Maritozzi con la panna

La brioche con la panna a cui nessun romano può rinunciare. 

The whipped cream-filled brioche that no Roman can renounce.

Maritozzo con la Panna

This bold declaration greeted us on a giant sign hung on the wall in the pasticceria, directly across from the enormous glass pastry case filled with delectable Italian pastries.  We were at Eataly Roma, the high-end, all-Italian food emporium located in the formerly abandoned, space-age looking Air Terminal building near the Ostiense train station.

eataly-front

Originally founded in Turin, Eataly now has 11 locations across Italy, including in Milan, Genova, Bologna, Florence, Rome and Bari.  The forthcoming opening of a second Rome location in Piazza della Repubblica was recently announced, appropriately taking over a McDonald’s space.  Internationally, Eataly is present in Dubai, Istanbul, and at three locations across Japan.  Here in the states, Eataly emporiums can be found in Chicago and New York.  The American branch of Eataly is owned by Italian-American food giants Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and Joe Bastianich.

Eataly combines the high quality and authenticity that small neighborhood Italian food shops and eateries are known for, with the convenience and scale of modern mega-stores.  Occupying tens of thousands of square meters over multiple floors, each Eataly boasts a wine store, a beer garden, a pastry shop, a gelateria and several restaurants along with fish, meat and vegetable markets and a grocery store with everything that one might need.

Since we were in Rome, Eataly’s pasticceria featured the traditional roman pastry maritozzo con la panna,  perfectly executed by guest pasticcere Luca Montersino, Italy’s most famous celebrity pastry chef.  Proving the proclamation true, Stefano did not hesitate to order a maritozzo con la panna and eat it right there.

Maritozzi con la pannaMaritozzi are fragrant, sweet-dough buns sliced in half and stuffed with smooth, fresh whipped cream.  They are a staple in Rome’s pasticcerie, and commonly found during the breakfast hours in coffee bars around the Eternal City.  When Stefano was a little boy, on special occasions his parents would bring maritozzi con la panna home from their favorite neighborhood pastry shop.  Sometimes, when Stefano joined his father Andrea for a morning caffè at the bar, Andrea would let him have a maritozzo.

Some traditional Roman maritozzi recipes call for sultans, pine nuts and candied orange peel.  We prefer a simple sweet dough recipe with only orange zest providing a mild citrus flavor, just like those that Stefano recalls from his childhood.

Maritozzi con la panna

Ingredients
For the brioche
Flour, 250 grams (1 and 3/4 cup) plus extra for kneading.
Sugar, 50 grams (1/4 cup)
Salt, 1 pinch
Water, 125 ml (1/2 cup) warm
Active Dry Yeast, 6 grams (2 tsp.)
Malted Milk, 1 heaping teaspoon (or substitute honey)
Butter, 40 grams (3 Tbsp), softened and cubed
Egg, 1, yolk separated from the white
Zest of one orange

For the sugar glaze
Water, 50 ml (1/2 cup)
Sugar, 75 grams (3/8 cup)

For the filling
Heavy Whipping Cream, 500 ml (2 cups)
Sugar, 5o grams (1/4 cup)

 

Directions
Stir the yeast in the warm (not hot) water until dissolved.  Add the malted milk and stir until dissolved.  Set aside.  Measure the flour, sugar and salt  into a medium bowl.  Stir together.  Form a well in the center and add the butter, egg yolk and orange zest.  Slowly add the liquid, mixing with a fork to gradually incorporate the flour mixture from the inside out.

Maritozzi con la pannaWhen all of the liquid has been added and the dry mixture incorporated, remove the dough from the bowl and turn it out onto a smooth, lightly floured surface.  Knead gently for 5 minutes until it forms a smooth, round ball.

Maritozzi con la pannaSprinkle a bit of flour inside a smaller bowl, place the dough inside and cover it loosely with plastic wrap.  Let the dough rise in a warm location for at least 2 hours.

Maritozzi con la pannaMaritozzi con la panna

After two hours, add a sprinkle of flour to your work surface and turn your dough back out onto it.  Divide your dough into 6 equal small, oval (or football shaped) buns.  We used our food scale to ensure that they were equal sized.  Place the buns onto a baking pan lined with parchment paper.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 30 minutes.

