Sorrento, the gateway to Italy’s Amalfi Coast (and how to make delicious risotto)

The first time I visited Italy was with my husband in 2000, some sixteen years ago. We started in Venice, where we spent a magical couple of days. We then picked up a car and drove down to Tuscany. After a week spent driving around Tuscany we caught the train to Rome – a city we fell in love with. Well, we fell in love with Italy.

Last year was the first time we were able to return but headed further south to the Campania region and Amalfi Coast. We fell in love all over again. In fact, I consider it to be my favourite of all the places we’ve so far visited in Italy.

It’s been said that returning to a place is risky; it’s never as good the second time around. Luckily for us we discovered this is not always the case. We had just as fabulous a time on our second visit to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast and we would return again – and again! Everything from the people to the architecture and landscapes to the food, makes me wish I never had to leave. To borrow a phrase from my dear friend Sheryl – it’s my happy place.

Earlier this year we sailed around the Mediterranean for 10 nights with Celebrity Cruises (see my posts of the past few weeks for the highlights).

Seeing as our ship was departing from Rome we decided to stop in Sorrento for a few days first. We based ourselves in Sorrento again mainly because we absolutely loved the hotel we stayed at the year before and couldn’t wait to return. The name of this hotel, an elegant villa built in the nineteenth century is the Antiche Mura. Highly recommended if you’re planning a visit to Sorrento.

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This hotel has everything going for it. Situated right in the heart of Sorrento you can walk everywhere. The front desk is open 24/7 with friendly and helpful staff. The breakfast is delicious and can be eaten alfresco among the lemon trees. There is also a bar and café at the pool that is open during the day where you can order drinks and food. The first thing my husband and I did when we arrived was head straight to the pool café for a glass of wine and a Caprese salad.

As to the rooms, they are stylish and well appointed with everything you need. We booked a Comfort room, which ensures you have a balcony and is larger than a standard room.

I love everything about this hotel – hands down one of the best places I’ve ever stayed. Have I said enough? Are you convinced??

Sorrento is a great town to base yourself if you want to see more of this region of Italy. Many tours, whether by bus, train or boat leave from Sorrento, which makes it easy to travel around. In my next few blogs I’ll be talking about the places we visited in the area because there’s too much to cover in one post.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t put aside time to spend in Sorrento itself. One of the things I love about this town is that you can walk practically everywhere. We never once had to call for a cab or take a bus (unless we’d wanted to leave Sorrento and tour the area).

The first landmark to familiarise yourself with is Piazza Tasso. It is the central square in Sorrento and a good starting point wherever your destination. See if you have more success than my husband and I in working out who gives way to whom. We stood watching the busy traffic around the square, shaking our heads and giving thanks that we didn’t have to drive.

When you start exploring, first take a wander to Villa Comunale. It’s the most prominent park in Sorrento and in my opinion has the best views of the Bay of Naples. The first time I stepped up to the railing at the cliff edge I was spellbound.

The park has beautiful trees and gardens and is always busy and lively. It’s a great spot to do a bit of people watching. Take a seat at one of the many benches and watch the world go by. Or if you fancy a drink or some coffee there’s a bar that serves food and refreshments. And you can usually count on a busker or two to provide entertainment. It is also the place where you can catch a lift down to the pier if you’re catching a ferry.

But Villa Comunale’s best asset is the view. It is quite possibly one of my favourite views on the planet. I can’t tell you how many minutes, hours, I spent there, feeling so privileged to be in that beautiful place.

Fancy a spot of shopping? Corso Italia is the main shopping street in Sorrento where you’ll find everything from big name designers to shops that cater for those of us on more modest budgets. But you needn’t limit yourself to the main shopping street. You often come across boutiques on street corners or nestled among restaurants. Even my husband indulged and he is no shopper!

