Seeking the secrets of cosmopolitan Positano’s seafaring cuisine—and culture.
I watch Philomena's hands like an intern watches a surgeon. She describes her deft movements in spare language, her head bent low over her work. "You use your nail," she says, splaying open a little fish—an anchovy—cradled in her left hand by dragging her right pointer finger down its body. With the tiny fish now laid open in her palm, she tucks her thumbnail under one edge of its delicate white backbone, and then slowly pries the fish's skeleton loose.
She holds the bones up for me to inspect. It's perfectly intact, a tiny, glistening relic of one of the millions of anchovies historically pulled from this deep, blue Mediterranean. Here in Positano, it's a fish that has fed Roman patricians, medieval monks, fishermen's families, expatriate artists, Hollywood elites, and now, a small gang of Americans who have traveled to this spectacularly beautiful village on the Amalfi Coast to learn to cook.
Why come to Italy to learn what can be gleaned from cookbooks, videos, and nonstop food television? Well, first, it's the setting: seashell-colored towns clinging to granite cliffs, airy and expansive villas perched hundreds of feet above the sea, and a cosmopolitan culture that puts la dolce vita in luxury's lap. Can education come more beguilingly packaged?
Further, I'm after what I call the Italian DNA—a casually virtuoso approach to food and cooking that I'm hoping will rub off on me. So I've come to Positano on a culinary getaway with Cooking Vacations that combines lessons like today's—in a local restaurant—with market tours, cheese and olive oil tastings, and even a snorkeling adventure below the surface of the sea that has sustained Positano and its people for millennia.
I've touched, it seems, everything. In addition to fumbling with my share of anchovies, I later stuff them with slivers of mozzarella, dust them with Parmigiano-Reggiano, dip them in egg whites, and roll them in breadcrumbs in preparation for a quick fry in hot oil. I knead stiff dough with the heel of my hand, and then feed it through the whirring pasta maker with one hand, catching the emerging noodles with the other. I patiently press cooked-down frutti di bosco (fruits of the forest—a mélange of berries) in a sieve to yield a carmine-hued sauce for a creamy panna cotta. And in another fishmongering lesson that surpasses my anchovy tutelage, I clean calamari without a knife. For the rest of the day, my hands smell like the sea, a redolent souvenir I find myself feeling extremely proud to bear.
Which teaches me something else. My education in Positano has been inscribed not in my notebook, but on my senses: the heft and slip of its fish, but also the cerulean of its sea, the glazed green of its tile-domed church, the gravitational tumble of its steep alleyways, the ambient murmur of conversation rising from its strand of waterside restaurants, and the aromas of lemon, olive oil, and espresso that drift from its doorways.
Will these sensory lessons make me a better cook? Perhaps—I'm certainly looking forward to showing off my calamari cleaning back home. But what Positano has truly given me, and what I will bring back to my own kitchen, to my own life, is the sea in my hands. And that is plenty.
Cooking Vacations three-day Bespoke Positano Culinary Adventure rates start at $2,595; 800-916-1152 or cooking-vacations.com.