Tailing just inches behind a huge tour bus for what seemed like hours twisting and turning with each hairpin curve, Paolo came to a stretch of road that finally allowed him to pass. I closed my eyes, held my breath and tried desperately to think about anywhere but where we actually were – driving to Amalfi on Costiera Amalfitana in the southern part of Campania – a perilously steep road carved out of the sides of towering coastal cliffs. One wrong move and it was a sheer 500-foot drop to the shimmering blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea below.
I marveled at how this land– so rocky, so rugged and steep – could be engineered to create the highway we were now driving on – opening up this once inaccessible area to the world and creating a tourist industry where authors the likes of John Steinbeck and Gore Vidal could extol its virtues. Steinbeck’s 1953 article “Positano” describes the Amalfi Coast’s most famous town as “a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone. Positano bites deep.” Thirty years later I felt the same sentiment, but found his description reached beyond just Positano and encompassed the whole of the coast with its beautiful hotels and villas each clinging to an imposing vertical terrain teasing you with lovely sandy beaches often far below and out of reach. The feeling of isolation is a large part of the charm of the Amalfi Coast.
Manipulating this land helped to create a thriving Campania tourist trade. The sparkling sea, the blue skies, the mild climate, the dramatic vistas had been there all along but man in all his inventive genius needed to find a way to share it with the rest of the world. And he did.
Paolo brought me to the Amalfi Coast to expand my regional understanding of Campania, though what I was looking forward to the most was the opportunity to visit Antonio Mastroberardino whose winery was, according to Paolo, “just around the bend” (though in reality it was well over an hour away). Not only do I love Mastroberardino wines but I also love Antonio. He holds a special place in my heart. Antonio himself conducted Convito’s very first wine tasting in 1980 shortly after we opened our doors. His wines were featured in our first wine display and he was the very first esteemed Italian winemaker to visit Convito. So both Paolo and I looked forward to seeing him. Already he felt like an old friend.
Beyond seeing Antonio and learning about Campania, I needed a place to catch my breath and this glistening coastal oasis seemed the perfect location to accomplish that goal. Opening our first Convito in 1980 had at times been overwhelming – its success even more so. In just two short years we realized that our 1,500 foot Wilmette location was not big enough. All departments that had contributed to our immediate success needed to expand, but our “kitchen” was the biggest problem. It soon became clear that cooking on a 4 burner electric stovetop in back of our deli could not possibly prepare all the dishes needed for the ever-growing demand for “prepared foods”… So we closed our first store and moved up the road to a 5,000 square foot recently closed chain restaurant called the Ground Round, in Plaza Del Lago, a boutique shopping mall right across from Lake Michigan. After sweeping up the signature Ground Round peanuts strew over the restaurant’s floor, we completed a major renovation and expanded all departments as well as adding a small café.
The Amalfi Coast was to be our “let’s relax and take stock” trip. The expansion was a bit of a whirlwind. Time to relax! The white-knuckle drive along the coastal highway, however, did not exactly inspire relaxation! Before this crazy “highway” was built, access to the area was mostly from the sea. Construction began in 1815 eventually connecting Positano to Vietri sul Mare a town just west of Salerno considered by many to be the starting point for a drive along the coast. It could be argued that this road is really not a highway at all, but simply a very busy two-lane street. But despite the sharp curves and tight passages, enormous buses carrying hyperventilating passengers careen these narrow roads daily eventually depositing their cargo at one of the hotels or spas in the towns and villages along the way. In high season (May to October), traffic jams are legendary, but in spite of this travelers will put up with just about anything to visit this outstanding example of Mediterranean landscape.
We reached Amalfi and checked into our hotel. It was late in the day. We wanted to visit Positano before dinner so we quickly unpacked and got back on the road. The skies were darkening. For a brief period the sky turned a peaceful, dusty navy blue then quickly the darkness of night took over. Deep purple-black mountains, steel grey skies, hillsides dotted with muted twinkling lights and a thin slice of moon perched just to the side of the mountain formed a scene reminiscent of a 1930s silhouette painting – all stylized and art deco-like.
Positano is beautiful and charming. It literally hangs on the most spectacular stretch of the Amalfi coast. Not that long ago (the 1950’s) Positano was a simple little fishing village. Now it is filled with galleries, posh shops, little boutiques and lovely cafes. We chose one with a sea view at the edge of town featuring what was described as typical Amalfi cuisine. We settled in over an amazing glass of Mastroberardino Fiano di Avellino (a flavorful, dry white wine) and began to discuss what we referred to as Convito I (since closed) and Convito II (newly opened).
