Postcard from Sorrento, Italy: An Amalfi town overwhelmed by people like us

Our Lady of “Please Save Us and the Entire Amalfi Coast from this Latest Wave of Invaders”

Mythologically speaking, Sorrento was founded by a grandson of Ulysses and Circe, but the geographical features making it a natural fortress – a deep gorge and steep cliffs fronting the coast – placed it in high demand by all powers interested in staking out turf in the neighborhood for thousands of years.

And now the invaders are tourists. Obviously, we are among them. But visitors slipping in two by two is a far cry from the hoards cruise ships docking in nearby Naples deliver to Sorrento, viewed as the stepping stone for exploring the beauty of Italy’s Amalfi Coast. The pedestrian streets of Sorrento are lined with shoppes, as opposed to stores that would offer anything of interest to the city’s less than 17,000 residents.

The small-town streets are clean and orderly compared to the scene in Naples, but are swarming with, well, people like us. Sorrento is a place where we could enjoy a morning cappuccino in a small café for three times the price we would pay in Naples. The setting is dramatic, and the views of the Isle of Capri and Naples are beautiful. But wait, we had a wonderful view of the Isle of Capri from our apartment in Naples.

Sorrento is blessed with several handsome baroque churches, and my favorite part of the jaunt by boat over there from Naples was a visit to the Basilica Sant’Antonino. Little Saint Anthony of Sorrento (555-625) was a Benedictine monk who became a hermit. The citizens of Sorrento coaxed him into serving as abbot of their Saint Agrippinus Monastery. Saint Michael appeared to persuade him to take up their offer.

The most miraculous deed credited to Antonino during his lifetime involved a whale. A mother arrived pleading to him for help, as her son had been swallowed by a leviathan. Antonino was able to reach deep inside the creature’s mouth and pluck the boy out, safe and sound.

After his death, the grateful people of Sorrento built a crypt to house his remains and then erected a basilica above in his honor. His work was not yet done though. The saint is credited with protecting the city from a Moorish naval invasion, the bubonic plague and cholera. The walls of the crypt are lined with cases of silver milagros left by those requesting his intervention in healing various parts of the body and reliquaries of bones of other saints to multiply the potency found within. Retablos depicting some of Saint Antonino’s dramatic rescues of endangered sailors at sea are abundant.

Sorrento takes great pride in its limoncello, ceramics and lacework. We strongly recommend the perfect panini produced in the little kitchen at A’Marenna.

Oh, and the city appears taken with Sophia Loren, particularly after her mambo scene in Scandal in Sorrento.

Sophia Loren and Vittorio de Sica mambo in 1955 film Scandal in Sorrento

We enjoyed dipping our toes into the Amalfi scene at Sorrento, but by late afternoon found ourselves eager to return to the bustling chaos of Naples.

Postcard from Ferrara, Italy: First tastes of Emilia Romagna

This smiling whole hog symbolically welcomed us to the wealth of the traditional foods of Emilia Romagna. He seemed comfortably perched atop the counter of a booth set up for Il Cibo e Chi lo Fa Mercato del Gusto Italiano set up for the weekend on a plaza adjacent to the Cathedral. Although he continued to shrink as slices of him sold throughout the day.

This region of Italy produces some of its best-known cheeses, meats and vinegar. Think of parmiggiano and numerous goat cheeses, cured thinly-sliced Parma ham and aged balsamic vinegar from Modena. Ferrara was an ideal place to dive into some of the regional classics.

Virtually no menu is without cappellacci di zucca, a plump pasta filled with spiced pumpkin puree. It is served primarily two ways, either al ragu, with meat, or in a butter and sage sauce. The best, and most artfully presented, version we encountered was al ragu at Cibo. The meat sauce was flavorful without overpowering the comforting pumpkin. Lebanese were lurking in the kitchen, though, and I broke from the traditional for a chance to order kibbeh, a meat dish I’d wanted to revisit ever since a nephew’s mother-in-law generously contributed it to a Thanksgiving dinner several years ago.

Our go-to pizzeria proved to be Pizzeria Ristorante Este Bar, but the kitchen at the always bustling restaurant is capable of more than a great pie. We had two incredibly good octopus dishes there. One was a rich regional version in which the extremely tender chunks of pulpo topped a bowl filled with pureed cannellini beans and crisped guanciale. Guanciale is cured pork cheek or jowl that is regarded as a much more tender and flavorful ingredient than the pancetta commonly used in dishes at home. Our favorite preparation of octopus here, though, was Sicilian in style, with chunks of potatoes.

Spaghetti here bears little resemblance to the American version of the pasta. Freshly made, it emerges from the kitchen in a thicker, squiggly, more satisfying form. The best we sampled was in a casual, off-the-beaten-path, neighborhood spot, diCibo, that a tourist probably only would find if trying to locate a self-service laundry mat. The perfectly cooked pasta was topped with a bountiful array of fresh seafood.

Both the lasagna and the risotto – aged parmesan makes everything taste better – were great at Trattoria da Noemi. We tried a pasta new for us, passatelli, at Osteria del Babbuino, where a nice blend of jazz is on the soundtrack. With a texture midway between regular pasta and gnocchi, passatelli is formed from bread crumbs, egg and parmesan and cooked in broth. Babbuino’s was offered alle cozze vivaci in crema di cannellini, with mussels in a sauce made from cannellini beans.

Salads in Ferrara tend to be generous but rather basic, so we drifted often to the healthiest other option, grilled vegetables. Sides of grilled eggplant, peppers and zucchini are found on menus almost everywhere, and we were happy to quickly throw salads together at our apartment from prewashed arugula and watercress readily available. I keep longing for watercress to be offered this way in grocery stores at home.

Many of the restaurants in Ferrara still follow the hospitable tradition of providing diners with a complimentary glass of house-made limoncello at the end of the meal. DiCibo instead gave us a refreshing orange version, arancello, and Babbuino offered a choice of limoncello and liquore di liquirizia, my downfall. The bottles were placed on the table with rather large glasses for us to self-administer our servings. A licorice-lover, I poured myself a conservative helping, leaving my glass at least one-quarter empty. Every sip of the deep black liqueur was luscious, but then bedtime came. I was totally wired for most of the sleepless night.

Think the Mister has placed liquore di liquirizia on my off-limits list.