But I think the most fun to be had is when you lose yourself in the alleyways of Sorrento. The narrow streets are full of life and colour. You can buy practically anything – Italian handbags, clothes, shoes, jewellery, even fresh produce or a bottle of the Amalfi Coast’s excellent Limoncello. I spent hours wandering these narrow streets, sometimes stopping for coffee.

Another thing to look out for as you discover Sorrento is the churches and Cathedrals. They are stunningly beautiful and well worth putting on your list of must-sees.

Particularly beautiful is the Church and Cloister of San Francesco. The monastery portion was built in the seventh century, the church in the fourteenth century. I loved the arches on the sides of the portico. Apparently they often hold classical music concerts in the cloister during the summertime. Now that really would be something.

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A visit to Sorrento wouldn’t be complete without spending some time at Marina Grande. It’s about a fifteen-minute walk from Piazza Tasso, which is a great opportunity to wander the streets of Sorrento. You’ll pass some beautiful villas and hotels as you make your way down to sea level.

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When you reach Marina Grande you’d be forgiven for thinking Sorrento was miles and miles behind you instead of the short distance you walked to get there. It almost has the feel of a quaint fishing village, despite being a part of this very popular Italian town. Once again, it’s a lovely place to sit and watch the world go by or have a swim at the beach if it’s a hot day.

This is also where you’ll find some of the best seafood restaurants in Sorrento. We got chatting to the charming man who ran our hotel bar in the evenings. He recommended Ristorante Bagni Delfino and was even kind enough to try and get us a booking. Alas it was fully booked on the night we wanted to go – which just happened to be our final night.

His next suggestion was Soul & Fish, where we were able to get a table. We had the most incredible evening. I ordered the fish special of the night, which was John Dory. The fish had been wrapped and baked with potatoes and herbs. They arrived at our table with a trolley and filleted it in front of me. It was cooked to perfection and the flavours were incredible.

And while I’m talking about the thing I love most about Sorrento – the food – let me share with you some other excellent places to eat.

On our first night we returned to a restaurant that had become a favourite when we were in Sorrento last year – Ristorante Pizzeria L’Abate on Piazza S. Antonino. This restaurant has a great vibe and excellent food. If it’s a warm evening I recommend you ask for an outdoor table. We only ever ate outdoors when we were in Sorrento last year because the nights were so balmy.

This year it was May and the evenings were a little cooler. So we chose to eat inside. How marvellous to see the interior of the restaurant. You really feel like you’re eating in a traditional Italian trattoria.

I ordered seafood risotto. What do you think? Do I look happy?

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The wonderful thing about Sorrento is that restaurants stay open late so you can head out as early or as late as you like. My husband and I liked to rest for a bit after a busy day and then shower and change. We got into the habit of popping to the Plaza Hotel bar next door where they made the most delicious Limoncello cocktails.

By the time we’d lingered (maybe over a second cocktail) it was often going on for 8.30-9.00pm before we decided to head out for dinner. Sometimes we knew where we were eating if a restaurant had caught our eye during the day. Other times we’d walk the streets, scoping out restaurants and menus. This is absolutely my favourite part of any holiday.

But there is one eating experience that I particularly want to mention. Last year on my wanders around Sorrento I often passed a restaurant that was set up on a terrace. Because it was elevated I couldn’t see in but I could tell from street level that it looked to be a beautiful place to eat. Every time I passed I would stop, feeling almost drawn to it. Sadly we never got around to going there.

This year I was not missing out a second time. And so one evening we booked a table. The minute we stepped onto the terrace I was happy to see that it had exceeded my expectations – the epitome of elegance. It wasn’t crowded or noisy. The other patrons were smiling, talking quietly; obviously enjoying themselves. And why wouldn’t they be?

The name of this restaurant? Terrazza Marziale. A truly special place to have dinner.

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The entire meal was fabulous but the standout for me came at the end. The tiramisu was out of this world. It may not be the most fashionable of desserts in a cooking world now inhabited by foams and liquid nitrogen but when it’s made properly – with just the right balance of espresso, liqueur and eggs and mascarpone whipped into a divine cream – well, it’s a beautiful thing.

