.  The kids will stay with Nonna Maria and enjoy the pool at Schwarz Adler Turm Hotel, while we will tour the Alois Lageder winery.  The next day, we will travel down to Veneto and have lunch with Lucia from Villa Monteleone winery.

Next, we’ll head east towards Piemonte, and Barolo country.  We will stay at Albergo Castiglione, with its pool overlooking the vineyards of the Langhe countryside, and visit the winery of Paolo Saracco, producer of fine Moscato and Pinot Nero.  Finally, we’ll end our trip in the Cinque Terre, where we’ve rented a small apartment in Riomaggiore right near the sea, from Signora Edi Vesigna.

This weekend we made a summer pasta salad that reflects the the simplicity and the slow pace of the warm months.  Smoked salmon is the primary focus of this pasta salad. Chopped celery gives it a mild, cool flavor and lemon zest and juice provides a hint of summertime freshness.

Ingredients
1 box of Farfalle or any other short pasta
200 grams (7 ounces) smoked salmon
1 stalk of celery
Zest and juice of one lemon
1 handful of coarse salt
3 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper to taste

Directions
Place a large pot of water over high heat to boil.  In a large bowl, break the smoked salmon into small pieces.  Chop the celery finely, and add it to the bowl with the salmon.  Add the zest and juice of one lemon, and set aside.

When the water boils, add a heaping handful of coarse salt to the water, and then the pasta.  Cook al dente according to the time on the package.  Drain the pasta and rinse it well under cold running water, mixing it with your hands until it is evenly cool.  Drain well.

Transfer the pasta into the bowl with the salmon mixture.  Stir in the olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. The pasta salad is best when eaten right away.

Pasta fredda is the perfect summer time lunch or dinner.  Here is another Due Spaghetti pasta fredda recipe you might like.

Linguine al sugo di tonno

It’s hot.  Really, really hot.  It’s time to fare il cambio di stagione nell’armadio – the seasonal updating of the closet with summer clothes.  It’s also time to do the same with the refrigerator, making space for farmer’s market vegetables and easy, summertime staples.  Of all the seasons, summer is our favorite from a culinary perspective – there is so much variety and flavor and simplicity.

But before we talk food, let’s go back to clothes.  We’ve finished planning our July trip back home.  We’ll spend a few days in Rome with Stefano’s family, celebrating the birthdays of our young nephews Flavio and Davide, and visiting some of our favorite spots in the city.  We’ll probably take a day trip down to the costiera amalfitana and stop at our favorite restaurant there.  Then, we will throw our kids and Stefano’s madre, Maria, in the car with us and head nord for a tour of northern Italy’s wine regions.

Finalizing our itinerary and booking our hotels got us thinking about what to pack.  It’s hot in many Italian cities in summertime, even in the northern regions where we will be.  We want clothes that are cool and practical, but fashionable, and that won’t make us look like American tourists.

Here’s a quick guide for those of you with similar ambitions:

Women, wear lightweight dresses, skirts, and capris.  Opt for short-sleeved or sleeveless blouses or tops.  Dressier t-shirts are okay.  Keep in mind that low necklines are common, but if you hope to enter a church, keep you shoulders covered or have something to throw over them.  Wear comfortable but feminine sandals or ballet flats.  Heels do not fare well on cobblestone streets; if you really need some height, opt for wedges.  If your hair is long, have something to pull it up and off of your neck.

Men, choose lightweight jeans or cotton trousers.  Linen pants are common.  Knee-length and sailor length pants have been fashionable, too.  On top, wear a light weight cotton button-down or knit top.  Men often wear sandals outside of the office in summertime, or lightweight casual shoes.

Children can get by with pretty much anything.  Keep it lightweight, consider a hat to cover their heads, and be mindful of the scorching sun.

Other tips: Wear lightweight, natural fibers.  By lightweight, we really mean lightweight – if you live in a cold climate like we do, your summer clothes may still be too heavy.  Leave your rugged hiking sandals and your rubber Crocs at home – Italians opt for more fashionable, yet still comfortable, footwear.  Shorts aren’t usually worn by adults, although some stylish shorts are becoming more common with young people.  Avoid baseball hats if you are over 12 years old.  Finally, get used to being warm and a little sweaty, plan your outings after sundown when many cities come alive, and don’t put your feet in the fountains to cool down!

Okay, back to food.  Linguine al sugo di tonno reminds us of a summertime pasta, even though it can, and is, made all year round.  Perhaps it’s the tuna, which makes us think of the sea.  It is a quick and easy, tangy and delicious pasta.  You can use pretty much any pasta shape, although Stefano’s father, Andrea, always insisted that it be made with linguine.  Be sure to find good tuna packed in olive oil, never in water, and splurge on a can of San Marzano tomatoes.

