The Surprise in Sorrento

I want you to know that, regardless of my pre-trip jitters, it was never my intention to wear stilettos in Italy.  Let’s take a quick peek at the cobblestone calliope to refresh ourselves as to why:

Hubby was busy packing the kitchen sink into his carry-on, when he pulled out my pair of blush pink, open-toe, ankle-strap heels and added them to the melee.

“What are you doing?” I asked, rolling my eyes for the fifty-third time in one day.

“You need these,” he insisted, “and that dress, too. Hand it to me.”

“Stop messing around,” I said, making a swipe at the shoes and missing, “this is not what you wear to hike Vesuvius in.”

But Hubby had an anniversary Secret and the Secret required stilettos. Two days before the trip, he finally admitted that much. Intrigued, I let him pack my extras in his case and wondered, “What is so important that he is willing to carry more shoes around the planet for?”

It’s not like going to Actual Italy wasn’t already fabulous enough.

It was a long day, touring Pompeii, but we returned to Sorrento and changed into our fancies. Then Hubby took my hand and he led me – ever so carefully – along the street towards the city center. The sun settled gently on the cliffs, tinting the sky…blush pink.

The Correale Museum of Terranova overlooks the Gulf of Naples. This three-story eighteenth century villa has art collections, artifacts, and period furnishings inside, and opulent gardens surround it. But most importantly of all…it hosts the Opera e Lyrica concert season in Sorrento.

We walked through an impressive entryway and signed in. Then, we joined others in the gardens for a glass of champagne. Night descended and strategic lighting showcased flowers and arches, trees and balustrades.

At the proper time, we all moved into a wide staircase, climbed up a level, and were escorted to pre-arranged seating in one of the galleries containing a grand piano. I was proper and gracious and dainty right up until I sat down and nonchalantly scanned the program.

The Three Tenors! What? All of my favorite opera music! At that very moment, Hubby won all of the romance points. He got a medal for excellent taste. Extra credit for hauling my shoes around for one single night of bliss. Is it so wrong to have a little PDA in a museum?

The pianist appeared just as it occurred to me that Pavarotti himself could not possibly be performing. A cellist walked onto the stage and arranged herself to one side, as I considered the options. When a violinist came front and center and began a glorious rendition of Cavalleria Rusticana, I realized it would be an instrumental rendition of my music.

The violinist was amazing. He played with passionate emotion and the freedom of a gypsy.

But he was not a tenor.

I had only formed the tiniest breath of a frown when I heard it. The opening strains of Granada, in a deep, rich tenor. The owner of this voice sauntered on stage to a welcoming applause and the party got started. After that, it was just one heart-bursting song after another, as Stefano Sorrentino, Francesco Fortes, and Alessandro Fortunato gave a performance worthy of the original Three Tenors in this small venue.

It was over entirely too soon.

Descending into the gardens once more, we had the opportunity to thank the artists and I stole a photo or two. “You were brilliant,” I gushed, “You made me cry.”

Hubby had also arranged to stay for a tasting of the local drinks and a handful of candies after the performance. The barkeep was happy to show us his wares and we tried the familiar limoncello and the obscure liquore di mirth (myrtle liquor). We tasted creme di melone, nurchetto (apple), and finocchietto de san costanzo which is infused with fennel. It tastes like licorice (or anise if you call it that) with no particular reference to absinthe, which is French anyway, right?

Not that I know anything about it.

There is a place, if you leave the Correale Museum of Terranova and go towards the bay and along a narrow one-way street. Park benches perch on a cliff, overlooking dark water, distant twinkling city lights, and cruise ships set like floating chandeliers in the harbor. It’s a quiet place. The air is warm. It feels good to unstrap those stilettos.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” asked Hubby after a kiss or two.

“You know it,” I said.

Hand in hand, barefoot over the cobblestones and swinging my heels by the straps, we went in search of our gelato shop.

It was a perfect night.

Do you love opera as much as I do?  Music and goosebumps? Here is their program, but with a good variety of links (I even snuck a soprano in, whoopsie and one in bass, bahaha). Pour yourself a glass of anything bubbly, sit back, and enjoy.

