Touring the Amalfi Coast

A mile-by-mile guide to Italy’s paradise by the sea.


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The curvy ribbon of asphalt known as the Amalfi Drive south of Naples offers the ultimate driving experience for enthusiasts. This 51-kilometer (32-mile) stretch of automotive aspiration featuring vertiginous curves and endless panoramas of sparkling sea vistas does more than link point A to point B (Sorrento and Vietri sul Mare, respectively). In fact, the Amalfi Drive is not a road to somewhere: It is the destination.

On a grander scale, La Costiera Amalfitana is a sensorial journey, and a metaphor for the best Italy can offer its visitors. In an extremely focused and compact piece of coastal geography, it delivers an impressive assembly of Italian ideals: the most beautiful views; the best beaches and important historical landmarks; the friendliest people; the most delicious food and luxurious accommodation. It’s the quintessential Italian holiday.

Highlights include the cascading towns of Positano and Amalfi, as well as Ravello, perched high above on a sea-facing bluff. Dazzling colors, sweet aromas and fresh ingredients set the tone for some of the most romantic eating venues Italy has to offer. Sate your appetite with the fresh catch of the day, shellfish, squid, creamy mozzarella and succulent cherry tomatoes. Wash the meal down with the crisp, flinty tasting white wines of the Campania region or a chilled glass of frosty limoncello.

Sorrento

Sorrento is a town with a musical soul and marks the westernmost point of the Amalfi Drive. Immortalized in the silky voices of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and international crooner Frank Sinatra in the song “Torna a Surriento,” the clifftop town stirs up deep romantic sentiments and its citrus garden aromas make the heart beat faster—or so the lyrics promise.

Sorrento’s dramatic positioning high above the sea on a rocky terrace awards pristine views straight across the Bay of Naples. The main drag, Corso Italia and Piazza Tasso, is lined with outdoor cafés and gelaterie. Come in the early evening when Sorrento is alive with couples and families strolling up the avenues.

One adorable restaurant in Sorrento is L’Antica Trattoria. It has a shaded garden glowing with brightly colored flowers and serves spaghettoni di Gragnano with frutti di mare and roasted bandiera fish wrapped in lemon leaves.

Marina Grande is the picturesque fishing village of Sorrento (at sea level) and is home to Trattoria Sant’Anna da Emilia. Informal, characteristic and affordable, you can feast on cozze al limone (steamed mussels with lemon) or gnocchi alla Sorrentina. If you come on July 26, the feast day of patron Sant’Anna, brilliant fireworks illuminatethe evening sky over Marina Grande.

For a sophisticated and enlightening gastronomic experience, drive to Don Alfonso 1890 (donalfonso.com) in the nearby town of Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi. This is one of Italy’s most celebrated and critically acclaimed restaurants (with a cooking school and elegant guest suites for overnight stays) thanks to homegrown products—even the butter is freshly churned here. Alfonso and Livia Iaccarino offer pea soup with ginger and shrimp or orecchiette pasta with broccoli and tartufi di mare.

Positano's elegant hillside villas.Positano

Once you cross over the Sorrentine peninsula from the Gulf of Naples to the Gulf of Salerno, the jaw-dropping beauty of the Amalfi Drive begins to unfold. The 15- kilometer (9-mile) stretch includes a dramatic succession of curves, sheer cliffs, rocky twists and panoramic vistas. This section of the road, known as via Nastro Azzurro (“blue ribbon”) culminates with Positano. Here you are greeted by colorfully painted buildings and vibrant bougainvillea pouring copiously down to the sea from the steep flanks of the surrounding mountains. A former fishing village turned dolce vita playground, Positano is arguably the most beautiful town along this blessed coastline. The backbone of Positano for pedestrians is the legendary scalinatella (staircase) that snakes its way down from the top of town to the bottom, where the beach, shops and seafront restaurants are. Folk songs set to mandolin music celebrate its quick, curvy descent and establish la scalinatella as a metaphorical portal to love and happiness.

A former fishing village turned dolce vita playground, Positano is arguably the most beautiful town along this blessed coastline. The backbone of Positano for pedestrians is the legendary scalinatella (staircase) that snakes its way down from the top of town to the bottom, where the beach, shops and seafront restaurants are. Folk songs set to mandolin music celebrate its quick, curvy descent and establish la scalinatella as a metaphorical portal to love and happiness.

Positano has a high density of luxury hotels and affordable accommodations with colorful charm and friendly warmth. One favorite is the 18th-century Hotel Palazzo Murat, while the leading luxury hotel is the family-run Le Sirenuse. The hotel’s public spaces and most of its rooms open onto the Bay of Positano.

Excellent food is found at the beachfront Covo dei Saraceni. Menu items include risotto with shrimp cream and dustings of lemon zest, a fried fish platter and spaghetti with mussels and Mediterranean clams.