Ingredients
1 large can (28 oz., approx. 800g) whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
2 cans (5 oz, or 75g, per can) tuna in olive oil
1 Tablespoon capers
1 quarter of a medium onion
2 Tablespoons olive oil
Dash of dry white wine
Salt to taste
One pack (16 oz. or 500 g) of linguine

Directions
Cut the onion into large pieces and sauté in olive oil for 5 minutes, or until translucent.  Drain the excess olive oil from the tuna, and add it, along with the capers, to the onions.  Allow the mixture to cook for a few additional minutes.  Add the tomatoes, passing them through a food mill first so that they are smooth.  Pour a dash of wine into the sauce, and allow to cook for about 30 minutes, adding salt to taste.

Place a large pot of water to boil over high heat.  When the water boils, add a handful of salt to it and then the pasta.  Cook to al dente according the time on the package.  Drain the pasta, and return it to the pot it cooked it.  Add the sauce to the pasta, and stir over low heat until it is well mixed.  Serve and enjoy immediately.

Cacio e pepe (Happy Birthday, Roma!)

April 21st was the 2,765th birthday of Rome!  According to legend, Romolo founded the city on April 21st of 753 B.C.  But to understand that story, we should really back up a few more years yet, to the almost tragic birth of Romolo e Remo, or Romulus and Remus.

The Tiber River and St. Peter's Basilica, image from it.m.wikipedia.org

Conceived by their mother Rhea, a Vestal Virgin,  and the God Mars, the twins were abandoned at birth, placed in a basket and floated down the Tiber river.  The river was in flood stage though, and their basket eventually washed to shore where a  she-wolf, (lupa) found them and nursed them to health.   Eventually the boys were adopted and raised by a shepherd and his wife.  Upon reaching adulthood, the boys decided to found a town at the same location where the lupa found and nursed them.  They argued, however, over which hill the new city should be build upon.  Romolo wanted the town built on the Palatine Hill, and Remo on the Aventine Hill.  In the quarrel that ensued, Romolo killed Remo, becoming the sole namesake of the city of Roma.

The Capitoline Wolf, a bronze statue of the she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus located in Rome's Capitoline Museums. Image from http://www.parodos.it

To commemorate Rome’s compleanno (birthday), we compiled some of the web’s best photos of the Eternal City, and prepared one of the most classic Roman pastas, Cacio e pepe.

Cacio e pepe is a classic of the cucina povera Romana.  The shepherds who herded sheep in the hills outside of Rome who would carry aged cheese made from sheep’s milk with them, because it was easy to transport and preserve, and sheep’s cheese is a staple of Roman cuisine.  Cacio e pepe is made from just three ingredients: the hard, sharp and salty sheep’s cheese Pecorino Romano, cracked black pepper, and spaghetti. Disregard recipes that call for blends of cheeses, olive oil, or other ingredients – that’s not the real thing.

Cacio e pepe is a fixture on the menu of Rome’s traditional osterie and trattorie, and a fantastic pasta to make on a whim.  Despite its simplicity, it requires the right technique to prepare it well.  In a well-executed cacio e pepe, the Pecorino will turn creamy and smooth, coating the spaghetti perfectly.

This post is also our entry to the 261st edition of Presto Pasta Nights, hosted this week by Simona of the delightful English/Italian food blog Briciole.  Be sure to stop by and take a look at the pasta entries from around the world!

Ingredients, for 4-6 people
1 package (450 or 500 grams) spaghetti
250 grams (approx 8 ounces or just over 2 cups) grated Pecorino Romano
Cracked black pepper
Sea salt, preferably coarse

Directions
Bring a large pot of water to boil, and toss an abundant handful of salt into it. Add the pasta, and cook until al dente according to the time specified on the package.  While the pasta is boiling, prepare your cheese and have your black pepper ready to grind.

Just before draining the pasta, remove several cups of the pasta water and set aside.  When the pasta is al dente, drain it and return it immediately to the hot pot it cooked it.  Add one ladle of the preserved cooking water and about 3/4 of the grated cheese, and toss together vigorously with two forks so that the cheese melts into a smooth sauce.  If it seems too dry, add a little more of the cooking water.  If it is too runny, add more cheese.   Grind black pepper abundantly over the pasta, toss again, and serve immediately with one more dusting of ground black pepper and a sprinkle of grated Pecorino.

Wine Pairing
A dish this Roman needs a wine from Castelli Romani, the hills just outside of Rome where shepherds still tend sheep and produce great sheep’s milk cheese.  One option is Fontana Candida Frascati, which we featured in another Roman pasta dish, la carbonara.  Or, if you prefer a red, we recommend Velletri Rosso Riserva Terre dei Volsci.  This wine reflects the simplicity and earthiness of the Castelli Romani, and it’s freshness and acidity stand up well to the strong flavor of Pecorino Romano in cacio e pepe.

