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Facing the Bay of Naples on the Sorrentine Peninsula

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Beautiful Southwestern Italy

In Italy travels south! Come with us to the Amalfi Coast, one of the most spectacular stretches of seaside in the world. Sample the wares at a renowned 4-star restaurant. Visit the Greek temples of Paestum. Tour the Royal Palace at Caserta, which rivals the one at Versailles. Download our calendar of local folklore events, our guide to the works of Luca Giordano in Naples, and our suggestions for hotels, villas and farms that accept guests.

Like Eggplant For Chocolate: A Visit With Campania's Leading Chef

Last fall I found myself in the kitchen of Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890 in Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi, a tiny village at the western tip of the Amalfi coast. I went with a group of food and wine professionals assembled from six countries to meet the restaurant's chef and proprietor, Alfonso Iaccarino. But we had not come for the setting. We came for the food, in particular a famed dessert of eggplant and chocolate.

Only a man so passionate about food and so confident of his opinions as Alfonso would prepare such an unorthodox dish for a gathering of international foodies. Alfonso's passion and confidence about food inspire controversy among professionals and ordinary diners alike, and they make a trip to his restaurant memorable.

Alfonso runs the restaurant with the assistance of his wife, Livia, and what seems like a cast of thousands. Because he believes in using the freshest local ingredients raised without chemicals or preservatives, and he always works within the traditions of the region, virtually all of the food prepared in his kitchens comes from Le Pecciarole, his farm in nearby Punta Campanella. Other food, especially seafood, and many of the wines in their cellar, are produced by local fishermen, farmers, artisans and winemakers. It seems that almost everyone in the region somehow contributes to the cuisine of Don Alfonso.

Alfonso's emphasis on local ingredients and regional traditions leads to quite unexpected results. American notions of Neapolitan cuisine must be discarded (which is probably a good idea in any event). Alfonso has taken the time to look back at the history of the region and the country to find the essence of traditional cooking. The results are often surprising. Garlic and tomato play only a secondary role. Beef is served with raisins. Chocolate is paired with eggplant.

After watching Alfonso in the kitchen, our group proceeded to the dining room to taste the results of the staff's labors. Alfonso and Livia joined us at the table and added further explanations as lunch was served. It began with Treccine di Pesce Azzurro agli Ortaggi Autunnali in Leggero Carpione: braided strips of bluefish fillet served atop julienned carrots, celery and onion in a warm oil and vinegar dressing. The dish was pretty to look at, yet quite simple, reflecting traditional fish preparations used by peasants in the region for many years.

Next came the pasta, Ravioli di Caciotta al Pomodorino e Basilico. The pasta itself was made with flour and olive oil, instead of flour and eggs as is typical in most of Italy. The caciotta, a cheese filling made from sheep's milk, was seasoned with fresh marjoram (which grows wild on the hillsides of Campania). The ravioli were lightly dressed with "sauce:" a small amount of chopped tomato sauteed lightly in olive oil. Basil leaves were sprinkled on top. I generally find pasta with olive oil to be less appealing than egg pasta, and this was no exception. However, Alfonso feels it is more important to follow the regional tradition, which stems from the fact that chickens and eggs were relatively scarce until recent times. The herbed cheese was the highlight of the dish.

The principal course was Braciola di Annecchia con Uvetta e Pinoli su Crema di Pomodoro e Scarola: strips of sirloin of baby beef had been spread with pine nuts, raisins, parsley and garlic and then rolled up. The "roll ups" were baked in a hot oven with olive oil and tomato sauce. Separately, a sauce of escarole, pine nuts, raisins and garlic was made and the "roll ups" were served on top of this sauce. Alfonso had reached back to the noble traditions of Medieval and Renaissance times, when red meat was often accompanied by raisins and pine nuts.



Finally came the exotic-sounding dessert: Pasticcio di Melanzane con Cioccolata: squares of sponge cake were topped with sweetened ricotta cheese studded with candied fruit and chocolate pieces. Slices of steamed eggplant were placed on top of the ricotta mixture, then the whole thing was covered with a white chocolate sauce flavored with Marsala. The dish was pleasant enough, by no means as startling as the name might imply.

Capri: Do It in a Day

It sounds impossible, but a day trip to Capri (pronounce it CAH-pree, please!) can be pleasant and unforgettable if you plan it right. Giving yourself plenty of time to navigate Naples traffic, take the very first hydrofoil of the morning from Beverello or Mergellina. The trip lasts about 40 minutes and leaves you at the dock in Capri's Marina Grande. From there, hop immediately onto one of the boats bound for the Blue Grotto (make sure it's not "Blue Grotto and the Tour of the Island"). True, the Blue Grotto is a tourist trap par excellence, but it really is spectacularly beautiful. When I lived in Anacapri, I swam in the luminescent water of this seaside cave every day at 7 a.m., before the boats arrived. It's forbidden, sometimes dangerous and always magical.

Afterwards, return to Marina Grande and take the funicolare up to Piazza Umberto I (the Piazzetta), a charming square that is basically one big outdoor cafe. Follow either Via Longano or Via Le Botteghe to the crossroad, then take Via Matromania to the Natural Arch. On the way, you might want to stop at Bar Paradiso, a simple place hidden above one of the most spectacular views in Italy. Have an insalata caprese (slices of tomato served with mozzarella and basil leaves) and some of the local bianco caprese white wine. After lunch, continue to the Grotta di Matromania, a natural cave where the ancient Romans staged strange rituals to worship the gods. Walk down the steps to the well-maintained path that leads to Tragara; you will have Capri's most famous landmarks, the Faraglioni, to your left the whole time. From the terrace, follow Via Tragara, one of the most gorgeous streets on earth, back to the Piazzetta. This walk (sans lunch!) takes about 90 minutes; it is steep at times and always breathtaking (in more ways than one).

