Amalfi Coast: A Moveable Feast

A week of cooking classes around Italy’s pleasure-loving hill town of Positano delivers a primer on pastas and pastries—and an abiding enthusiasm for living large.

From the April 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

A week of cooking classes around Italy’s pleasure-loving hill town of Positano delivers a primer on pastas and pastries—and an abiding enthusiasm for living large.

I am contemplating what, for me, is a big adventure—making a trans-oceanic journey alone. But I have one stumbling block: Memories of a long-ago television show in which a woman takes a trip to Paris for the weekend, solo. I recall perfectly the image of her disappearing into the mouth of the jet way, looking terrified but moving resolutely forward. Ever since, I've wondered what it would be like for me, as a woman, to travel so far by myself.

Wouldn't it be frustrating to have to negotiate every detail, especially if you don't speak the language? Wouldn't it be kind of pathetic to sit in a restaurant by yourself, to witness art and architecture and the random doings of people of another land with no one by your side to share it all with? Or would the fact that I wouldn't have to coordinate everything with another make for a more satisfying and unique experience? Travel in general has been fraught with anxiety for me. Traveling alone? Unimaginable.

Cut to an afternoon when I'm leafing through a magazine—and come upon an ad for Cooking Vacations Italy that offers a week of classes in the coastal resort town of Positano and, for one price, takes care of details: ground transportation to and from the airport, lodging, many meals, and recreation that sounds distinctly un-touristy—like visiting an Italian grandmother's kitchen in the hills of Sorrento. Perfect training-wheel travel! I act before I can hesitate and book myself for a week.

When I arrive in Naples, I'm greeted by a driver (just as promised), a young man with a smile who speaks lovely English. He takes my bags ("Please, please!") and we begin our hour-long drive south along the Amalfi coast. The famously steep and narrow road kinked with hairpin turns brings us to the cliffside town of Positano and the villa where I will be staying. Perched high above the Tyrrhenian Sea, it features knee-weakening views of Positano's pastel buildings clinging to the hillsides. Surrounding the villa are virtual waterfalls of fuchsia-hued bougainvillea, hibiscuses with blossoms the size of small dinner plates, lemon and fig and olive trees, and an organic garden of herbs and vegetables.

A man welcomes me and leads me to my room just off the terrace. Simply furnished, it has a white-and blue-tiled floor, armoire, bed, two nightstands, wall sconces, and French doors that offer an unobstructed view of the sea below. On a private terrace framed by trellises full of fragrant jasmines are chairs and a table.

On top of the mini-fridge sits a gift bag from the cooking school. Inside I find recipes, an itinerary for my week's stay, an apron, and a schedule for the bus that runs by the villa into Positano and to the neighboring towns of Sorrento, Amalfi, and Ravello. Also there is a bottle of prosecco, Italian sparkling wine. I start to put the bottle away—drink champagne alone?—but then come to my senses, pop it open, pour myself a glass, and drink while I sit first on the edge of my new bed, then in my own private chair on my own private balcony.

In a short while, the program's director, Lauren Scuncio Birmingham, who claims Italian descent, arrives. She is a beautiful, black-haired, soft-spoken woman in her 40s, and she tells me that the man who greeted me is Felice Murano, the owner of the villa—one of a number of villas that accommodate her cooking-school attendees. Murano was a dentist but abandoned that profession to build his dream B&B. He makes his own virgin olive oil, limoncello liqueur, and wine (free of sulfites) on the premises, and he will be the chef cooking with us.

Birmingham introduces me to another guest, Rachele Hein, a German woman who looks to be in her 70s and is a longtime visitor to Positano. "She speaks five languages," Birmingham says. "Right, Rachele?" Hein modestly acknowledges this, then offers to take me on an impromptu tour of the property. She shows me a turtle named Matteo, which lives in one of the gardens and comes when you call it. She introduces me to the house kitten and the resident dog, King, which offers a paw to every visitor. She tells me there is a lovely walkway to the beach; would I like to go? I follow her like a puppy.