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It’s quite deliberate that I’ve chosen to talk about the food I ate in Sorrento last. It seemed a good way to lead in to my recipe for the week – the wonderful risotto. Although traditionally this is a dish from the north of Italy the risotto I had in Sorrento was delicious.

When making risotto for myself at home (and I mean myself literally because my husband isn’t a fan – he has no idea what he’s missing) I prefer to keep it quite simple. That oozing, creamy rice needs only a few embellishments I find.

I know that risotto doesn’t seem the easiest or quickest thing to make because of the twenty minutes spent at the stove stirring. But there is very little prep work involved – apart from blanching the tomatoes. This may sound like too much effort but, seriously, it’s the work of seconds.

The one thing I would say is that I’m not sure I’d want to cook massive quantities of risotto for a large number. It’s the perfect dish for a dinner for two or when you have a friend coming over.

So here is one of my favourite risottos – a perfect illustration of when simplicity wins out. It just happens to look beautiful as well.

 

Saffron & Tomato Risotto

Serves 2

 

50g butter

Dash of olive oil

2 shallots, finely chopped

200g Arborio rice

100ml dry white wine

600ml chicken stock

Good pinch saffron threads

Salt and pepper

2 plum tomatoes (or 3 if they’re small)

40g Parmesan cheese, grated

 

The first thing I always do is blanch the tomatoes. Bring a small pot of water to the boil. Remove the core from the top of the tomato with the end of a sharp knife and then score a cross on the bottom of the tomato.

Once the water is boiling carefully spoon in the tomatoes and leave them for 10-15 seconds or until the skins start to split. Remove them immediately and transfer them to a bowl of cold water.

When the tomatoes have cooled, remove the skins – they will fall away easily. Chop the tomatoes into quarters, discard the seeds and then chop the flesh petals into small cubes.

Now get on with the risotto.

Heat the chicken stock in a pan. The idea is to keep the stock hot throughout the cooking of the risotto. But you don’t want it to simmer or boil – just stay hot. Add the saffron threads to the stock and stir through.

Heat 30g of the butter with a dash of olive oil in a wide-bottomed pan. Add the shallots and sauté over a low heat until soft and translucent.

Increase the heat slightly, add the rice and stir through well to ensure that each grain is slicked with the buttery shallots. Add the white wine, let it simmer for a few seconds and then gently stir through the rice until it’s absorbed.

Now you can start adding the stock, a ladle at a time. You must wait until the stock has been absorbed before adding the next ladleful. The heat should be just enough to keep a gentle simmer going so lower it if you need to.

Keep adding ladles of stock, stirring each one in gently to release the starch from the rice – this is what gives it that lovely creamy texture.

Once the stock is almost gone ensure the kettle is boiled so you can add some water if the risotto needs more liquid. Have a taste and check if the rice is cooked. It should be soft but still have the hint of a bite. If it needs more cooking add a ladle of water and repeat the stirring process until you’re happy the rice is done. Season and then have another quick taste.

Now add the prepared tomatoes and gently stir through, leaving a few cubes for garnish.

Remove the pan from the heat. Stir through the grated Parmesan and last 20g of butter until it’s melted. Put the lid of the pan on and leave it to rest for a few minutes. This resting time will help give you that divine oozy texture.

I like to serve the risotto in pasta bowls, shower over a few of the reserved tomato cubes and pop a sprig of parsley on top.

Every mouthful reminds me why I love food so much.

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7 Comments

  1. Pingback: Italy’s Amalfi Coast – Spectacular Positano (and a recipe for classic Aubergine Parmigiana) – Tracey O'Brien

  2. Pingback: Favourite posts of 2016 – and my love affair with Italy – Tracey O'Brien

  3. Pingback: Dinner for Two – Roasted Butternut Risotto with Prosciutto and Sage | Tracey O'Brien

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