Originally published in Travel + Leisure, August 2015.
IT'S ALL HERE, looking entirely as it should, as it always has. The cove-hidden beaches reached only by boat. The terraced lemon and olive groves on near-vertical hillsides. The glittering clifftop resorts; the pierside tavernas serving just-caught tartufi di mare and just-picked pomodori e melanzane; and the Cubist-painting townscapes—Ravello, Amalfi, Praiano, Positano, Nerano—overlooking the Gulf of Salerno, nattily threaded together by one of the world’s most spectacular roads. If you’re returning after many seasons away, it will be just as you remember it. And if you’re arriving on the Amalfi Coast for the very first time—lucky you—the very sight could make you laugh out loud at how absurdly, exactly right it all seems.
La Costiera Amalfitana is both a location and a worldview, international shorthand for a lifestyle at once endlessly sophisticated and effortlessly simple. It’s an easy mindset to embrace, and a hard place to come down from. (Wherever you travel next will inevitably pale in comparison.) No matter: there’s always next year.
Last September, I spent two weeks exploring the peninsula by bike, scooter, open-top cab, rented Mercedes, pedalo, inflatable dinghy, 1972 Riva speedboat, hydrofoil, yacht, water-taxi, and in the muddy backseat of a farmer’s Fiat Panda. Searching for the people and places that define the costiera now, I revisited old classics and unearthed new and unsung favorites. Here are my can’t-miss experiences.
Ricci di mare
Take away Campania and Italy would be a sad, sorry place, not least at the table. Some of the finest iterations of essential Italian ingredients hail from the region around Amalfi: olives, figs, eggplants, peaches, carciofi, lemons, tomatoes. You will eat extremely well here if you resist the siren song of gussied-up northern Italian and stick to simple, fresh, Campanian cuisine.
You will taste face-smackingly sharp wild arugula, the peppery O.G. stuff that makes lesser arugula seem like a chopped-up photocopy. You will discover the revelation of pezzogna, a moist and flaky spotted bream unique to these waters, which needs only a coaxing of flame, olive oil, and lemon to make it leap from the plate.
You will also be tempted to sample the local sea urchin, known as ricci di mare. Do not—repeat—do not embark on this lightly. The sea urchin here will spoil you on all shellfish for life. Sample one and you may wind up ditching your job and family, renting a seaside hut in Nerano, and learning to free-dive, subsisting on ricci alone. Eaten raw, it’ll knock your socks off (if you’re wearing socks, which you shouldn’t be). Even better: sea urchin with spaghetti, olive oil, and slow-roasted tomato, the uni folded gently into the pasta to form a creamy, briny emulsion. (A pinch of peperoncino makes it sing.) Spaghetti con ricci di mare is Amalfi in a bowl, and thankfully it’s near-ubiquitous here: try it at Lo Scoglio in Marina del Cantone, Il Pirata in Praiano, and Acqua Pazza in Cetara.
The town of Cetara’s singularity is clear the moment you enter the harbor, where fisherman’s dinghies jostle for position with tuna trawlers (and the occasional brave windsurfer). This is the last costiera town where fishing, not tourism, is still the primary trade. Sloping up from the harbor to the hills, Cetara’s main street is lined with marine supply stores, crumbling ochre mansions, and dark, cavelike bars, outside which sit men with sea-gouged, sun-blasted faces. (The town retains a confounding local dialect; some older residents don’t speak standard Italian.) From the shady portico of Acqua Pazza, the town’s best restaurant, you can watch the Cetarese day unfold over a lunch of all-local seafood: tender orata (another sea bream), ricciola (amberjack), octopus, and, not least, alici (anchovies). The alici caught off this coast are smaller and saltier than most, making them perfect fodder for Cetara’s renowned colatura, or anchovy oil. Layers of salted fish ferment for months inside chestnut barrels, producing a rich, amber-colored distillate as powerful as any Asian fish sauce. (Cetarese families exchange precious vials of colatura as Christmas gifts.) Acqua Pazza’s owner, Gennaro Castiello, makes and sells a particularly fine colatura himself, a few drops of which can and should be added to every dish on the menu, from the anchovy crostini to the crudo di pesce with oysters, amberjack, and sweet white shrimp.
