By Robert St. John
“God called the dry ground ‘land’ and the gathered waters he called ‘seas.’ And God saw that it was good.” – Genesis 1:10 In case you were wondering, God was looking at the Amalfi Coast when he said that.
For 50 years I have been drawn to photographs of Italy’s Amalfi Coast. It has been on every bucket list, future to-do checklist, or travel wish list I have ever compiled. The pre-visit expectations were substantial and the potential for let-down monumental.
As I write this column, sitting on a balcony at sunrise, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, I can say this place has lived up to its pre-billing.
We left Rome three days ago and travelled south to visit Amalfi and its cliffhanging neighbors to the north and south.
We are here at the perfect time. The weather is mild – low 70s – and the tourists have cleared out. My family and I have never been the types to lie in the sand, good thing, that. No sand here, just beautiful craggy cliffs, with massive stone houses attached to them, dropping hundreds of feet to a cobalt sea. Beautiful.
The food here, like home, leans heavily towards seafood. Again, good thing, as we have been on a seafood drought for the past several months as we traveled through the European mainland. More on Amalfi food – and lemons the size of grapefruits – in next week’s column.
In Rome we ate and ate and ate, and then ate some more. Two culinary highlights that are not to be missed if you find yourself in that city are Antica Enoteca and Piccolo Buco.
We happened upon Antica Enoteca accidentally. I couldn’t find the original restaurant I was searching for, so I asked a shop worker for a recommendation. In a thick Italian accent she pointed two blocks away and said, “Della Croce.” I thought that was the name of the restaurant, so I thanked her and walked away. What I quickly learned was that was the name of the street. A street with dozens of restaurants covering three blocks. Which place was she talking about?
“I got this,” I told my family.
rules for finding good eats
They watched as I walked down the street surveying the outside dining tables and storefronts of each restaurant. “How will you know? What are you looking for?” asked my son. I proceeded to give him my rules for finding a good restaurant in a strange city:
1. No photographs of the food should be displayed anywhere on signage or menus. You wouldn’t believe how many places do this. They might as well hang a sign that says “Tourists Eat Here (and they overpay for crappy food).”
2. Menu prices for typical items shouldn’t be priced over the market.
3. The menus customers are holding should be up to date – a sign of a good owner.
4. The place should be clean with no debris on the sidewalk or floors – a sign of good management.
5. The food on customers’ plates should appear fresh and made from scratch (yes, one can often tell by looking).
6. After 30 years in the business, there’s an overall “feeling” I get. I don’t know what it is, or how to explain it, but I can get a “feel” of a place within a few seconds of walking in. I have often left restaurants within minutes of being seated, over nothing more than the energy and feel of the room.
As it turns out, I nailed it. The restaurant I chose turned out to be one of our go-to restaurants in Rome. We returned three times (rare for me, as I like to try as many places as I can when traveling).
On my first visit I ate the best lasagna I have ever eaten. Period. When the server asked what I wanted, I posed a question I sometimes tender, “If you were eating here today, what would you order?” Often it’s, “In your opinion, what is the absolute best thing on this menu?”
If you ever hear, “It’s all good,” you’re in trouble.
The sever replied, “The lasagna.”
I never eat lasagna in a restaurant. For me, that’s a dish to be eaten at home. I assumed she was recommending it because I was an American tourist. I pressed. She held firm. So I ordered lasagna for lunch. It was perfect – hardly any tomato sauce, the perfect amount of three very good cheeses, and two meats that had obviously been reduced in wine and rich stock. It will definitely be in the book, along with the Caccio Peppe (spaghetti with butter, pecorino and black pepper, a Rome thing) I enjoyed the next day.
Antica Enoteca met the six-word mantra I’ve used for every Eating Europe restaurant: Great food, low price, mostly locals.
Piccolo Buco is located near the Trevi Fountain, and I was worried that it would be a tourist trap. Rule No. 7 – Don’t eat at restaurants within a block of a major tourist attraction.
Piccolo Buco is a small family-run operation that has been in business since 1916. Luca (our server) and his mother were working the floor. His recommendations were spot on. The Bucatini Amatriciana (pasta in the style of Amatrice, guanciale, pancetta or pork cheeks, bucatini, tomato sauce and pecorino) was the best I have ever tasted. Again, bookworthy.
I like dessert. I do not like tiramisu – unless the tiramisu comes from Piccolo Buco. The tiramisu served there, while not the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen on a plate, tasted wonderful. It is – by far – the best I have ever eaten. Period. Also bookworthy.
For those who are counting, check off two restaurants in Rome, both with two excellent dishes that will be in the book.
I have learned so much about Italian cooking in the past six weeks that I could return home tomorrow and the trip would have been worthwhile. But I still have Sicily, Bologna, Venice, Milan and Lake Como to cover before the Italian leg of this journey is over. In the meantime, I have a few more days on the Amalfi Coast.
Make no mistake, when God drew up the original plans for an oceanside community – I believe that was on the “second day,” – he named it Amalfi.
Robert St.John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.