Amazing Amalfi: More Than Good Looks, Italy’s Famous Coastline Offers Singular Wines and Local Flavors
“I feel Italy more than I know Italy” I scribble with the ragged penmanship of a writer raised on a laptop. I’m in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast sucking down glasses of Fiano and Falanghina, my new favorite mineral-soaked whites from the volcanic hills of Campania. But it’s not the wine talking, I don’t think. I’ve been a patron of the Italian art of La Dolce Vita as far back as I can recall. As a child, my grandmother, an independent spirit who owned a travel agency, first introduced me to Italy. She set in motion a lifetime of curiosity for Roman history, geographical food, terroir-driven wines, and the sea-to-mountain topography which seems to repeat itself across Italian provinces yet manifest in wildly different, well, moods.
Piedmont has a mood. Liguria has a mood. The Amalfi Coast, I’d heard, had its own rhythm and mood. So, after years of ignoring the prettiest face plastered perennially across magazine covers and Instagram accounts, I succumbed to temptation.
“All restaurants on the Amalfi Coast are tourist restaurants” said our MyDaytrip driver, Salvatore who hails from Naples and was transferring me and my husband to Praiano, a small town about ten minutes past Positano. Great, I thought, wondering if the next five days would be an underwhelming experience that would confirm my hesitancy to visit this expensive, heavily trafficked region.
The Amalfi Coast, occupying a small stretch of coastline in southern Italy, overlooks the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Salerno. The famous thoroughfare, Costiera Amalfitana (SS163), weaves around vertical limestone cliffs, hugging the sparkling water for some 40 miles between Vietri sul Mare and Sorrento. The key coastal towns include Positano, a wedding cake of colors tumbling down to the water, and Amalfi, a palimpsest of architectural eras. Ravello hangs high in the clouds between Amalfi and Minori.
“That doesn’t mean they’re not good” he clarified. “But they were created for visitors, not locals” he concluded.
Of course, this warning came on the heels of spending 3 days in Napoli ruining pizza for life by binging on the world’s finest 90-second Neapolitan Margheritas. At $7 a pop, paired with a $7 glass of Piedirosso, an ancient red variety tasting of plums sprinkled with sea salt, no meal cost more than $15.
Of the many joys of Napoli, eating and drinking ranks high. While it has tourists, mostly shunted off cruise ships into the steep bowels of the Spanish Quarter or Quartieri Spagnoli, it’s not really a tourist town. It’s a living, breathing, decaying, thriving, contradictory mess of ideas, ambitions, and eras spanning 4000 years since the Greek’s founded it in 600 bce as Neapolis or nea: new, polis: city. While political, social, and cultural disagreements between denizens abound – like anywhere – the populace agrees fervently on three things: pizza, wine, and coffee. It’s the perfect and inevitable start or finish to a journey down the coast.
Prior to Naples, I’d spent a week in Sannio, a wine appellation in northern Campania known for Falanghina and red grape Aglianico. Some varieties grown along the Amalfi Coast overlap with Campanian appellations including Sannio, Fiano di Avellino, Taurasi, and Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio. I wouldn’t arrive clueless about the wine lists.
I hopped on a train from Benevento in Sannio to Napoli, and a few days later found myself with Salvatore, savoring my first glimpse of the famed Sorrentine Coast. Salvatore pulled over for lemon and orange granitas, a popular tourist experience tied to agricultural traditions. Two generations of men handed us slushies.
“We’ve grown lemons and citrus in Amalfi for four generations. What do you think?” the son asked with authentic curiosity. Sweet, bright, the flavor of sunshine, sucked down with a sweeping view of the Tyrrhenian? Of course, it tasted delicious, I said, posting a pic on Instagram, tagging their account.
Back on the road, we careened around bends and drops, having near brush-ins with aggressive scooters. My husband thanked me for not making him drive. We studied the landscape while Salvatore, a wealth of local lore and opinion, dropped more nuggets.
“That mountain, we call milk mountain, because it produces the best cheese, especially mozzarella” he said. “I don’t know what you eat in the states, that mozzarella in plastic” he said. “If it’s older than one day, it’s not mozzarella. It becomes provolone” he said, making us laugh at the thought of a Napoletano being served BelGioioso or Polly-O.
Traffic, fortunately, remained light. Summer usually sees gridlock. I realized a post-pandemic visit to the Amalfi Coast during the height of wedding season in June wasn’t the smartest move. Occupancy up, prices up, crowds up. Fearing this reality, I booked accommodation and dinner reservations months prior, budgeting for five days. I also pre-booked transportation between destinations on MyDaytrip because car rentals, if we dared drive, were either non-existent or priced for Russian oligarchs.
