Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Day 4: Montepertuso, Nocelle, & Cooking!

Exploring the Hidden Hills:
After our ritual cappuccino and toasted french bread breakfast, we headed down to the city center to buy bus tickets to the top of the mountain, a small town called Nocelle. We had read in a guide book that the views were fantastic and the hike was great for morning exercise. It was a little dewy outside and a bit overcast, but we boarded the bus eager to see Positano in a whole new way. 

The ride up the mountain was a bit sketchy, especially when we ran into the guard rail and another vehicle on a sharp turn. But, in true Positano fashion, the driver of the other car waived his arm "its ok" and we parted ways as if nothing had happened. Once at the top, there wasn't too much to see other than the obviously fantastic views. The village is extremely small and seemed to be "sleeping" when we got there because there wasn't a resident in sight except for an elderly man towing bricks with a wheelbarrow. We wandered around the teeny ivy covered streets and took in all the gorgeous sea scenes.

After wandering around for a while, we decided to walk back down to Montepertuso, the village in between Nocelle and Positano. What started out as a scenic walk down to the next town, filled with green gardens, hanging ivy, and the sounds of waterfalls, turned into a mystery marathon that lead us up and down and to a nervous dead end. At one point, we finally decided to abandon the route and trust the road. Wary, we walked down the road, careful to swing way out on the turns and listen carefully for unexpected oncoming traffic.

After walking for what seemed like forever, we decided to stop for a bite at a little place that had been recommended by a couple we chatted with on our first day in Positano. The eatery was called La Tagliata and it was as rustic as it was secluded. We were greeted by Pepe, the proprietor, and he explained to us that the restaurant had been in his family for many years and they liked to serve sans menu, family style. We had no problem with this as our stomachs were beginning to growl and Pepe's sister immediately started bringing out the antipasti. Plates and plates full of fresh veggies, cheeses, and meats filled out table to the rim. We were blown away to say the least. 

We enjoyed steamed spinach, fresh mozzarella draped with prosciutto, small fried pastries filled with cheese and tomatoes, crispy fried zucchini blossoms, smooth broccoli, and spring peas. And that wasn't even all of it. We also got to taste some steeped garbanzo beans with onions, rich eggplant parmesan, a type of baked macaroni casserole, and marinated kidney beans. Everything was so fresh and flavorful, it hardly needed any manipulation from the cooks. Pepe had told us that all of the vegetables were plucked straight from the garden outside and you could definitely detect that "right-out-of-the-ground" freshness. After filling up on the aforementioned delights, Pepe was saddened that we couldn't stay for the other two courses of food. In fact, he begged us to come back at night sometime soon because the feast would be even better. We promised him that we would and back on the road we went. We quickly found ourselves in the city center of Montepertuso, the town just on the outskirts of Postiano.

Above is the beautiful little church in the very small city center of Montepertuso and also a patchwork tile canvas that explains the legend of Montepertuso. It looked of course extremely interesting, but unfortunately my knowledge of Italian doesn't go too far passed grazie, buongiorno, buonanotte, and prego. We browsed the quiet streets for a little longer and before we knew it, it was time for our first cooking class. As luck would have it, our class was situated right in the center of Montepertuso at a restaurant called Il Ritrovo. 

Upon our arrival at the restaurant we were excitedly greeted by Chef Salvatore, his protege Roger, and Francesco, one of the goofy and fun servers. They quickly popped a bottle of prosecco for us and we dove right into our first dish, fresh pasta of course! The key to the pasta is not to overwork the dough and getting your hands on a good pasta rolling machine. Salvatore set each of us up with our own mountain of flour. Contrary to popular belief, semolina flour is only used for dusting, not in the actual preparation of the dough. We also learned how important it is not to overwork the dough. Unfortunately this advice came after I had worked mine into a tough sticky play-dough type mess. Salvatore shook his head and smilled, "It's no worry..." A line I will hear more than just a few times. 