As we stroll along a path with stone walls and many steps, Hein tells me about some of the people who live in Positano, including a poet who keeps goats and has 22 dogs. She tells me about a nearby island where the late ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev lived and founded a school for ballet, and about Princess Borghese, who lived in a tower here. When we pass a ruined villa, I wonder aloud how such a beautiful place could be just abandoned. "He cut down the trees!" she says of the former occupant. "Ohhhh!" I say, as though I understand, and in a way I do. There is a not quite real quality to this place that inspires a kind of leap of faith, or perhaps a leap of reason. Already I am beginning to understand that discovering Positano is like being in Alice's Wonderland.

We arrive at Positano's Spiaggia Grande ("big beach"), and bear right to another cove, which cups smaller Fornillo beach—and the beach bar Da Ferdinando. The cook comes flying out of the kitchen in her big white apron to kiss both of Hein's cheeks.

The strip of sand before us teems with children playing and adults reclining in bright orange beach chairs. The water is navy blue here, turquoise there, and very clear. The temperature is perfect. Everywhere I look—land or sea or sky—I see a natural beauty I cannot quite take in: It's too much to comprehend. There is nothing to do but sip an espresso and just feel it all.

At dinner I meet the two couples who are taking the cooking class with me (they're staying at another villa). Also present are Birmingham's father, Laurence, who is here for Father's Day, and Birmingham herself. The table is laid with linens and an organza overlay and set with the whimsical painted ceramics that Positano and the Amalfi Coast are famous for: The design on each plate is different, an assortment of octopuses, birds, horses, and other animals. A long-stemmed rose is wrapped in the napkin with our silverware.

We are served sparkling wine, then buffalo mozzarella with cherry tomatoes, drizzled with the house olive oil. The mozzarella is presented on lemon leaves, which impart a delicate lemon flavor. Next come fusilli mixed with a simple cherry-tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese. After that we're offered pork, chicken, and sausage on skewers, with a "limone" salad dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. Dessert is a lemon sorbet. The meal is fueled with wine, lots and lots of wine.

I feed the begging kitten scraps from the table. As the night air grows cool, I wrap the kitten in my shawl, where it falls asleep. I drink more wine and talk some more. I have completely forgotten that I am traveling alone. Finally, finally, I go to my room. I fling open the French doors to the night air and the bright moonlight. And then I sleep the sleep of the dead.

I awaken the next morning to the sound of birds and Murano whistling. These are the sounds I will hear every morning of my stay. Today's program starts with a visit to a Positano fish shop, Pescheria Azzurra, to buy the fish for our cooking-class dinner. Birmingham, her father, and I crowd into the small store carved cave-like into walls of rock. We spot big net bags full of mussels and see clams spitting thin jets of seawater. Then we watch the gutting and filleting of the fish we will prepare tonight.

We wind our way along the narrow streets of Positano, past tourists fingering jewelry and gauzy dresses displayed by street vendors, past stores full of ceramics and linens and handmade sandals, down to Spiaggia Grande, which today is full of artists. We watch them paint, then continue over to Fornillo beach for lunch at the beach bar Hein had shown me, Da Ferdinando.

Our congenial host is Guido Rispoli, who, like so many people here, loves his work—indeed is his work. He shows us to a table and starts bringing out a parade of gustatory delights, from smoked provolone grilled on lemon leaves to a bread salad with tuna. He also brings a digestive called ruta, an herbal grappa specially prepared for us by Mamma Celeste, the chef who labors in the tiny kitchen—and happens to be his mother.

Here she comes to greet us, an 84-year-old woman who still rows her boat out to sea for the catch of the day. She is barefoot and dressed in a yellow linen shift. She smiles widely, her face radiant. I suspect it's from a congruency of mind and heart and soul and hand, plus good Italian skin, plus a celebratory outlook on life.

I sit in that restaurant by the sea and talk and eat and laugh and listen to the boats slap the water and watch birds wheel in the sky, and I think, never in my life have I sat for so long so happily at a table. Just when I think I've finished eating, more food arrives. And when I think I've finished talking, someone says something else and I lean forward, wanting to hear more, to hear better, to hear everything, even (especially) if it's in a language I don't understand. When we watch people speak in words we don't quite comprehend, we pay more attention to their faces and their gestures, which have an eloquence all their own.

