Positano: Paradise Italian Style

By Susan Van Allen

There are four things one needs for a good life,” Enzo says, as we clink glasses on the terrace of his Il Mediterraneo restaurant in Positano. “They are wine, the sun, the sea, and amore.”

I take a sip of wine: a vibrant Falanghina from white grapes grown in nearby vineyards.

I stare off into the panorama: a brilliant sun setting into the shimmering sea.

Amore surrounds me, in the “join the famiglia” spirit of the restaurant. It emanates from owner Enzo’s dark sparkling eyes, his waiters (that include his son and daughter), and the packed terrace where diners sing along with a Neapolitan guitarist strumming “O Sole Mio.”.

“I have a very good life,” I say.

The Positano Dream

Author John Steinbeck wrote about visiting the quiet fishing village of Positano for Harper’s in 1953, summing up his experience with, “Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”

The essay inspired American travelers to visit, and more than 50 years later, Positano has transformed into one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations.

Its geographical location, an hour south of Naples on the Amalfi Coast, is key to its allure. Dramatically tucked into a seaside gorge, its enticing windy roads and stairways are flanked by stone houses, restaurants and shops that are built into cliffs.

Navigating through Positano, a traveler has to surrender to old world rhythms, and there’s no escaping becoming awestruck by ocean views, quiet paths and balconies overflowing with flowering plants, beaches, and the happy spirits of its natives.

Cooking Vacations in Positano

On my recent visit, I signed on with Lauren Birmingham’s Cooking Vacations, to get an insider’s experience of the dream Steinbeck wrote about. Birmingham is the great granddaughter of Italian immigrants who came from this region and she grew up in Rhode Island, surrounded by their culinary and family traditions.

Her travels over many years to Italy, combined with her PR and marketing savvy, cooking talent, and passion for discovering the country’s best chefs, are what lead to her creating Cooking Vacations International. The company (dedicated to her great grandmother), offers authentic culinary experiences to travelers up and down the boot.

Positano is the home base for Birmingham’s successful enterprise. She’s created a range of programs here that include a week-long Lemon Lifestyles course, where cooking classes pay homage to the Amalfi Coast’s prized fruit, to a Renaissance Women program, which features lectures about Renaissance women, along with classes in painting, journaling, photography, and cooking.

All her itineraries include escorted side-trips to the gems surrounding Positano — be it a boat trip to Capri, chauffer driven rides to Ravello, Amalfi, Sorrento, or Pompeii, and visits to ceramic makers and lemon groves.

Living the Dream

I showed up eager to get a taste of Birmingham’s offerings, which brought me into a circle of welcoming natives from that first night’s dinner at Il Mediterraneo. Though my schedule wasn’t such that I could enroll in a full program, Birmingham customized my Positano days with accommodations, a cooking class, meals in the town’s best restaurants and expert guidance for my free time.

The Cooking VacationsBed and Breakfast was an ideal base to immerse myself in serene Positano pleasures. Located a 20-minute walk from the town center, its terraced grounds are landscaped with lush bougainvillea, lemon and olive trees, and a few sweet kittens wandering about to add to its homey atmosphere.

I’d wake up to birdsongs, take in the dramatic ocean view from my terrace, and be tempted to stay put and cancel all plans for the day.

A Lemon Lifestyles Class

On the other hand, when a handsome chauffer showed up in a shiny black Mercedes for a morning drive up the coast for class, thoughts about lounging around disappeared.

In Massa Lubrense, a hilltop village on the outskirts of Sorrento, I landed in the Gargiulo family villa. Mamma Rosa began cooking class in the heart of the home, the huge white-tiled kitchen, with a demonstration of mozzarella making.

With smooth, assured moves and her engaging smile, she transformed a big bowl of milk into cheese, astounding us with a traditional practice that’s been carried on in her family for generations.

An idyllic after school lunch on the terrace featured that fresh made cheese, garden grown vegetables Mamma Rosa’s sisters grilled on a wood-burning stove, baskets of thick-crusted bread and pitchers of white wine from their vineyards.