Maritozzi con la panna

Beat the egg white lightly with a fork.  Uncover the buns and reshape into ovals if needed.  Use a pastry brush to Carefully brush the buns with egg white.  Cover once again with plastic wrap and let rise for one hour more.

Maritozzi con la panna

Bake at 180º C, 350º F for approximately 20 minutes, until the maritozzi are a deep golden brown on top.

While the maritozzi are baking, prepare the sugar glaze.  Heat water until almost a boil, and then turn off the heat.  Add the sugar and let dissolve, stirring just once or twice.  Let cool.

When the maritozzi are done, remove them from the oven and while still hot, brush them with the sugar glaze.  Let cool.

Maritozzi con la panna

While the maritozzi are cooling, whip the cream together with the sugar to firm peaks.

When the maritozzi are completely cool, slice into them diagonally without cutting all the way through.  If helpful, moisten your fingers and hold each maritozzo carefully at its base, to avoid the sugar glaze sticking to your fingers and pulling pieces of the brioche away.

Using a pastry spatula, open up the “mouth” of each maritozzo and fill it with whipped cream, using the spatula to create a smooth edge, and a moistened paper towel to wipe away any extra whipped cream.

Enjoy as a decadent, Roman-style breakfast or with your afternoon espresso as a special treat.

Maritozzi con la pannaMaritozzi con la panna

La Sicilia! A Photo-Essay

The fall colors are at their peak, and local newspaper headlines warn, Some Minnesotans Could Wake Up Saturday to a Blanket of Snow. Our Sicilian vacation is a distant memory.  With the fire place radiating warmth and and a glass of Nero d’Avola unearthing memories, we capture the sights and the flavors of our July 2014 tour of the western coast of Sicily.

Our tour of Western SicilyThe Sicilian countryside

Bed & Breakfast Mammaliturchi
Cico and Lola’s B&B Mammaliturchi on the southern Sicilian coast was so spectacular, so perfect, that it merited its own blog post.  A short walk up the beach to the dazzling white  Scala dei Turchi and a 15 minute drive to Agrigento and the magnificent Valley of the Temples, B&B Mammaliturchi is nothing short of paradise.

Scala dei Turchi

Sciacca
Sciacca is a small, medieval fisherman’s village built steeply into the rock that descends down to the sea.  At sea level, fishing boats dot the waterfront and fisheries line the streets.  Climb a steep set of stone steps, some which take you right past the doorways of local residents, and you will reach the heart of the town of Sciacca.  Souvenir shops line the main street which leads to a piazza that looks dramatically out over the Mediterranean.  Stop by the local pastry shop and try out some of the local bitter almond and ricotta-based treats.

Stefano and Luca sample local pastries in the back end of a Fiat 500-turned street art.

Stefano and Luca sample local pastries in the back end of a Fiat 500-turned street art.

 

Sean, Nonna Maria, Luca and Stefano pose for a photo in Sciacca's main piazza.

Sean, Nonna Maria, Luca and Stefano pose for a photo in Sciacca’s main piazza.

Luca and Sean descend Sciacca's city steps.

Luca and Sean descend Sciacca’s city steps.

Mazara del Vallo
Founded by the Phoenicians in the 9th century BC, Mazara del Vallo was ruled by the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines among others, before finally coming under Arab control in 827 AD.   During the Arab period Mazara del Vallo was an important commercial harbour and the main gateway between Sicily and Northern Africa.  The historical center of Mazara del Vallo is  known as the Kasbah, and it boasts distinct Arab architectural influences.  It is also the best place in Italy to eat cous cous, a Northern African dish that Sicilians have adopted as their own.

Mazara del Vallo

Arab-influenced architecture in the Kasbah neighborhood of Mazara del Vallo.

Mazara del Vallo

The Kasbah, Mazara del Vallo.

Mazara del Vallo

We had delicious cous cous at Trattoria alla Kasbah in Mazara del Vallo.  (Luca is in his “cross-eyed photo-bomber” stage.)

