We begin to understand Italy’s five minute rule. By the time we reach Ravello, we’ve been in Italy fourteen days, and something has become abundantly clear. Everything is five minutes and nothing is five minutes. There is a chasm between our driver’s interpretation of imagined time and real-time, but no matter, there is no need to rush.
Our driver stops at the foot of cobblestone walkway that goes up and up, and I begin the climb. Eventually, I collapse in the big easy chairs of the lounge in the Villa Maria Hotel. A popular hotel, its lack of opulence makes up for a beautiful outdoor terrace, conviviality and splendid view. The hotel has been lovingly restored by the Palumbo family, hoteliers for four generations, and it is filled with antiques of immense charm and history.
Villa Eva: Extravagant Views
Adjacent to Villa Maria is Villa Eva, and it has managed to hold onto its charm as an ancient dwelling of years gone by. From the terrace there are extravagant views Maori and Minori. The sunken fruit and vegetable garden is also home to chickens, roosters and turkeys, and it is where cooking classes are held.
The town of Ravello has earned its reputation as one of the most picturesque vacation spots in the region. Ceramic shops owned and operated by artists showcase their brilliant signed pieces.
The Ride to Amalfi
It’s a short bus ride to Amalfi, and an afternoon is spent sightseeing, shopping for local herbs and local gifts in the winding streets, admiring the cathedral and its hundreds of steps. In the Piazza, people fill their water jugs at the gargoyle fountain.
Pizza is a Must
We must have a pizza for lunch. Up the back stairs to Donna Stella Pizzeria, we choose from a menu where each pizza has the name of a woman Consuela, Frederica, Giovanna, etc. A table of sophisticated Milanese tourists tell us they will eat nowhere else in Amalfi.
Cumpa Cosima: The Top Restaurant Pick
Back in Ravello, I recommend Cumpa Cosima. Not only for the food, which is unpretentious, fresh and delicious, but also for the affection of the owners, Netta Bottone and her brother. It’s not unusual that in 1929 children stopped their education to work. Pasta is homemade, meat comes from her father’s butcher shop next door, and herbs and vegetables are homegrown.
In her cheerful green plaid pinafore and the big blue flower clip holding up her black hair, Netta embraces us and serves us all with love. At dinner, whole Orata is boned and serve with lemon and olive oil. At lunch, luscious eggplant parmigiano and boiled artichokes are served at room temperature. I love the simple lemon cake and a half etrog filled with lemon sorbet. Netta does not let us leave Ravello without giving us a bag of cheese, bread and fruit for our next mornings train. These are special people, for whom sharing their food is love.
It’s a short train ride to Bagno Vignoni, to the Adler Thermae Spa. In Vino Veritas—in wine there is truth—and, truth be told wine is really good for you. Resveratrol and anti-oxidants help keep our heart in good shape, and vino therapy, a wine massage, is also an excellent health promoter.
So here we are in one of the world’s most important wine producing regions at the Adler spa in the Tuscan countryside prepared to experience wine, inside and out. It is a haven for Italians and other Europeans, and remains exempt from commercial north America.
A Luxurious Buffet
From the balcony of my room, I overlook the thermal pools. There are circular areas where one stands, and jets erupt intermittently to hit different areas of the body. Exhilarating. At dinner, a luxurious buffet of salads and antipasti and a farmers market of raw and lightly steamed vegetables, lined by trays of olive oils, vinegars and salad dressings. Bread bakes in the oven right in front of us. As loaves come out, they’re placed on the counter for us to choose and slice. Heavy beamed ceilings and a colonnaded and glass roofed centre courtyard is anchored by and ancient olive tree. Maître d’ Manfredo is exemplary in his role and there is not a question he can’t answer.
