Mrs Smith’s mandate for our gastro getaway to Sorrento was stern and uncoded: ‘Nothing raw. Nothing street.’ I have a near-fatal attraction to exotic and authentic (read: uncooked and low-brow) foodstuffs, which had me out of action on recent visits to culinary centres Paris and Vienna. As expats based under the leaden cloud – and palate – of Holland, we are coveting the Italian sky and table. I agree to contain my impulses as we follow the signs along the autostrade to Sorrento.
A smart Southern Italian compromise for a quick in and out, Sorrento straddles the inferno of Napoli, the lacquer of Capri and the rustic respite of the Amalfi. We hire a car: the base cost is competitive with airport transfers to and from the Capodichino airport, and managing those legendary Sorrentine cliffs in a little Fiat is as good for the soul as anything else the region has to offer, as long as you opt for enough insurance.
We wedge into the gate of three-story powder-white villa tucked into a mansion district in the northeast corner of Sorrento, quiet but for the buzz of cicadas and the occasional scooter. The private Savoy-era property was converted only recently to an ethereal seven-room lodge. Owner Pierluigi d’Armiento greets us at the door and grants us access to the home’s optimistic living room, dining room and open majolica-tiled kitchen. The design is a mix of airy and verdant mod-Med pieces dabbed with a tweedy, bookish accent against a lofty, light interior.
Cheery green sofas, vintage leather-bound volumes, antique binoculars, a gilded baroque mirror and a table laden with snacks, fruit and lemon bonbons are delightful. Our room upstairs greets us with a similar levity, plus a piccolo bottle of limoncello and a tempting in-room spa-treatment list. While our superior could be deemed a tad tight, the flatscreen is neatly tucked away, the finish is polished, and the bathroom is inspiring with a huge sunflower-head shower, jade ceramic-tile work and two fluffy white robes. ‘Is this a skinny mirror?’ Mrs Smith queries. The wind is at our backs on this trip.
Hungry from the drive and eager to sample local eats, we toddle around the corner for an easy lunch at Il Capanno to sample light classics. Mrs Smith eyes me toeing the line. ‘Honey, prosciutto is cured, not raw,’ I preemptively parry. Large local families, a reliable sign of quality and authenticity, linger in the post-lunch hours as a TV in the background alternates with news of the apocalypse and a dubbed German soap. The pizza is OK, but the salty prosciutto with sweet and crunchy melon is due a revisit.
We spy the lively beach club from the cliff occupied by the Marinella Bellevue, said to be adored by her royal hotness Sophia Loren, but rather than descend the mediaeval, labyrinthine stars to the vestigial port, we continue to our boutique bolt hole for a languid lounge by the pool. Under an olive tree surrounded by succulents we sit among a few youngish international couples. Sun, plunge, sun, shade, is how time is spent before we head inside for a twilight shower for two.
Villa dei D’Armiento’s sweet and petite Maria recommends a trip to Marameo, a beach club that offers free taxi service from and to the villa. At €20–25 a trip to the centre, it’s a nice touch, and we take her up on the idea. The underlit cliffside backdrop is spectacular, but the food and service less so, so we cut dinner short and detour into town to catch Friday night at Fifties-modern Il Fauno on Piazza Tasso, the main square. I feel pretty swank with a dazzling red Americano (Campari, vermouth, soda, rocks, lemon) and Mrs Smith rolls with prosecco and sfogliatelle, the little shell-shaped lemon-ricotta filled pastries. That’s my girl.
It’s prime for outdoor people-watching and scooter-dodging and we marvel at the go-for-it spirit barely hidden beneath a gold-sequin minidress. Taking in more street action, we stroll with the crowd down Corsa Italia until gawking at the absolutely manic Primavera Gelateria, which seems to combine the best parts of an ice-cream shop, a sailor’s bar and karaoke: funny thing is, it works.
The following morning, over yogurt, fresh fruit, more cured meats and pastries at one of the marble-topped cast-iron tables in the leafy garden, we debate the merits of doing nothing and a quick trip into Capri. Niente is powerfully tempting, but as neither of us has ever seen the famed island, we spend a day traveling up, down and around the island by flip-flop, funicular, water taxi, public bus and topless cab.
We return spent but determined to make up for last night’s dinner. Fortuitously we run into Kiara in the kitchen who enthuses over an easy-to-miss local joint. With a convincing double-hand gesture and emphatic roll of the eyes she divines: ‘Inn Bufalito. You have to go there. This is our food. It’s not for the tourists. But don’t eat the pizza. Nobody eats the pizza.’
Stuffed in an alley between Via Fuoro and Via San Nicola we find an easy-to-miss glowing red joint with a twenty- to forty-something clientele and hip, young staff. We do our best to run up a tab with a mini-mozzarella Capri salad, cured hams and salamis, fresh oversized rigatoni doused in braised buffalo ragu, and eggplant parmigiana with molten buffalo mozzarella, washed down with a litre-carafe of crisp house white. Instead of the usual local limoncello we try a refreshing Sicilian pacito dessert wine, but even so the bill remains well priced.
We talk, we eat, we drink, we laugh, we recall how much we miss the sun and water, and how these primary forces fuse the two of us. It then quietly occurs to me, and I dare not say it aloud, I seem to have escaped the purgatory of foreign WCs. Welling with gratitude, I earnestly consider offering the waiter our apartment back in Amsterdam.