Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Winter on the Amalfi Coast and Real-Deal Neapolitan Pizza

View of Arienzo, Amalfi Coast, Italy.
So, I've been gone, but there's been a pretty good reason. Along with nursing my elderly dog, Charlie, who has not been doing well these days, and somehow getting a herniated disc in my neck (getting old sucks), I had the opportunity to fulfill one of my bucket list travel dreams-- Italy. Nearly seven years ago, my husband and I agreed that, come hell or high water, we would somehow get ourselves over to Rome and the Amalfi Coast and essentially eat and drink as much as our wallets and stomachs would allow. So, when I happened across one of those not-to-be-missed ticket sales on US Airways that surprisingly included a decently-priced upgrade to business class (which, if you can afford the extra cost, is an excellent way to rack up some serious frequent flyer points quickly-- 21,000 to be exact, which is enough for a RT domestic ticket) I jumped all over it.
Planning a trip to Italy can be quite overwhelming, especially if your sole purpose is to partake of some of the best food and wine this country has to offer, yet you've only got a mere seven days to do this. So, after careful consideration and quite a bit of back and forth, we decided to hit Rome for a few days, then the medieval village of Mazzano Romano to learn how to make Roman-style pasta with Chef Fabio Bongianni at his home, where we also stayed the night and rang in the New Year (a totally separate post in and of itself---amazing experience). From there, we decided to drive to Positano (not for the faint of heart) and the Amalfi Coast for several more days and then, bang, it was back on the plane to the states.  Not long enough, for sure, not even close, but real life seems to find you no matter how far away from home you are and you just got to get back.
So to begin, here's little glimpse of what you'll find when traveling to the Amalfi Coast.
Sunset dinner at Li Galli in Positano
Positano is so picturesque is almost seems unreal. Around 1pm, al fresco dining literally takes over (and we were darn lucky to get 60 degrees in January) where diners sip glasses of wine made from local Anglianico grapes from the Campania region and nibble multi-course meals dominated by specialties from the sea: spaghetti with wild clams, fritto misto's laden with local squid, zuppa de pesce and anything and everything made from the famed Amalfi lemons, which can plucked from the trees during winter to accent semifreddo's, baba's and fluffy sponge cakes.

No meal is complete without a chilled glass of locally made Limoncello alongside a cup of espresso. An average lunch can last several hours, a heady nod to the origins to the slow food line of thought. After three days of this style of dining, one can't help but ponder, "I could seriously get used to this."
Then, there's the pizza....
Let me start off by saying that this is not a post about what constitutes authentic Neapolitan-style pizza or otherwise, since I have come to discover, for some-such odd reason, pizza has become an incredibly touchy subject for foodies across the board. I didn't come to Amalfi, which is less than hour from Naples by the way, to research authentic versus non authentic pies or what the VPN Association considers "real Neapolitan pizza" or the like. I came here to chill out with my husband, eat great food, drink plenty of local wine and generally be on vacation, which considering I write about food and travel for a living, is a rare opportunity these days.

I wanted to shut my food brain off for one week and simply taste real Italian pizza for the first time, and believe me, we ate ALOT of it, mainly because it was cheap, with a 14-inch sized pie costing about 10-12 Euros. Two pies alongside a bottle of wine for 10 Euros and you're sitting pretty for pricey Italy. 
When it came to my first bite of Naples-style pizza, we hit the well-known Bucca di Bacco in Positano. Since it was the off-season, the main restaurant and accompanying hotel were closed (like most places in Positano during this time of year, so take note) but the outdoor restaurant which sits right on the beach was open.

We ordered our wine, pet the chubby dog, who clearly has had his share of pizza nibbles, and finally decided on two classic pies: an olive oil based white pizza topped with fresh porcini mushrooms and a tomato sauce based pizza topped with mozzarella and arugula.

Both arrived fresh out of the wood-fired oven, and unlike American-style pies were uncut, something we saw repeatedly during our pizza-eating extravaganza. In most places in Italy, pizzas arrive wholly intact with diners receiving a knife and fork to eat their pie one bite at a time. We never saw a local pick up a slice and eat it by hand when dining in a sit down restaurant. Not once.

As far as the Neapolitan pies go in and of themselves, as you can imagine, they were amazingly good and surprisingly simple. Upon first bite, the thin crust had a lovely salty crunch which soon morphed into a chewy almost earthy, yeasty flavor that paired effortlessly with the umami-laden porcini's. As far as the standard slightly soggy center that Neapolitan pizza's are said to exhibit, this one, while having a firm crust at the edges, was indeed slightly soggy in the center. Perhaps there's a better word here than soggy (such as pillowy?) since by no means was the pizza wet or loose in the middle. It simply wasn't uber-crispy.

The pizza rucola was slightly softened in the middle as well, even a bit more than its white counterpart due to the generous amount of San Marzano tomato sauce on its crust. We had this style of pizza several times while in Italy, topped with everything from hand-pulled buffalo mozzarella to nothing but a little Parmesan and fresh basil. Like the porcini pizza, the crust was crispy, a bit salty and had just the right amount of black char to give it depth, yet the chopped arugula added another layer of peppery flavor. So divine.

The key to all this goodness is simplicity. All of the pizzas we sampled were very lightly dressed and flavored. No crazy-on-the-garlic flavor (sorry Mamma Zu). No gooey cheese-laden pies piled high with ground beef, sausage, bacon etc...and no fancy schmancy toppings like smoked gouda, chicken or pineapple (blech) and no greasy, bready crust (a la Bottom's Up). Just wood-fired crusty goodness delicately accented with a locally grown tomatoes, handmade mozzarella (or ricotta) and olive oil made from olive trees only miles away.

Keep an eye out for more Italy posts.  Next up, the medieval village of Mazzano for New Years and two days in Rome.

All photos and text ©2010 Fatback and Foie Gras. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission
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  1. Kendra, you brought me there. Positano is on my bucket list too. I'm one-half Italian and had no idea the pizza wasn't cut and the no one ever ate it with their hands.

    Loved this.

  2. Thanks so much Denise. If you ever get the chance to go anywhere in Amalfi, it's totally worth it, and the off-season is so much nicer (no tourists and no traffic).


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