The road looked better suited to donkeys; in fact, animal transport was the mode of the day when Romans hewed this historical corniche. In 1997, the fragile landscape received recognition from UNESCO for its churches, towns, gardens, lemon farms, and vineyards. Despite Amalfi’s vulnerability to environmental impact, its locals have firmly committed to tourism for income, a bargain that demands the finesse to protect what makes it enduringly alluring.
We curl past Positano, pulling over on a narrow curb for a quick photo. I chose to skip lodging in the iconic fishing village-cum-yachtie hub for reasons of cost and crowds. The best view of Positano was in Praiano, anyway.
I booked a stay at the boutique hotel Casa Angelina for its clean contemporary design dressed in all white décor. I liked the modern point of difference against a sea of traditional, ceramic-tiled hotels. Most importantly, I wanted to experience Un Piano Nel Cielo, the property’s fine dining restaurant serving up postcard views of Positano. (Read my full review of Casa Angelina.)
I had a sunset reservation to taste Leopoldo Elefante’s food. As the executive chef of Casa Angelina, he has led the kitchen’s culinary direction since 2017. A food writer and colleague recommended the experience, especially with wine pairings from the famously extensive list of Amalfi and Campanian labels.
“The wine of the Amalfi Coast is very distinct,” said the sommelier, after he took our water order from the “water book.” We opted for a bottle of sparkling from the Dolomites for its clean taste and low saline content, so the description read.
For wine, I asked to sample only local specialties, as in 30 km local. He had just the producer. “Our wines don’t taste like anything else in the world because we use grapes native to the terrain which are kissed by the salty sea breeze, thrive in our volcanic soil, and soak up the heat of the sun” he continued with loving prose.
He came back with a bottle of Marisa Cuomo. I wanted to visit this estate, located 15 minutes away in a vertical slot above the sea in Furore, but lacked a car and the will (or wallet) to pay a taxi 80 euros for the privilege.
Marisa Cuomo makes a dozen wines, though the flagship Furore Bianco Fiorduva breaks with regional norms. A blend of Fenile, Ripoli, and Ginestra, these indigenous grapes grown in limestone on a pergola, are allowed to over-ripen on the vine before fermentation in oak barrique. The result is deep and round, with notes of candied lemon peel, flowers, and orchard fruit.
We tasted a few more Amalfi wines, including a blend of Falanghina and Biancolella, both notable for their acidity and mineral structure.
In fact, hardly any international grapes have infiltrated the region; vineyard parcels, considered ancient-world tiny even for a vertiginous land-poor region, are planted almost exclusively to indigenous varieties.
Moving through the menu, we sampled local produce and fresh-caught fish still glistening with ocean dew. A stunning display of crudo spanned a briny oyster, succulent sweet langoustine, and butter-soft white fish carpaccio paired perfectly with the electric zip of the Bianco blend.
A silky, rich 36-egg yolk tagliolini tossed with a shot of Amalfi lemon and coiled into a nest dotted with prawns and dill, left me questioning every pasta dish I’d ever eaten in America.
The next morning, still ruminating on the interplay of food and wines, we packed up for our next stop. I had an appointment to interview Chef Alfonso Crescenzo at Restaurante il Refettorio, a 1 Star Michelin inside the hotel Monastero Santa Rosa. (Read my full review of Monastero Santa Rosa.)
Originally a Dominican monastery built in the 17th century, the hotel, spa, infinity pool, and gardens sat high above the sea within the fishing village of Conca dei Marini. The spectacular setting featured four terraces of native flowers, trees, and bushes, a setting that might have stolen Monet’s attention from Giverny, had he lived another 100 years to stroll them.
The restaurant, Il Refettorio, serves lunch and dinner during summer on the terrace. Cobalt blue views stretch to infinity, while the sweet aroma of climbing jasmine perfumes the air. Monastero Santa Rosa is empirically one of the most beautiful hotels on earth, made all the better for boasting one of the Amalfi Coast’s best wining and dining experiences.
Before dinner, I sat down with Crescenzo to discuss his upbringing. Local to the area, he learned to cook at 14 while hovering with his grandmother for hours over her sacrosanct Sunday ragù. He went on to cook professionally in some of the coast’s best kitchens, from San Pietro to Palazzo Avino, before joining Monastero Santa Rosa in 2022.
The restaurant sources nearly all its vegetables and herbs from the hotel’s garden, and seafood and meat from regional purveyors. What the property’s garden doesn’t grow, Crescenzo supplements from his own farm in Minori.
