Out of Soho: Part 1 Amalfi

Amalfi is a busy focal point on the Cost’Amalfitano, one of the most beautiful inhabited landscapes, its problem being its busyness, especially during the Neapolitan Ferragosto.  Normally quiet roads are jammed, but the food, the weather, and the absence of other Brits is  compelling.

A visit to the Trattoria da Barracca is a must. Originally described not as a trattoria but as Casalinga da Barraca, the home cooking of Barracca satisfied my hunger for authentic southern Italian food in the days before there were Italian restaurants, even, in London, which served the real thing.  On my first visit I fell in love with quiet operatic piazzetta, created by tall buildings coloured by muted peeling paints, and was charmed by its lack of custom, a fish soup to die for, and the cats scavenging round my ankles.  Today, Bartolo Amandolo and his brothers have the thriving business they deserve.  No-one passes and is not seduced by its menu and its charm.  A simple crostino of chopped fresh tomatoes and white anchovies sharpens the appetite for what follows: either fresh grilled fish in local herbs or southern pastas, spicy spaghetti arrabiata, sea fragrant sword fish and courgette fusilli, frittura mista or grillata.  With a crisp Falanghina it’s hard not to plan how soon you could return before you leave the table, and I do.

But within easy reach of Amalfi is Trattoria da Armandino in Praino.  Thank you Mary for this recommendation.  Praino sits in a cleft of the coastal cliffs, halfway between Amalfi and Positano, and below Furore, almost unobservable from the road above or even from the sea.  We arranged for their boat to pick us up from Amalfi.  Italians love their uniforms and two smart boatmen in white shorts and bright red jerkins appeared in a sparkling white inflatable for the bouncing twenty minute ride past Sophia Loren’s seaside villa, deserted daytime beaches, and a romantically weathered arch of stone.  Eventually the little seaside mini hamlet appears in the dusk.

In the summer. all tables are outside, and within seconds of sitting down the menu appears with a jug of local white wine stuffed with thin wedges of white peaches.  Four of us shared Italian anti pasta of mista di pesce, and mista di verdure.  Enough for a meal, we were high on the weather, our company, the setting, and the peachy wine; we ordered another mista di verdure. For the secondo we all ate risotto al limone e gamberini.  This was served in a shell of baked parmesan.  The prawns were small sweet and chopped the lemon fragrance was delicate and more than seductive.  Following more jugs of wine we finished with more lemon dishes, but then Amalfi lemons are the best there are.  Profiteroles al limone and Deliziosa di limone did not disappoint.  This is a step up from Barracca but worth the journey and it sits in my heart in the cold days of a northern European winter.

And then there was more.  Following years of predictable visits to favourite restaurants I decided to try a beach restaurant: the Ristorante Marina Grande.  There are four beach restaurants in Amalfi.  The menus look similar and there is no big marina, so it was by luck that we uncovered a new favourite. We went for lunch and returned the same day for dinner.  The beach section is small but their beach paraphernalia is the best.  Their livery meaning tablecloths napkins and beach towels and equipment are all brilliant white with black piping; the beach beds of cane and raffia you might find in the best spa, are covered in the thickest and fluffiest white towels I have seen in a long time.  Lunch was simple, a spinach salad and truly good pizza.  They promised more and so it was that night.

This was a bar in 1918, now it is an unmissable restaurant on the sea.  I was told that the night before our visit the New York Times food critic had identified himself, so impressed was he.  Me too. First an amuse bouche; a crochettino of parma ham and mashed potato covered in bread crumbs died black with cuttlefish ink set atop a dribble of spuma di ricotta.  It was only three centimetres but so impressive, and so original.  Home made bread was provided in a reticule and partly for fun, and munching eighteen inch grissini, black and white.  The sense of theatre overcame pretension.  I know it’s a cliché but I really had thought I had died and gone to heaven.  Then the food:  we shared an antipasta of cod carpaccio, marinated prawns and, bacalha crostino.  For secondi we could not resist two pastas.  They were both agnolotti, V’s stuffed with scarola in an octopus ragu, and mine stuffed with Ischian rabbit.  As if this were not enough there were two pudding courses. A fondant of pina colada followed by peaches (again) macerated in white wine with peach zabaglione.  This is a restaurant to remember and I can’t wait to return.

Remember Amalfi is not supposed to be, a smart resort.  What food, what beauty, what wine, and what weather!

Johnny

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