Le foto di Roma

The Colosseum. Image from www.guideurope.eu

Castel Sant'Angelo and the Tiber River. Image from www.195.176.180.15.com

Piazza Campo de' Fiori. Image from www.flickriver.com

St. Peter's Basilica rises above the rooftops of Rome. Image from www.news.immobiliare.it

Piazza Campidoglio, where we were married. Image from www.members.xoom.it

A Fiat 500 parked in Trastevere, one of the oldest parts of Rome. Image from www.it.m.wikipedia.org

Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter's Square). Image from www.news.immobiliare.it

The splendid Pantheon. Image from it.wikipedia.org

La pastiera napoletana, an Italian Easter Tart

In his classic cookbook Made In Italy: Food and Stories, renowned Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli writes of the pastiera napoletana:

The combination of ingredients may seem strange, but they are associated with ancient Roman celebrations of the rite of spring: flowers, eggs for new life, ricotta from the sheep, wheat and flour from the land…One of the many legends associated with the dish involves a mermaid called Partenope. She lived in the Gulf of Napoli and to celebrate the arrival of spring each year she would come and sing to the inhabitants.  One year, to say thank you for her songs, they offered her local gifts: ricotta, flour, eggs, wheat, perfumed orange flowers and spices. She was so delighted she took them to her kingdom under the sea, where the gods mixed them together into a cake.  
 

More recent legend, according to Locatelli and others, attributes the origins of the pastiera to a Neapolitan nun who wanted to make a pie that symbolized the resurrection.  She added cooked wheat to fresh sheep’s milk, added eggs as a symbol of new life, and water aromatized with the fragrant orange blossoms from the trees growing in the convent’s gardens.

It’s said of the pastiera, “Non puo mancare sulla tavola di Pasqua” (It cannot be absent from Easter table), and all true Napoletani know to make it a few days in ahead of time so that the flavors develop and harmonize.  We prepared ours on Good Friday and let it rest until Easter Sunday.

Napoli
Naples, (Napoli in Italian or Napule in local dialect) is a city known, among other things, for its rich and decadent pastries.  Eggs, ricotta and candied citrus peel are frequently found in the pasticceria napoletana, but cream-filled and liquor-laced pastries are equally common.  One of our favorite bloggers, Kathy from A Food Lover’s Odyssey, captured all of the delicious details in a post called Journey through the Pastries of Naples.

Napoli is also known, of course, for its pizza.  An authentic pizza is made with  San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala, both from the Campania region of Italy where Naples is located.  The crust is a  made from a high protein flour and baked for 60 to 90 seconds at extremely high heat (485 °C, 905 °F) in a wood-burning stone fire.  The classic Pizza Margherita, with its red sauce, white mozzarella and green basil was made in Naples in 1890 as a tribute to the visiting Queen Margarita – the pizza’s colors inspired by the green, white and red of the Italian flag.

Image from http://eticoesolidale.evolutiontravel.it

Naples, without doubt, has an underbelly.  The city’s challenges with organized crime have been well-publicized in recent years: from the garbage crisis, to olive oil and mozzarella fraudulently labeled ‘Made in Italy, to its thriving black market.  Traffic is chaotic, some northern European and western visitors find the city dirty, and unsuspecting tourists are easy targets for pick-pockets and swindlers.

Despite all of this, Napoli exudes an undeniable charm and is well-worth a visit.  Its location, with Mount Vesuvius to its back, looking out over the Gulf of Naples, it is one of the Mediterranean’s most prominent cities.  With a population of over 4 million inhabitants in the broad Naples metropolitan area, it is the third largest city in Italy and one of its most historical.

Image from http://eticoesolidale.evolutiontravel.it

It’s narrow streets are vibrant with activity and energy.  Storefronts line ground floors of Renaissance and Baroque buildings, the vendors’ goods spilling out onto crates and stands lining the palazzo walls.  Drying laundry drape across clotheslines strung from  balcony to balcony, creating a colorful, pagent-like display.

Image from http://eticoesolidale.evolutiontravel.it

The cities residents seem to all be out on the streets at any given time, talking, laughing, and playfully arguing in the distinctive and sometimes undecipherable Neapolitan dialect.  Those who aren’t outdoors are just as likely to join in the cacophony on the street from their windows above.

Image from http://doveviaggi.corriere.it/dove-rcs/home/weekend/arte-e-cultura/2011/agosto/napoli-teatro.html

La pastiera napoletana
Our recipe was inspired by Giorgio Locatelli’s pastiera recipe in his cookbook Made in Italy: Food and Stories, as well as by a few other versions.  The pasteria begins with a crust of pasta frolla, which is found in several other Italian cakes and tarts, such as crostata and crostatine di frutta, and torta della nonna.

It calls for cooked wheat, an Italian specialty product. We happily found that it can be ordered online from Marchese Italian Market; purchase the product called Valgri’ Grano Cotto Pastiera Napoletana.  It also calls for candied citron, orange and/or lemon peel, which we found online through Barry Farms.  You will also need a tart pan with a 10-13 inch diameter and sides at least 2 inches high.  We found a lovely but inexpensive white porcelain one at Sur la Table.  A round cake pan or spring form pan will work, too.

