Sunday, July 24, 2011

Day 5: Amalfi, Ravello, & Buca Di Bacco

The Charming Cities of the Amalfi Coast:
After our ritual breakfast, we headed out with our guide, Guiseppe, to the costal towns of Amalfi and Ravello. Both cities are hidden gems in the area and do not get the tourist traffic as heavily as Positano, which makes for a much more culturally rich experience. Our first stop was in Amalfi, widely known for their beautiful handcrafted paper. Giuseppe quickly took us on a little culinary tour of the town. We stopped at the panificio, the bakery, the pescheria, the fish monger, the gelateria, ice cream shop, the macelleria, a butcher's shop, and Anrea Pansa, a famous pastry shop. 

At the bakery, Giuseppe had us taste this incredible crusty loaf filled with cured ham and spices. He then took us to the fish market, where there was an incredible amount of fresh fish, shell fish, and other interesting sea creatures that had just arrived off the boat. The clams where still live and blowing bubbles in a shallow bucket... now that's what I call fresh from sea! Next we went to the meat market and sampled different salamis and cheeses. We tasted some more of the provolone di monaco and some aged parmesan. We also sampled an array of both hard and soft salamis, as well as salty prosciutto, and capocollo, or coppa as we know it. We then slid into a gelateria and sampled a few different flavors. No offense to the city of Amalfi, but Buonocore on Capri still serves the best! Finally we ended up at Andrea Pansa, a famous pastry and espresso shop dating back to 1830. We dug right into a handful of different pastries, all of which had its on occasion for serving. There was a dense buttery pie that is typically served on Easter, classic profiteroles often served on birthdays, and theses small little chocolate or lemon filled cakes, which I thought would be fantastic for any time of the year! 

Easter Pie
Anytime Chocolate or Lemon Cakes
After our mini culinary tour was over, we headed into the breathtaking Cathedral of St. Andrew, the patron saint of Amalfi. The structure stands out in the city center with its patterned marble facade and looming duomo. 

The cathedral was built in the early 1200s and serves as the site where all St. Andrew's relics are contained, including what is thought to be his skull. An older basilica dating back to the 9th century still exists on the cite and now houses a small museum with other religious artifacts. 

Guiseppe informed us that Lorenzo (shown above in a mural painted over wood) is the patron saint of cooking, as his martyrdom was to be grilled alive. Isn't that a nice story? Nonetheless, praying to St. Lorenzo is supposed to help you out in the kitchen!

After touring the crypt and viewing the beautiful frescos on the walls and ceilings, we jumped back in the car and headed further east down the coast to the city of Ravello. Ravello, known as the city of music, is home to incredible symphony concerts and festivals. Our first stop was Villa Cimbrone, a luxy hotel that had once been home to an english politician named Ernest William Beckett. 

The building dates back to the 11th century and is home to the most incredible view in all of Ravello. Beckett had moved to Ravello after his wife had passed away as a suggestion to bring beauty back to his life. He purchased the villa and salvaged its beautiful gardens as well as did some much needed renovations. Years later, the villa was purchased and turned into a hotel that was often frequented by the actress Greta Garbo. 

The wisteria lined walkway takes you down to the "avenue of immensity", where it literally feels as if you could walk straight out onto the water, the deep cerulean seeming to go on forever. The famous composer Richard Wagner, who stayed in Ravello for some time was quoted as saying, "the view from there, for me, is the most beautiful of all", in regards to Villa Cimbrone. 

Keeping up with the theme of music, we visited Villa Rufolo next, a charming medieval castle. It flourished during the 13 and 14th centuries but is now home to incredible symphonic concerts overlooking the sea. In the 19th century, the villa was restored and its lovely gardens were landscaped. Wagner also drew inspiration from Villa Rufolo, much like Villa Cimbrone, and apparently was working on his masterpiece "Parisfal". In honor of his stay, Villa Rufolo hosts the Ravello Festival, often called the Wagner Festival, a celebration of his music. 

Patrons of the concert sit in the gardens or in the above terrace, where the photo above was taken from. An incredible stage is built out from the gardens hanging over the sea to create this breathtaking spectacle. 

I could have stayed in Ravello for several more days easily, but reluctantly we headed back to Positano. Amalfi with its busy city center and beautiful church and Ravello with its rich history and breathtaking views could easily be separate vacations all on their own. Both cities are far less touristy than Positano and are not to be missed if you are in the area. 

Once back in comfy Positano are stomachs were definitely craving a big Italian meal. We hadn't eaten much that day, only sampled all the wonderful delights on the culinary tour and stopped in a shop in Ravello for espressos, so we were pretty starved by the time we got home. I looked up a couple of places on my phone (unfortunately there is no Urbanspoon Italy) and finally decided on a little gem of a place overlooking the beach called Buca di Bacco, that had gotten really good reviews. The restaurant is nestled just above the lowest level of Positano and juts out over the beach with a beautiful view of the ocean. Mom and I were hungry early, not typical of Italian eaters, and so we nearly had the entire restaurant to ourselves. The menu was typical of Positano restaurants, but clearly had a more refined quality than some of the more casual family owned eateries. We started with roasted asparagus topped with grated parmesan cheese and a fennel salad with sun dried tomatoes, shrimp, and olives, which I asked to be brought out first, as salads usually come after the main meal. 

The asparagus was perfectly tender, but still had a nice crunch and the parmesan cheese added the right amount of saltiness. The salad was extremely fresh and clean tasting, with very little dressing except olive oil and seasoning. We then decided on tasting their gnocci con pomodoro e mozzarella and tagliatelle con ragu del cinghiale or gnocci with tomatoes and mozzarella and tagliatelle with wild boar ragu.

If you ever wanted to know what clouds taste like, order the gnocci from this restaurant. This dish was definitely pure heaven. If you are not familiar with gnocci, it is basically a dough made from cooked potatoes, a little flour, seasoning, and either butter or oil. It is cut into little rectangles and cooked similarly to fresh pasta. Properly prepared, gnocci should taste very light and fluffy. The light tomato sauce that came atop was concentrated and velvety and there was just the right amount of cheese to bind it all together.

The tagliatelle, on the other hand, was entirely sinful! The ragu was tender and had a wonderfully rich pork flavor. It was just the right amount of thickness with still having some liquidity to it to coat the pasta. The wild boar also had very little gameyness to it and had such a depth of flavor that made you never want to stop eating it. 

One thing that made these dishes even more incredible was that the servers at Buca di Baco weren't shy with the parmesan. If you hadn't noticed already, parmesan is the condiment of choice for Italians. Comparable to ketchup and mustard in the U.S. or mayo in parts of Europe, Italians put parmesan on everything from vegetables to salads or even french fries and definitely on pastas! In fact, what most American's know as fettucini al fredo is not authentic at all. Al fredo sauce is not a cream based like most varieties found in restaurants or jars stateside. It is actually as simple as mixing hot buttered pasta with parmesan cheese until it makes an incredible cheesy sauce. (More to come in Rome!) 

Two more glasses of wine later and me and Mom were stuffed to the brim. We couldn't even possible have had room for dessert. So we settled for walking home to work off the pasta we had just indulged in. Tired from the long day of site seeing and eating, we both hit our pillows hard and fell asleep with ease. Somehow a good meal always helps sleep to come a little faster. 

1 comment: