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Eat Like a Local in Italy

Group dining at Al Convento, in the Amalfi Coast village 
of Cetara

Photo: Simon Watson

Following Bonci, young Italian bakers have gone crazy for sourdough leavening. Lievito naturale—passed down from the owner’s family—is what raises the buttery cream-filled cornetti at Cristalli di Zucchero to stratospheres above all other breakfast pastries in town. For years sweet-toothed Romans trekked to the owners’ original pasticceria in the outlying Monteverde district. The new branch is barely a truffle toss from the Campidoglio, and inside, jewellike pastries marry French techniques with local ingredients.

Our time’s almost up in Rome. But how can we leave without paying respects to the monumentally chewy pizza bianca at Antico Forno Roscioli, by the Campo de Fiori? “Una droga” is how one customer praises this pizza, its distinctive crust formed when the six-foot oblongs of dough rest under a glazing of olive oil. We chew it on the two-hour train ride to Naples the next day.

Pasta, Tomatoes, and Anchovies in Campania

“Enzo Coccia!” roared Bonci when I asked who’s the greatest pizzaiolo in Naples. And so here we are in the tony Posillipo quarter at Pizzeria La Notizia, where il grande Coccia bakes his featherlight pies. Perfection, so he explains to us, relies on the complicated calibration of a mere trace of yeast, a 10- to 14-hour fermentation at room temperature (no refrigerators in the 1730’s, when pizza was born), and extra-loose dough. Ninety seconds in an 815-degree oak-and beech-fueled inferno, and the pies practically levitate onto the table, attractively blistered and honeycombed with tiny air bubbles—as essential to pizza greatness as marbling is to Kobe beef. The toppings are scant and expressive: bitter greens, smoked buffalo provala, a burst of Vesuvian pomodorini. A pizza bianca with a schmear of lard, basil, and pecorino is Coccia’s tribute to the pre-tomato age.

The next day we hit the road, pressing south past Vesuvius, emerging an hour later at Vico Equense, a picturesque town on the Sorrentine Peninsula that travelers normally bypass for Positano. In so doing they miss the region’s most remarkable food shop. At La Tradizione, product curators Annamaria Cuomo and Salvatore Da Gennaro have assembled a wonderland of Campanian foodstuffs: San Marzano tomatoes handpicked in the Vesuvian soil; ricotta smoked over juniper; and the sack-shaped local raw cow’s-milk cheese provolone del Monaco, which Salvatore ages in caves and grottoes.

The Da Gennaros take us in hand. First, spongy limoncello-soaked baby babas at Gelateria Latteria Gabriele, which Cuomo’s family owns. Then lunch at ’E Curti, an osteria in the shadow of Vesuvius, where super-mamma Angela Ceriello cooks regional soul food and her son Enzo D’Alessandro produces nucillo, a potent walnut digestivo. His is so terroir-driven, the slender bottles specify the exact sites where the nuts were picked. I mention Gragnano (epicenter for centuries of Italy’s dried durum-wheat pasta production). Presto: Salvatore whisks us off to the sunblasted town where pastas were once hung to dry along the main street.

For dinner, the Da Gennaros drive us along a bit of hairpin Amalfi Coast road to Cetara. This is probably the last of the Amalfi villages to fully retain its salty traditional air and livelihood from anchovies—particularly their amber liquid by-product, colatura. Pasquale Torrente, owner of Al Convento restaurant, describes colatura-making with a semi-pagan glee: the fishing under a spring moon, the curing in barrels with chestnuts or lemons. The essence that seeps out of the salted fish is pure distillate of sea—added by expensive dropfuls to pastas such as Al Convento’s al dente Gragnano spaghetti.

Campania’s product and restaurant boom owes thanks to Livia and Alfonso Iaccarino, of the Michelin two-starred Don Alfonso 1890 restaurant, in Sant’Agata sui due Golfi, overlooking the Gulf of Naples. The Iaccarinos—who also consult at the excellent restaurant at Le Sirenuse, in Positano—pioneered the organic kitchen garden in Europe almost three decades ago. They’re producers, too—of ethereal olive oils and limoncello with three times the average of infused citrus. Tumbling into the Mediterranean at the steep far tip of the Sorrentine Peninsula, their farm, Le Peracciole, was scrappy bare land when they bought it in 1990; turning it fertile has been an ongoing obsession. Livia drives us over, negotiating switchbacks with the sea down below. Then we wander on foot past olive trees and artichoke thistles, into a world of Amalfi lemons dangling from trellises. We gape at chalky-gray Capri, rising across from us in the twilight. “Gee, I’d buy here, too,” gulps Barry as Livia picks greens for a salad.

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