When we opened our first market in 1980 we worried that maybe an Italian Gourmet Food and Wine shop was too specific. The exponential growth of Italian cuisine’s popularity had yet to reach the Midwest. As a friend said after learning of our plan, “Isn’t that a little like a surgeon deciding to specialize in knee cap surgery?”
Fortunately she was wrong. But even Paolo and I could not have predicted what turned out to be the most successful area of the store – the selection of freshly prepared salads – pasta salads, grain salads, vegetable salads mixed with all kinds of little known ingredients like pesto and balsamic vinaigrettes. In 1980 people’s idea of “take-away” food was either a bucket of deep-fried chicken or a pepperoni pizza in a cardboard box or maybe some bland coleslaw or potato salad from the deli case of a chain grocery store. Our prepared foods came as a revelation to many people who hadn’t thought it possible to get tasty, healthy and sophisticated foods to take home. We now carried both hot and cold prepared foods. When we opened Convito II in the summer of 1982 literally lines of people formed to buy our lasagnas, salads, chicken dishes and a multitude of other Italian specialties. Convito cooks toiled to keep up the demand.
I was constantly searching for new recipes and new ideas – even more so since we added a café. Campania’s many tomato-based dishes translated perfectly to our prepared food menu – dishes that required the ability to hold for a period of time without losing flavor and dishes that maintained their integrity after reheating. This region was ideal for my research.
The dish I ordered at dinner in Positano that evening found its way back to both our market and restaurant selections. I ordered Spaghetti Puttanesca. Puttanesca translates to “whore’s style pasta”. The earliest known reference of the dish was a mention in an Italian novel in 1961. Stories as to the origin of the name are quite wild but completely unsubstantiated. One story claims that it was a low priced dish offered by prostitutes to their customers in order to lure them into a house of ill repute, another that it was a dish that was saucy hot and very spicy just like the prostitutes who prepared it. To this day, the name remains a mystery, though the speculation persists
Several versions of Puttanesca can be found in this region. The version I had that evening is the one we sell at Convito to this day. After my trip, I quickly developed the recipe and added it to our sauce repertoire. (Our sauce freezer now includes 21 varieties) This recipe contains tomatoes, olive oil, black olives, capers, garlic and anchovies. A variation that we also embrace in our restaurant adds sautéed spicy shrimp as in the recipe below.
Spaghetti Puttanesca with Sautéed Spicy Shrimp
Serves 4 people
1-pound spaghetti cooked al dente
1 large clove of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1-teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
8 anchovy fillets, minced (about 4 teaspoons)
1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes with juice
1-tablespoon tomato paste
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
1/3 cup kalamata olives, chopped coarse
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the garlic, pepper flakes and anchovies. Cook for about 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in the diced tomatoes and tomato paste and simmer until sauté is thickened approximately 6 to 8 minutes. Stir the capers and olives into the sauce. Set aside to cook the pasta and the shrimp.
20 medium black tiger shrimp, peeled and deveined (about 1 pound)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Toss the shrimp with the olive oil. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, sauté the shrimp for approximately 4 minutes until cooked through. Add parsley and toss well.
Toss pasta with sauce, divide into 4 bowls and top with the shrimp.
Early the next morning we left for Avellino to visit the famous Mastroberardino vineyards. We drove in the direction of Salerno then took the “highway” to Avellino. Traffic was ridiculous but the scenery as always, was spectacular. Terraced lemon groves lined the rocky coastline all the way from Amalfi to Salerno a richly varied city considered the exact beginning of the Amalfi Coast.. Trees sprouting unusually knobby, large almost neon-yellow lemons aroused our curiosity so we stopped at a roadside stand and bought some
These huge Sorrento lemons are surprisingly sweet and are used as the flavor base for the regions most famous liqueur called Limoncello. Actually made from the zest or peels (without the pith) of the lemon, they are steeped in grain alcohol until the oil is released then mixed with a simple syrup. Limoncello is traditionally served chilled as an after-dinner digestivo in an aperitif glass. Its recent popularity in the U.S. has given rise to a number of Limoncello cocktails like the one below invented by my son-in-law, Rob Warner (also the photographer of the food shots in this blog).
Blood Orange Limoncello Cocktail
San Pellegrino Blood Orange Soda
1 lemon or orange wedge
Coat the rim of the glass with superfine sugar. Rub an orange or lemon wedge along the edge of the glass. Pour sugar in a saucer. Dip the rim of the glass into the sugar.
