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Amalfi - Paradise Revisited


Article contributed by: Cuisine International

Amalfi speaks to my soul. Crystal clear azure water lapping against craggy black rocks creating translucent foam. Magenta bougainvillea and lush verdant ivy cascading down steep walls, Terraces of fragrant lemon groves carved into the hillsides. Faded pastel homes clinging to the mountainsides. The enticing aroma of pizzas baking in wood burning ovens. These are but a few visions that lure me back seeking renewal in this historically romantic setting.
Since beginning the cooking school at Hotel Luna Convento in Amalfi, Italy 8 years ago, Dick and I have returned each May and October bringing groups to share this wonderful experience with us. This October we relished three weeks of paradise, the last with our 7 children and spouses for a trip of a lifetime with memories of much laughter, many hugs, tears of joy and albums of pictures that will last forever.

Hotel Luna was originally a 9th century convent housing monks [In Italy, convents are for monks and monasteries are for nuns]. St. Francis founded the 13th century cloister, spending many hours meditating among the fragrant lemon trees, dipping for water from the center well. The Barbaro family still owns the hotel they converted from the monastery many generations ago and the Luna continues to have the reputation for warm, generous hospitality. Guests enjoy the personal attention of the hotel staff under the watchful eye of Signora Carmella Barbaro.

As I sipped tea in the Cloisters, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the students on a warm Sunday afternoon, Dick and school director, Rosemary Anastasio boarded a bus to meet them in Salerno. This is my special personal time to meditate and enjoy the historical and spiritual feelings embodied by the home of St. Francis.

Sheer joy and excitement prevail as the students arrive from their panoramic coastal journey and take the elevator to the desk where they get their first view of the cloisters. Each guest is personally greeted by Hotel Manager Andrea Milone; a tall distinguished gentleman who has been with the Luna for over 40 years. Weary from the journey, the staff settles everyone into bright whitewashed rooms filled with antiques on Vietri tiled floors, and balconies or windows overlooking the spectacular view of the town, sea and coastline. No two rooms are alike, each having it's own charm.

After settling in, we meet for champagne cocktails and Rosemary briefs us on the weekly schedule. Students fall in love with Rosemary and her gentle, caring attention. British born, Rosemary was a nanny to a Lady-In-Waiting in the Royal Court of Queen Elizabeth. When her "little boys" grew up, she moved to Italy to begin a new life. Now married to an Amalfitan and having turned "native", Rosemary is bilingual and knows all the in's and out's of the area.Later, Chef Enrico Franzese invites us into the dining room overlooking the twinkling lights of Amalfi for our first taste of his cuisine, and how wonderful it is! Our first course is smoked mozzarella grilled between lemon leaves from the famous lemon groves on the hillsides. What a way to begin a culinary week! Fertile volcanic soil provides a rich harvest, including the Mediterranean vegetables: tomatoes, eggplant and olives. Local fishermen provide fresh seafood daily. Locally produced wine enhances the cuisine. Enrico takes full advantage of all these amenities to showcase his talents. We know we are in for a delicious week.

Weather permitting, breakfast is served on the dining room balcony. Pastry chef Armando arises early to bake the coronetti for which he is famous. These large decadent sweet-dough crescent rolls are filled with pastry cream and cherries or apricot preserves. Fruit juice, succulent local melons, cheese, proscuitto, toast, eggs "with real flavor" accompany the most fabulous caffe latte; strong Italian coffee and a pitcher of steaming frothy milk. For the totally decadent, waiters bring breakfast to the rooms.

Across the street in the ancient Saracen Tower, once a lookout to sound the alarm when enemy ship were sighted still far out to sea, Enrico and sous chef Andrea are busy preparing for the cooking class. Chef Enrico, a lively, spirited Amalfitan with a twinkle in his eye, returned to his hometown after studying and cooking throughout Europe to specialize in his native southern Italian cuisine, now regarded as the healthiest diet in the world. His easy and friendly manner encourages students to participate and enjoy as they learn to share his expertise, enthusiasm and love for the local cuisine of the Amalfi region. "If we could only bring him home with us!" is the response of all who have fallen under the spell of this talented and vivacious teacher.

