Food heaven on the Amalfi coast

by Chris.Blackmore

The small town of Minori on the Amalfi coast is a new magnet for food-lovers, with fine restaurants and now its own food festival.

The coast of Amalfi in the south-west of Italy is a well-known playground for the rich and famous, who appreciate its beautiful weather, winding roads and breath-taking views across glittering seas. But for food-lovers, there is another attraction: the hidden gem of Minori. It is no coincidence that this is the birthplace of Gennaro Contaldo, the affable Italian chef and mentor and inspiration to Jamie Oliver, and it is not hard to imagine a young Contaldo skipping school to go fishing from the pier or collecting mushrooms from the woodland above this little coastal town. 
I was in the area for a wedding at nearby Ravello (more about that later), and a group of us were staying in the Villa Chiaro di Luna just across the bay from Minori. We found ourselves in the middle of a heatwave and, as we sipped our Nastros every afternoon on the villa’s terrace, we watched seaplanes landing, scooping up water, and flying back inland to douse the fires breaking out high amongst the lemon groves.
Our accommodation - two self-contained villas on separate floors of the same building - was ideal for our group of four couples. The air-conditioned rooms and shuttered windows protected us from the baking heat, but unlike the neighbouring villa, which had a pool, we had to endure the hardship of walking down a couple of flights of stairs to our private access to the sea, and we spent a good part of each day down by the water’s edge, occasionally venturing across the bay to Minori by pedalo for a much-needed ice cream.
In fact, we enjoyed the villa so much we struggled to leave it. We never made the trip to the famously ruined city of Pompeii, about two hours’ drive back towards Napoli - we didn’t fancy enduring the soaring temperatures with little shelter and no opportunity to jump into the sea to wrestle with an inflatable killer whale. We did manage to drive to Amalfi, along a series of scorching hairpin bends, past roadside vendors offering garlands of dried chillies, all of which would have got even James Bond hot under the collar. He would, I am sure, have enjoyed Amalfi’s cathedral and city square, and would have relished the boat ride over to where the mega-rich play on the island of Capri (the best bet is to find a day tour that visits the island’s attractions rather than just taking the ferry). Or he might have preferred to swoop along the coastal road another 45 minutes and plunge down into Positano, with its great selection of shops and restaurants.
Our friends’ wedding was held in Ravello, the most picture-perfect location on the whole Amalfi coast. After a few proseccos in the town square, and a lovely ceremony at the Town Hall, the wedding party wound its way on foot through the narrow streets of the town, past souvenir shops and cafés and out to a reception at the magnificent Villa Cimbrone, a former celebrity hangout with spectacular gardens overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. And if sipping more prosecco and munching tartina on a terrace looking out to sea past marble statues was good enough for Winston Churchill and Greta Garbo, it was good enough for us. Our happy couple stayed at the nearby Hotel Parsifal - a great location, with excellent food and fantastic staff.
From Ravello, it was a short car journey back down to Minori. You may be able to walk round it in 10 minutes, but you will find a good selection of hotels and restaurants, and a busy little beach with a jetty where the next generation of Gennaros happily fish while the older folks play cards on the shore. Every day, we stocked up on beers, fresh tomatoes, basil, bread and mozzarella (which tasted nothing like the pale imitation available in UK supermarkets!). And Minori’s macellerias (butchers), located about 100 yards from the seafront, kept us supplied with some gargantuan steaks for the evening barbecues back at the villa. If barbecues aren’t your thing, you could consider ordering take-away pizzas from the Ristorante-Pizzeria Giardiniello which were - no great surprise - exceptional.
What about Minori’s restaurants? Without a guidebook (or website!) for recommendations, we asked our taxi driver, whose eyes twinkled: “I know the place. Although maybe it is busy…” Pulling up near the seafront outside L'Arsenale restaurant, our driver nipped inside and, after a few words with one of the four brothers who owns it, we were ushered into a small restaurant of two rooms, with maybe seven or eight tables, the walls festooned with colourful ceramics and model boats.
If you are faced with a menu entirely in Italian, and a very enthusiastic proprietor, do what we did and let them recommend wine, starters, and a good choice of pasta or risotto dishes for main course. We were rewarded with some great Italian cooking - unfussy food, bursting with flavour. An apparently simple pasta dish of linguini with courgettes was a real favourite - we still talk about it, and try to recreate it, to this day.
But l’Arsenale’s speciality is its seafood, and we were keen to try out the pezzogna - a generously-sized sea bream, which had made the short journey from the nearby waters to the kitchen, probably that same day, and been lovingly baked in salt and presented with fresh vegetables. It wasn’t the cheapest item on the menu, but certainly tasted like the most special. The meal ended, but of course, with Italian ice cream, coffees and generous, repeated measures of limoncello, the local (and fairly potent) tipple of choice. At around €30-40 per head, it was a great end to a great week.
Minori holds a food festival in early September called "Gusta Minori" (Tastes of Minori), where local specialities are available. My advice would be to find yourself a nearby villa, and make sure you sample the delights of Ravello, Positano and Amalfi, as well as having at least one meal at L’Arsenale.