VERDI: Rigoletto; La donna e mobile
PUCCINI: Tosca; E lucevan le stelle
MASSENET: Thais; Meditation  (violin…swoon)
DONIZETTI: L’Elisir d’amore; Una furtiva lagrima
LEONCAVALLO: Pagliacci; Recitar…vesti la giubba  (sob)
PUCINI: Turandot; Nessun Dorma
VERDI: La Traviata; Libiam nei lieti calici  (salute!)
CAROSONE: Medley canzoni napoletane
D’ANNIBALE: O paese d o sole
CAPUA: Maria mari
CANNIO: O surdato nnamurato
CAPUA: O sole mio
MODUGNO: Nel blu dipinto di blu   (Ed Sullivan Show no less)
BOCELLI: Con te partiro  (I will listen to this forever)
DALLA: Caruso  (His voice, his style…rock n roll?)
CURTIS: Torna a Surriento
DENZA: Funiculi Funicula   (This was performed in the COLOSSEUM! Clap along!)

If Life Hands You Lemons, Make Limoncello

Sorrento” and “Limoncello” are interchangeable concepts. Outside of Sorrento, only groves in neighboring Capri are accepted to create this specialty liqueur. You should not buy it outside of Campania. Even Pompeii boasts a mural celebrating the Sorrento Lemon. Locals are fiercely proud of their limoncello, and you can purchase it on every street corner.

The terraced lemon groves in Sorrento have been organically cultivated for generations, surrounded by fencing and protected with overhead canopies and 60% of the harvest is reserved for making limoncello. Lemons are hand harvested when they turn from green to yellow: they never touch the ground. Once harvested, they are carefully cleaned, then kept away from human touch thereafter because limoncello is made from peel. The thick, intensely perfumed peel is distilled in vodka or Everclear, with a little sugar syrup added towards the end, completing up to a three month long process.

A shop owner gave us a brief education, showing us how to read the labels for quality limoncello. The bottle must have the Sorrento seal, and the ratio of lemon to alcohol should be high. 30% alcohol is acceptable, less is for the tourists, and 33% is ideal.

It is served chilled in a shot glass at the end of a meal as a digestive or as an aperitivo.

If you linger at all in a shop, you will be plied with samples. The limoncello speaks for itself.

The rest of the lemon is put to good use: you can buy lemon cookies, lemon candy, lemon balsamic glaze, lemon chocolate, marmalade…and don’t forget the complimentary kitchen baubles. After a few samples, it feels perfectly reasonable to pack it all up and bring the happiness home with you.

It smells and tastes like lemon candy with a tart kick beneath it. It makes you think of sunshine, bright blue ocean water, and good friendships. This is something you drink together, adding a sparkle to great conversation.

After we came home with our bottle, I went out to check our Meyers Lemon Tree. Sure enough, it’s cycling into bloom, with little green lemons being born on the branches. Winter in SoCal is citrus season. Now, my research informs me that the only other place – in the world –  you can cultivate a real honest-to-goodness Sorrento Lemon Tree is right here in San Diego. The lemons are here, if you look hard enough. I am not at all surprised. We may not be volcanic, but as I told you earlier, a lot of Italy sure feels like home.

I’ve never made limoncello but there are plenty of recipes online. I’ve gathered some of them together for us, below. If you have experience in the process, I’m interested in hearing about it.

For now, we will focus on our Italian treat and have you all over for sharing.



From Sorrento Food Tours, Recipe #1

From Nonna’s kitchen, Recipe #2

From allrecipes (worth reading all the comments), Recipe #3

From Genius Kitchen, Recipe #4

And another from The Chew, Recipe #5

Welcome to Sorrento, Italy

We took a bullet train from Rome to Naples. From the Naples train station, we took a metro to the port after walking up three flights of stairs and around a glorious castle. Luggage in tow. From the port, we took a ferry across the bay to a bus to our hotel in Sorrento.

Getting there is half the fun.

Picture the bay like La Jolla. A massive crescent holds it, with Naples at one tip and Sorrento at the other. These two cities are like comparing Los Angeles to San Diego. You will arrive in LA, but you know you want to stay in San Diego. I may be a little opinionated, here, but what can I say? It’s the same with Naples and Sorrento.