That afternoon our cooking group is given a tour of Murano's garden. We admire the thriving peppers, parsley, basil, zucchini, eggplants, lettuce, limes, lemons, figs, and wild blueberries. We pull out shoots of peppery wild arugula to taste. Then, under the lemon trees, we begin the first class, which will center around fruits.

We start by sampling a common summertime aperitivo, peaches in wine. Next we carefully peel lemons to make limoncello, the popular local drink concocted from lemon peels, water, sugar, and grain alcohol. Then we make lemon sorbet, which Murano suggests serving in lemon halves. Finally, we help prep for the evening's dinner by slicing cherry tomatoes, dicing eggplants, and learning that the basis for much of southern Italian cooking is olive oil, garlic, hot peppers, and those cherry tomatoes. These ingredients, cooked, prove to be a study in understatement; none is overpowering or even especially detectable in itself. We learn that freshness is of paramount importance—from the sea and the garden into the pan with minimum fuss, then straight to the mouth. No preservatives, no stabilizers, no artificial ingredients. We also learn that garlic and onion are never used together.

Some of us are privately skeptical that such simple preparations with so few ingredients will render very impressive results, but we are proven utterly wrong. When food is this fresh and this good, it doesn't need any makeup or styling. We dine on artisan prosciutto, followed by pasta with eggplant, mozzarella, and tomato. Then it's time for the fish we bought that morning, now dressed up with olive oil, peppers, garlic, and white wine. We end with a dessert torte of coffee cream and white chocolate shavings. When I ask Murano for the name of this confection, he shrugs, then smiles and says, "Torta Elisabetta!" putting an Italian spin on my name. Such a lovely lie. I eat it up. So to speak.

The next day we visit the nearby isle of Capri, where the roads make those in Positano look like super highways. We take the chairlift to the top of Monte Solaro, where we come upon views of cliffs and sea so dramatic they raise the hair on the back of my neck. We stop at Villa San Michele, home of the Swedish physician Axel Munthe, who wrote the best-selling 1929 book The Story of San Michele. And we visit the Church of St. Michael, known for its 18th-century majolica floor depicting the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Back in my room that evening, I open the French doors to a wave of jasmine-scented air and stare out at a big moon illuminating the otherwise dark waters of the sea. Yachts anchored below me gently rock side to side. The lambent lights of Positano shimmer. I recall how many times I thought about canceling this trip because I was afraid to go, and, really, I have to laugh.

I awaken to a free day—the cooking class meets that evening—so I opt for a little private excursion. Outside I go, up the steps to the road. I pass the bus stop's stone alcove (with its single lawn chair serving as a bench), a waterfall, and an old man standing at the side of the road calling out "Buon giorno!" to every passerby, myself included. At a fork in the road I veer left, down toward the beach and the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta, with its landmark green-and-yellow majolica dome. I step inside and seat myself in a pew for some time, admiring the white and gold interior and the centuries-old artwork. As I watch a woman kneel, her head bent in prayer, I respectfully consider the worth of such spiritual entreaties.

That evening we gather for our second cooking class: Murano preparing linguine with cherry tomatoes, capers, tuna, black olives, and olive oil. The tuna has been packed in olive oil in glass; its taste is far different from what I am used to eating from a can, simultaneously more delicate and more flavorful. I decide this is the dish I will make first when I return home: It is fantastico. We also prepare bruschetta with farm butter and olive oil, tomatoes with olive oil and oregano, red and yellow peppers sautéed in—yes—olive oil, and a salad. You would think that consuming all this olive oil and all these tomatoes would wear thin, but for me the opposite happens: I find myself appreciating them more and more.

Day four brings yet another excursion. "Today we go up to the hills of Sorrento to make cheese and pizza with Mamma Rosa," Birmingham announces, "then we dine with Salvatore, a fisherman, at a place where only fishermen go."

We head out along roads that wind higher and higher into the hills of Sorrento in a fog so dense that it's frightening. Birmingham drives confidently, chatting on her cell phone and making the sign of the cross at every shrine.