If you're still ready for more, walk a few yards from the Piazzetta and take a bus to Anacapri. The 10-minute ride is dramatically beautiful and equally hair-raising. Get off at Piazza della Vittoria and walk 5 minutes down Via San Michele to Axel Munthe's Villa di San Michele, a lovely garden mecca filled with classical statuary. You can top off the day with a chairlift ride up Monte Solaro (from Piazza della Vittoria), where you will be rewarded with even more wonderful views of the Bay of Naples; or walk down the hill a few hundred yards to the church of San Michele, with its world-famous majolica floor depicting Adam and Eve in Paradise. When you're ready to leave Anacapri, take the bus straight back to Marina Grande, where you'll catch the hydrofoil to Naples.

If you want to stay overnight, I recommend a hotel called Casa Morgano, on the Via di Tragara. Its rooms cascade down the hillside; you can have breakfast on your own ample terrace, lunch next to the pool. It's no longer the bargain it used to be, but it's well worth the cost, which is still reasonable for Capri. Splurgers should stay nearby, at the more expensive Punta Tragara, a luxurious 33-room villa with views of the Faraglioni. "Budget" is not really a word that applies in Capri, but you'll pay much more moderate rates at Villa Krupp, a lovely, spacious and clean mansion that was the favorite of Lenin and Maxim Gorky. No credit cards.

Luca Giordano

Although his frescoes in Spain's Escorial are renowned, and his paintings are displayed in Toledo (Spain), Florence and Venice, nowhere will you see more of his work than in Naples, where he was born in 1632. Extremely skilled at copying the styles of other master artists, Giordano worked rapidly enough to be nicknamed Luca Fa Presto (Luca the Quick). So dumbfounded was the Spanish Viceroy by Giordano's speed and artistry that he proclaimed he was "either an angel or a demon." When he died in Naples in 1705, his fame was equaled by no other artist of his generation. Use your stay in Naples to acquaint yourself with the work of this fine and often poignant craftsman. Here is a partial list of works and their locations:

San Domenico Maggiore (Piazza San Domenico): Madonna and Child with St. Thomas (7th chapel on the right); Appearance of Christ to Sts. Thomas and Vincent Ferrer (1st chapel right of the high altar).

San Gregorio Armeno (Via San Gregorio Armeno): located on a street lined with shops selling that best of Neapolitan arts, the Christmas nativity scene, this 16th-century church is a sumptuous combination of baroque and roccoco. Arrival of the Nuns (including a self-portrait); St. Gregory Consecrated Bishop; The Legend of St. Gregory and King Tiridates (all in the 3rd chapel on the right).

Gesù Nuovo (Piazza del Gesù): modeled after the Jesuit church of the same name in Rome, yet considered by many to be more successful. The Legend of St. Francis Xavier (1st chapel on the right).

Cathedral of San Gennaro (Via del Duomo): Apostles and Saints (walls of the nave and transept); Translation of the Body of St. Restituta (vault of the church of Santa Restituta, Naples' oldest church, reached through a door on the left aisle of the cathdral).

Girolamini (piazza dei Girolamini): one of the grandest late 16th-century churches in Naples. Christ Drives Moneychangers from the Temple (above entry); St. Mary Magdalen (5th chapel on the right); Meeting of St. Carlo and St. Filippo Neri (3rd chapel on the left).

Capodimonte Museum (Parco di Capodimonte): several of Giordano's works are visible in Rooms 40 and 41. Open Tuesday to Saturday 9-2, Sunday 9-1.

Royal Palace (Piazza del Plebiscito): Patron Saints of Naples Adoring the Cross (Room 11). Open Tuesday to Saturday 9-2, Sunday 9-1.

SS. Apostoli (Largo SS. Apostoli 8): Four canvases (walls of the crossing).

Santa Brigida (off Via Toledo): Luca Giordano is buried in this church, which hosts many fine pictures by him, including Apotheosis of St. Brigida (cupola) and the frescoes in the pendentives.

The Cathedral is dedicated to Saints Philip and James. It was constructed in the 15th century on the site of an older church and has been reconstructed several times over the centuries because of the Saracen invasions and natural disasters. Ancient Roman columns were used for the façade, rebuilt in 1924. Inside there are some medieval artistic items, the 16th century episcopal throne and pulpit, and various important paintings. At a short distance from the church is a singular campanile, dating back to the 16th century, built on an arch supported by columns from the classic period. The poet Torquato Tasso was baptised here in 1544.

Recommended Excursions: Ruins of the ancient Surrentum; Marina Piccola; Marina Grande; the Correale Museum of Terranova.

Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Lauro

The Sanctuary rises on the site of an ancient pagan temple dedicated to Minerva, where, according to tradition, a statue of the Madonna was miraculously found under a laurel bush. The foundation of the building dates back to the 10th century, but over the course of the centuries there have been various reconstructions. The profound Marian devotion is attested to by many devotional offerings, particularly of the marine type, which are preserved in the church. The effigy of the Madonna del Lauro was crowned by the Vatican Chapter in 1748.

Recommended Excursions: Marina of Meta; Alimuri beach; Visit to Alberi.