By Murray Schulman
This past September into early October my wife and I fulfilled our dream of visiting Italy. We spent nearly a year planning this trip as we were determined to maximize the experience in a fixed time frame. Our goal was to immerse ourselves in the beauty and culture of the regions that we chose to visit. At the same time, we needed to satisfy the dream of delving into the food and wine in each of these regions. After speaking with friends and acquaintances that were in the know, we still spent much time deciding what would best meet our individual needs. In the end, we opted to combine luxury, history and strictly authentic local cuisine and wine. This was not an easy task. We discovered that in many regions, over 70 percent of the tourist trade is from the good old U.S.A. This has caused a growth in businesses in the high volume tourist regions, which are designed to cater to the tastes of the American tourist. This has been a boon to Italy’s tourist trade. But it was not what we were interested in experiencing. Our goal was to enjoy the family-owned local establishments that had close ties to each region’s agriculture, art and craftsmanship. After much debate and many plan changes, we finally decided on an itinerary that we hoped would meet our vision of what the experience should be.
The regions that we chose to visit were Venice, Positano on the Amalfi Coast and the Chianti region of Tuscany. Each of these regions was completely different from the next and wonderfully unique. Each presented challenges and at the same time experiences of a lifetime for us. Each region that we visited touched our hearts and even today calls to us to return.
Over the next several months, I will try to share with you my perspectives on each of these regions. Through my words,
I will attempt to paint a picture of what each region offers while tantalizing your taste buds with descriptions of each region’s food and wine. Of course, I will include recipes that tie to each region in the hopes that you will either develop an overwhelming desire to be there in person as we did. Or, that you can experience it vicariously through my descriptions. Now sit back as I begin this immersion into the beautiful and majestic Positano.
Positano lies directly on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. To the south on the western coast is Sorrento, to the north along the Amalfi Coast Road is the resort village of Amalfi. Positano is known as the vertical city and it is just that. We arrived by car from Naples through Sorrento and along the Amalfi Coast Road. The road certainly lives up to the reputation as one of the most beautiful and dangerous roads in the world. The views were breathtaking and the height and hairpin turns had us sliding away from the edge on the seat of the car. Eventually, we pulled up onto a terrace with flagpoles and a sign for our hotel, Le Agave. My reaction was “where is the hotel?” We were parked on a terrace on a curve in the narrow road. Across the road was the sheer wall of the mountain. No hotel in sight. When we exited the car, we looked over the rail. Two stories below us and built into the side of the cliff was a sprawling property that consisted of the various levels of the hotel as well as private villas.
Our room had two terraces. The lower terrace was literally built into the side of the cliff with vines growing along the overhang. The upper terrace overlooked the sea and the pool. The pool was down five flights of stairs. To get to the beach required a ride in the hotel’s Funicular Train to a terrace below, followed by an elevator ride to the rocky beach far below. Truly Positano is a vertical city. I will write more about this area in the next issue.
But, I simply have to tell you about the lemons of Positano. For those of you who have experienced Italy in this region, you have certainly heard about or tried the lemons of Sorrento. These lemons are excellent. But they pale when compared to the beauty of the lemons of Positano. My wife fell in love with the delicious flavor of the lemon tarts that are part of nearly every local restaurant’s dessert menu. First, the lemons look different. They are much larger than the lemons we see in our stores. They have a distinctive nipple or point at one end and they are a pale yellow color. The flesh is rich, dense with fewer seeds and succulent juice. The zest from these lemons abounds in flavor. Limoncello produced in Positano is the best that I have ever tasted. I have a bottle of Positano Limoncello chilled in my refrigerator right now.
While strolling the main street in the town of Positano, we came across an older gentleman selling his own lemon ice that he makes fresh from his homegrown lemons each day. We purchased small cups of the lemon ice from him scooped into old-style squeeze cups and served with flat plastic spoons. We found a cool spot to sit on a stone bench near his cart and took our first taste. As the ice melted over my tongue, I closed my eyes as the flavor overcame my senses. I could taste the sunshine and the trees as I felt the joy and care that he had put into this delicious concoction. We ate slowly to make this lemon ice last as long as possible. I would have embarrassed myself because it took all of my will not to purchase another portion. Limoncello, lemon tarts and lemon bars became part of our daily experience while in this beautiful region of Italy. While it is not possible to duplicate the exact flavor of that region, here is a recipe that I found that comes as close as possible to that taste.
- ½ cup + 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (softened to room temperature)
- 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- ½ cup + 2 tablespoons powdered sugar (reserve as garnish)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and prepare a 9-by-9-inch pan with non-stick baking spray.
- Combine all dry ingredients and mix well to combine.
- Cut in the butter to form a crumbly mixture
- Press the mixture into the prepared pan and bake in the oven for about 15 minutes until light brown.
- 3 eggs (room temperature)
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
- Juice of 2 large lemons
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- Whisk together all ingredients. Be sure that the ingredients are fully combined. But, do not whisk too fast as this will produce an excess of air bubbles.
- Pour the mixture evenly over the par baked crust
- Place back into the oven and bake for 15 to 20 additional minutes.
- Cool completely (at least 1 hour). Dust with the reserved powdered sugar. Cut into squares.
I certainly hope that you enjoyed this appetizer portion of the full meal of experiences that I will relate to you through this series. This is just the beginning of The Chef’s Perspective on the regions of Italy.