Ingredients
for a 10-13 inch tart

For the pasta frolla
200 g (1 and 1/2 cup) flour
80 g (1/3 cup) sugar
80 g (5 and 1/2 Tbsp) unsalted butter, cubed
1/2 pouch of Pane Angeli lievito per i dolci, or 2 tsp. baking powder*
1 egg
Zest of 1 lemon

For the filling
300 grams (1 and 1/2 cup) grano cotto, or cooked wheat**
250 grams (1 cup) whole milk
250 grams fresh ricotta***
3 eggs, yolks and whites separated.  Preserve 2 of the 3 whites.
115 grams (1/2 cup) super-fine sugar
60 grams (1/3 cup) candied citron, lemon and orange peel****
Zest of one lemon
4 tsp. orange extract
Pinch of salt

*You can substitute pane degli angeli with 2 tsp. baking powder.  So many Italian baked goods call for pane degli angeli, however, that we do encourage you to pick up a package of it.

**You can prepare your own grano cotto by cooking wheat berries and then letting them cool in their own water.  You can also substitute pearl barley, cooked according to instructions.

*** Sheep’s milk ricotta is preferred.  Sadly, we are no longer able to find it locally, and we substituted with cow’s milk ricotta, which works just fine.  Make the effort to find fresh ricotta, not the supermarket tubs of ricotta.

****Candied citron, lemon and/or orange peel will work fine.  It can be left out if needed, but it is worth the effort to find it.  If you want to make your own, see fellow blogger Paola’s recipe here.

Directions
Prepare the pasta frolla by placing the flour onto a firm, smooth work surface.  Add the sugar and pane angeli or baking powder, and mix.  Gather the dry ingredients into a mound and form a well in the middle.  Add the egg, cubes of butter and lemon zest, and working quickly with your fingers, work the wet ingredients into the flour mixture.  Mix by hand until the dough forms a homogenous, smooth ball.  Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Place the grano cotto, milk and 15 grams (1 Tbsp) of the sugar into a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-low heat.  Set aside to cool.  In a separate bowl, mix together the ricotta, egg yolks (set aside 2 of the 3 whites), the rest of the sugar, candied peel, lemon zest, orange extract and a pinch of salt.  When the grano cotto mixture is cool, stir it into the ricotta mixture.  Beat 2 of the 3 egg whites until stiff.  Fold the egg white mixture into the rest of the filling, and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 180° C, 355° F.  Brush your tart pan with melted butter.

Remove the pasta frolla from the refrigerator, and separate it into two pieces – one piece made up of about 2/3 of the dough, and the second piece made up of the remaining 1/3.  Sprinkle flour onto a smooth surface and roll out the larger piece of dough until it is big enough to fill the base and sides of your tart pan.  Line the tart pan with the rolled out dough, pressing it in so that it is equal thickness on the bottom and on the sides.  Trim any excess dough around the rim of the pan.  Roll out the second piece of dough and cut 6-8 strips for the tart’s lattice, using a pastry cutter to make a pretty fluted edge if you have one.

Pour the filling into the shell, and arrange the strips of dough in a lattice pattern across the top of the tart, taking care to seal the edges of the lattice with the crust.

Bake for 1 hour, and then turn the oven down to 120° C, 250° F and let it bake for 20 more minutes.  Turn the oven off, open the oven door a crack, and let the pastiera rest in the oven until cool.

Happy Easter!

Download a pdf of La pastiera napoletana

How to Drive on the Amalfi Coast, and what to see along the way

It happened again.  At a party last weekend, we found ourselves enthusiastically in conversation with friends who are planning a trip to Italy in October and who want ideas about places to visit.

The Amalfi Coast or costiera amalfitana, is one of our favorite places in Italy.  The dramatic mountain cliffs rise up against the emerald-blue sea sparkling in the sunlight below.  Pastel colored villages carved into the mountain-side shine vibrantly against the landscape, while scented lemon groves and a salty sea breeze fill the air.

image from http://sfondiperte.altervista.org/wallpapers/mete-turistiche

The drive along this spectacular coastline is simply breathtaking.  It’s not, though, for the faint of heart.  With steep rock on one side and a dramatic drop to the Mediterranean on the other, the narrow road clings to the mountain and follows the twisting shoreline, resulting in winding roads and sharp curves.  Equipped with a sense of adventure and some solid advice, you can drive the coast and experience one of the most beautiful drives in the world.

If you already know this and want to skip directly to the driving lesson, scroll to the bottom of this post.  Otherwise, read on for our recommendations on where to go and what to do on your trip.

Location
The Amalfi Coast is the 60 km (37 mile) stretch of coastline between Sorrento and Salerno, located just south of the Bay of Naples.  The most charismatic part of the coast is between the cities of Positano and Vietri sul Mare.  36 km (22 miles) separate the two cities.

