For Ritrovo, one of the best ways to learn about Italy’s regional foods and recipes has been to get ourselves out and on the ground. Visiting the regions, producers and farms, and taking in the landscape. Of course in Italy, no matter how remote the location, an appetite-building stroll is always followed by a delicious, satisfying meal. And so it was during our recent stay in Sorrento.
After marveling from our hotel balcony at its panoramic seaside location and views of impossibly precarious cliff side hotels and terraced landscapes we felt that we needed to be within it—on the ground going through it—to get a true feeling for the place. We were particularly drawn to Sant’Agata ai due Golfi because of its dramatic location right in the middle of the Sorrento Peninsula.
Sant’Agata sui due Golfi is called “of the two gulfs” because its hilltop location overlooks both the bays of Naples and Sorrento, the two famous seas of the Campania region. Sant’Agata is nestled among olive groves, sheltered limonai (well-manicured terraces of lemon trees), and patchwork gardens of citrus, artichokes, and other Mediterranean vegetables. In many ways it is a typical village of the Campania region, only slightly more developed and frequented by visitors like ourselves because of its proximity to Sorrento, the Amalfi coast, and their rich scenic and enogastronomic offerings.
On this trek, we walked for a couple of hours, going uphill from our Sorrento hotel on old stone-paved trails to our resting point, a hotel in Santa’Agata called O Sole Mio. After taking a few panoramic photos from this high point we were enticed by the aromas of lunch being prepared. We soon discovered that O Sole Mio was cooking up dishes for a local family celebrating a first communion.
We poked our heads into the restaurant’s garden tentatively so as not to disturb the main afternoon event, but decided to take our chances to see if there might be a place where two now-hungry and curious food-importer/hikers could sit down and have a classic Sunday pranzo.
Far from being discouraged from upsetting the festive events, we were soon invited into a back garden where one large family was beginning to have their antipasti. Before we knew it we were sitting with menus in front of us, ordering a local bottle of Pompei white wine, and choosing from a range of rustic, osteria-style dishes. Our waiter— Ninno, who happened to be the owner helping out his staff— coached us on how to select from the many dishes offered, each of which he proudly pronounced as casareccio or made in house.
After our uphill hike, these local dishes sounded particularly appetizing to us:
Rolls of roasted peppers stuffed with provolone and rolled in fresh bread crumbs
Classic eggplant strips topped with tomato sauce and fresh melted mozzarella
Small quenelles of local cooked scarola, bound together by a bit of egg and more crumbs
Ninno recommended a local seafood dish made from sweet, pink shrimp from the Bay of Sorrento (cleaner than the Bay of Naples he reminded us) very briefly cooked atop lemon leaves with a mere hint of ripe, local lemon juice
A fagottino of pasta hand-stuffed with more eggplant, tomato, and provolone
And for dessert, a classic almond flour cake dipped in limoncello liquor served with more limoncello beside it.
As we ate through this locally-sourced homemade meal, each dish and each taste spoke of the very essential ingredients of Campania. All prepared modestly and naturally to show off the territory and its culinary riches. It was as if the chef used his expertise as a conduit to transform the landscape we had just walked through, and replanted it in an amazingly edible form on our plates.
Later on in our stay we had yet another opportunity to taste the regional specialties of Campania. Again, they reflected the landscape and were carefully prepared to exalt their quality and characteristics.
Our second arrival in Sant’Agata was by car, accompanied by three great food artists of the Campanian countryside: Antonino Mennella of Madonna dell’Olivo, Franco Vastola of Maida, and Michele Ferrente from Controne. For this illustrious group of local food transformers a different kind of meal in Sant’Agata was proposed: a feast of local but refined dishes prepared by Chef Mimmo DeGaetano and his father at Lo Stuzzichino.
From the minute the local Falanghina was poured until the final viscous drop of the chilled housemade fennel liquor was sipped, we were given a full immersion in the food riches of Campania’s land and sea.
Again, savory sliced eggplant was served topped with mozzarella and fresh tomato sauce. Tiny fresh sardines were served roasted after being sandwiched with provolone and breadcrumbs, then garnished with fresh lemon. And just like at O Sole Mio we were again served local shrimp: this time, local bright pink beauties served in their full crunchy carapaces to be eaten whole (minus their baffi or antennae) with just a drop of—not lemon—but Madonnna dell’Olivo olive oil.
Chef Mimmo proudly presented us with a pasta dish we had never seen before: pasta e patate, a blend of velvety potato puree flavored with a light onion sauté, then topped with shards of rare local Provolone del Monaco. It was our introduction to this extremely local cheese of which Mimmo buys only about twenty-fiveloaves a year for his restaurant. How could we resist floating some bright flecks of Michele’s controne hot pepper and drizzling Antonino’s oil over the top?
Each of Mimmo’s dishes were—like at O Sole Mio—created from all that the local bays and hills had to offer. Mimmo created more drama with his dishes, perhaps more refinement, but each in its own way was a transformation of their territory. A territory beloved by both of these dedicated Sant’Agata chefs. And we, their ready tasters, were eager to trek to the next scenic and enogastronamically rich site.
We leave you with our version of Pasta e Patate, lightened for the American table with the addition of Maida Golden Tomato Puree.
Pasta e Patate with Maida Golden Tomato
– 2 medium potatoes
– One strip bacon
– 1 carrot, finely chopped
– 1 celery stick, finely chopped
– 1 white onion finely diced
– 1/2 jar Maida Golden Tomato Puree
– A pinch (to taste) of Piran sea salt
– One package Ritrovo Selections Odds & Ends Pasta
– A generous pour (to taste), Madonna dell’Olivo Sintonia Extra Virgin Olive Oil
– 1 cup coarsely grated provolone cheese + several small wedges for garnish
– A pinch (to taste) of Controne hot pepper powder
Cook potatoes in salted water until very tender. Mash well, set aside. Chop bacon, carrot, celery, onion, and parsley together. Pour the evoo into a large pan, add chopped mixture and cook over medium low heat until the vegetables are tender and golden.
Add Golden Tomato and allow to reduced slightly.
While tomato mixture is cooking bring large pot of water to a boil. Add pasta and cook, stirring often, until the pasta is tender. Drain and toss with the olive oil. Set aside.
Add potato to tomato mixture, blend until smooth (the mixture should remain quite thick; blend in more water if it seems too thick. Toss pasta gently in the tomato-potato sauce.
Serve pasta topped with abundant grated provolone cheese and garnish with small wedges of cheese. Sprinkle with Controne hot pepper and drizzle with more Madonna extra virgin olive oil.