Promptly at 9:30 the first cooking class begins with Rosemary handing out folders containing recipes for the day. Taking seats in front of the large marble demonstration table with the ability to look into the large mirror above, class was ready to begin. Enrico, with Andrea, his third hand, begins demonstrating as Rosemary interprets mixing her British wit with Enrico's lively conversation and gesturing, making the perfect team.Beginning with the first recipe of the day and throughout the week, Enrico encourages each student to participate. There is plenty of gnocchi forming on grooved wooden paddles, crepe making, cannelloni filling, anchovy cleaning, pasta machine cranking for fresh pasta, rice ball stuffing and rolling, pizza frying, lasagna layering, ravioli stamping, roasted pepper peeling and lots of chopping, mixing, stirring and tasting. Applause breaks out and cameras flash as each student completes a task with Enrico flashing a huge smile and a thumb's up.

Italians in general, and Neapolitans in particular, love their food, especially regional dishes that have been prepared for generations. Enrico personifies this in his teaching by telling stories and relating the traditions of the regional dishes he is preparing while giving tips such as "Always cook with love" and "Never economize in the kitchen." Cooking by taste, feel, always using the best ingredient, engaging poetic license and substituting with "fantasy", Enrico shows how to prepare a dish without strictly following a recipe. Preparing meals in this manner takes out the fear and anxiety for even the most novice cook.

Mid morning, in honor of Rosemary's British heritage, coffee and tea are served on the main floor of the tower, quite often with goodies from Armando or Rosemary. Gazing out onto the brilliant blue bay overlooking the town, Enrico delights in pointing out places of interest such as the villa where Kirk Douglas serenaded his wife. Then it is back down to the kitchen for the final preparations for lunch.

Eagerly, students watch Enrico and Andrea place such culinary delights as Ravioli con Broccoli di Rape, Gnocchi alla Sorrentina, Peperoni Imbottiti and the famous local Maccheroni al Limone on the marble top, anticipating the taste treat that is to come. In true Italian family style, portions are ample. Local wine, a gift from the cellar of Rosemary and her husband, Pepino perfectly compliment the food. Forget diets and any form of self-discipline. This is no time for limits.

With tummy's full and hearts content, thoughts turn to nap time to gear up for a walking tour of Amalfi. With Rosemary as guide, we stroll the main street and explore the back streets used by the locals to give a true Amalfi experience. Along the way visits are made to St. Andrea Cathedral, an ancient hand made paper mill, a hand made leather shop, ceramic shops, and several limoncello shops to sample locally made limoncello, a popular after dinner lemon liqueur. Which is best, the plain or cream variety? This is a big decision, of course requiring several tastings. Olives, salted capers, anchovies, lemon candies and an enormous variety of dried pastas are among the bounty found in the local food shops just waiting to be tucked in suitcases for our culinary achievements when we get home. Then it is back to the hotel for another of Enrico's fabulous dinners.Early Tuesday morning, we head to Pompeii for a tour with Pasquale, our guide. Strolling through the ancient city covered by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, we see a city of shops, markets, townhouses, paved streets, a stadium, theaters, temples and baths, allowing an intimate vision of 1st Century Roman life with its colorful and often highly refined frescoes covering walls. One morning barely scratches the surface of this historic wonder. Our appetites were ravenous from the walk. A simple, but not light, meal at the Hotel Excelsior Vittorio of pasta with tomato sauce, Caprese and ice cream helped save the day, providing energy for the trip over the mountains to Ravello, the most elegant of the small cities along the Amalfi coast.

We toured the lush floral gardens of the 13th century Villa Rufolo with its ivy covered tower that was the inspiration for Klingsor's Tower in Parcifal and splendid vista over the sea and Villa Cimbrone with its towers and loggias enveloped in a splendid natural setting, both perfect settings for group photo shots. The ceramic shops overflowing with hand painted ceramics from Vietri nearly had to close after we used our credit cards to the max! What better way to show off the dishes we learn in class than serving on beautiful ceramic ware! Thank goodness for UPS. Enrico promised to make this evening's dinner light, but in his enthusiasm for us to experience as much as possible, we still had all courses plus an added bonus dessert, the sfolliatelle made famous by Nuns of the area.

