From the Phlegrean islands to Amalfi, a sailing trip off the Campania coast reveals awhole new dimension to Italian cuisine—including the perfect lemon
I’m tucking into antipasti under the watchful eye of Antonio the Sailor, whose rooftop patio looks over the centuries-old pastel facades of Procida’s waterfront. Out in the marina, pretty white boats bob and sway like seabirds on calm water that glints gold in the Mediterranean sunset. Tomorrow, I’ll set off on one of Antonio’s six sailing yachts for a food-focused cruise around the Phlegrean Archipelago, a scattering of islands off the west coast of Italy. But first, Antonio has insisted that I join him for an aperitivo at his house.
Antonio might spend most of his life on the water, but judging by the spread he’s laid out for us, he is also deft with a kitchen knife. The table is loaded with plates of veil-thin prosciutto and bresaola; snail-shaped crackers called taralli; plump, scarlet slabs of tomatoes bathing in oil; and fist-size mozzarella di bufala. The herbs and vegetables come straight from his family garden: Antonio shows me the plot out front, a scrap of land filled with beanstalks, tomato plants, and hedges of basil and oregano. He muscles his way into the Amazon-like thicket and emerges clutching a bouquet of mint. “For the mojitos,” he explains.
I met Antonio through Peggy Markel, a veteran traveler and gourmand who leads culinary tours in Spain, Morocco, India, and her adoptive home of Italy. When Peggy invited me on this Phlegrean sailing adventure, she promised a feast both familiar and far-flung. While the islands of Procida, Ventotene, Ischia, and Capri are loosely affiliated with Naples and its renowned Campanian fare—think pizza and Caprese salad—they are also far enough offshore to have developed flavors all of their own. At least, that’s what I’m hoping—I haven’t come all this way to eat pizza. Or to sip Cuban cocktails, for that matter.
Handing me a mojito redolent of freshly smashed mint, Antonio senses my disappointment. “You’d rather have a Bellini?” he says with a shake of his head. “Authenticity isn’t only about what you eat, but how you eat it and who you eat with.” Swallowing a lump of mozzarella, he adds, “Peggy will show you.”
Twelve hours later, I’m surfing the blustery bow of a Hanse 540e sailboat as we scud westward over choppy seas toward Ventotene. The wind and sun soon has our crew of six peckish, right on schedule with Peggy’s plan to drop sails for a midday repast. But with gusts snapping us along, our skipper, “Tony Tony” Scotto di Perta, is having none of it.
A former economist from Naples, Tony Tony shrugged off acade-mia a few years ago to pursue his dream of being on the water—and the man loves to sail. With an easy smile and a cascade of sun-bleached hair held back by a plastic hairband, he could be a poster boy for Mediterranean insouciance. But not today. With the winds up and the boat heeled hard to leeward, his eyes are wild and fixed on the horizon. We make the 26-nautical-mile crossing without a break, firing into Ventotene’s harbor after just three and a half hours.
“Okay,” says Tony Tony. “Now we eat.”
Though the chirpy little town on its shores is splashed in hues of cantaloupe and watermelon, Ventotene is an otherwise austere island dominated by black volcanic rock. Technically an outlier of the farther-flung Pontine Archipelago, it’s so remote that Roman emperors once banished petulant daughters and wives here. Ruins from that era speckle Ventotene, including arched grottos carved from the dark tuff along the harbor front. Created for storage two millennia ago, these shallow caves are now occupied by seamen and food vendors.
The first merchant we encounter after wobbling off the boat is an older, mustachioed gentleman who introduces himself as Vincenzo Taliercio. He is selling jars of preserved vegetables out of the back of a small three-wheeled pickup; a hand-drawn sign on the side of the truck reads PRODOTTI LOCALI. Taliercio tells us he’s been farming on Ventotene for 25 years, but that European Community food regulations were making it harder for him to hawk his produce. The previous year, the head of the local carabinieri had told vendors to either create official labels that listed their ingredients or stop selling. Taliercio managed to adapt, but his brother went out of business.
“I have a passion for food,” he says. “But I don’t know how much longer I can stay ahead.”
I’ve heard similar stories from Peggy—centuries-old markets shutting down, chefs taking family recipes to the grave, food traditions being lost. In a time when “Italian” has come to mean generic pastas and pizzas, the nuanced flavors of places like Ventotene have become harder and harder to find. “Discovering and safeguarding food culture is as important as digging up relics,” Peggy says. “It’s more than anthropol- ogy. By sharing food and breaking bread, we create relationships.”
It also tastes good. Taliercio’s anchovy-and-caper-stuffed peppers burst in my mouth, and the hard goat cheese soaked in chili oil is so decadent and unctuous that I can’t resist loading up on jars.
We continue along the waterfront to Ristorante Bar da Benito, a covered terrace that overlooks a placid bay. Here we find the octogenarian owner, Benito Malingiere, basting swordfish and clams with a switch of rosemary over an open grill. Bushy-haired and wearing a silver anchor on a chain around his neck, Malingiere welcomes Peggy like family and introduces himself to the rest of us as “the King of the Amberjack.” Then he lays out a formidable pile of grilled seafood so succulent that it might as well still be swimming.
After the bones are picked clean, Malingiere, who by this point has given up the formality of a glass and is drinking wine straight from a carafe, begins serenading the restaurant with Neapolitan love songs. He pays special attention to four svelte twentysomething Roman girls at the table next to ours, and they gamely croon the choruses with him. Hours later, as the girls spill out of the restaurant, I stop one of them.
“You’ve been here before?” I ask.
“We come every year,” she tells me. “We have good food in Rome, but we don’t have Benito.”