A recital at Villa Rufolo, Ravello
The Ravello Festival isnow in its sixty-second summer, and although it’s expanded beyond classical music to include jazz, dance, theater, art, and literature—with events staged all around town—the main draw is still the evening (and occasionally sunrise) concert series on the grounds of the 13th-century Villa Rufolo. The stage itself nearly steals the show, cantilevered over a clifftop, dangling 1,000 feet up, with only sky and sea beyond.
The wines of Marisa Cuomo
From indigenous grapes grown in mountaintop vineyards not far from Ravello—some on terraces so steep mules can’t negotiate them—Marisa Cuomo and her husband Andrea Ferraioli craft some of Campania’s most graceful wines. The Fiorduva, their signature white, is an unorthodox blend of Ripoli, Fenile, and Ginestra. (Find that anywhere else in Italy, at a level this good.) Harvested in late October, the over-ripe grapes carry notes of tropical fruit, honey, and spice, with briny hints of salt air; the wine goes beautifully with everything you want to eat on the Amalfi Coast.
The bar at Palazzo Avino, Ravello
The venerable Palazzo Sasso hotel has gone through some changes of late: it’s now the Palazzo Avino, and run by the charming Mariella Avino, oldest daughter of the original owner. Next door to the glammed-out Belmond Hotel Caruso, the more intimate Avino still holds prime vantage, with views of both mountains and sea. Now there’s a chic new spot to take it all in: the hotel’s Lobster & Martini Bar, a breezy terrace with a raw bar and a list of 80 martinis. There’s no finer perch in Ravello, especially when the strains of violas waft over from nearby Villa Rufolo.
Getting lost in the maze of Atrani
One of the coast’s great unsung villages—the smallest municipality in Italy, with only 1,000 residents—lies around the bluff from crowded Amalfi, which busies itself oblivious to its sleepy neighbor. Atrani is used to being overlooked: the main coastal road sails right over it, three stories up, at eye level with the church clocktower. Walking here from Amalfi, you drop through a trapdoor-like opening in the overpass, from which a stairwell descends to Atrani’s minuscule piazzetta. Under the scalloped-stone sidewalk you can hear the Torrente Dragone river rushing to the sea, and scarcely detect the whoosh of traffic above.
The townscape resembles a pile of Jenga blocks that were tossed down the hillside by some hell-bent medieval baby. Atrani is not as fastidiously maintained as its wealthier neighbors, and that’s integral to its charm. The upper reaches are a mapmaker’s nightmare and a traveler’s dream; you can lose yourself for hours in the labyrinth of staircases and narrow passaggi, just you and the cats weaving among the laundry lines. Down on the sundrenched shore it may be stiflingly hot, but up in these shaded alleyways, the air is cool, and Atrani is as quiet as a sleeping toddler.
The pool guys at Hotel Santa Caterina, Amalfi
Other luxe hotels dispatch guests to public spiaggi or to satellite beach clubs; the 111-year-old Santa Caterina is the costiera’s only top-end property with direct ocean access. And what a spot it is: 10 stories below the lobby (reachable by a glass elevator worthy of a Bond villain), the HSC pool deck may be the most transformative 2,000 square feet in Amalfi, a veritable spa without treatments, unless waves and saltwater count. Even the most uptight guests—and there are a few here—are rendered spaghetti-soft within minutes of arrival.
The attendants are half the reason. While the staff upstairs are old-school formal—like Pino, the maitre d’, in his ivory dinner jacket, and the hotel pianist, also named Pino, glissandoing his way through “Arthur’s Theme”—the pool guys josh around like a coupla Bensonhurst standups, all tan and buff in their insignia’d polos. “Luca! Sergio! Per favore, another shakerato!” the ladies cry, batting eyes at their game hosts, who grin as if they can’t believe their luck, working in a place like this. Small wonder nobody wants to leave.
Lunch on the rocks in Praiano
Midway between Amalfi and Positano, unflashy Praiano—population 2,069—is as tall as it is wide, its dwellings clinging like mollusks to the slopes of 3,500-foot Monte Tre Pizzi. Tucked into a ravine at the base of the mountain is a natural harbor with a fine cove beach. And set right above it, on a series of platforms built into the rocks, is the restaurant Il Pirata—the Pirate— which has a vibe as relaxed as the setting is luxurious.