A new gourmet menu of substantials is offered at each meal. Exercise classes, Pilates, stretching, dynamic gym and jogging on the trail are encouraged. After a hike and picnic around the green velvet bills, the Grotto Salina, an underground salt bath, and the steam sauna with Tuscan herbs is rejuvenating. And ever-changing daily excursion program is available or hiking visiting the markets, wine tasting, or any number of activities. Personality is Swiss excellence and healthy, natural indulgence. Here there is the luxury of truth., as seen in the colours of nature.
The lynch pins of Italian cuisine are olive oil and pasta. Flos Olei 2012, a guide to the world’s best extra virgin olive oils. I am eager to taste for myself, and run up the stairs to the second floor tasting room overlooks their lands. Four generations of the family have been cultivating the olive trees in this land in San Polo in the Chianti region.
Today there are 22,500 trees, an oil mill complete with chain storage and a bottling facility. Approximately 40,000 litres of organic olive oil is extracted once a year in this state of the art plant. Paulo and Gianni Pruneti carry on the family tradition and bottle three varieties and one blend. The secondary crops are fields of gorgeous purple iris, used in the perfume industry, and saffron. The proof is in the tasting. Pruneti silver label Tradizione and Pruneti gold label Monocultivar have unique elements and top notes. They each have a lightness and strength and they are exceptional.
A Visit to Umbria
In Umbria, we stop in Spello and visit Mario Giampetti who inherited his land and the mill from his grandfather. He cultivates the small Moraiolo Olive that grows on the mountainside and he has modified his machine to the speed of the grinding stone, extracting the oil slowly, thereby making a less acidic flavor.
While he is an unassuming and self-effacing man, his Terre Rosse olive oil is a superstar. USDA organic, biological, biodynamic, Kosher and the first in Umbria to attain a D.O.P designation. His 2,500 bottle production is small, and each bottle is stamped with a date of production and the best before date. On a visit to California, he delivered a bottle to the renowned Alice Waters and it was much appreciated. “In this world of chaos and confusion,” he says, “the certification Terre Rosse speaks for itself.”
A Pasta Love Affair
The romance of pasta in Gragnano according to Pastaficio dei Campi’s Guiseppe di Martini, began centuries ago when the Roman legions stored their grain here. Today, this little Village of 27,000 people supplies 15.5% of the Italian export of pasta. It is the capital of Pasta and has received Protected Geographic Indication designation.
“And there is something more. We use a bronze dye. The extrusions through shape makers are made of bronze instead of Teflon.Teflon makes it all work 10 times faster, and gives a very smooth and slippery surface and interior. Bronze makes it rough, and those tiny Micro fractures increase the surface contact to the water and the sauce. The tiny rough particles make an emulsion with the sauce and it coats the pasta. The sauce stays on the pasta and not in a pool at the bottom of the bowl. So you need less sauce and less oil, and it makes pasta be the thing it was invented for, to get the sauce inside your mouth.” -Guiseppe di Martini
Who knew? I will never look at in order of pasta in a restaurant in the same way again. “Every shape was made for a particular sauce,” says Giuseppi, “ in the same way every dress requires a particular pair of shoes. For example, spaghetti does not go with Bolognese, spirali goes with Bolognese.”
All the wheat used to make our pasta is grown within 70–80 miles of the factory. We have used Google maps and on each box there is a production date code. Put that code on your website and Google maps takes you to the field, and there is a picture of the farmer, a picture of the field, the date of seeding, the date of harvesting. It is a total tracking system.
Each box of pasta has the photographs of the people who work at the plant. When I eat pasta from Pastaficio dei Campi in Gragnano, I am the last link in fulfilling the documented destiny of a sheaf of wheat. That is some responsibility.
- Following the steps of Napoleon Bonaparte in Parma
- Italianissimo! Pasta
- Roman Holiday
- Friends, Romans, Countrywomen
- Discovering Napoli
- The Fabulousness of Firenze
- Taking the Waters, in Tuscany
- Nobody Knows The Truffles I’ve Seen
- Italy’s Hidden Treasure
- Classic Chianti
- Simply Divine Treviso
- Fish and Chef in Lake Garda
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.