After getting the dough prepared and cut into several different shapes; some for ravioli and some for fettucini, we moved onto crunchy amaretti cookies. Because everything is measured using liters and grams, we had to take copious notes about each recipe. At which, Salavatore would lightly snicker and say "its no problem" in a thick Italian accent. 

After the cookies, which we made with both blanched almonds and "black" or roasted almonds, we dove into possibly one of the most sinful but forgivingly delicious delicacies... the fried zucchini blossom. The blossoms are coated with a light batter and fried in peanut oil to absolute perfection. This edible flowers may seem alien to some of you, but trust me you will become a believer after one bite!

From the zucchini blossoms we next ventured on to veal scallopini. An important part to this dish is beating the veal with great fervor. "Just pretend its your boyfriend', Salvatore instructed me.  I tried to imagine at what point would I be just ticked enough to beat my poor boyfriend with a meat mallet , but luckily for him I'm pretty easy going :) We pounded the little cutlets till they were so very thin and then perforated them for tenderizing. These succulent pieces went for a dip in some flour and then sauteed at a high heat to get nice and crispy. It is extremely important not to overcoat the veal with flour and to never use bread crumbs. The veal is so delicate and tender and too much breading overpowers the wonderful meat. What was truly amazing and something I had literally NEVER thought to do was to ladle in some pasta water and allow the cutlets to steam underneath the lid for a few minutes. Salvatore then added a special and super secret balsamic reduction sauce to the pan to finish the dish. 

By now you must be thinking, "pasta, cookies, zucchini blossoms, veal! Could it get any better??" To answer your question, oh yeah. It went off the richter scale when we began to make the sauces for the pastas; a crushed tomato with garlic for the ravioli and a zucchini cream sauce for the fettucini. Pasta water seems to be the holy grail of cooking in Italy. Chefs seriously add it to everything and in pasta sauces it is an absolute essential. 

Once all the dishes seemed to be in order and about ready to be served, the group took their seats out on the beautiful insulated veranda overlooking the whole of Montepertuso and down into Positano. The table was so welcoming and already set to a "t" with two huge decanters of red and white wines as well as the traditional water with "gas" or naturale

We clinked our classes and chimed in salute, as we enjoyed our unbelievable from-scratch Italian three-course meal. We started with our two pastas, the ravioli and fettucini, then moved onto the veal and finished with the cookies. Unfortunately we ate all of our fried zucchini in the kitchen so it never made it to full presentation mode on the table. 

We ended with a little glass of grappa, a traditional after dinner drink in Italy, and made our way back down to Hotel California. Standing in the kitchen for nearly three hours is definitely tiresome. But, when you have a meal like that waiting for you when you finish, it is definitely worth every second. I now have a renewed appreciation for chefs, sous chefs, servers, bus service, and any restaurant crew. When you put in the love, passion, and in all truth, really hard work into a meal like that, the "that was delicious" line is the most expensive compliment that money couldn't ever buy. 

**Note: all recipes in the aforementioned post will be provided in the recipes section of the blog upon its organization and publishing. Thanks!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Day 3: Capri

Calming Capri:
I woke up for the first time in Positano with the sun peeping through the shades of my balcony. It was early but I could already tell it was going to be a beautiful morning. We got ourselves together and packed up what I thought I'd need for the day: hand sanitizer, sunglasses, notebook and pen, camera, and  duh, a super-Italiano type scarf. We went down to the terrace of our hotel where breakfast is served and sat at a little iron table overlooking the sea. Breakfast in most of Italy is relatively small, not your typical eggs and bacon type of deal. A cappuccino, toasted french bread, and yogurt is the norm, which is perfect for me because that's what I usually eat at home anyway, sans the super-cute fluffy cappuccino and substitute in a Starbucks skinny latte. There is also usually cereal served with whole milk, too rich for my little stomach, fresh fruit, and sometimes meats and cheeses. At our hotel, Mama Maria even had some tasty fruit tarts and breakfast cakes set out as well. But a heaping plate of pancakes and sausage is not something you would be able to find in little Positano, let alone most of Italy.