You’ll have to walk 300+ winding steps down from the parking lot; once you’re here you’ll want to hang around all day, hiking around the cove, swimming in the blue-green sea, then drying off over lunch at Il Pirata. Owners Enza and Rino Milano know exactly what you crave in this setting, this weather: caper-studded snapper with Enza’s roasted patate; cuttlefish with walnut, celery, and radicchio; the aforementioned spaghetti with sea urchin; cold local wine; and a chummy waiter who, after the crowd thins out, might pull up a chair to help you finish that bottle of Fiano.
Breakfasts at Le Sirenuse, Positano
At Positano’s most storied hotel, your morning paper is not hung on the doorknob but delivered straight to your breakfast table, with your room number written on top. They know you’ll be there—nobody skips breakfast at Le Sirenuse.
Two entire sun-flooded rooms are given over to the morning spread, so gorgeously displayed you’ll think you’ve crashed a wedding brunch: bright-blue ceramic bowls of peaches, plums, strawberries, and honey-sweet figs; a dozen tortas, cakes, and pastries; Campanian buffalo-milk yogurt; silky housemade ricotta and stracciatella; a whole color wheel of freshly made juices. And right outside the windows, as an eye-jolting backdrop, the gold-and-green, maiolica-tiled dome of Santa Maria Assunta church, shimmering in the sun.
Shopping in Positano
It’s tricky navigating the corkscrewing streets of Positano, and not just for those vain enough to insist on wearing heels. These days, the coast’s most famous resort town is equal parts camera-ready and kitschy, and you never know which side you’ll come upon next. Expecting a Mastroianni movie set, you might instead stumble into a shop selling cut-rate limoncello to noisy tour groups. Fortunately, that stylish Positano still exists, if you know where to look. Start with Casa e Bottega, a bijou café-and-design shop that opened in 2013 and was quickly embraced by Posi locals. The bakery turns out terrific pastries, almond cakes, and lemon tortas. While you wait, you can browse the well-edited shelves of textiles, kitchenwares, ceramics, and bags to the soundtrack of cool 1950s bebop. Just across the road from Le Sirenuse is Emporio Sirenuse, a boutique curated by Carla Sersale, the wife of Antonio, Le Sirenuse’s owner, and the woman behind the hotel’s timeless, global-chic style. You’ll find the hotel’s same whimsically off-kilter tumblers; the chiffon dresses and silk caftans that form the uniforms of the jet set from here to Marbella; colorful Persian suzani tapestries; and straw hats that define the term “jaunty.” Plus the full line of Le Sirenuse’s signature fragrances (like the bergamot-and-blackcurrant-spiced Eau d’Italie) that make everyone across the street—guests and staff alike—smell so damn good.
The beach at Laurito Cove
Inaccessible by road, only nominally reachable on foot, the cliff-sheltered beach at Laurito Cove is a 10-minute boat ride from Positano’s main pier. The moment your launch pulls up to the dock, you’ll cast aside all misconceptions about the vaunted fanciness of the Amalfi Coast: kids leap off boulders into the surf, while a hint of potsmoke wafts up from the pebble beach, where regulars recline on weatherbeaten folding lettini.
The beach is incentive to come; the reason to stay is lunch at Da Adolfo, whose lean-to assemblage is as scrappy as Laurito Cove itself. At one table, a tattooed dad and his teenage son are peeling peaches with their own jackknives. They arrived shirtless, in Speedos, carrying only a dry bag. (Bring a swimsuit, a towel, and a wad of Euros, and you too will be set for the day.)
A ceramic pitcher appears, filled with ice, white wine, and sliced peaches, which suddenly seems like the best possible way to drink wine. Later will come tangy mozzarella grilled on lemon leaves, perhaps a spicy zuppa di cozze (mussels in tomato sauce). The basket of insipid bread makes no sense until the cozze arrive, then it all becomes clear. There might be butter-soft octopus salad, or sun-warmed figs draped in prosciutto. The figs, your waiter informs you, were grown by a local woman named Margherita, who happens to be right over there, smoking and chatting with Sergio Bella, Da Adolfo’s owner.
