Soggy fish, warm beer — sometimes Italians don't hit the right note when it comes to food for foreigners, writes Kate Farrelly. But when they do it can take your breath away.
IT'S hot. We've enjoyed a boat trip, taken a dip in the Mediterranean and survived a bus ride traversing tight switchbacks on the precarious cliff edges of Via Roma.
And now, at lunchtime on a spectacular summer's day on the Amalfi coast, the waiter has just committed a cardinal sin and brought me a warm beer. I take a swig from my husband Phil's Coke bottle. Also warm. And there is more disappointment to come.
A word of warning to any unsuspecting tourists in Italy: you should give a wide berth to any restaurant that advertises a tourist menu, particularly if there is a well dressed chap touting for business out front. You will almost certainly be unhappy with the food on offer and the service is likely to be patchy at best.
It was my husband's 50th birthday and it seemed inappropriate to argue with his choice of lunch venues in the picturesque village of Anacapri. For €10 apiece we could choose a drink, a main and a gelato - more than enough food to fuel our exploration of this uppermost village on the Isle of Capri, a ferry-ride from Sorrento.
The warm drinks were followed by soggy fish and bacon and eggs that weren't well enough acquainted with the frypan. They battled for space on a plate laden with pale chips and an under-dressed salad. The gelato choices? Vanilla or vanilla.
It was obliging of Phil to make such a poor lunch choice, for surely the restaurant I had chosen for his birthday dinner would, by comparison, be far superior. But two meals into the day I wasn't ready to count chickens.
Breakfast that morning was in the sun-filled kitchen of our bed and breakfast. Did you know that Italians laugh at the notion of bacon and eggs for breakfast and that cereal is mostly eaten as an afternoon snack? I didn't. So I was more than a little surprised to sit down to a table heavily laden with cakes and pastries, befitting an indulgent afternoon tea.
The piece de resistance was a home-made fruit tart, larger than a dinner plate and glazed to perfection. There were cornetti, the Italian version of a croissant, some filled with chocolate and all of them sweet, individual Nutella tarts, a bar cake the length of my forearm and a large selection of packaged cakes and biscuits.
Located in the small fishing village of Torca, just a 20-minute drive from Sorrento, the B&B was our chance to rub shoulders with the locals.
Our hosts Tina and Gianni and their daughter Livia were three of the nicest people you could hope to meet. Tina cooked our cornetti fresh every morning while Gianni dropped us at the bus stop and made day-tour recommendations. The effervescent Livia toggled between English and Italian at a great rate while espousing the charms of the local area and promising us cake filled with strawberries and cream when we returned from our sightseeing.
From the balcony of our room we had panoramic sea views over the Salerno Gulf. One sunny morning, we tackled the walk to the local marina with the charming moniker Crappola. Access was by a steep bush track followed by 700 steps. A swim and a lunch of leftovers at the bottom gave us energy for the hike back.
The village's only restaurant, Bar Vittoria, served deliciously fresh seafood. We enjoyed tempura-style prawns, juicy swordfish, crumbed baby octopus and bianchetti - tiny white fish cooked in lemon juice.
And on our final night's stay, Tina, Livia and her nonna prepared a feast of regional favourites to share with the guests of the B&B.
There were deep-fried zucchini flowers, marinated vegetables, two pastas, sausages and home-made pizza. As each dish was brought to the table, Gianni would uncork a new bottle of local plonk for us to sample. Dessert was a ricotta torte we politely loaded onto our plate, wearing the glazed expressions of the over-fed. Clearly there was much more to Amalfi coast cuisine than a sweet breakfast.
Which brings me back to Phil's birthday dinner, unassailable proof that these coastal Italians knew about more than just carbs and sugar. In Sydney, I had been Googling madly to find the best restaurants on the Amalfi coast. Using traveller reviews to guide me, I settled on La Sponda at Le Sirenuse Hotel in Positano.
We started with a drink in the alfresco oyster and champagne bar where we watched the sky blush pink and nibbled on the complimentary bar snacks. Le Sirenuse is perched high above the Mediterranean, with wonderful views over the striking tiled dome of Santa Maria Assunta and the town below.
In the restaurant, the food was magnificent and the service was impeccable. Not a snooty waiter in sight, smiles all round and impressive attention to detail.
We were seated on the terrace by the maitre d' who was quick to fetch me a pashmina to warm my shoulders. Starting with a selection of handmade breads and an amuse bouche of swordfish ravioli, our meal was faultless from start through to finish.
The best thing about chef Matteo Temperini's menu was its diversity. While most Italian restaurants rely on a seasonal rotation of the same dishes, here we were able to stretch our palates with innovative food that still had its roots in southern Italy.
I started with sauteed prawns on scampi croutons served with broad beans, baby artichokes and dried tomatoes, while Phil chose the anchovy pie with green olives and burrata cheese. For my main, I veered away from mainstream Italian and ordered roasted duck with orange leaves, Indonesian pepper, foie gras and yellow carrots marinated with citrus fruits. Phil chose breaded red snapper with capers, ginger, sweet garlic and lentils and both were lip-smackingly good.
The sommelier was terrific, choosing the best white wine we tasted in Italy, a drop from local cantina Marisa Cuomo, then printing out information on the wine for us to take home.
Two mandolin players roamed the restaurant playing unobtrusive music and sang happy birthday to Phil while the waiters presented a birthday dessert complete with candle. Also gratis was a pre-dessert from the chef, then a plate of petit fours with our coffee and a house limoncello so fiery I was glad to be paying a taxi driver to tackle the notorious coastal road home.
Phil looked suitably sated and the memory of mushy fish and warm beer at lunch was all but forgotten. Who doesn't love a happy ending?
Flight Centre is offering return economy airfares from Sydney to Rome from $1478 for travel May 9-June 15 and July 13-September 12, flightcentre.com.au. From Rome you can fly to Naples with Alitalia for around $165 return or catch a train to Naples and then a train or bus to Sorrento.
We stayed in Villa Mon Plaisir, a B&B away from the main Amalfi coast tourist hubs, where prices range from €60 to €90 a night, villamonplaisir.it. Sorrento is a good base for day-tripping and the Antiche Mura Hotel is central to town. Standard double rooms start at €139.