Good morning cappuccino, nice to see you too :)
After a quick morning bite, we headed down the steep hike to the steel colored beach, where we were to meet our boat that would take us to Capri. We had gotten to the dock a little early so we decided to meander for a little and take in the beautiful morning sun.

Around mid-morning we finally made it on the sleek speedboat and headed off in the direction of Capri. Before docking up, our captain, Paolo, drove us full circle around the island so that we could get a better look at the incredible rock formations built into the side of the coast.

He took us by all the different grottos, or caves, that speckle the Capri shore line. We saw the green grotto, the white grotto, a similar grotto to the 'blue grotto', and several other unique caves and pristine water pools. Once our little tour of the island was over, we docked next to some pretty impressive yachts and pretended to be playing with the best, contenders in our own right. We met our tour guide, that for the life of me I cannot remember his name, but he was sweet as he could be and tan as a Ferragamo leather bag. He explained to us that there are two main towns on the island, Capri and Anacapri. Capri is the larger of the two towns though the entire population only boasts a little over 12,000. The tourists boat in by the thousands each day during the high season months of the summer, but the island virtually shuts down for the winter time and there is little to no transportation to and from the shores of Italy.

Our driver, "Ferragamo", and our Capri Car
So Ferragamo (my nickname for our driver) piled four of us into what they call a Capri Car. A special taxi developed with one of the major European car companies to be used specifically for travel on the island. It looks kind of like the result if you bred a boxy white SUV with a small convertible sedan; good for sight seeing but not so amazing for safety, especially on those winding roads and the seemingly careless drivers. Ferragamo tells us that they haven't had an accident in Capri in something like 80 years. I find this incredibly hard to believe and of course I challenge his judgment, in which case he corrects himself and replies, "well only between the natives... the tourists wreck all the time, no worry!" Ferragamo takes us straight up to the main square in Anacapri and says he'll come get us in a few hours.

So Mom and I and another cute mother/daughter pair decided to grab a bite. One of the best pieces of advice I can give you about choosing a restaurant abroad, especially in Italy, is not to go for an easy target, a restaurant situated right in the middle of the tourist mecca. While they may boast "no frozen food" and "the best panini's this side of the Amalfi", sometimes the best eats are the little gems just outside the tourist fault lines. But really, when in doubt, ask a local! And, try your hardest to not sound soooo American by using me scuzzi and grazie when appropriate. If not, they'll probably just send you right back to the typical traps. We were smart to ask Ferragamo and he sent us "a couple of meters just down the road on the left" to a little restaurant called Le Arcate.

Though we were a little early for typical lunchers, we went ahead inside and enjoyed a little peace and quiet. We took our menus and almost immediately it was a unanimous vote for some pizza. Pizza, as it so happens, is typically associated with Naples, but naturally because of the proximity, just about any of the costal towns along the Amalfi has some pretty fantastic pizza. I, being reminiscent of my last summer spent in Florence, ordered mozzarella con salame, or cheese with salami. My mother got rucola con formaggio e pomodoro, or arugula with cheese and tomatoes. The mother/daughter pair also ordered a salami pizza as well as a vegetable medley combination.

Clockwise from left: Arugula pizza with cheese & tomatoes,
salami pizza, and veggie pizza
I think its those rarely cleaned old brick ovens and open fires that make me a slave to Italian pizza and why its also so difficult to recreate. I had to go to pizza rehab after returning to the states because of my withdraws from "the good stuff".