Trapani and Erice
Trapani is known for its salt marshes, and picturesque windmills used to drain the water during the long process of drawing salt out.  It’s also where you can catch a ferry to the heralded Egadi islands, which we didn’t have time for on this trip but fully intend to return to do.  We made a quick stop to see the salt flats, gave in to curiosity and tasted it (yes, it really was salty), and then continued up, and up, and up and winding mountain to the town of Erice.

Image from http://customitalytours.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/segesta-erice-marsala/

Image from http://customitalytours.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/segesta-erice-marsala/

Erice is a medieval village that sits at the peak of a mountain, 750 metres (2,460 ft) above sea level.  On a clear day, you can see Tunisia and Africa’s Northern coast.  The day we visited it was anything but clear.  It felt like we’d  stepped right into a scene from Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.  In foggy, damp, cold weather we diligently trekked up the main street to Pasticceria Maria Grammatico, which we’d read on the internet had the most amazing pastries.  It is a humble pasticceria, as far as Italian pasticceria’s go, but their cannoli, genovesi and cassate were truly amazing.

San Vito lo Capo
When you live in place as cold as ours, some beach time is a must.  San Vito lo Capo is among the most beautiful beaches in all of Italy.  Located on the northwestern tip of Sicily, the winding drive through the mountains offers spectacular views of the sea below.

San Vito lo Capo

A spectacular view from above on the road to San Vito lo Capo.

San Vito lo Capo’s beach is a long stretch of soft sand that leads to a mountain in the distance.  The bright aquamarine sea is calm, warm and amazingly clear.  You could lose your wedding ring in waist deep water, look down and see it sparkling on the sea floor below.  The bright beach umbrella made for a splendid scene.

San Vito lo Capo

The beach at San Vito lo Capo.

San Vito lo Capo

The clear, calm water at San Vito lo Capo.

San Vito lo Capo

Bright umbrella dot the beach at San Vito lo Capo.

San Vito lo Capo

Sun, sand and sea at San Vito lo Capo.

San Vito lo Capo

Drammatic views at San Vito lo Capo.

Enjoying a frittata di pesce on the beach.

Enjoying a frittata di pesce on the beach at San Vito lo Capo.

Palermo
While the charm and slower pace of Sicily’s small towns offer the greatest appeal, a stop in the chaotic, complicated Palermo is worth it.  The tour of the historical city is quick, and worth the cost of one of the open-air tour buses.  A walk through the markets and the old Arab quarters is overwhelms by sight, sound and smell.  We were most drawn by Palermo’s unique foods: panelle (fritters made of chickpeas and flour), sandwiches with milza (gall bladder), and breakfast with granita al caffè and large gelato-filled brioche.

Milza

Milza – a Palermitano delicacy.

brioche con gelato

Breakfast in style in Palermo – brioche con gelato.

Cefalù
Cefalù is a charming, small town on the northern coast of Sicily.  Full of tourists in the summer months, it is delightful nonetheless with a convenient beach and lots of modern shops, Italian bars and eateries, many with lovely sea views.  We dined at Il Covo del Pirata, and loved it.  It’s location was amazing, with tables that looked right out over the water, yet it had a casual, family feel.  We ate seafood to our heart’s content.  Stop by early in the day and reserve a table with a view for dinner.

Cefalù

The town of Cefalù, seen from the beach.

DSC_0080

Cefalù

Il Covo del Pirata

The view from the restaurant Il Covo del Pirata, in Cefalù.

Riomaggiore delle Cinque Terre: Un fotoracconto

What an August it has been!  When we wrote our most recent post, The Wineries of Northern Italy – Piedmont and Le Langhe, we had just moved back into our house and were floor to ceiling with boxes.  It’s gotten a little better, thanks to lots of help from Cara’s mom and dad who took turns coming down and helping Stefano unpack while Cara was putting in long hours at work.  After two or three days trying to get the kitchen in order, they both concurred that we have far too many kitchen utensils!

Fall is here, school has started, and while we are far from settled in, things are calmer and we’re glad to begin giving some attention to Due Spaghetti again.  And cooking again!  We’ll be sharing new recipes with you again soon, but first we need to tell you how our Italian vacation ended.

