Italy always looms large for American travelers, but over the past two years its unique blend of centuries-old traditions and big-hearted resilience has proven particularly magnetic. We watched videos of locked-down locals singing from their balconies, soaked up the cinematic sun in the Disney/Pixar film Luca, and ate vicariously through Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy—and now we’re ready to get back there! Perhaps the purest sense of la dolce vita can be found along the Amalfi Coast. A favorite of everyone from John Steinbeck to Jackie Kennedy, the roughly 30-mile stretch of resort towns is magnificent, but it’s only one of many draws to the culturally rich region of Campania. Before making the trek to the coast, be sure to visit the underrated city of Naples and the ruins of Pompeii, which stand in the shadows of mainland Europe’s only active volcano, the legendarily destructive Mount Vesuvius. It’s a place where Diego Maradona and margherita pizzas are religion, and where a piece of history can be found around every cliffside curve.
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Baroque grandeur and too much pizza in Naples
Naples is in my blood. Along with Sicily, it’s one of the areas my family emigrated from in the late 19th century. Neapolitan cuisine defined the meaty ragù my great-grandmother cooked every Sunday, the city’s famed presepe (Nativity scene) came out each holiday season, and, for better or worse, colorful dialectal profanities and hand gestures peppered our conversations. And yet, until now, I’ve never stepped foot south of Rome.
So, before I tackle the resplendent beauty of the Amalfi Coast, I have to pay my respects to Southern Italy’s largest city. I awake at the bayfront Romeo Hotel, where I have a perfect view of the hilltop Castel Sant’Elmo fortress and countless balconies strung with drying laundry. While I could spend the day down in the hotel’s subterranean spa, the place is filled with details that practically beg me to explore the city. “Go check out some antiquities!” my room’s lava stone vase implores. “See what all that Pompeii fuss is about,” demands the Andy Warhol print of Mount Vesuvius at reception.
Walking shoes on, I head for the 162-year-old Gran Caffè Gambrinus, an Art Nouveau jewel box where I order a pistachio cream–topped espresso and one of the city’s signature sfogliatelle, a crisp, seashell-shaped pastry filled with orange-scented ricotta. The café is a great place to participate in the tradition of il caffè sospeso (“suspended coffee”), which became popular amid the economic hardships of World War II. The idea is to “pay it forward,” not with a kind word or a good deed, but by literally paying for the next customer’s cup of coffee.
Fortified, though not particularly caffeinated (pistachio coffee is more confection than pick-me-up), I stroll through the adjacent Piazza del Plebiscito and past the grand royal palace. From the steps of the Pantheon-like Basilica di San Francesco di Paola, I catch my first glimpse of Mount Vesuvius between two buildings. Even from this distance, the (still-active!) volcano is so imposing that I let out a hushed expletive.
Across the piazza, I join a tour of the Teatro di San Carlo, the world’s oldest continuously operating opera house, which opened in 1737. I feel as if I’m stepping inside a Fabergé egg—all red velvet and gilt and plaster cherubs covering six tiers of seating. French author Stendhal (of the namesake “syndrome” that involves overdosing on art and beauty) wrote in his 1817 journal, “There is nothing in all of Europe comparable to this theater, that gives the slightest idea of what it is like. It dazzles the eyes, enraptures the soul.”
For lunch, I’m prepared to be enraptured by the dazzling inventiveness at the Rione Sanità district’s Da Concettina ai Tre Santi, perhaps the only restaurant in the world that would make both a gourmand and a third-grader equally giddy. Here, wunderkind chef Ciro Oliva, whose family has run the place since 1951, offers up a 10-plus-course pizza-tasting menu.
“Make a fist,” Oliva says, spooning caviar from Lombardy onto the back of my hand, “and now give me one cin cin!” I toast and lick, and the procession begins. “Always eat with your hands!” the chef insists, as he brings out slice after slice. There are black truffles from Calabria, cherry tomatoes grown in the volcanic soil around Vesuvius, basil plucked from a pot shaped like the head of mid-century Italian comedian Totò, a spaghetti alle vongole–inspired slice with clam cream, a frittatine (basically a mac ’n’ cheese ball) slathered in onion-rich Genovese sauce, a smoked amberjack–stuffed fried pizza, and another topped with crumbled taralli (the city’s ubiquitous breadstick-like bar snack) and paired with lager to evoke a day at home watching soccer on the couch. Many of the other courses come with wines, such as the effervescent red Ottouve Gragnano from the nearby Sorrentino Peninsula. The man responsible for the pairings, Emanuele Labagnara, was named Italy’s best sommelier in 2019—the first time that honor was given to someone who works at a pizzeria.
