Sailing In Search of True Italian Cuisine

  • The sun sets over an Italian harbor.

    The sun sets over an Italian harbor.

  • The colorful waterfront in Ventotene.

    The colorful waterfront in Ventotene.

  • Chef Agostino d'Ambra preparing coniglio all'ischitana - a traditional rabbit stew - at Trattoria Il Focolare on the island of Ischia.

    Chef Agostino d'Ambra preparing coniglio all'ischitana - a traditional rabbit stew - at Trattoria Il Focolare on the island of Ischia.

  • A pasta demonstration in the kitchen at Capri's Ristorante Villa Verde.

    A pasta demonstration in the kitchen at Capri's Ristorante Villa Verde.

  • Beachgoers at Capri's Piccola Marina.

    Beachgoers at Capri's Piccola Marina.

  • Capri's jagged coastline.

    Capri's jagged coastline.

  • Amalfi's 12th-century cathedral looms over the cafe-lined Piazza del Duomo.

    Amalfi's 12th-century cathedral looms over the cafe-lined Piazza del Duomo.

  • Luigi Aceto at his lemon farm in Amalfi's Valle dei Mulini.

    Luigi Aceto at his lemon farm in Amalfi's Valle dei Mulini.

  • Lunch on the boat.

    Lunch on the boat.

  • An onboard lunch includes lentil salad.

    An onboard lunch includes lentil salad.

  • Sailing past the medieval town of Terra Murata on the southeast coast of Procida.

    Sailing past the medieval town of Terra Murata on the southeast coast of Procida.

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Tony Tony won’t eat pasta. This makes everyone onboard giggle under our breath, but apparently even Italians will cut carbs to shed pounds. So on the third day of our cruise, in a still bay at the southeast end of Ventotene, Peggy cooks up a freshly caught octopus and slices it into a salad of fennel, lemons, and potatoes—a local delicacy that’s relatively easy on starch. After an hour spent leaping off the boat’s deck into the warm blue Mediterranean and chasing schools of iridescent fish, the food tastes ambrosial to me. But Tony Tony is the real test. I catch his eye as he mops up his plate, potatoes and all. “It’s too good,” he says with a sheepish shrug of his shoulders.

Together with hours lolling in the sun, this simple, languid meal marks the trip’s turning point. Before this, everyone was still preoccupied with work and home. But in this quiet cove, all of that recedes. “It’s elemental, just like the food here,” Peggy says. “Being out on the waves, in the wind and sun, moving at will from island to island—it’s the best way to appreciate this place.”

Whether it’s the satisfying midday meal, or the sea breeze, or the after-effects of all the empty wine bottles, there’s a newfound sense that even if we never left this spot, the trip would be perfect. But of course we do move on, ticking and tacking eastward on light winds toward mountainous Ischia.

An agrarian backwater till the 1950s, this volcanic swell has since emerged as a hot spot—literally—for its thermal spas. Once we’ve moored at the north-coast town of Casamicciola Terme, we dodge the bath crowds and wend our way up the flanks of 790-meter Mount Epomeo to Trattoria Il Focolare, a sprawling family-run country eatery. Ricardo d’Ambra, the clan’s gray-haired patriarch and head of Slow Food Ischia and Procida, embraces Peggy warmly and launches into what will be an hours-long evening of wine and feasting and culinary discourse. First up is Il Focolare’s specialty, rabbit.

Having likely arrived on Ischia with the Phoenicians, rabbits became both a local delicacy and a vineyard-pillaging pest. To control the problem, the Ischitani invented a unique method of raising the animals underground. The practice slowly died out as industrial farms took over, but d’Ambra has revived the tradition to supply Il Focolare with its signature dish. He leads us into the steep vineyards behind the res-taurant, where he plucks wild thyme while his daughter, Silvia, lures a rabbit from the tunnels for us to see. “The story here is not about the rabbit,” d’Ambra tells me. “It’s about saving our agricultural traditions.”

We walk back to the restaurant to meet d’Ambra’s two oldest sons, Agostino and Francesco, who run the kitchen. Agostino worked a stint at New York City’s beloved Italian restaurant chain Cipriani but was disillusioned and returned to the family business. “They asked me how my chicken parmesan was,” he remembers, shaking his head. “The real dish is called parmigiana di melanzane—it’s eggplant, not chicken. Seventy percent of what is passed off as Italian there is an amalgamation or an illusion.”

Agostino demonstrates how to prepare coniglio all’ischitana, braising the rabbit in white wine and then stewing it in a clay pot with garlic, cherry tomatoes, and the thyme that his dad just picked in the fields. He then shepherds us to a table and sends out platter after overflowing platter of food, from antipasti of prosciutto to myriad pastas and the marquee rabbit.

“We are serving more than food. We are serving our culture,” the elder d’Ambra says as the plates pile up. “We aren’t afraid of becoming modern. We just don’t want to lose our past—our identity—in doing it.”

We sleep late the next morning, and after breakfast we hoist the sails and steam eastward to Capri.
The Monte Carlo of the Phlegreans, this glittering island is a magnet for moneyed Europeans in pastel-hued linen and rhinestone-studded bikinis. Tony Tony drops anchor in the Bay of Naples, where our boat looks like a toy bobbing among 60-meter yachts. It’s the stuff of Bond super-villains, and this strikes me as an unlikely place to shop for authentic foodstuffs. Peggy admits she’s found the culinary side of Capri challenging, but she urges a look anyway.

\Now in her 50s, Peggy is curious and confident enough to approach anyone, and she collects friends with the ease with which other people collect recipes. When our little group stops for espresso and pastries, she excuses herself. Fifteen minutes later she’s back and beaming. She has a lead.

Within the hour, we’re in the kitchen at Villa Verde, one of Capri’s top Italian restaurants, talking food with owner Franco Limbo. He shows us the sea bass and prawns he’s just bought from the fishmonger and demonstrates how to stuff fiori di zucca, the squash blossoms he picked this morning from his garden. Then he insists we stay for lunch and sends a huge sampler dish to our table. There’s mozzarella-filled ravioli, garlicky spaghetti aioli with baby octopus, Caprese salad, the zucchini blossoms, and pizza with olive oil and thyme. The food is perhaps the most delicious of the trip so far.

“This is simple food, but you can’t have it anywhere else,” Limbo says as we gorge ourselves.

“It’s a taste of our earth here on Capri.”
It’s true. The tomatoes in the salad explode with natural sweetness. The zucchini flowers are delicate and floral. And in the marinara, I can almost taste the minerals from the soil. Capri might be flashy, but the food is as pure as the land.

Still, I can’t resist teasing Limbo about the pizza, the ultimate Italian cliché. He’s unapologetic. “Pizza, pasta, pizza, pasta, pizza, pasta,” he asserts, gesticulating with his hands from side to side. “If you can’t make a good pizza or pasta … fahgettaboudit!” he says it without a hint of irony.

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