Crescenzo puts a modern spin on traditional dishes, he explained. Unlike many Michelin meals I’ve had where chefs overemphasize plating, presentation, and concept to the detriment of sheer deliciousness, Crescenzo accomplishes both. He’s also cognizant of the synergy between wine and food, working with the sommelier to ensure each dish has a Campanian pairing.
The meal began with some of Crescenzo’s favorite dishes. First, La Cro-Estatina, a vegetable tart with a chilled savory scoop of tomato ice cream. Next, the La Mozzarella in Carrozza, a composition of hand-pulled cheese fried with egg breading in Cetara pesto, a uniquely Amafli sauce made from blended anchovies, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, and parsley. The sommelier poured another Falanghina-Biancolella blend to play off the salty sweetness of the dishes.
Moving to pastas, the Il Tortello displayed the kitchen’s prowess for handmaking light-as-clouds ravioli stuffed with local rabbit and provolone del Monaco, a cheese from Naples. The wine pairing, a Fiano di Avellino brimming with smoke, herbs, and citrus zip, complemented the tang of the cheese.
Every dish and wine trotted out showed the truth of the motto “what grows together, goes together.” An oil-poached lobster with Sorrentine lemon mayonnaise with yellow peaches was paired to a structured bright Greco di Tufo which echoed its orchard-fruit flavors. A dish of Laticauda lamb, a fat-tailed breed of sheep from Campania, raised in Irpinia for its delicate sweet taste, played off the earthy spiciness of Taurasi Agliancio.
It could have been the final meal and I’d have left Amalfi sated, but I had one more stop.
I’d read about tiny Ravello’s romantic villas, lush gardens, and infinite air serving as inspiration for generations of artists, from Richard Wagner’s second act of the opera Parsifal in 1880, to D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1927, to much of Gore Vidal’s work spanning the 30 years of his residency.
Constructed in the 12th Century, family-owned Palazzo Avino located on San Giovanni del Toro, once formed part of Ravello’s aristocratic quarter during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Today, it serves as an enchanting 5-star hotel of manicured grounds and historic features—and offers a 1-star Michelin dining experience at Rossellinis. (Read my full review of Palazzo Avino.)
Executive chef Giovanni Vanacore unabashedly personalizes the menu, dividing it into three themed sections. The Journey into Memory menu draws from Vanacore’s childhood experiences; Tradition and Innovation lends modern interpretation to familiar Amalfi dishes; and Natural…in Color, a vegan and vegetarian menu, highlights the season’s finest, ripest, and purest flavors.
Sampling dishes from different menus, the sommelier paired Campanian wines throughout. To start, we sipped a sparkling wine from Bosco de Medici, a producer on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius that tasted lightly floral and fruity. I asked about Fiano with a few years of age, as I knew high levels of acidity meant cellaring potential. Dried herbs and smoked hazelnut came through on an older Mastroberardino Radici he dug up in the cellar.
We tasted a 2018 from Ciro Picariello, a producer with a growing cult-like status in the US. Textured and saline, the Fiano spoke of ancient, ash-layered soils. We wrapped up with a red from Costa d’Amalfi, a full-bodied blend of Aglianico, Piedirosso, and Sciascinoso that suited the lamb.
Vanacore greeted tables after dinner, so when he dropped by, I asked what he believed characterized “Amalfi Cuisine.”
He pointed to the abundant seafood on his menu like seabass, which cooked in pots made with local clay, or red mullet, which he plates with zucchini alla scapece, or rounds fried with garlic, olive oil, vinegar and mint, a regional preparation.
“Amalfi cuisine is fresh, enticing, and always includes a hint of Sfusato Amalfitano” he smiled. “I try to incorporate it in all of my dishes” he declared of the famously fat and sweet Amalfi lemons. On that note, the sommelier poured us limoncello in two chilled glasses as a farewell digestif.
I said goodbye but not farewell. From the heroic farms tucked between vertical bends, fishermen’s seafood shacks on beaches accessible only by boat, to the indigenous grape vines woven between lemon pergolas, the Amalfi Coast had too many wine and culinary secrets left to discover. As with the rest of Italy, Costiera Amalfitana’s hyper-local flavors and singular wines proved a far better reason to visit than scoring that Positano photo for the ‘gram. Though of course, you can always do both.
Casa Angelina, Via Gennaro Capriglione, 147, 84010 Praiano SA, Italy
Monastero Santa Rosa Hotel & Spa, Via Roma, 2, 84010 Conca dei Marini SA, Italy
Palazzo Avino, Via S. Giovanni del Toro, 28, 84010 Ravello SA, Italy