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Move Over, Julia Roberts: Eating Our Way Through the Amalfi Coast

Julia Roberts may have ten extra pounds to show that she fell in love with food in Rome. However, the marvelous slurping spaghetti scenes in "Eat, Pray, and Love" surely make her eating experience well worth wearing jeans a bit too tight. My adult daughter and I decided to test the waters (or should I say pasta and wine) after the fashion of Julia. Only difference would be our chosen destination. We would venture to the Amalfi Coast, sampling our way through Italy's southern region on bruschetta, house wine, penne pasta, and gelato.

We flew into Naples and caught a bus waiting right outside the airport for Sorrento. We settled into our spacious hotel (Ulisse Deluxe Hostel: www.ulissedeluxe.com) for the next week, dashed some cold water on our faces, and set off—to eat. We walked to the city center and took a right turn toward the west and into Sorrento's well-known alley, Via San Cesareo. Here, souvenir shops, mosaic stores, and fashion boutiques share common walls with fantastic restaurants.

My daughter Shandra and I started out conservatively, ordering Pizza Margherita, a pizza made with basil, tomato and mozzarella. With only a few ingredients, how could this be so perfect? For one, the pizza restaurants use wood-burning ovens, packed with kindling and tree branches. The chefs know the temperature is just right when the oven roof is white, which takes about an hour of heating. They caress the dough, roll it out, lift and rotate it over the backs of their hands, and gently stretch it with their dampened fingers to make it kiss against the pan's edges. Tomato sauce is topped with mozzarella cheese, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, a few fresh basil leaves, and a pinch of salt. Sorrento's pizzas do not know the word "greasy." They know instead a vocabulary of "fresh, simple, and beautiful."

From this introduction of pizza, we returned often to different restaurants on Via San Cesareo. Particularly, we liked ones that had views of frescos, piano players who never seemed to take breaks, and would-be gondolier vocalists. After our encouraging introductory meal, we gathered our courage and asked the waiters, "What is your favorite pizza?" Never were we disappointed. Usually, the pizza was piled two inches high with fresh vegetables and mozzarella. A secret is their vine-ripened roma tomatoes and fresh cherry tomatoes. The mozzarella is often two days old so it will dry out and not make a soggy pizza, but everything else is probably picked that very day.

For up-scaling it a bit from pizza and alleys, we enjoyed a scrumptious dinner at Tavern Allegra. Located on a back street and inside a wooden gate, the singers will welcome you into this happy abode. You can't go wrong with the penne with shrimp and zucchini blossoms.

Fusili alla zucca e gamberi (homemade pasta with shrimp and pumpkin): if you can pronounce it in Italian, you deserve to try it. This is a specialty of Sorrento's Il Buco, and it will make your taste buds love you forever. With the help of ample servings of the house red wine, you can master ordering another great choice: ravioli di pesce ai pepperoni (seafood ravioli with sweet peppers). This restaurant is located in the cellar of an old monastery, facing the basilica. Oh, if the monks could see us now!

Photos decorating the walls attest to the talent of Caruso at Sorrento's restaurant named after him. The establishment also houses a museum honoring him. There's just one problem: the food is so good that you feel like belting out a song or two. Don't be embarrassed if the owner reminds you that the singers are hired to serenade you, not the other way around. The lobster ravioli melts at first bite; the seafood lasagna lingers a bit longer. Try as best you can to leave room for torta di orange e noci (orange and walnut cake), but if you're momentarily stuffed, don't worry. There's always time to stop for a gelato at Primavera or Davide Gelato as you stroll on back to your hotel.

From what I've described already, it seems as if we have already gained a good ten pounds, if not more. In actuality, we haven't gained any weight. The Amalfi Coast's secret to weight management: walking. However, walking is a mild word. It is more like climbing. We spent a few days in Positano, an hour hair-raising bus ride south of Sorrento. There's little to do in Positano but sight see, shop, and eat so it's a great place. To combine all three, I recommend taking a 2 ˝ hour walking (alias: hiking) tour with local guide Christine Ornelas. (www.discoverpositano.it, christineornelas@gmail.com) She will tell you the town's history, take you into its beautiful Church, give shopping tips and discounts, and, best of all, introduce you to her husband who owns the butcher shop. There, you will sample breads, wines, meats, cheese, olives, and sun dried tomatoes. Christine will also take you to a favorite bar to sample limoncello, a candy-like liqueur that jolts your taste buds for at least an hour. If you're like me, you'll end up buying limoncello, olives and sun dried tomatoes for your family at home. They'll sample them and heartily give you their permission to book a return trip to Positano to pick up more. Now, back to the weight management tactic—take the bus to the ramp near its beach (the second stop for Positano) but walk to the top to catch the bus for your return trip to Sorrento. We were told that it was 1,005 stairs up—and I believe it is at least that! I promise you: the scaling will take care of the calories.