Itinerary
1.  Vietri sul Mare
2.  Ravello
3.  Amalfi
4.  Positano

Directions
Arriving from Rome or any other northern Italian city, take the Autostrada A1 south toward Naples.  Just past Naples, exit onto the Autostrada A3 headed toward Salerno-Reggio Calabria.  Follow the A3 past Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano whose eruption in AD 79  buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, to the Vietri sul Mare exit.  Follow the road down to toward the city of Vietri sul Mare.  As you drive down the hill, you will have your first glance at the sea down below.  As you enter the town, you will see a municipal parking lot.  If space is available, this is your best parking option.  There is a parking ticket machine at one end of the lot.  Pay in advance and place your ticket on your dashboard.  If there is no available space in the lot, look for street parking.

Vietri sul Mare
Vietri sul Mare is famous for its hand-painted ceramics.  Ceramic-tiled storefronts line the main street of the village.

image from http://www.amalficoastceramics.it

Inside there are dishes, vases, urns, wall-tiles and countless other items hand painted in vibrant colors in the traditional style of the Amalfi Coast.  Stefano and I began a collection of dishes years and years ago, and each time we go back we acquire a few more pieces.

From Rome, it’s a 2 and a half to three-hour drive to Vietri sul Mare.  Plan to arrive in the morning and do your shopping before lunch.  Stores will close at approximately 1:00.

Lunch
Leave Vietri sul Mare and proceed west along the coastal road.  Stop for lunch at Torre Normanna for spectacular coastal views and perfectly prepared seafood in an amazing location.

Proceed along the coastal road through the villages of Maiori and Minori, stopping for a caffè or a gelato if you wish, and on towards Amalfi.  We will save Amalfi for tomorrow, however.  When you arrive at the village of Castiglione, turn right and follow Via Castiglione up the mountain to the city of Ravello.

Ravello
Ravello sits high on the mountain overlooking the Amalfi Coast below.  It is a quaint town, and has been home to many famous artists, musicians and writers, the most notable of whom include Richard Wagner, who found inspiration for his opera Parsifal,  and D.H. Lawrence., who wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover, here.

image from www.tafter.it

Ravello is home to two villas with striking architecture and gorgeous gardens.  Villa Rufolo, originally a watchtower, is an oasis of serenity with it Moorish cloister that reflects the Arab cultural influence and its immaculately cured garden on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean.  Wagner loved this garden, and each summer during the Ravello Festival concerts are held in this garden, with the sea as a spectacular backdrop.  Villa Cimbrone is equally beautiful, with its lush gardens, temples , statues, and fountains and its famous terrace named Belvedere of Infinity for its view out over the coast and the vast expanse of sea below.

Spend the night in Ravello.  There are many hotel choices at a variety of price points.  Some hotels are located just outside the gates of the city just off of the main road, and are quite accessible.  Others are tucked away inside the town, often down narrow cobblestone paths.  Before making a reservation, ask about parking (there essentially is none inside the city walls), and also about luggage services.  Be specific about where the nearest parking is, what parking costs, how far there is to walk, whether it is up or down hills, and if there is help with luggage.  And of course, request a room with a sea view.

We stayed Villa San Michele years ago and were very satisfied.  We have also stayed at Villa Amore.  This more cost effective hotel is located deep into the heart of Ravello.  A simple and clean place, it has a few rooms with small gardens overlooking the sea.  Ask for a room with a full sea-view, vista sul mare, and don’t accept a partial or blocked view.  Don’t be afraid to not accept a room if the view does not meet your expectations, and even to leave for a different hotel if they cannot offer you a different room.  You are on the Amalfi Coast and a full-sea view is a must.

image from http://www.italianvisits.com/tours/campania/accom-amalfi.htm

Many hotels along the Amalfi Coast offer a full- or half-pension.  A full-pension includes breakfast, lunch and dinner.  The half-pension, which we prefer, includes breakfast and either lunch or dinner.  You need to let the hotel manager know each morning which meal you plan to have there.  Our recommendation is to take advantage of the half-pension, eating lunch away from the hotel while you are exploring the coastline, and having dinner back at the hotel.  We’ve always enjoyed the hotel dinners we’ve had on the Amalfi Coast; well prepared meals that take advantage of the fresh seafood, sun-ripened tomatoes, and amazing mozzarella di bufala native to that part of the country.

In the morning, have a caffè, hop back in the car and take Via Castiglione back down to SS163, the official name for the coastal road, and proceed toward Amalfi.

Amalfi
Once a the capital of the powerful Maritime Republic of Amalfi, but later ravaged by years of natural disaster and poverty, Amalfi is now a quaint, if very touristy, town.  As you enter the town you will see several municipal parking lots near the shore, often with city traffic officers directing tourists into parking spaces.  Be prepared to pay the high parking fees – there simply is no alternative.

Head up the hill into Piazza Duomo, the town square.  Admire the cherubs and chuckle at the nymph’s water-jetting bosom at the Fontana di Sant’Andrea in the center of the square, and then turn to your right and visit Pasticceria Pansa for a Neopolitan-style pastry and a cappuccino or a cup of tea.

image from http://pasticceriapansa.it

Make a mental note to return to buy some chocolate-dipped candied citrus peel or babà al limoncello to take away with you.

