I hadn’t been to Italy for a few years after many trips in years gone by. So in the winter of 2015 I was thinking of making another trip. Itching actually. How I missed Mother Italy. I was dying to go back. I was over my Uncle Tony’s house for the Christmas of 2014, where my cousin Tony cooked us an amazing Christmas Eve meal, la Vigilia, otherwise known as The Feast of The 7 Fish. I must say Tony did quite a good job, the meal was amazing, so to Bravo Tony for that. We ate Mussels, Clams, Calamari, