Originally published in Saveur, March 2015
"PER FAVORE—TRY," says Gennaro Castiello, dipping an eyedropper into a tincture of amber liquid. “You need not too much.” Just three drops is plenty, it turns out: three glistening orbs that dissolve into a twirled forkful of linguine. Each tiny teardrop is improbably dense with fragrant, salty funk—a white-dwarf star of salinity that goes supernova on the tongue.
Castiello smiles and hands over the bottle. It’s filled with his colatura di alici, a distillate of salted and preserved anchovies that’s a specialty of this southernmost corner of the Amalfi Coast. Colatura bears some resemblance to pungent Asian fish sauces, but it’s richer and more refined than Vietnamese nuoc mam or Thai nam plaa. (It’s actually a descendant of the ancient Roman fish oil known as garum.) And every Italian knows that the finest colatura di alici comes from Cetara, the sundrenched village Castiello calls home.
While neighboring resort towns like Positano gave up on fishing long ago, Cetara remains a center of the anchovy trade. In its busy marina, rusty-hulled fishing vessels dwarf pleasure boats; forklifts outnumber Vespas. It’s here in a grotto-like basement that Castiello distills his phenomenally good colatura, which he serves and sells at Acqua Pazza, his excellent seafood restaurant next door.
Anchovies are caught off Cetara’s coast between March and July. They’re cleaned (heads and entrails removed) and placed in alternating layers with sea salt in keg-sized chestnut barrels called terzigni. Each barrel is covered with a wooden disk or tompagno, atop which is set a heavy stone to compress the contents. Eighteen months later, a hole is drilled in the base of the barrel, and out drips the colatura—100 pounds of anchovies makes a gallon and a half of the stuff. The Cetarese like to mix colatura into pasta with olive oil and garlic, adding a wallop of briny, mouth-filling umami. When you lift your fork to your lips there’s a brief moment of panic—Something’s wrong, your brain says, are we drowning?—that is quickly replaced by the sensation that everything is utterly, irrefutably right. And then you want some more. •
Acqua Pazza, Corso Garibaldi 38, Cetara, Italy; www.acquapazza.it; +33-89/26-16-06.