Ravello proved itself as the jewel of the Amalfi Coast. Sitting atop a lofty perch 1,000 feet above sea level, it commands the towns and beaches below. With plenty of good reason, many of the rich and the famous have called Ravello their home away from home: Richard Wagner, D. H. Lawrence, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Greta Garbo, and Elizabeth Taylor. It's an easy 20 minute bus ride up from the beach parking lot in Amalfi. (I recommend the open air bus because the scenery is spectacular, the audio tape informative, and the ride not as crowded as on the regular bus.) When you get off the bus in Ravello, walk through the tunnel to see the town square, its outdoor concert arena, and its beautiful church (with its bronze doors depicting 54 scenes of Christ's life). But, don't stop there. Remember, you came to Ravello to eat.

In Ravello, you can eat where Fred Astaire waltzed around the courtyard after a lunch of pasta with zucchini and eggplant parmigiana, where Humphrey Bogart fell into silence to savor every morsel of dolce al limone (lemon cake), and where Jacqueline Kennedy elegantly coaxed spaghetti del contadino (farmer's spaghetti) between her beautiful soft-spoken lips while John-John munched on limone at his mother's knees. All of this happened at Mamma Agata's home, and you can be her guest at a day's cooking class followed by a five hour feast.

Reservations are a must for Mamma Agata's school, lovingly called The Hidden Treasure. It's about a 15 minute walk from the town square, just enough to whet your appetite. Jasmine and bougainvillea vines cascade overhead from the entry gate. Then your eyes meet the view: the garden of grape and tomato vines stretching out to guard the ocean below. (www.mammaagata.com)

Mamma Agata welcomes all into her home. She embraces her guests and confides, "My cooking is simple and genuine. I do it with love—just for you!" My daughter and I arrived about five minutes late. Mamma Agata and her assistant, Angela, jumped up and down, "Oh we are so glad you are here. We were worried you lost your way." It might not have been true, but my daughter and I loved every minute of their doting. They had a knack for making us feel like a Jacqueline Kennedy or Elizabeth Taylor.

The class unfolds secrets, simple but timely: use an old, ugly frying pan; use tepid water for yeast; use two day old mozzarella; use peanut oil; use very fine flour for all recipes; and the riper the tomatoes, the sweeter and better. At her side, we made tomato sauce, eggplant rollups, eggplant parmigiana, batter, pasta with peppers and sausage, farmer's spaghetti, lemon chicken, coccoli, and lemon cake. Although we didn't stomp grapes for the wine, Mamma made sure it kept flowing. The meal far surpassed any Thanksgiving feast I've sweated over, but truly it was the epitome of ambience that set this day as an unbelievable experience. Mamma loves to cook for you.

At the end of the day, walking back up to the town center is not quite as easy as the stroll down to her house. Once at the center, there are a couple of options for returning to Sorrento. You can take the bus down to Amalfi and then a transfer bus back to Sorrento. Or if you don't want the scale to testify of the fantastic eating, opt for the 1 ˝ hour hike down the path that winds below Ravello's cliff. Stop to grab a water to re-freshen yourself in Atrani, and continue ahead a bit further to come to Amalfi.

The Amalfi Coast: breath-taking scenery, friendly people, and, oh yes, did I mention its food? My daughter and I might never make it to India for praying or Bali for loving. But we're convinced that we'll make it back to southern Italy for more great eating.

A retired school teacher, Bonnie Lynn now enjoys travelling when kids are in school. She lives in southern California and enjoys, besides travelling, grandkids, Labradors, reading, and swimming. And, of course, can't forget the pasta and gelato.


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