“Open your mouth please,” Oliva says, placing prosciutto on my tongue like a communion wafer. I may have a few churches on my schedule today, but this meal is my version of a religious experience.
I find more religion as I stroll through the UNESCO World Heritage–designated Centro Storico, a Gordian knot of tightly packed alleyways and, frankly, too many churches, each hiding its own treasures, including a vial of San Gennaro’s blood (at the Duomo) and Caravaggio’s The Seven Acts of Mercy (at the Pio Monte della Misericordia). There’s even an entire alley, Via San Gregorio Armeno, dedicated to Nativity figures and kitschy statuettes—just in case you want to add Meghan Markle to your manger scene.
I continue along to the Chiostro di Santa Chiara, a clutch of Gothic cloisters decorated with dazzlingly colorful majolica tiles. The peaceful courtyard, tucked behind a high stone wall, is suspiciously empty of tourists. I’ve heard the same rings true at the Museo di Capodimonte, a venerable art institution in a hilltop former palace, surrounded by a forested public park that overlooks the city. (There’s no Uber in Naples, so the cab-hailing app Free Now proves to be my best amico, especially when I’m going somewhere atop one of the city’s many precipitous inclines.) The museum is bigger, older, more beautiful, more historic than I could ever imagine… and nobody seems to care. As tourists pack into Florence and Venice like sardines, I have room after room of Titians and Caravaggios and Raphaels all to myself.
Across town, in the polished neighborhood of Chiaia, I’ve reserved a table at an institution that does attract quite a crowd: the Michelin-starred Veritas. Here, the chef transforms locally caught seafood into dishes that are decidedly less rustic than the ones my family cooks for the traditional Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes: shellfish ragout with marine plankton, fusilloni pasta with thinly sliced cured scallops, and a sculptural Ligurian-style cuttlefish that looks like a work of contemporary art.
I close out the night at L’Antiquario, an Art Nouveau–inspired speakeasy lined with William Morris botanical wallpaper and tufted crimson banquettes. I order a cocktail that fits the setting: the Cristo Velato, which is made with bourbon, cherry liqueur, red vermouth, and absinthe and arrives in a silver flask, nestled in a glass of crushed ice. The drink takes its name from Giuseppe Sanmartino’s 1753 Veiled Christ, a marble statue that resides in the nearby Cappella Sansevero and is so remarkably lifelike that it was once believed to be the product of alchemy. In a city where the sacred and profane always go hand-in-hand, it feels appropriate that my nightcap boasts such a heavenly muse.
Exploring the ruins of Pompeii and enjoying the seaside views of Positano
I have a big day of walking planned, so despite yesterday’s pizza bacchanalia, I’m once again ready to carbo-load. I stroll for 10 minutes, passing through the glass-roofed Galleria Umberto I shopping arcade—the world’s most ornate shortcut?—and stop at Pintauro for a fresh-from-the-oven sfogliatella. This small shop is where a baker first introduced the pastry to the city 204 years ago, after tasting one at a cloistered convent on the Amalfi Coast.
Post-pastry, I think I have the energy to tackle Pompeii. I pick up a small, zippy rental car—this is Italy, after all—and about a half hour later I’ve traveled 16 miles south and 19 centuries backward, to the world of 79 A.D. At the entrance gate to the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, I meet my guide, Paolo Gardelli, an archaeologist who, when he’s not showing me around, is busy excavating a seaside Roman villa in nearby Castellammare di Stabia.
“Pompeii, like any city in Italy, is like a lasagna,” he tells me as we look out over the ancient town, which was covered by about 20 feet of ash and pumice stone during the infamous eruption of Vesuvius. Founded by Oscans and later occupied by the Greeks, the Etruscans, the Samnites, and finally the Romans, Pompeii is made up of layer upon layer of history, each one holding new clues about life in turn-of-the-first-millennium Italy.
In the Forum, we stop to look at plaster casts of eruption victims, many of whom are covering their faces against poisonous gases.
“These are not mummies, as most people believe,” Gardelli says. “In a hard ash, decayed organic materials leave behind a cavity, like a mold.” Archaeologists then pour in liquid plaster or silicon, which makes something resembling a life-size statue, with the skeleton still inside. While much of Pompeii can feel more cool than tragic, the casts are a sobering reminder of the lives lost here.
