It’s been a couple of weeks since our last installment of Jim & Kathleen’s Food Experiences. In case you forgot, I had promised a running bunch of posts on our best food experiences from our travel life. You can read about breakfast in Vancouver here or lunch in Barcelona here. For installment number three (this one will be all about the food) let’s travel to Pontone, Italy with the best tour guide in the known world, Marcello.
To set the stage we were sailing on Celebrity’s Galaxy on a 15 night cruise round trip from Rome that visited the usual Greek islands, Istanbul and even ventured into the Black Sea to stop in Romania and Ukraine. We were on our way back to Rome when we stopped for one last shore visit, in Naples. Pre-cruise we had contacted the “God of Shore Excursions” Mike Preisman who had recommended we contact one of his favorite tour guides, Marcello Maresca. He told us that Marcello was like no other tour guide. That if we let him pick us up in Naples and give us a tour of what he later called, “My Italy,” it would be a day well spent. Mike was right.
We contacted Marcello (we’re still friends on FaceBook and I hear from him all the time) and luckily he was available on the day we were there. We told him that we were more interested in Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast and Sorrento than we were in Naples, so he got us set up.
He was there on time and we headed off in his van. As we drove out of Naples, Marcello proceeded to tell us his philosophy of touring. “If you want to shop, don’t tour with Marcello. If you want to see ‘his’ Italy, the real Italy, tour with Marcello.” BTW: When I say we, there was Kathleen and I and four other friends we had met through our Cruise Critic roll call including Marybeth and Anne we have become friends with and cruised with in SE Asia.
We made stops on the way to lunch at lots of places where we saw incredible views, stopped in shops where only the Italians shopped and laughed at the other cruisers trying to navigate the Amalfi Coast in one of those huge busses. Oh, the places we could go that they couldn’t. Speaking of driving the Amalfi Coast, even though Marcello is the ultimate tour guide, he has this crazy habit of driving the coast road while looking back at us to talk. Scared the hell out of us but I guess he drives that road so much that he can do it blindfolded.
First stop was a tour through three villages surrounding Sorrento. These were towns that no one stops in because they don’t have the reputation that Sorrento has. But they show what Italian life is like now. I would tell you all of Marcello’s views of Italy today but it is best experienced firsthand from his mouth. So my advice? To see the real Italy and the real Amalfi coast, go to Naples and meet Marcello.
After driving the villages around Sorrento and then into Sorrento itself (where true to his word we saw a bunch of tourist trap shops) we headed down the Amalfi coast stopping whenever Marcello thought we could have great picture opportunities.
We did not stop in the tourist trap towns of Positano, Amalfi and Ravello but did stop on either side of them to take in the view and we drove through the multitude of tourist trap shops with goods from all over. The only semi-shopping stop we made was at an overlook outside of Positano where there was a fruit stand selling local fruit.
After we had driven through Ravello, Marcello announced that it was time to see the real Amalfi coast and we headed up into the hills to the village of Pontone. This village had not changed in more than 50 years. He told us we would have lunch in a wonderful outdoor restaurant where we would be the only patrons other than locals. A restaurant that grew all the food that they served, baked their own bread and everything was made to order.
After a quick tour around the village set high on a hillside we sat down to lunch. And “OH MY GOD, WHAT A LUNCH!” Those of you who know me, know how much I love Italian food. And I have to say without a doubt that this was the BEST Italian food I have had since my Italian grandmother passed away when I was a freshman in high school.
The meal started with an incredible antipasti. Bruschetta, zucchini squash blossoms and so much more. Check out the pictures above and make sure to click on one and watch the slideshow to see them in all their glory. Wonderful red and white house wines by the pitcherful were refilled every time we got near running out. Once we had gorged ourselves on the antipasti, out came the pasta. Three kinds. First a gnocchi that was wonderful, then a ravioli with cheese inside and cooked with arugala and finally a wonderful mixture of pasta shells, beans and pumpkin. We were in heaven. And a very full heaven by this point but wait, there was more. As if we had not had enough to eat on the cruise. Out came the desserts. On one plate we each had a piece of apple tart, a chestnut mousse and a incredible lemon dessert that was like lemon mousse and lemon pie combined. All this was accompanied by our choice of a melon liqueur, a fennel liqueur and our favorite (but not by much) lemoncello. It was wonderful. And this was lunch? What do they serve you for dinner?
After we had thoroughly gorged ourselves (did I already use that word? Gorged is the only word I can think of that describes how we felt), we were back on the road over the mountain to Piedmonte and then on to our tour of Pompeii.
To me, that’s what an incredible dining experience is all about. Awesome company, wonderful ambience and incredible food. We are hoping to go back there when we stop in Naples again in October 2022 and again see Marcello’s Italy.
People will travel anywhere for good food – it’s crazy. —Rene Redzepi