Italy’s Amalfi Coast – Spectacular Positano (and a recipe for classic Aubergine Parmigiana)

Last week I talked about my trip to the Campania region in 2015 and some fantastic places to visit – Ravello, Pompeii and Capri. All well worth seeing and easy to reach if you’re basing yourself in Sorrento.

On our most recent trip to Italy earlier this year my husband and I decided to spend more time discovering Sorrento itself. Below is a link to my blog of a couple of weeks ago all about the wonderful Sorrento.

Sorrento, the gateway to Italy’s Amalfi Coast 

As we had only a few days this time around my husband and I planned just the one day out. The place we chose – Positano. It’s a town I’d wanted to visit last year but we ran out of time. I consider Positano to epitomise the Amalfi Coast, by which I mean the town is how I always pictured the Coast in my mind when I used to dream of visiting there. It’s definitely not to be missed.

One of the easiest ways to travel to Positano from Sorrento is via ferry. There’s no need to book in advance. Simply make your way down to the port and buy a return ticket at the kiosk.

You can if you wish buy a ticket that will also take you on to Amalfi. But we thought that might be a bit rushed. Positano deserves no less than a full day. As for Amalfi – there’s always next time. It’s not a case of “if” I’ll return to the Amalfi Coast, but “when”.

Sorrento’s port is a busy place, full of colour and activity. Get there a little early to buy your tickets and then sit down and order a coffee. You can enjoy the smell of the sea and the lively atmosphere before you board the ferry.

As the ferry purrs out of the port you’ll get fantastic views of Sorrento perched atop the almost perfectly vertical cliff face.

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And it’s the cliff face that holds your attention during the ferry trip. It’s dramatic and constantly changing. But for me the best part of travelling to Positano via ferry is the moment you get your first view of the town.

The colours of the Amalfi Coast never fail to make me smile – primrose yellow and terracotta; wrought iron balconies and colourful shutters; flowing flower pots and bougainvillea. The way the buildings and houses of the town ascend the hillside is spectacular. And the best way to see it is to arrive by ferry. So please, wherever else you might bus, car, train to, make sure you travel to Positano by ferry.

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After disembarking take a stroll along the waterfront or have a walk along the beach. It’s lined with bars and cafés if you fancy a refreshment stop. Which of course we did. A quick tip – if you head towards the end of the waterfront it’s not quite so busy and you’ll easily get a table. A warning though, it’s easy to get comfortable and the outlook and atmosphere is so lovely. My husband and I could have sat there for hours.

Here’s another quick tip and a further reason to head towards the end of the waterfront. There are public toilets at the end past the cafes and I would have to say they are hands down the best public toilets I’ve ever used. You can laugh but don’t underestimate the joy of finding good toilets when you’re travelling.

Once you start exploring Positano there is some uphill walking involved but nothing too daunting. It’s made easier by the fact that there is plenty to stop and look at as you lose yourself in the narrow streets. The shops and markets are fabulous. There is everything from small pavement stalls to classy boutiques. I absolutely loved it and could have spent hours ducking in and out of the stores.

Once we’d walked high enough to pass the main shopping area we took some time to admire the views. Breathtaking. There’s no other word.

All that walking builds an appetite and there is plenty of choice when it comes to cafés and restaurants. If you’ve climbed high enough I recommend choosing a restaurant on the cliff edge. Go one step further and try to get a table at the edge. It’s an eating experience you definitely don’t want to miss.

The restaurant we chose ticked all the boxes. And I had the most divine tuna tartare. The food was delicious, the weather was perfect and the views were incredible. By that stage I’d decided that it was turning out to be my perfect day.

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After lunch we spent some more time exploring the town and admiring the views before thinking about heading back to Sorrento. We were nearly at the top of the town and so decided to walk to the bus stop on the Coast road. You can of course return to the waterfront and the return ferry leaves late afternoon.

But catching the bus was a bit of an adventure. Here’s another tip – make sure you buy your ticket from a local shop before you head to the bus stop because you can’t buy them on the bus (we had to backtrack to the shops). The road from Positano to Sorrento is high and winding but you catch some great views. My husband and I both thought back to the year before when we had driven the same road in a rental. Taking the bus was somewhat less stressful.