Adjacent to Pasticceria Pansa is the impressive 10th century Duomo di Sant’Andrea with its Arab, Norman and Gothic influences.  Climb the 62 steps up to to the cathedral and admire its bronze doors, cast in Constantinople  in AD 1044.  Inside the Duomo frescos cover the walls of the Baroque interior.   Be sure not to miss the Cloister of Paradise on the left side of the cathedral’s portico, with its Moorish white marble arches and beautiful garden.

After exiting the Duomo, stroll up the the streets of Amalfi and into the small alleyways of the village.  Although the small shops are often over-priced, some fun items can be found.  Look for confections of limoncello, the lemon-infused liquor made popular by the Amalfi Coast, or glass jars of tuna canned in olive oil.  We promise you it will be the best tuna you’ve tasted.  Before returning to your car, stroll down to the shoreline to see the quaint fishing boats and the sometimes impressive yachts docked in the harbor.

Lunch
Have lunch in Amalfi, or find a spot further down the coast on your way towards Positano.  Two highly recommended places are Ristorante Eola, which is along the coast  in Amalfi, and Hostaria il Pino, which is further along the coastal road near the town of Praiano, just over half-way between Amalfi and Positano.

Positano
Positano is a jet-set and touristy village built dramatically and steeply into the side of the mountain in stunning pastel colors that glow in the evening sunlight.

image from http://bougainville.it

Parking in Positano can be challenging.  If you plan to spend the night in Positano, be sure to find a hotel that offers parking.  In the best case scenario, you will pull off on the side of the road in front of your hotel, go in to check in, and hand your keys over to a valet, and not worry about your car again until you are ready to leave Positano.  Luggage service is another thing to ask about.  Steep staircases unlike anything you have ever seen have been cut into the mountain to allow locals and tourists to move about through the village.  However, you don’t want to try to go up and down those with heavy suitcases!  If you are not staying overnight, you will need to pay 20-30 Euros per day to park in a garage.  It is outrageous, but simply part of the cost of experiencing the beauty of the Amalfi Coast.

In Positano, stroll up and down the charismatic labyrinth of streets.  Shopping is one of the highlights of this little town, and hand-crafted, made-to-measure strappy leather sandals are what Positano is famous for.  You can choose from a variety of styles and leathers and in about 10 minutes you will have your sandals made exclusively for you.  They will cost a pretty penny, but will also last forever.

Wander down to the beach to soak up some Mediterranean sun, or simply for a stroll.  There are two beaches: Spiaggia di Marina Grande is the busiest of the two, while Spiaggia di Formillo, a little further west, is quieter.  Don’t expect white sand; both beaches are made up of small, round pebbles.  You will want sandals to walk in, and if you plan on spending time on the beach it is worth renting chairs and an umbrella.  From the beach you can see Li Galli, the archipelago of little islands just off of the coast that are said to be where the Sirens seduced Ulysses and other ship captains in Homer’s Odyssey.  The coast is home to dozens of spots to grab a drink, an afternoon aperitif, or dinner.

If you prefer action over relaxation, consider taking a ferry to the islands of Ischia or Capri for a day trip.  You will see a lot of advertising about the Grotta dello Smeraldo, the sea cave full of stalactites and stalagmites that fills with emerald-glowing light.  Most reviews suggest that it is an excursion to pass on.

Directions out of the Amalfi Coast
When you are ready to leave Positano and end your stay on the Amalfi coast, get back onto the coastal road SS163 and follow it west.  It will eventually take you inland in the direction of Sorrento.  Follow the signs to Sorrento; the road will eventually turn into SS145.  Stop and stay in Sorrento for a night, or follow the SS145 until you see signs for E45 Napoli/Roma.  Take the E45 Napoli/Roma, which will turn into the Autostrada A1 headed toward Rome.

How to Drive on the Amalfi Coast
By now you are enamored with the costiera amalfitana, appreciative of the flexibility that a car offers, and enticed to experience the amazing coastal drive yourself.  You can; just follow the advice below.

