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!

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