If you’re heading to the Amalfi Coast make sure Positano is on your list of places to see. Indeed it would be a lovely place to stay if you simply wanted to kick back and enjoy the Coast for a few days. I know many people would say it’s preferable to Sorrento – less busy and touristy. But I do love Sorrento and if you’re planning on seeing as much of this area of Italy as you can Sorrento can’t be beat as a place to base yourself and travel from.

As this is my last blog about Italy – that is, until I return – I decided to end with perhaps my all-time favourite Italian dish. That’s a big call. I love Italian cuisine so much it’s difficult to pinpoint a favourite. But this dish is definitely up there – Melanzane alla Parmigiana, which translates to Aubergine Parmesan (aubergine is also known as eggplant).

It is basically aubergine slices layered with tomato sauce and grated Parmesan cheese and then baked until bubbling and golden.

I’m reminded of my first trip to Italy with my husband. We were staying in the Tuscan town of San Gimignano. One night we went out for pizza. The menu was in Italian, which didn’t present too much of a problem except that there was a pizza I loved the sound of but couldn’t make out one of the components – “melanzane”. Our waiter was very sweet but could speak barely a word of English and so he called over the restaurant manager who promptly informed me it was aubergine. Well, I was sold. Aubergine is one of my favourite things to eat. Ever since then I have always thought of this fabulous vegetable as melanzane.

In my blog last week I made a tomato sauce for spaghetti with Italian sausage meatballs. I’m going use that same tomato sauce for this dish but with a slight change to the flavours and no cream at the end.

Although this dish is made in several parts – cooking the tomato sauce, preparing the aubergines, constructing and then baking – they are all very easy and the end product is worth every second spent in the kitchen.

 

Melanzane alla Parmigiana

Serves 4

 

Tomato Sauce

25g unsalted butter

Dash olive oil

1 onion

2 fat cloves garlic

Small handful fresh oregano leaves

1 teaspoon dried oregano

700g bottle tomato passata

250ml water

Salt and pepper

Handful fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces

 

4 aubergines

Olive oil

100g grated Parmesan cheese

100g fresh Mozzarella cheese

 

Preheat the oven to 190°C.

Firstly get a pan on the hob for the aubergines. You can use a griddle pan or a good heavy-based frying pan. You need to get the pan to a high heat.

Now get started with the tomato sauce.

Peel the onion and garlic cloves and roughly chop them. Pop into the bowl of a food processor with the fresh oregano leaves and dried oregano. Blitz until you have a fine oniony pulp.

Heat a large pan and add the butter with a dash of olive oil. Once the butter has melted and is just starting to sizzle add the onion pulp and sauté until soft and the liquid from the onions has evaporated. This should only take a few minutes.

Add the bottle of passata and the water and stir well. Season with salt and a generous grinding of pepper. Bring to a good simmer and leave to simmer for 20-25 minutes. By this time it should have reduced a little and thickened. Taste and check the seasoning. Once you’re happy remove from the heat and stir through the basil leaves.

While the tomato sauce is simmering you can cook the aubergines. To prepare them, trim each end and then cut lengthways into 1cm slices. Brush each side with olive oil. Place them in the pan and cook each side until charred and golden. You’ll need to do this in batches.

After each batch place the slices on a plate lined with kitchen towel and place a piece of kitchen towel between each batch as you transfer to the plate.

Once the aubergines and tomato sauce are ready you can start constructing the dish.

You’ll see below the oven dish I’ve used (approx. 26cm x 26cm) but an oval shaped one would also work well. Use a ladle to pour tomato sauce on the bottom of the dish and spread it out into a thin layer. Place a layer of aubergines on top. Now ladle tomato sauce over the aubergines, once again carefully spreading it out so it covers them. Take your Parmesan and sprinkle a layer of the grated cheese over the tomato sauce. Now another layer of aubergines and tomato sauce and another sprinkling of Parmesan. Repeat this once more so that you have three layers of aubergine and finish with layers of tomato sauce and Parmesan.

Slice the fresh mozzarella and place the slices over the top. Sprinkle over a final scattering of Parmesan cheese.

Place the dish on an oven tray and bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes. It should be bubbling and the mozzarella should be scorched and golden.

Your kitchen will smell incredible as it bakes.

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Now how to serve this baby. I know it is often considered a vegetable side but I think this very special dish demands to be the star of the show. So I serve it with a crisp green salad and slices of Ciabatta that I’ve lightly grilled. The crunchy bread is absolutely delicious when you use it to mop up the tomato sauce. It’s a beautiful thing.

Buon Appetito!

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6 Comments

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

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