  1. Choose a smaller-size car.  It will be easier to handle on the curves.  Too much luggage is a hassle on the coast anyway.
  2. Consider automatic vs. manual transmission.  Most Italian cars have manual transmission (cambio manuale), and if you know how to drive a straight-stick, the manual transmission is a lot of fun.  Be prepared, however, for frequent shifting between first, second and third gear as you speed up and slow down on the winding roads.  If this isn’t your thing, get a rental car with automatic transmission (cambio automatico).
  3. Keep an eye out for the scooters.  Locals, especially the youth, use motorini and Vespas to travel up and down the coast.  Their driving will seem reckless to you, especially as they pass you on the right, squeezing between your car and the mountain wall.  Keep your cool and stay in your lane.  Don’t be tempted to veer into the oncoming lane to go around them.  They’ve driven this road hundreds of times, and you haven’t.  They know when they fit and when they don’t.
  4. Don’t get too adventurous and rent a scooter yourself.  You’re not ready for that yet.  If you get really good at driving the road in a car, then you could maybe consider it.
  5. Don’t drive too fast, but don’t drive too slow, either.  It’s very frustrating to be stuck behind a tourist who is creeping along the road, holding up traffic behind him or her.  This is especially frustrating for the locals.
  6. Be mindful of cars flashing their lights at you; this is a form of communication in Italy.  If an oncoming car flashes its lights at you, this means “watch out” or “get out of my way.”  If a car behind you flashes its lights at you, this generally means “hurry up.”
  7. Slow down and hug the walls as you go around curves; you can’t see what is coming around the corner from the other direction.  At some point, you’ll be surprised when you see a larger vehicle or a tour bus in the other lane and realize that you both don’t fit.
  8. When you encounter a tour bus on a curve, the tour bus has precedence.  Slow down or stop if necessary to let it get around first.  If you encounter a tour bus on a curve and you both cannot fit, you will be expected to carefully and slowly back up to allow the bus through.  Put your car into reverse so that the cars behind you see your reverse lights and understand that they also need to back up, and slowly move backwards until the bus can get by.  It will be scary the first time, but you’ll be fine and the cars behind you will understand that they need to back up, too.
  9. If you are approaching a curve and you hear a deep horn honk, it is likely a tour bus approaching from the other side.  Hug the wall and slow down, so that hopefully the bus can get by and you can avoid #8 above.
  10. You will encounter men and women with small fruit stands in little enclaves along the side of the road.  They will be selling what appear to be gigantic lemons, but are actually citrons, which are more for attention-grabbing that anything else.  You can stop, but you need to pull off the road into the enclave so that you are not blocking traffic.
  11. When you park, allow your passenger to get out of the car first so that you can park tightly against the side of the road and the wall.
  12. Before getting out of your car, look very carefully behind you to be sure that you are not opening your car door in front of an oncoming car, or even worse, a scooter.
  13. When you close your doors, take a moment to turn your side mirrors in against the car door.  On this stretch of road, every inch counts.
  14. Finally, go easy on the white wine and limoncello if you are hopping back into your car after lunch.  This isn’t the time to play Mario Andretti.

Have you been to the Amalfi Coast?  Tell us about your experiences and recommendations.

Have you driven on the Amalfi Coast?  We welcome your comments and feedback on our advice above.

More on the Amalfi Coast:

The Amalfi Coast is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Read what National Geographic says about the Amalfi Coast Roadtrip.

View this YouTube video of driving on the Amalfi Coast.  It’s the real deal, with delightful music in the background.  Our only comment is that the filmperson was so focused on the road itself, the video does not do justice to the spectacular coastal views.

TripAdvisor has a forum on driving on the Amalfi Coast, with advice for drivers and for those who prefer to hire a transport service.

Un Cono e Un Caffè al Pantheon

Our favorite monument in Rome is the Pantheon.  Built in 27 B.C. as a temple to the gods of Ancient Rome, rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 127 A.D. following the burning of Rome and converted to a Catholic church in the 7th century, it is one of Rome’s best preserved buildings.  The Pantheon boasts the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, with an oculus in the center that lets in the Pantheon’s only source of light.  Today, the Pantheon is home to the tombs of famous painters, a composer, an architect, two kings and a queen.
Whenever we return to Rome we be sure to visit the Pantheon, and while we are there we make time to stop for some of the best gelato and caffè in all of Rome.

Gelateria Giolitti is just a few blocks away from the Pantheon.  With its gigantic columns at your back walk straight ahead, passing along the right side of the fountain and down a narrow street called Via della Maddalena.  Proceed three or four blocks until you reach Via degli Uffici del Vicario.  Turn right and walk about a block and a half.  Gelateria Giolitti is on the right.  If you were to continue down that road you’d reach the Italian Parliament and Chamber of Deputies.  Don’t do that, though.  Stop and have a gelato, instead.

Gelateria Giolitti is not exactly a secret, so expect a full house and plenty of jostling and crowding to get your gelato.  Don’t be intimidated – it is worth it!  Stop at the cassa (cash register) first, and pay for your cono (cone) or coppa (cup).  Take your receipt and proceed to the gelato bar.  Practice being assertive – you will need to be in order to get the attention of the gelato servers.  Hold your receipt up to demonstrate that you’ve paid already and make eye contact.  Be ready to call out the flavors of gelato you want on your cono or in your coppa.  If you can’t read the little flavor labels, just point.  You can choose two and sometimes three flavors per cono or coppa, depending on the size you ordered.  Some of our favorites are pistacchio (pistachio) and nocciola (hazlenut), although the fruit flavors are buonissimi, also.  Your server will ask you if you want panna (whipped cream) on top.  Say yes – this panna is natural and much less sweet that what we are used to, a perfect compliment to the gelato.

Of course, if all of this is too intimidating, you can just sit down at a little table and be served by a waiter.  We won’t hold it against you if you choose this option; but know that you will not only pay a hefty surcharge for a table and wait service, you will also miss out on the adventurous and authentic experience of standing elbow to elbow with Italians and tourists alike to order your gelato from Giolitti.