After a nice long lunch, the place was packed  and we were already in on the secret why. Ferragamo had also already told us of some interesting sites to see in Anacapri and we got right to them. We decided to first tackle the terrifying looking chair lift that takes you straight up to the highest point on the island, Monte Solare. This thing seriously looked like the ride from H-E double hockey sticks, but we decided to be fearless and give it a try. You have to stand and wait for this little seat, which looks like a rigged school desk, to come up behind you (which I don't like the sound of that anyway) and you kind plop right in before it immediately wafts you up into the air. However, once your in, its the most peaceful ride to the top. I was expecting my stomach to be executing some kind of gymnastics routine inside me, but I was quite content with the sun, the view, and the quiet.

Once at the top, there is the most unforgettable view accompanied by a cute little cafe and what looks like some kind of room built for events. I'm thinking to myself, "how cool would it be if you got married up here?", but that quickly changed to "how in the world could I convince grandma to get on the chairlift?"; probably not the greatest of ideas. We decided to grab a couple of soothing cappuccinos and sit in a couple of lounge chairs they had set up along the terrace, but not before we made sure to capture the view.

After heading back down to Anacapri, we stopped at the Casa Rossa, which is a little villa that was owned by the American Colonel, John Cay H. Mackowen. It is now home to rich artwork, mainly paintings, done of the island by some well-known artists and some not so known native creators. The Casa Rossa is also home to 3 Roman statues found in the blue grotto in the mid 1960s and early 70s. Divers discovered the statues and 4 other bases, which means that other statues are still yet to be discovered somewhere on the bottom of the cave. Between 27 and 37AD, the emperor Tiberius relocated the capital of Rome to the island and used the blue grotto as a private swimming pool. It is likely that he had the statues placed there for one reason or another.

Eaten away by the sea's salty water and prevailing creatures,
the statues are said to depict Neptune and the Greek God Triton
We then headed to the little church in Anacapri's center called Chiesa di San Michele. It's not uncommon that when you are abroad, particularly in Italy, the stigma develops that once you've seen one church, you've pretty much "seen them all". But, I have to say this little baroque church definitely blew me away with it's intricate painted tile flooring, which depicts the story of Adam and Eve.

It was about time to head back down the drive to main city of Capri and Ferragamo was patiently waiting for us. On our drive down, he showed us some of the famous property of the island like Sofia Lauren's old home, Versace's mansion, and of course the house of Ferragamo! Once in Capri's city center, our driver told us of the most famous gelato shop called Buonocore. I was so eager to get my hands on an ice-cold scoop and by the look of the line down the street, I knew he'd sent us to the right place. The smell of fresh waffle cones drifted all the way from the shop to my nose and I could see that they were making them fresh to order. My mom decided on a strawberry and chocolate combo and like mother like daughter, I got the same thing. By far the most delectable cone of gelato or ice cream I have ever eaten (the exception being a heaping scoop of "cookies" from across the Arno in Florence, but I always got that in a cup).

We ate and shopped the expensive fashion houses that line the streets of Capri. I tried on a couple of dresses way outside of my price range and was thankful for the ice cream because it made me feel on the plump side enough to discourage any over-buying. By the time we made it back to the main square it was time to say goodbye to Ferragamo and the beautiful island of Capri.

But not before Paolo broke out some
"homemade" lemoncello for the ride back!
By the time we made it back to Positano, a real dinner seemed absolutely impossible to sit through. So, several of us from the group decided to go back to Vini & Panini (the little deli from Day 2) and buy some snacks. Giovanni, in perfect Italian and some broken English, helped us with some provolone di monaco, fresh strawberries, oil and vinegar, 2 types of salami, and some leftover bread he had on hand. When we got back to our little terrace at Hotel California the sun had already started to dip down below the sea. We got out a welcome bottle of wine the staff at Cooking Vacations had given to us and let the lights of Positano bring us to a state of relaxation. 

Once settled in for the night, I easily snuggled deep in my little bed, but found it a little difficult to go right to sleep. I couldn't help thinking how excited I was to get my hands on a spatula the next afternoon! Cooking begins the next day-