Another superstar hotel is Il San Pietro di Positano. A mile out of town, it offers private beaches, a swimming pool and panoramic gourmet restaurant. This is among the top five hotels in Italy and even if you don’t have the good fortune (or budget) to book a room here, you absolutely must stop by for a glass of wine on the San Pietro terrace at sunset.

The Wines of Campania

In this Southern Italian region, steadfast resistance to modern methods and nonnative grapes has created a portfolio of wines that is unlike any other in the world.

Where do grapevines grow on trees? In Campania, the sun-drenched region of southern Italy that the ancients named Campania Felix (“happy land”) thanks to its abundant fertility. Home to the partially buried Roman city of Pompeii, its sister city Herculaneum and the chaotic “new city” Neapolis (Naples), Campania is a giant open-air museum to the ancient world. The same is true of its farming, which is rooted in traditions and practices started many millennia ago.

Thanks to the ancient import and export activities of its massive port cities and Mediterranean hubs, Campania Felix amassed a significant patrimony of grapevine material. Fertile growing conditions and volcanic soils, plus the proximity of Rome, a major domestic market, gave rise to authentic, varied and unique wines, represented today by crisp and polished whites such as Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo, hearty reds like Taurasi made from the Aglianico grape, rosés, passito sweet wines and now metodo classico sparklers.
Not only do many of the varieties come directly from ancient Greece, so do some of the growing methods. In Irpinia, the hilly growing area inland from Naples, cherry, pears and fruit trees were planted between grapevines as an alternative crop and as a trellis system for the grapes. This technique, borrowed from the ancient Greeks, was implemented as a way of suspending grape clusters sometimes as much as 16 feet off the ground to free space for vegetables and legumes planted underneath.

Travel through Irpinia today and the eye is greeted to a fantasy landscape in which centuries-old grapevines are flung like giant octopuses over fruit orchards, creating a giant canopy to lock in warmth and moisture— and a visual representation of Campania’s isolationist winemaking philosophy.

Hardly any international varieties have penetrated the region; it is planted almost exclusively to indigenous grapes.Vineyard parcels are ancient-world small. Antonio Capaldo, chairman of Feudi di San Gregorio says that his 250 hectares are divided into 300 parcels—each vineyard on average is less than one hectare. And Campania is characterized by unique soil profiles, many of them containing volcanic material.

The tiny hilltop town of Taurasi in Irpinia is a pillar of quality wine for southern Italy in the same way Montalcino is for Tuscany and Barolo is for Piedmont. In fact, the red wine made here from the hearty and naturally tannic Aglianico grapes is often dubbed the “Barolo of the South.” These are austere, sophisticated and deeply complex wines that show amazing capacity for cellar aging.

In nearby Irpinia and Sannio are the areas of Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino. Greco shows beautiful aromas, Fiano boasts creamy textures and both unleash crystalline notes of brimstone, pear and Golden Delicious apple. Falanghina is a crisp, versatile and easy-drinking white wine.

The area south of Naples, at the foot of the menacing Vesuvius volcano, is home to the Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio (“the tear of Christ”) denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) based on Coda di Volpe for the white wines and Piedirosso for the reds. North of Naples is the historic Falerno del Massico area; the whites are made from Falanghina and the reds are a blend of Aglianico and Piedirosso. Inland is the Taburno area (in the province of Benevento), which produces its own hearty version of Aglianico.

Indigenous varieties and a winemaking culture that is stubbornly anachronistic—that is what distinguishes Campania, and is the reason for its success.

REDS
93 Mastroberardino 2003 Radici Riserva (Taurasi); $72. Imported by Winebow. Cellar Selection.
93 Terre del Principe 2007 Vigna Piancastelli (Terre del Volturno); $80. Imported by Vias Imports.
92 Feudi di San Gregorio 2007 Serpico (Irpinia); $80. Imported by Palm Bay.
92 Mastroberardino 2005 Naturalis Historia (Taurasi); $80. Imported by Winebow.
92 Ocone 2008 Calidonio (Taburno Piedirosso); $42. Imported by Polaner Selections.
91 Villa Matilde 2004 Camarato (Falerno del Massico); $82. Imported by Empson.
90 Terredora Pago dei Fusi 2004 Aglianico (Taurasi); $68. Imported by Vias Imports.
88 Fattoria Alois 2007 Trebulanum (Campania); $48. Imported by Soilair Selection.

WHITE/SPARKLING
90 Feudi di San Gregorio 2006 DUBL Brut Metodo Classico (Campania); $45. Imported by Palm Bay.
90 Feudi di San Gregorio 2009 Serrocielo Falanghina (Sannio); $30. Imported by Palm Bay. Editors’ Choice.
90 I Capitani 2009 Gaudium (Fiano di Avellino); $18. Imported by Premium Brands.
87 Fattoria Selvanova 2009 Acquavigna Pallagrello (Terre del Volturno); $16. Imported by David Vincent Selection.
87 Mastroberardino 2009 Mastro (Campania); $17. Imported by Winebow.