Each landmark here comes with its own gee-whiz trivia tidbits. At the 20,000-capacity amphitheater, I discover that only about 10 percent of gladiator battles ended in death. At the thermopolia (fast-food restaurants), Gardelli tells me that hungry Romans were “mad for dormice.” In the laundry, I (unfortunately) find out that urine was used to clean clothes. “They would tax it and sell it to public laundries,” Gardelli says. At the theater, I learn that Pompeiians had lowbrow tastes and mostly produced raunchy comedies; nearby Herculaneum, on the other hand, preferred more high-minded shows.
On my way out of Pompeii, we visit the Temple of Isis, which honors the Egyptian goddess—just one of many examples of how the Roman Empire assimilated the deities of the conquered. Mozart visited at the age of 13, and it bowled him over so fully that it still served as the inspiration for The Magic Flute two decades later.
I say goodbye, cue up the opera on my car stereo, and drive south, lured by the siren song of Sorrento. It’s no coincidence the magnetic mermaids were said to reside here, toward the end of this scenic peninsula; the natural beauty is of mythical proportions, and the scent of the ultra-fragrant local lemon variety wafts through the air.
I stop for a lunch of cheesy gnocchi alla Sorrentina a t Ristorante Zi’Ntonio, where the dining room is presided over by a rather sacrilegious mural: Santo Diego Maradona, in his blue Napoli jersey, occupying Jesus’ seat in a parody of The Last Supper. (Perhaps the late, great Maradona’s fellow Argentine, Pope Francis, would secretly approve?) I skip dessert in favor of a stop at Limonoro for the town’s specialty, limoncello. Bearing in mind the twisty roads I have ahead of me, I content myself for now with the thimble-size sample the shopkeeper offers up, but I do buy a bottle for later.
Back in the car, I curve around the underside of the Sorrentine Peninsula and onto the famed Amalfi Coast. Here, each cove seems to hide a village more scenic than the one before it. Pocket beaches give way to an upward sweep of palaces and churches and pastel-hued houses clinging to the cliffs. Worried my gawking will cause me to plunge off the road, I pull over at a scenic overlook to snap a few pictures.
The sun is just starting to set when I reach Positano. I make my way to the beach and dip my toes in the Tyrrhenian Sea, then I duck into the majolica tile–domed Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta to see the church’s 13th-century Black Madonna painting, a Byzantine icon stolen from Constantinople by pirates. According to legend, when the smugglers hit rough waters, Mary started yelling “Posa, posa!” (“Lay me down, lay me down!”); they obliged, and named the spot where they stopped after her instructions.
I’m tempted to posa-posa myself after a long day, but instead I head to a late dinner at the Michelin-starred Li Galli, where I opt for the vegetarian tasting menu: pumpkin risotto with chanterelles, Genovese-style cappellacci with green apples and 36-month-aged Parmesan, and a savory sfogliatella with escarole and provolone.
It’s a meandering 15-minute walk to Le Sirenuse Hotel, past houses and shops and restaurants that “climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it,” as John Steinbeck put it in a 1953 essay. Steinbeck stayed at Le Sirenuse, which is still owned by the Sersale family, who converted their summer home into a hotel in 1951. The author once called Positano “a dream place,” so it seems fitting that I take him literally. There’s only one right way to sleep here: with the balcony doors thrown wide, lulled by the sound of the waves crashing below.
Cooking and driving along the Amalfi Coast
I’m not prepared for Le Sirenuse’s breakfast spread, which is arguably the most scenic buffet in the world, set in front of a window directly overlooking the Santa Maria Assunta’s tiled dome and the sherbet-hued houses beyond. The comestibles are nearly as colorful, all berry-topped tarts and fresh apricots and golden bomboloni. I have to limit myself, though, because eating—or cooking, anyway— is my big activity for the day. Fueled on two cappuccinos, I bid Positano ciao and hit the road.
Many visitors never leave the famed shoreline, but I’ve booked an Airbnb Experiences visit to an agriturismo, up a mountain in the village of Agerola. On a map, La Vigna degli Dei is only a few hundred feet from the sea, but getting there requires a semi-harrowing drive. The roads are spaghetti-thin, the mountain tunnels narrow as bucatini holes, and I’m every color of a caprese salad—mozzarella-white knuckles, with a face switching between queasy basil-green and embarrassed tomato-red—as elderly locals swerve their tiny Fiats around me while I navigate hairpin turns at 5 mph.
