How the Amalfi Coast Keeps Drawing Us In
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 mind-set to embrace, and a hard place to come down from. (Wherever you travel after this will inevitably pale in comparison.) No matter: there’s always next year.
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, in my opinion, the Amalfi Coast’s can’t-miss experiences.
Throwing back some sea urchin
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, they’ll knock your socks off (if you’re wearing socks, which you shouldn’t be). Even better: sea urchin with spaghetti, olive oil, and often 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.
An afternoon among the fishermen of 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 one of the last costiera towns 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 ocher 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 even 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 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 martini at Palazzo Avino, Ravello
The venerable Palazzo Sasso hotel has gone through some changes of late: it’s now the Palazzo Avino, and is run by the charming Mariella Avino, eldest 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 spot to take it all in: the hotel’s Lobster & Martini Bar, a breezy terrace with a raw bar and a list of 100 cocktails. There’s no finer perch in Ravello, especially when the strains of violas waft over from nearby Villa Rufolo during the summer-long Ravello Festival.
Getting lost in the maze of Atrani
One of the coast’s great unsung villages—among the smallest municipalities 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 clock tower. Walking here from Amalfi, you drop through a trapdoor-like opening in the overpass, from which a stairwell corkscrews down to Atrani’s minuscule piazzetta. From the scalloped-stone sidewalk you can hear the Dragone River rushing underneath 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 sun-drenched shore it may be stiflingly hot, but up in these shaded alleyways, the air is cool, and the world is quiet.
Hanging with the pool guys at Hotel Santa Caterina, Amalfi
Other hotels dispatch guests to public spiaggi or to satellite beach clubs; the 111-year-old Santa Caterina is one of the only luxe properties with direct sea 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. Even uptight guests—and there are a few—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 maître d’, in his black 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 polos. “Gianluca! 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.
A long, lazy day on the rocks in Praiano
Midway between Amalfi and Positano, un-flashy 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—where the vibe is relaxed and the setting luxurious.
You’ll have to walk the long, winding path 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 Vera and Rino Milano know exactly what you crave in this setting, this weather: caper-studded snapper with 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 Marisa Cuomo Fiorduva.
Breakfast 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 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, tarts and pastries; Campanian buffalo-milk yogurt; silky house-made 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, majolica-tiled dome of Santa Maria Assunta church, shimmering in the sun.
Escaping to 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, but a world away. 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 pot smoke 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.
A ceramic pitcher appears, filled with 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 stew). 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.
Sergio 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.
Getting to know the water-taxi captains of Positano
Is there 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 1970s-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 Gio-Gio’s boat, Positano looks even more improbable, like a town-size hologram, its mountain ridge draped in clouds, with hand-of-God sun bolts bursting through. “You know,” Gio-Gio muses, as if advancing some bold position, “sometimes I think we live in a very beautiful place.”
Dining without a view
In a town where all life seems turned toward the sea, Casa Mele, located just uphill from Le Sirenuse in Positano, 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 paccheri with an umami-packed, fish-based ragù.
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 new moons), flash-fried with potatoes, garlic, and chiles.
Lunch at Lo Scoglio
But views, of course, are one big reason you came, and for that elusive combo of a swoon-worthy vista and a phenomenal meal, hire a boat or a water taxi and get yourself to Lo Scoglio, set on a 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 1953. Back then the couple lived way up the mountain in Sant’Agata. The two towns were connected only by mule tracks, and it took them an hour and a half to walk home each night. In those early days, Lo Scoglio was less a restaurant than an impromptu lunch gathering, to which Signora Antonietta would simply bring whatever she had going in the kitchen. The Onassis family were among the first paying guests. At age 86, Nonna Antonietta still presides over the restaurant from her walker or a comfy chair by the kitchen, clad head-to-toe in Juicy Couture, while her granddaughter favors Missoni and Brunello Cucinelli. (Cucinelli is a regular here.)
The raw bar alone is worth the 30-minute ride in from Positano or Capri: the jewel-like tartufi di mare, sweet local clams, served raw with a zing of lemon; pink gamberetti crudi with oranges and grapefruit and Lo Scoglio’s own olive oil; and of course the unbeatable sea urchin, with its elegant amethyst spikes.
A tour of the agricola
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 Iaccarino 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 near the hamlet of Massa Lubrense, that is arguably the Iaccarinos’ masterwork.
The 17-acre agricola—called Le Peracciole, after a local pear—tumbles down the wild, wooly, westernmost slope on the peninsula. Through sheer will and relentless sunshine, Livia and Alfonso transformed an abandoned plot into a kingdom of artichokes, favas, fennel, arugula: a veritable salad-on-a-hillside.
Livia Iaccarino 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 soon uses to play fetch with her dog. “Che bello!” she coos at a handsome rooster.
And then there are the capers. Le Peracciole’s farmhands pick five pounds of them per day off these bushes. 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 the Veneto—is the perfect Amalfi Coast cocktail. Just like Campania, it’s ingeniously uncomplicated, an elegant alchemy of sun, booze, bubbles, and citrus. All you need is Prosecco, Aperol, soda, and a nice plump orange wedge—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. Order one at even the jankiest beachfront kiosk; after one sip it will seem like the finest bar on the coast. The Aperol Spritz is 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.