Amalfi and Ravello

The coastal drive between Positano and Amalfi delivers 10 miles of picture-perfect vistas that combine brilliant sea views with the dramatic jaggedness of the coastline. The colors—the azure blues, bright yellows, pinks and vibrant verdant tones—are brilliant to the point of blinding. The air is so luminous that even the furthest point of sea glitter comes into focus with pinpoint sharpness.
Among the most celebrated restaurants in Amalfi is Trattoria Da Gemma; delicious menu items include anchovies marinated in frisella bread and paccheri pasta filled with burrata cheese, seafood and black truffle. There’s also the unforgettable “aunt Gemma” fish soup. If you have a sweet tooth, Amalfi is home to a few excellent pastry shops including Pasticceria Pansa, with outdoor tables facing the cathedral. If you’d like to stay the night, a natural choice is the Hotel Santa Caterina.

Perched 350 meters above the Amalfi with bird’s-eye views of the coast, Ravello offers another cluster of luxury accommodations and restaurants. A bit off the beaten track is the excellent and authentic Trattoria Da Lorenzo (trattoriadalorenzo.com) in the town of Scala beyond Ravello. Simple and down-to-earth, Lorenzo makes one of the best frittura di pesce (fried fish platters) you’ll ever taste.

Pallagrello and Casavecchia

With roots in Italy’s ancient past, these little-known grape varieties shine a light on Campania’s winemaking future.
By Valerio Borgianelli Spina

Campania, the region of Naples and Pompeii in southern Italy, is known for its impressive patrimony of native grapes such as Falanghina, Greco, Fiano and the powerful red grape Aglianico. Among the region’s least known grapes are two exciting varieties with roots that span back to the time of gladiators, emperors and Bacchanalia: Pallagrello and Casavecchia

Found in the area of Caserta some 30 miles from Naples, Pallagrello is named after the round shape of its fruits (palla is “ball” in Italian) and is one of the few grape varieties in the world that delivers both a red and white wine. In the 18th century, King Ferdinando IV planted the grape in his famous Vigna del Ventaglio (a fan-shaped vineyard in which each row was dedicated to a different grape variety). After this brief appreciation by the royal family, the grape fell from the limelight to near obscurity.

About 60 years ago, the grape was rediscovered and appreciated for its extraordinary features. White Pallagrello can withstand oak aging and boasts a wide variety of aromas. Red Pallagrello offers structure and longevity and can age for decades in the cellar. The white wine makes a perfect match to creamy mozzarella di bufala and the red version pairs with slow cooked meats.

The grape variety Casavecchia, which means “old house” in Italian, is a genetic cousin of the grape Trebulanum—a variety that was widely consumed in ancient Rome. The grape all but disappeared after the fall of the empire and was rediscovered at the beginning of the last century. A single vine was discovered near an abandoned house in the Caserta area and the vine was so old, the arm span of one person was not enough to embrace its trunk. Cuttings from that “mother plant” gave a second wind to the variety and today it’s a popular choice among farmers. Casavecchia is appreciated for its tannic structure and intense cherry bouquet that pairs with sweet meat like roasted pork.

93 points
Terre del Principe 2007 Vigna Piancastelli Terre del Volturno; $80
This inky blend of Pallagrello Nero and Casavecchia (two of Italy's oldest grape varieties) opens with opulent aromas of chocolate, exotic spice, dark fruit, cola and cinnamon. It is smooth and rich on the palate but the wine also imparts a high dose of sweetness that would work well with rare beef. Imported by Vias Imports. –ML

90 points
Nanni Copé 2008 Sabbie di Sopra il Bosco Terre del Volturno; $49
This new producer from southern Italy presents a very interesting blend of Pallagrello (70%), Aglianico and Casavecchia. The wine opens with warm aromas of leather, smoked meat and black fruit and delivers a unique mouthfeel that is firm and rich at the same time. Imported by T. Elenteny Imports. –ML

90 points
Terre del Principe 2007 Centomoggia Casavecchia Terre del Volturno; $58
This inky thick and well-extracted wine (made with Casavecchia grapes) offers very pretty aromas of dark chocolate, prune, exotic spice and black jammy fruit. The tannins are soft and polished and the wine performs even better after a few minutes in the glass. Imported by Vias Imports. –ML

88 points
Fattoria Alois 2007 Trebulanum Casavecchia Campania; $NA
A modern, oak-aged expression of one of Italy's most historic varieties, showing bold notes of chocolate, clove, black fruit and rum cake. It closes firm with a touch of bright sourness at the very end. Imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates. –ML

87 points
Fattoria Selvanova 2009 Acquavigna Pallarello Terre del Volturno; $16
This is a wine that will appeal to those looking for new tastes from Italy. You can feel the alcohol here but the heat is downplayed by the wine's naturally thick and rich texture. Pair this wine with creamy pasta dishes to match the intensity of the mouthfeel. Imported by David Vincent Selection. –ML

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