I love Campania - the people, cuisine, wines, and ingredients. Pasta is always al dente. Tomatoes reach gastronomic heights. Pizza can be divine (or disastrous). Anchovies are a specialty, fresh, preserved, or made into colatura, fermented juice. I decided to go on an anchovy-centric excursion through the region, with a few irresistible stops along the way. Massimo agreed to accompany me.
It's almost impossible for me to be anywhere in the area of Vesuvius and not dine at 'E Curti. I'm crazy about the food, family, and ambience, all in Neapolitan dialect. It's named for the Lilliputian dwarf brothers (short guys) who took over their uncle's trattoria in 1952 after a life travelling Europe as circus impresarios. Their niece Angelina Ceriello and Zia Assunta are in the kitchen, now assisted by their cousin Francesco who attended culinary school-you can tell by the way he curls the pasta around itself on the plate, something Angelina never did. But the dishes and flavors are the same, family style foods like deep-fried potato croquettes (they call them panzarotti), eggplant rolls, legume soups, braised lamb, local mushrooms along with a few dishes that the brothers picked up during their travels like pasta alla carbonara. Angelina's husband Carmine is ably assisted in the dining room by their daughter Sofia and her sommelier husband, Roberto, who always has a local wine that I have to try (this time label-less, white, old, regional varietal - what's not to love?). Her son Enzo makes the world's greatest nucillo, green walnut liqueur, obsessively producing different crus from Vesuvius, Ischia, Positano, and Capri, and a distillate of the green walnut and spice residue (like grappa) called Assoluto, made by Italy's greatest distiller, Gianni Capovilla. The dish known as 'o sicchio, the garbage pail, is worth a voyage, spaghetti dressed with a few Vesuvius tomatoes that bind some leftovers from a hurried lunch-olives, raisins, hazelnuts, and oregano and capers (always in the pantry) into sauce. Although I don't love dessert, I can't resist a taste of tiramisuper, Angelina's take on a classic, with fantastic ricotta (instead of industrial mascarpone) flavored with espresso and sugar, layered between espresso-soaked cookies, topped with a mixture of cocoa and cookie crumbs. And of course at least one glass of nucillo, walnut liqueur, is a must. Enzo promised to meet us in the Cilento area - he's planning to transfer his factory there and is working on a cru from the zone.
I wanted to spend some time in Cetara, known for anchovy production and colatura, the juice that's drained off marinating anchovies. We checked into the Hotel Cetus, recommended by friends. Good call. The hotel was perfect. Sunset from our terrace helped Massimo relax after the long drive. We dined at the hotel, on a terrace overlooking the Gulf of Salerno. We assumed defensive dining mode, ordering the simplest dishes, and weren't disappointed. I had marinated anchovies (not on the menu but always available) and a salad, and Massimo had spaghetti with clams. As a grand finale there was a lengthy, impressive fireworks display (this is a region that takes fireworks seriously!) celebrating Amalfi's win in the Historic Regatta (annual race between Italy's four historic maritime nations - Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi).
I called Pasquale Torrente, a busy guy. He's got a seasonal fry shop called La Cuopperia (cuoppo, regional dialect for the paper cone fried foods are served in) and a restaurant, Al Convento, both in Cetara, and has opened a fry shop in the Rome Eataly. Friends met me for lunch. They brought more friends. Ivan brought Massimo Bonini from Lady Caffe, Giovanni Mandara from the Pizzeria Piccola Piedigrotta, photographer Alessandra Tinozzi, Marisa and Romina from the Alajmo world with Silvio from the Alajmo restaurant in Venice, along with his friend Marco from Hotel Cristallo in Cortina. And a couple of bloggers. We began with cured anchovies and butter, fried anchovies stuffed with smoked provola, pasta with tuna "genovese" (a braised beef and onion sauce that Pasquale has reinterpreted with tuna), and perfectly al dente spaghetti dressed with extra virgin and colatura. We drank lots of well-priced Fiano Trentenare from San Salvatore. I went back for dinner with Massimo, joined by friends Vito Santoro, indefatigable navigator, and gastronome, Carmine Fischetti, from the restaurant Oasis and master baker Tonino Giardino (fantastic bread, wood-burning oven, mother yeast, lengthy rising) from Ariano Irpino. I tasted, they dined, but I couldn't resist the breaded and deep-fried rectangle of pasta, the kind of home-style dish made with leftover pasta, that I adore. They continued with anchovy tortino (with braised chicory, pine nuts, olives, topped with a bottarga curl), pasta with anchovies and olives. We all loved Pasquale's home-made grissini, made with pizza dough in the pizza oven. No dessert.
I had heard and read lots of contrasting opinions about Pappacarbone and chef-owner Rocco Iannone. He'd been on TV, trashing the molecular chefs of Italy and the Italian food press who wrote about them. No one understood anything. I was curious. Vito, Carmine, and Tonino joined us. "Cuisine is a SERIOUS thing" was written on a blackboard outside the dining room, along with a few daily specials. We were greeted by Gaetana Cerrato, in charge of the dining room, and chatted with Rocco, who stressed the importance of seasonal and local, with minimal interference. We decided to let him orchestrate our meal. He opened with a sliver of home-cured tuna on a tiny wedge of brioche, super-thin extra-long grissini with a strip of pancetta, a pair of breaded, deep friend anchovies. Braised cuttlefish with zucchini flowers and their broth, more tiny cuttlefish, paired with beans and their broth, pasta with zucchini flowers, potatoes and mussels, deep fried seafood served on a folded rectangle (not rolled into a cuoppo) of brown paper, paccheri sauced with cuttlefish ragu. It was cuttlefish season and they were terrific. No one had room for dessert, but a seasonal fruit plate (cherries, mulberries, strawberries), served with flat hazelnut cake, appeared, and disappeared. I couldn't resist the home made candied sour cherry, served alone, on a custom-made Vietri (pottery center nearby) dish. Rocco joined us for coffee, explained his philosophy, told us he'd kicked most of the Italian journalists out of his restaurant, and then asked if we'd like to see his family's farm, where most of the produce he uses comes from. Of course we said yes, and followed him on his scooter. We met his mother (shucking peas) and father (hoeing in the garden), admired the poultry, fruit trees, and the well-shaded outdoor kitchen. It was all as impressive as our fantastic lunch. We'd be back.