Next, it’s time to get what many claim is the best caffè in all of Rome.  Head back toward the Pantheon the way you came.  This time, however, once you get back to Piazza della Rotonda where the Pantheon is, veer to the right past the fountain and keep walking with the Pantheon on your immediate left until to get to Salita de’ Crescenzi.  Turn right onto Salita de’ Crescenzi.  Proceed until you get to Via di Sant’Eustachio, which turns into Piazza di Sant’Eustachio, home to Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè.

Sant’Eustachio hasn’t changed much since it opened in the late 1930s.  Its tight space sports the original decor, and the baristi are more formal appearing that elsewhere in Rome.  They mean business; watch as they clear away used tazze (espresso cups) and set new ones out on the bar with rhythmic precision.  Expect lines and crowding like at Giolitti.  Follow the same routine of paying first at the cassa and then taking your receipt to the bar.  Order the renowned Gran Caffè, a dense, creamy double-espresso.  You will simply not find a better caffè in Rome, or perhaps anywhere.  Do not order a cappuccino; those are for breakfast with your brioche.  Do not order a regular caffè; you can get those everywhere in Rome.  You are at Sant’Eustachio, and you must order a Gran Caffè.  We hope we are sufficiently clear on this point.

If you do, you just may find yourselves doing what we do when we visit Rome – ensuring we make a visit to the Pantheon, and enjoying a gelato and a caffè while we are there.

Gelateria Giolitti
Via degli Uffici del Vicario, 40
00186 Roma
http://www.giolitti.it

Sant’Eustachio il Caffè
Piazza di Sant’Eustachio, 82
00186 Roma
http://www.santeustachioilcaffe.it

This map shows the Pantheon (B), Gelateria Giolitti (A) and Sant’Eustachio il Caffè (C).

On our most recent visit to Rome, we gathered three generations of family for a walk in the historical center, and of course, a visit to the Pantheon, Giolitti and Sant’Eustachio.  Gelato was had by all – Flavio, Davide, Giorgia, Noemi, Luca, Damiano, Sean, Mery, Patrizio, Ivana, Andrea, Debora, Daniele, Valentina, Marco, Cara, Stefano, e Maria.  Only the adults had caffè, though!

Crema di Caffè
If it may be a while before you have a chance to pop into Sant’Eutachio, here is a little trick you can use to render your home-made espresso more like a Gran Caffè.

When you make espresso, set aside a very small amount of the first coffee to come out of your espresso maker.  This coffee is stronger and richer that the coffee that follows.  Add 1 tablespoon of sugar to the reserved coffee.  Stir rapidly until the sugar has dissolved and you have a dense, sticky, cream.  This is called crema di caffè.   Add a teaspoon or two of crema di caffè to each espresso you pour, and stir.  The crema will render your espresso extra-rich and creamy.

Torre Normanna

If you have never been to Italy, you need to start planning a trip, now.  If you have been there, you need to start planning your return trip.

A friend recently returned from a trip to Italy raved to us about her experience in Cinque Terre, in the northern Ligurian coastal region. She told us about swimming off of a boat in the Mediterranean Sea, while an Italian chef on deck grilled freshly caught seafood to be served once her party returned onboard.  Why, she asked, would we ever have left a place like this?

That answer, of course, is complicated, but in short has to do with the fact that as regular, middle-class Italians we did not spend our days swimming in the Mediterranean Sea while onboard our yacht a chef grilled seafood for us (shirtless, I imagined, although admittedly this detail I added myself).

Our posts in this category are not about why we left Italy, but instead about our favorite places in Italy, so that all of you who visit can enjoy these wonders.  We start with an amazing restaurant called Torre Normanna on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, located south of Naples on the Mediterranean, where the mountains meet the sea.

We lunched at Torre Normanna while visiting our family in Rome this winter.  This Norman (as in “of Normandy”) Tower is a fortress that juts out into the clear blue-green Mediterranean Sea.  From the street, you walk along a narrow pathway into the ancient structure, up a flight of stairs and into the main dining hall, the windows of which open up onto the sea.

It was lunch time during low season when we were there, between Christmas and New Year’s, and the restaurant was quiet except for a few other couples.  The seafood menu was exceptional; our kids’ batter-fried seafood platters were abundant and came with a miniature shark perched on top with its jaws pointed toward them in a wide-open smile.  When you visit, order scialatielle ai frutti di mareScialatielle are a home-made egg pasta made in that region of Italy, and frutti di mare means “fruit of the sea”, or seafood.

Ask for a table adjacent to one of the arc-shaped windows that look out over the sea, or better yet, in warm months request a table on the patio or terrace.  There is a private beach available for patrons in summer months, as well.  Finally, be sure to use the restrooms while you are there, with their windows that open up the sea and let in the salty breeze.

Torre Normanna
Vai D. Taiani, 4
Strada Coastiera Amalfitana
Maiori, Amalfi Coast
www.torrenormanna.net