Mix 3 parts blood orange soda and 1 part limoncello in a shaker.
Pour drink into the sugar rimmed glass.
I was not prepared for Avellino. Situated in a plain surrounded by mountains in between Salerno and Benevento, this area has suffered from seismic activity throughout its history. Immediately upon driving into the city it was clear that its citizens were still dealing with the devastation from the 1980 earthquake four years earlier. Avellino was a wreck. Buildings were in various states of disrepair – either torn down, braced up with huge poles or in the process of being rebuilt.
The Mastroberardino winery, founded in 1878, was also severely damaged by the earthquake. But unlike many businesses and families who packed up and left the area, the Masterberardino family decided on a complete and total renovation of their historic winery and cellars. The land would not defeat this family. They would stay in their beloved region and continue to use this land, which, in so many other ways, had been so good to them.
Antonio was at the winery to greet us. He is a giant in the region – a pioneer who has used both tradition and innovation in his winemaking. Known for his production of Taurasi, a legendary red wine (one of the greats of Italy), the Mastroberardino family is also known for their work in identifying and preserving regional ancient grape varieties such as Greco and Fiano. This philosophy now known as Radici or “roots” is a trade name attached to Mastroberardino’s DOCG Taurasi.
There has to be a love/hate relationship with the land in this part of Campania. The population may suffer from volcanic activity but it also benefits from it. Thanks to dry hot summers, an abundance of sunshine, mild winters and volcanic soil, Campania produces some of the most varied wines in the world. Youthful and fruit forward, the whites from this region are know for their aromatic qualities while the reds (mainly wines made from the Aglianico grape of Taurasi fame) have big personalities and require aging. During our visit in the early eighties, the Mastroberardino winery and many other wineries of the region were just beginning to gain the respect and appreciation their wines so richly deserved. Today they still produce some of the most revered wines in Italy, but the world has caught up to our little secret and recognized their wines with awards, popularity and prices that are comparable to the best in the world
After a tour of the cantina it was time for lunch. “We will have lunch at the Hotel Jolly”, said Antonio. “It is not in disrepair, is air-conditioned and has a nice toilet where Nancy can freshen up.”
“Your reputation for going to the bathroom has preceded you,” said Paolo laughing.
We enjoyed a delicious multi-course meal accompanied by a number of Mastroberardino wines. We also delighted in “Mastroberardino compliments”. At one point Antonio said “Convito is the flower of all wine shops in America – a monument to Italian wine”. Whatever his exact words, I was more than thrilled. In 1980, there were not that many U.S. wine markets that featured fine Italian wines – at least not in the middle of the U.S. – so winemakers like Antonio were especially appreciative of shops like Convito that carried and featured their wines.
After lunch, Antonio drove us to the Greco di Tufo vineyards. Driving with Antonio was in complete contrast to driving with Paolo (a former racecar driver) “He drives like a snail”, Paolo said later. “Yes, but the drive is so much calmer for me”, I said pointing to my hands. “No white knuckles!”
We slowly made our way to the vineyards. The Tufo – actually the soil in which the Greco grape is grown – near the town of Tufo – is hard and grey-toned but according to Antonio, rich in minerals. We walked through a section of the vineyard to a point on a hill where we could see six undulating horizons – all in various shades of light green, grey and shadowy blue. I was surprised by its softness. For me the south usually conjures up images of sharp angles. Not here. In this particular corner with this particular winemaker, the view was magical just like our visit.
While Campania specializes in rugged, rocky terrain, the island of Capri, another famous and chic vacation spot located in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the Sorrentine Peninsula, is basically a large rock. Steep cliffs abound – the sides of the island as well as inland. Unlike the Amalfi Coast, Capri is not a recent destination for those in search of a glamorous and beautiful retreat. It has been one since the Roman Republic. Emperor Augustus must have decided that all the challenges of this land were worth it. He built temples, villas, aqueducts and gardens. For years it was a vacation hideaway for Roman emperors including the notorious Emperor Tiberius whose debauchery on the island became legendary. Still considered a hideaway today, the people one encounters do not include emperors (just their ruins) but rather stars, writers, and diplomats and – during the summer months – a lot of tourists.
My visit with Paolo to Capri was short but idyllic. We took the hydrofoil from Naples and arrived just in time for dinner. Sitting on the sparkling white-stuccoed terrace of our hotel (the elegant Grand Hotel Quisisana) enjoying Mediterranean breezes and the extraordinary colors of an impending sunset, we understood why so many glitterati selected this sunny island as their preferred vacation spot.
