Early morning and we are on our way. On the high speed Frecciarossa train to Naples, the conductor informs us that we have not entered our travel details into our pre-purchased tickets, and are fined 50 Euros. I am a confused, blonde, Canadian journalist and don’t understand. He negates the fine and I agree to be complimentary about the cooperative Italian Rail System and its charming conductors.
On the drive to Don Alfonso 1890, the Relais & Chateaux in Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi near Naples, every curve of the road is a scenic picture postcard. Off the beaten track, yet, it is a significant destination for the sophisticated, international gastronome. First, a welcome drink of almond milk and orange in the library, and we are escorted to our dramatic fuchsia, pink and white suite. The brilliant colours of nature have been transported to the joyful décor, the floors are white ceramic tile, laid in a herringbone pattern, and the chandeliers, artfully arranged clutches of driftwood. We’re having some fun tonight. Giuseppe di Martini, the owner of Pastificio dei Campi in Gragnano has invited us to a classic Sorrento pizza joint, Pizzeria da Franco. But first, champagne and hors d’oeuvres in the library before dinner, to get acquainted with the renowned Iaccarino family—Alfonso, Livia, Ernesto and Mario—is a worthy tradition.
A short drive to Sorrento and we are here, and classic it is. Wooden communal tables and benches are filled with young people and the local carabinieri. Order pizza at 25 Euros per metre, and you get plastic forks and knives too. A sheet of parchment paper holds sliced prosciutto, cheese and our pizza. Limoncello and homemade chocolate with toasted hazelnuts is the dessert du jour. After a fascinating tour of the Pastificio dei Campi plant, Giuseppe takes us to one of his favourite places for lunch, La Bottega Di Nonna Vittoria in Gragnano, owned by a sister and brother who clearly have a sincere love of food. Walking through this fine food emporium/deli, we admire the sparkling glass jars of exotic foods—rum babas in limoncello, chocolate and candy, coolers filled with charcuterie and cheeses unique to the region. In the rear, beautiful wood tables invite to sit and enjoy the freshly baked bread, sumptuous rounds of buffalo mozzarella, goat cheeses and bresaola, prosciutto, copious glasses of wine and pasta with cheese.
The next morning, I discover the breakfast area of the dining room at the Don Alfonso. Deliberately dramatic, the hot pink, tangerine and all of nature’s bright colours bloom on décor and local ceramics. There are no notions of a quick cuppa, eating and running. Today, the ever cheerful and hospitable patroness Livia is escorting us on a tour of Punta Campanella, the family farm. Some farm. The zigzag road is the width of a city sidewalk. The farm occupies a hillside and a cliff on the sea, a short boat ride across to Capri. We wander through the groves of lemon trees, eat tiny San Marzano tomatoes and kumquats from the vines and admire the bright plumage of her chickens. We breathe deeply. Lemon grass, rosemary, thyme. Nose, mouth and sensibilities enjoy these few hours of nature. And I am even becoming accustomed to standing at the edge of a cliff.
Don Alfonso says that he received his Michelin stars for his spaghetti with tomato sauce, but there is much more to his Italian tiled kitchen. In the dining room, the sommelier wines the glasses before pouring; the waiter changes the napkin with fork and spoon between courses. Every dish is “local” and reminds you of where you are. Irpinia beef sirloin in a turmeric salt crust is an innocent excess. Fleur de sel is mixed with egg white and turmeric, wrapped around perfect beef filets and baked to thrill us with its vibrant colour and flavour. Pastiera soufflé made of cooked wheat and orange blossom sauce intoxicates. Fanciful friandise beg us to linger and talk and taste another wine, and another from their vast cellar.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.