As you cross on the ferry, taking in the beautiful overview, you are being watched by a Presence. Brooding in the center of this curve, crater gaping, is Mt Vesuvius. The sunshine takes nothing away from the dramatic black hillside that slopes to the bay. Because you know what’s under it.

Certainly, it was prime real estate and still there is a townscape at its base and along the shore. We are going to tour it. Absolutely it will be an exciting place to visit and absolutely you don’t want to live there.

Arriving in Sorrento is an experience. The ferry has parked at the foot of the Cliffs of Insanity. You can see the town up there, sparkling with promise. There are three ways to reach it. First, you can hop on a little bus that will climb the road for you. This is what we did. Because second, you can walk it yourself pulling your effects behind you and gaining buns and thighs of steel. Or blisters of lava. Whatever. Third, there is an elevator hidden so well, that unless you are an intrepid explorer with nothing better to do, you will never find. I have placed the treasure map below for you, in case you ever arrive in Sorrento yourself.

You’re welcome.

Our hotel room was much larger than that in Rome, with a little balcony that let me watch the traffic go by: busses and limos with tourists, horse-drawn buggies working the plaza, a few locals trying to get to work. The street is too narrow for two-way traffic plus pedestrians…you don’t get a sidewalk and you hop into a storefront when you need to duck sideways.

The wee hub of Sorrento is delicious. Everything is a shade of yellow, the buildings, the light. It feels small, cozy and relaxing. I suppose there’s a little feel of being on Catalina Island, with the harbor below, the mountains around the backside. You can stroll down the main street (Corso Italia), closed to cars, in about twenty casual minutes. It’s lined with designer storefronts and pizzerias, perfumeries, jumbled souvenir shops, gates to museum gardens, and pubs.

But if you really want to shop, move one alley over. Or two. The narrow mazes take you up and down between the main street and the cliff. You can’t get lost, so lose yourself in delight: the smell of fresh leather purses, the dazzle of bright yellow limoncello shops, soft breezy blue linen clothing, the sound of clinking glasses from al fresco restaurant tables.

Now it’s time to sit down and put something ridiculously fabulous in your mouth. We found two spots along the main street that were so good we became life fans on day one. The first is a spot that began as a gelateria and expanded into a restaurant of sorts. We ordered a margherita pizza and one with smoked mozzarella, ham, and funghi. It was mushroom season in Italy and everywhere we went, the porcini was fat and buttery and knock-your-socks off good. Italians do not mess around with cheese. Cheese is art. Fresh, smoked mozzarella puts to shame anything America has ever plopped onto a pizza.

Which reminds me: you are supposed to eat pizza with a fork and knife. The crust is very thin, salty, chewy, and crispy where the wood oven kissed it. It reminds me of when my sisters and I used to warm tortillas over the open flame of our stovetop gas burner and snatch it off just before the bubbles began to burn. So. Good. Cooks go very light on the tomato sauce and seem to prefer sun-dried tomatoes to fresh everywhere, which surprised me.

If you wander a little further out in Sorrento, you will find their prize lemon trees, guarded and shaded from the hot summer sun. Sorrento is all about lemons in general and limoncello in specific. Samples are handed out with reverence, little shot glasses of liquid gold. There are ancient olive groves cliffside and the twisted old trees have green and black netting snaked around the trunks in preparation for the upcoming harvest. The olive oil is primo but the limoncello is specialty of the house.

Which brings me back to our table.

We ordered gelato while staring at a display case that overflowed with pastries, tarts, chocolates, flavored meringues, baba au rum, croissants, enough to know that once again, you weren’t going to be able to eat it all.

It’s heartbreaking.

The gelato was superb. But I have to tell you about the other gelato place, too. Because there is a red velvet throne outside the door and the walls inside are completely covered in photos and the people in there are not interested in the tourist experience, they are interested in gelato that is so good, you should be thanking them that they are even open and selling you any.

Later, I am going to write you an entire post on nothing but gelato.

Meanwhile, here are some photos. The first was taken around 9am – in the morning – and sums up my entire Italian experience. Glorious.

From the dock, find a tiny obscure walkway up tight against the cliff and head west. Follow behind private beaches to the elevator, 2 euros each.