We both began our meal with Insalata Caprese, the famous tomato, basil and mozzarella appetizer that originated in Capri. Once again stories abound as to its history. Supposedly it was served to King Farooq of Egypt during one of his visits to the island. He – like most of the world – had to have been impressed by its succulent and delicious simplicity. It is the very definition of good Italian food.
Since we had opened a café at Convito II after our move, we now considered adding dishes like this one to our menu. Caprese is not something that can sit in a deli as a take-away dish. It needs to be served immediately. Simplicity always requires top quality fresh ingredients so Caprese is at its best when tomatoes are at their peak and fresh Mozzarella is available. In most of the world that is a very small window of time but in Campania home of the San Marzano tomato and fresh Mozzarella di Bufala, that window expands exponentially. In Chicago the window for excellent tomatoes begins in late summer and ends in early fall.
Mozzarella di Bufala, another of Campania’s famous products, is the fresh, soft delicate cheese made from the milk of water buffalo and meant to be eaten as soon as possible. It used to be difficult to find in Chicago. Now gourmet stores and high end grocery stores stock it regularly. Some say that real mozzarella officiantas can tell the difference between mozzarella made the night before and that made the same day. I have no such palate but true Mozzarella di Bufala is divine and worth the search for a market that carries only the freshest of ingredients.
4 – 6 servings
3 vine-ripened tomatoes, ¼ inch slices
1-pound fresh mozzarella, ¼ inch slices
20 or more leaves fresh basil
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
Layer alternating slices of tomato and fresh mozzarella with a basil leaf in between each slice. Drizzle salad with extra virgin olive oil, season with salt and pepper to taste.
Or as in the Caprese pictured, use a variety of different tomatoes of different sizes and different colors. The most important fact is that the tomatoes are picked at the height of the season. Preferably use fresh Mozzarella di Bufala and a high quality olive oil. We used a drizzle of reduced Balsamic Vinegar, which adds a nice touch although I prefer Caprese with just olive oil.
I awoke the next morning to the sun streaming into my hotel room. The air was cool. I met Paolo for breakfast after which we took a very long and sometimes arduous hike on one of the public footpaths through winding narrow passageways, descending then ascending – sometimes on steep stone stairs. Lizards scurrying across the ground proudly donning bright green new suits were everywhere as were bees buzzing happily enjoying the nectar of newly blossomed spring flowers. The scenery was incredible.
Transparent bright blue waters lay below us, gently brushing the rocky coastline. Soft, low shrubbery covered the ground. Only the strong pine trees had the strength and effort to withstand the sometimes-fierce island winds. We came across three spurs of large rocks jutting out of the sea forming the symbol of Capri. This legendary trio of sea giants is called the Capri Faraglioni said to have been created by the erosive action of the wind and the sea.
Midday we took a bus down to Marina Piccola to have lunch. Even close to the sea the sun was hot. We selected a little café right at the edge of the water. Paolo ordered a marvelous risotto with a mixture of clams, shrimp, mussels and squid. I ordered the fish of the day. The fish – a kind of bass – tasted as if it had just jumped from the sea onto my plate passing only briefly for a quick grill along the way. Brushed with olive oil, maybe a touch of vinegar, fresh herbs and a sprinkling of chili pepper flakes then finally garnished with paper-thin slices of grilled lemon, it was one of the best fish dishes I have ever tasted.
We both enjoyed a glass of local friendly, easy-going wine called Capri Bianco described by our waiter as “full of sun and flavor”.
When I think of Campania, I think of the land – of Mount Vesuvius whose large eruptions can cause death and destruction one day yet leave behind soil so rich in minerals from its deposits of volcanic ash and cinder that vineyards and vegetable crops flourish leaving those very people who have suffered from its fury to enjoy its bounty. I also think of towering cliffs and rocky, craggy terrain – and of all the work, engineering and ingenuity that has gone into sculpting these already beautiful havens into areas that provide an income to the people of Campania and a playground to the thousands of tourists who visit each year.
Campania is an amazing region – full of contrasts and high drama. It is a region rich in history, famous for its beloved food and the most traveled to of any of Italy’s southern regions. I always came away from it inspired and full of ideas for new dishes. It is my kind of food region – very tomatoy, robust, yet simple. I will remember it for many things – certainly its food and wine but also as the rocky retreat where Paolo and I were finally able to take a breath from our frenetic Convito expansion in one of the most breathless scenic areas of Italy. And truth be told we did spend a bit of time discussing future projects and possibilities – hard to resist when one feels so relaxed and is visiting the very region that defines the word possibility.