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When we arrive, the rest of the class is already in the kitchen kneading pizza dough next to an outdoor wood-fired oven. I join in, working the flour into a mix of yeasty liquid. When we have all made satisfactory balls of dough, we leave them to rise while we tour the small estate with Antonio, a successful international lawyer who gave up that career to return to the family farm. "They were going to sell it, which was like a dagger to my heart," he says. "I told my boss that I have to come back. When he visited me here, he understood." We see groves of lemon and olive trees and an organic vegetable garden. We survey the cows that provide the milk for the cheese made here.

We watch Mamma Rosa make that cheese back in her spacious kitchen, decorated with shiny copper pots. We then take turns molding ricotta into a small basket, removing it, flipping it, and putting it back into the basket. We feel like geniuses.

Next we gather around the brick oven, where our dough balls will now become pizza. We add the toppings of our choice: red sauce, cheese, sausage, tomatoes, and basil are all there for the taking. Then we slide the pizzas into the oven with giant wooden paddles, rotating the pies carefully for even cooking. When they're done we slide them out with a paddle. It's a soulful, satisfying day.

On our return to Positano, Birmingham mentions that Murano has invited us to his house for dinner that evening. What about dinner with Salvatore the fisherman? I ask. "It's so rare that Felice invites anyone to his table," Birmingham answers, revising that evening's plan.

We gather at a large table under the lemon trees, where we're served salami and cheese, pasta with octopus, and a fruit torte. Toward the end of the evening, Murano leans back in his chair and says: "I invited you for dinner because I knew right away who among you appreciates the simple things." He gestures to the floral centerpiece. "These flowers from my garden…." He shrugs—and I understand completely the rest of what he might have said.

Our final morning we have another excursion, this time eastward to the clifftop village of Ravello for a class in making pastry at the Hotel Graal, a family-owned auberge. In short order I find myself at the hotel's chicken coop, gathering the eggs we'll need to make zeppole di San Giuseppe—the traditional fritters of St. Joseph—with lemon cream. I bring them over to the large hotel kitchen, where we students don aprons and chef hats to assist Chef Raffaele Amato with zesting lemons, warming milk mixed with sugar, and piping out a circle of dough that we will deep-fry and decorate with lemon cream. Then we do what we do best: We wolf down our creation with big cups of cappuccino.

Back at my villa that evening we have one more class, held outdoors: making pasta. Into the hollowed-out center of a mound of flour we watch Birmingham drop four eggs, the yolks of which are so deeply yellow that they look orange. She mixes in a little salt, olive oil, and water and, stirring, creates a dough. This goes into a pasta maker and—presto—comes out as tagliatelle. We each get a turn doing this, and it is some fun making pasta that seems miles long—the adult version of kids decorating cupcakes with sprinkles at the school fair.

We eat our efforts on the terrace, as usual, and finish with a delicious lemon tiramisu. I toast Murano and Birmingham in Italian, which I'd worked on at length that afternoon. The toast is a tribute to those who take the chance to live their dream—and it seems Positano is full of such people. I mean it to be greatly inspiring, and I glance up from my presentation expecting to see Murano…oh, in tears maybe? Instead he looks bemused. Then he takes the page that I've read from, with its English words and my attempt at Italian translation, and he understands. He asks to keep the paper, and I say of course. As a writer, it is the best experience I have ever had with a submission.

I sleep very little that final night, partly because I'm afraid the alarm won't wake me and partly because I don't want to miss my last hours in this wildly beautiful place. I feel such gratitude for the people I've met, the things I've seen, the lessons I've learned. Primary among them is this: When you travel with someone, there is a natural inclination to view things from a shared perspective that in some respects insulates you from the experience at hand or even dilutes it. Traveling solo gave me not only a clearer vision of a community and its people but of myself. Because I was alone, everyone, it seemed, took me under their wing. For the very same reason, I let them. And that, to borrow somewhat from Robert Frost, made all the difference.

Elizabeth Berg has written more than 20 novels; her latest is titled The Last Time I Saw You. Italian native Massimo Bassano has photographed for National Geographic and such European publications as GEO.

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