Bella is built like a linebacker, and has a manner that flips between cuddly and linebacker-y, mostly the latter. He took over the joint from his dad, Adolfo, who opened the place almost 50 years ago. Adolfo met Sergio’s mother on the beach in Positano in the 1960s; she was a Brooklyn girl on vacation. Enchanted, she stayed on, then stayed some more, eventually settling here for good. She didn’t return to New York for 25 years, not even to collect her things. Listening to Sergio tell the tale, you might wonder if you could pull off the same disappearing act.
The water-taxi captains of Positano
I’ve yet to encounter a more satisfying mode of transit than the iconic motoscafo. Positano water-taxi skippers are chattier than London cabbies, and far nattier, in their suede drivers and peach linen pants. The best of them have ridiculous 70s-pop-idol hair and look like they’d rather be shirtless. (Some already are.) Standing straight up, holding perfect balance as their skiffs bounce like beach balls in the wakes of yachts, they hold forth on any number of subjects in broken English, French, or German, but mostly in insouciant Italian.
Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to catch a ride with Gio-Gio, a twentysomething Positanese given to blasting late-period Michael Jackson, which only Italians can pull off. From his boat, Positano looks even more improbable, like a town-sized hologram, its mountain ridge draped in cappuccino-foam clouds, with hand-of-god sunbolts bursting through. “You know,” Gio-Gio muses, as if advancing some bold position, “sometimes I think we live in a very beautiful place.”
A lemon granita at Pasticceria La Zagara, Positano
Come mid-afternoon, when the heat and sunshine begin taking their toll, make your way down Via dell Mullini to the unassuming bakery-café Pasticceria La Zagara, and get yourself a lip-curlingly tart lemon granita. (Zagara means lemon blossom; as everyone knows, Amalfitana lemons are unbefreakinglievable.) More bracing than a triple espresso, a single granita will shock you happily awake for the remainder of the day.
The terrace at Villa Tre Ville
The seaside estate of Franco Zeffirelli may have been the director’s greatest stage set. Occupying a private bluff at a cool remove from Positano, it has sweeping views of the town spiaggia and the upended bowl of Posi itself. In 2010 it was converted into an exclusive, 15-suite hotel, Villa Tre Ville, where rooms are named for Zeffirelli’s famous house guests: Bernstein, Nijinsky, Callas-Tosca. With its overgrown allées, wisteria trellises, and silk globe lanterns swaying in the breeze, Tre Ville looks particularly cinematic in the golden hour of late afternoon, the ideal time to stop in for a drink on one of the many sea-facing terraces—if you’re not already staying here yourself.
Dining without a view
In a town where all life seems turned toward the sea, Casa Mele, located just uphill from Le Sirenuse, is on the “wrong” (inland) side of the street, with no view and hardly any windows. It compensates with a playfully mod interior that looks as if it were designed by Alessi. A sleek Berkel meat-slicer is parked by the open kitchen, gleaming like a cherry-red Lamborghini. The plates, too, are visual statements: a deconstructed caprese salad comes stacked like chunky jewelry, laced up with ribbons of basil chiffonade. Flavors are as bold as the design, like the toothsome paccheri pasta with an umami-packed, fish-based ragu.
In fact, looking for an inauspicious location can be an effective strategy for choosing your meals here. Some of the costiera’s best restaurants have no actual view of the coast: places like A’Paranza, a convivial seafood restaurant hidden in a vaulted Atrani basement. Or Da Vincenzo, across town from Casa Mele, which serves Praianese-style totani e patate: meaty, earthy “flying squid” (a curious, reddish-hued variety fished during full moons), flash-fried with potatoes, red onion, garlic, and chilli.
A long, lazy afternoon at Lo Scoglio
But views, of course, are one big reason you came, and for that elusive combo of a swoonworthy view and a phenomenal meal, hire a boat or a water-taxi and get yourself to Lo Scoglio, set on a wooden pier above the harbor (with a beach on either side) in Marina del Cantone, a humble village near the peninsula’s western tip.