For desert, Mamma Rosa served her homemade lemon cake and gave us a simple lesson in making the Amalfi Coast’s famous liqueur, limoncello.

A walk through the villa’s lemon groves, lead by Mamma Rosa’s son, Antonio, followed. We strolled through narrow paths, shaded by chestnut wood pergolas that are built to protect the lemons from the elements, as Antonio launched into a passionate monologue about grafting techniques he uses to explore and develop new flavors.

Lemon cultivation is taken very seriously in these parts, with the Italians giving Amalfi Coast lemons IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) status, meaning that their production, processing and distribution are strictly controlled.

Dining Pleasures

“You’ve got to have the white fish grilled on the lemon leaf,” Birmingham said as we settled in for dinner at Le Tre Sorelle restaurant.

I’ve enjoyed dinners here before on previous visits, but this meal, where we were catered to by owner Salvatore, trumped all others. The restaurant is set adjacent to Positano’s main beach, and with its candlelit tables, fresh fish and pastas, it attracts crowds of loyal natives and tourists who know they’ll get a quality meal and a great time each time they visit.

Our dinner stretched on late into the warm starry night, beginning with that delicious grilled fish, followed by spaghetti con frutti di mare, and wonderfully seasoned eggplant.

Il Dolce Far Niente

The Arienzo beach, a 250-step walk from my Positano digs, turned out to be the spot where I indulged in what the Italians call Il Dolce Far Niente, the sweetness of doing nothing.

I rented an umbrella and chair, and flopped down in the quiet cove intending to read an old New Yorker. Instead I was lulled into a euphoric state by the sounds of gently lapping water and simply ended up lying there blissfully until lunchtime.

Lucky for me, Melody (Birmingham’s assistant), had given me the advice that, “Ada’s Arienzo beach gnocchi is the best in Positano.” The beach snack bar was only steps away from my lounging paradise, and the gnocchi turned out to be the topper to a dream of a day.

“Fantastico,” I told Ada, after my first tastes. The lovely, energetic signora was even patient enough to bear with me as I practiced my Italian, laughing along as I launched into a stuttering rhapsody about how this was the best beach lunch I’d ever had, completely different from the hot dogs typically served in seaside spots back where I come from.

Wanderings Beyond Positano

Energized by rest and great food, I took Birmingham’s advice to guide me to places near my Positano home. It felt great to hike on the footpath above Positano, called “The Walk of the Gods,” where steep steps shaded by olive trees offered me even more amazing coastal views and brought me to the town of Nocelle.

Outside the tiny village church, kids kicked soccer balls while old men in caps, seated on stone benches, gave me friendly buon giornos.

“I have an aunt in New Jersey,” the woman who ran the local grocery told me. She scribbled down her aunt’s address, convinced that even though I told her I lived in California, the two of us would find each other.

On another afternoon, I took a 20 minute ferry ride to Amalfi, to check out Eva Caruso’s paper shop, located right next to the impressive Duomo. Eva (another of Birmingham’s friends) is an elegant signorina with spectacular dark eyes and a passion for the Amalfi tradition of papermaking.

Her shop features beautifully crafted shelves of her handmade stationery, leather bound journals and photo albums.

I happened to be there at dinner time, and the Taverna degli Apostoli, just outside Eva’s shop, seemed a natural choice. It turned out Eva’s boyfriend ran the place.

So there I sat, overlooking the opera-set-like Amalfi piazza, as the church bells rang for a full ten minutes, while Eva, who’d closed her shop, took on her waitressing job and ended up serving me an exquisite dinner of Caprese salad and homemade sausage.

A Reluctant Departure

As Steinbeck said, “Positano bites deep.” To ease my departure I bought a Metro del Mare ferry ticket to Naples and pulled away from the Marina Grande slowly on a foggy morning.

It gave me the chance to have one last long look and to wave arrivederci, sending out a grazie mille to all the people I’d met, with heartfelt wishes to return to this paradise soon.

For info about Cooking Vacations programs visit www.cooking-vacations.com .