When I finally pull up to Pasquale and Rosanna Acampora’s charming farmhouse, I could kiss the ground. Pasquale whisks me down into the wine cellar and pours me a glass of Catalanesca, made out of grapes that came over from Spain in the 1400s. “Now I’m the only farm growing it,” he says. “It’s not the usual white wine. You can taste it’s very delicate—amabile.”
Back upstairs, we tie on gingham aprons and start preparing a local pasta called scialatielli. “I use the recipe from my grandmother,” Pasquale says. “In her time, it was only eaten on special days.” These squiggly ribbons call for milk, Parmesan, and parsley, on top of the normal flour and eggs. We combine boiled potatoes and flour, then roll out snakes of dough, pressing small hunks on a ridged wooden board to make gnocchi.
At the same time, Rosanna simmers clams and sweet pomodorini vesuviani—cherry tomatoes grown in volcanic soil that can be picked in the summer and remain fresh through the winter. “They’re called the red gold of Naples,” Pasquale tells me.
“It smells amazing already,” I say.
“In Italiano,” Rosanna replies, “we say profumo.”
Before we sit to eat, Pasquale and Rosanna stretch curds into fior di latte (mozzarella made from milder cow’s milk, instead of buffalo’s) and slice house-cured prosciutto.“ Being autosufficiente was a normal tradition,” Pasquale says of his farm-to-table approach. “This taste, you don’t have when you buy.” He’s right. It’s revelatory.
I’m considering moving in and helping to raise the backyard goats, but the coast beckons once more, and I drive back down the mountain. Skirting the town of Amalfi, where I’ll be staying tonight, I follow the snaking road back up into the hills, to Ravello. Set apart from the coastal scrum, the town has an elegant air about it—a romantic mystique only slightly disrupted by the piazza’s swarm of ankle-nuzzling cats. (I know Richard Wagner and Jackie Kennedy loved it here, but I’m wondering if Andrew Lloyd Webber may have spent some time in this square, too.) I take a leisurely spin through the Villa Rufolo, a sprawling estate with an impossibly beautiful geometric garden that looks down on the sea and the twin-domed Annunziata Historic Building, a former chapel, built in 1281, that’s now used for chamber concerts. The space may have been deconsecrated, but the acoustics are said to remain heavenly.
I backtrack toward Amalfi, which was once an independent duchy and a Medieval maritime-trade powerhouse. Need proof of its former status? Look no further than the town’s cathedral, the Duomo di Sant’Andrea, which sits at the top of a grand staircase reminiscent of a Mayan pyramid and features a candy-striped Byzantine-era facade.
Instead of some palatial seaside hotel, I’ve booked an Airbnb, Casa Tusci, to see how the locals live. I pass through a series of pint-size piazzas and turn onto a tiny lane that transforms into a crooked staircase with doors opening on each landing. Up 107 steps, I find my room, which has the breezy, whitewashed feel of Santorini and a view of the cliffs that looks more like an Impressionist painting than reality.
For dinner, I grab a table at the sleek bistro Il Tarì. When I place my order, the friendly waitress shakes her head and asks if she can reorder for me, to make sure I try her favorite dishes. “Just trust me,” she says. I’m a sucker for this kind of familial informality—a Southern Italian trademark— so I let her take the reins. She pours me a Bric del Gaian 2011 moscato grappa and brings out a refreshing amberjack tartare with buffalo ricotta, followed by a pasta mista (essentially a junk drawer of different pastas) with black truffles and Sicilian red prawns. Every dish is refined and delicious and, frankly, not a thing I would ever have ordered for myself.
For dessert, I pick up pistachio and limoncello gelato from Mago del Gelo and take it down to the pier that extends from the beach. From there, I look back on the sparkling lights that climb the rocky outcroppings flanking the village. You come to Southern Italy with the phrase “la dolce vita” ringing in your ears and the image of Sophia Loren luxuriating on a beachside chaise longue, but while this gelato (and this view) attest to the sweetness, what’s really special about this part of the world is how seamlessly the sweet coexists with its opposite: the heavenly with the profane, the gleaming with the gritty. This is a land of delicate balances, always threatening to teeter in one direction or the next—and it’s that tension that demands I come back for more.
La Dolce Vita: See the beauty of the Amalfi Coast for yourself. United is the only airline that offers a direct flight between the U.S. and Naples, with seasonal nonstop service from New York/Newark.
Next Up: Honeymooning in Sicily