Wednesday's cooking class included Pizza Fritte, "to die for" fried pizzas from Naples, Crespelle del Convento, filled crepes that originated at the Luna Convento, Bracciola alla Napoletana, Tiramisu and Lemon Sorbet. The remainder of the day was free time to shop, rest, or swim in the hotel pool or down at the beach. Many took the boat to Positano for a different view of the Amalfi Coast and shopping. Some skipped dinner, opting for wine, bread and cheese their balconies. Others had pizza in one of the water front restaurants in Amalfi and enjoyed watching the world go by. I went to the Luna dining room and had my favorite Caprese and Spaghetti ala Vongole - giving Dick reason once again to call me the Princess!

Thursday, another tough day in the cooking class! Enrico prepared his favorite Cannelloni al'Amalfitani, Risotto con Porcini and Saltimbocca alla Romana, among other dishes. After class we drove along the amazing Amalfi Coast to Sorrento, the inspiration for the well known song, "Come Back To Sorrento. Sorrento is the locale to purchase treasures of leather shoes and bags, gold and coral jewelry, linens, wooden inlaid boxes and other local items. The Bougainvillea Ice Cream Shop with its 365 varieties is a popular resting place!

High above Sorrento in San Agata is the Relais & Chateau Three Michelin Star Don Alfonso 1890 Ristoranti owned by Alfonso and Livia Iccarino. Our final destination for the day is a 6-course Neapolitan feast in their luxurious dining room including a private tour of the historic wine cellar filled with an extensive collection of superb vintages of wines around the world. The cellar was originally an ancient escape tunnel leading down to the Sorrento coast. Livia brings tastings of their homemade olive oil, limoncello and flavored rolls. Chef Alfonso creates extraordinary food based on traditional regional dishes. Nearly all the fruits, vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen are organically grown at La Peracciole, their farm a few miles away on the steep hillsides just four miles from the coast of Capri. It is not unusual to see Alfonso arriving at the restaurant in the late afternoon in muddy boots and jeans, laden with baskets of produce he will use in the evening's dinner.

The end of the week comes much too soon. Enrico spends the final cooking class teaching us to make Lasagna al Pesto, typical Marinated Anchovies, Linguine alla Bella Donna and my favorite, Spaghetti alle Vongole and Profiteroles al Limone, showcasing another use of the abundant local lemons. After class we linger, savoring Rosemary's wine, and realizing this is the last day to indulge in Enrico's fantastic delicious cuisine. The last afternoon was spent in last minute gift shopping for family, friends and ourselves as reminders of this glorious spot or swimming under the bright Neapolitan sunshine.

As the sun slowly drifted behind the mountain illuminating the sky with a brilliant pink glow, the alluring melodies of mandolin and guitar enticing us into the bar. Neapolitan music, like Neapolitan cuisine has soul of its own, so beloved by all Amalfitans. The musicians had already serenaded the kitchen staff so they be happy and content while preparing our Farewell Dinner. Enrico, festooned with award ribbons and medals, joins in the singing along with many of the staff. Other hotel guests are happily astonished as we are musically escorted into the dining room. Enrico goes all out for the final dinner.

We start with Carpaccio from the Cipriani Hotel in Venice where Enrico worked and ended with a glorious cake covered with a gossamer spun sugar topping made by Armando. The soulful music, cool breezes softly blowing, the moon romantically glowing, brilliant stars shining above and the twinkling lights of Amalfi weave their magic and entice us on to the balcony to dance. All through dinner, toasts and tears accompany the joyous festivities along with a multitude of pictures. Signora Carmella Barbaro presented champagne for a final toast and a welcome to return at any time.

Sadly the week has rushed by and Rosemary boards us on the bus Saturday morning for our final journey along the picturesque Amalfi Coast. It is said when Amalfitans die and go to heaven, they know not if they are there because they have lived in heaven all of their lives. We now know the true meaning of this tale. Amalfi has once again woven it's magic as we all vow to return. I only regret I have to wait until May.