After touring the beautiful countryside and visiting the most amazing wineries in Trentino Alto-Adige, la Valpolicella, and Piedmont and le Langhe, we ended our road trip across Northern Italy with a stay in Riomaggiore, one of the five fishing villages that make up the Cinque Terre.  You’ve probably heard of the Cinque Terre, as it has become a popular travel destination in recent years.  Located in the Italian region of Liguria, near the  town of La Spezia in the Gulf of Genoa on the Mediterranean coast, Riomaggiore is the southernmost of the villages.  Like another of our favorite Italian destinations, the Amalfi Coast, in the Cinque Terre, the mountains meet the sea creating spectacular, dramatic landscapes dotted by colorful, pastel-colored villages that seem sculpted right out of the stone.

We will let the photos speak for themselves, but here are a few tips about travel to the Cinque Terre:

  • Hotels book out very fast.  Instead of a hotel, we opted to rent an apartment from Signora Edi, who oversees the rental of several apartments in Riomaggiore.  We communicated with her and her staff via email, and booked from the U.S. after seeing photos of the apartment she had available.  Her website is here.  Our apartment was Il Pescatore.  It was very simple but clean, and we loved the view overlooking the Marina and the sea from the kitchen and master bedroom windows.  We fell asleep at night to the roar of the waves.  An added plus is that Edi offers private parking for a small fee.
  • Speaking of parking, it’s a challenge in the Cinque Terre.  The villages are not accessible by car.  In Riomaggiore, you need to park off of the main road that leads up to the village, and walk several blocks downhill into the village.  Of course, that means you have to walk back up the hill to get back to your car.  Pack light.  If you have a lot of luggage, consider bringing only what you need in a smaller bag, and leaving other things in your car.  When you are booking a room or an apartment, ask them about parking arrangements.
  • The Via dell’Amore is one stretch of the walking path that connects all 5 villages.  Via dell’Amore connects Riomaggiore to the neighboring village of Manarolo, and is just over 1 kilometer long.  When we were there, Via dell’Amore was open, but other parts of the path were closed due to the torrential rains and resulting mudslides that hit the area in fall 2011.  You have to pay to access the path, but it the spectacular sights are worth it.  You can also take the train from village to village.  There is free internet access during daytime hours in and around the train stations.
  • Unfortunately, the Cinque Terre seem to have been discovered by young Americans looking for a good time.  In Riomaggiore, on Friday and Saturday evening we were greeted by youth walking in the streets with beer bottles and even entire wine bottles in hand, and making a lot of noise in the marina, late into the evening, disregarding not only those tourists looking for a quieter stay, but also the many Riomaggiore residents whose apartments look out onto the marina.  Stefano in particular was baffled by this, noting that there are plenty of sea-side spots in Italy that cater specifically to young party go-ers.  Why did these travelers choose Riomaggiore?  It was not so bad that we would recommend not visiting the Cinque Terre, but it is a factor to consider if you visit on summer weekends.

It was dark by the time we arrived in Riomaggiore.  This is the view from our apartment window overlooking the marina.

The outdoor restaurant with the umbrellas is called La Lanterna.  It served the most delicious seafood.  Reservations are not taken at lunch, but if you are willing to wait you can find a table.  At dinner, you will definitely need reservations.  We highly recommend it!

After a stormy night in which the wind blew and the sea roared right outside our window, we awoke at dawn and captured some photos of the sleepy village just beginning to stir.

Riomaggiore, looking like a patchwork quilt.

The sea was too rough for the boats to go out, so they were docked in the marina the entire time we were there.

Our apartment, Il Pescatore, was right in the marina, overlooking the sea, in Via Giacomo, 107 right next to the gelateria.

Luca looking out the kitchen window at the activity below.

The mountains meet the sea.

Some of the amazing seafood we ate at La Lanterna.

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.

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.

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.

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 two-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.

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.

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.

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.

 

Parking in Positano can be challenging.  If you plan to spend the night, 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
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ristorantetorrenormanna/
Twitter: @tnTorreNormanna