“Simple, authentic, no fireworks,” is how Antonia De Simone, the ever-smiling hostess, describes the food, which has remained pretty much the same since her grandparents opened the place in 1958. Back then the couple lived up the mountain in Sant’Agata, and the towns were connected only by mule tracks along the steep mountainside; it took them two hours to walk home each night. In those early days, Lo Scoglio was less a restaurant than an impromptu lunch gathering, to which Signora Antoinetta would simply bring whatever she had going in the kitchen. The Onassis family were among the first paying guests. At age TK#, Nonna Antonietta still presides over the restaurant from her walker or a comfy chair by the kitchen, clad in Juicy Couture during the day, Missoni or Brunello Cucinelli in the evenings. (Cucinelli is a regular here.)
The raw bar alone is worth the 45-minute ride in from Positano or Capri: the jewel-like tartufi di mare, a.k.a. Venus clams, served raw with a zing of lemon, or cooked, atop a tangle of spaghetti; blood-red gamberetti crudi with oranges and grapefruit and Lo Scoglio’s own olive oil; and of course the unbeatable sea urchin, with their long elegant spikes the color of amethyst.
Before your meal, take a stroll around funky little Marina del Cantone, a family-holiday idyll that itself feels like a throwback to 1958. Stop in at Il Piccolo Positano in the center of town and be fit for custom sandals; they’ll be ready after lunch.
Le Peracciole farm, Massa Lubrense
By now you’ve heard of Don Alfonso 1890, the Michelin-starred restaurant-and-hotel in the town of Sant’Agata. Owners Alfonso and Livia Iacono were pioneers in the revival of Campanian cuisine. Four decades on, their restaurant is everything you want it to be and then some, with its gaudy pink plaster, pistachio chintz, and Murano chandeliers. But it’s the family farm, a short drive away, that is arguably the Iaconos’ masterwork.
The 17-acre agricola—called Le Peracciole, after a wild local pear—tumbles down the wild, wooly, westernmost slope on the peninsula, below the tiny hamlet of Massa Lubrense. Through sheer will and relentless sunshine, Livia and Alfonso transformed an abandoned plot into a kingdom of pomegranates, artichokes, favas, fennel, arugula: a veritable salad-on-a-hillside, all of it organically grown. Over this gnarly domain presides Sabatino, the resident bull, who spends his sunsplashed days feasting on figs while enjoying a view of Capri across the channel.
Livia Iacono is now a youthful 65. Striding through the agricola, she’s still amazed at her good fortune, to have found and conquered this place, 25 years ago. Look! Look! she cries as she shows off her fields, her flocks, her 500-year-old olive trees. “Mamma mia!” Livia swoons over a lemon the size of a grapefruit, which she uses to play fetch with her dog. “Che bello!” she coos at a handsome rooster. Straight out, in every direction, is the endless shimmering sea. “In that spot there,” Livia says, pointing just offshore, “the dolphins like to dance for us.”
And then there are the capers. Le Peracciole’s farmhands pick three kilos of capers per day off these bushes, one by one by one by one. Their fragrance is astonishing. Indeed, you could make a meal of the smells here alone, wafting up from basil, lavender, marjoram, and tomato plants. Fortunately, there’s a whole kitchen crew waiting to feed you back at Don Alfonso.
The perfect alchemy of an Aperol spritz, anywhere
Make your case for the Negroni, the Boulevardier, or the Americano if you must, but the Aperol spritz—albeit born in Venice—is the perfect Amalfi Coast cocktail. Why? Because just like Campania, it’s ingeniously uncomplicated, an elegant alchemy of sun, booze, bubbles, and citrus. All you need is prosecco, Aperol, soda, and the wedge of a nice plump orange—maybe an olive if you’re feeling bold—plus an ample chilled glass to serve it in.
It’s near-impossible to screw up an Aperol Spritz. (As a bartender friend says, “It’s not rocket science, but it’s goddamned brilliant.”) Order one at even the jankiest beachfront kiosk; after one sip it will seem like the finest bar on the coast. The Aperol Spritz foolproof, as foolproof as Amalfi itself.
“Due spritz, per favore,” you’ll find yourself saying, often and with impeccable inflection. And then again. And maybe again after that. Salute.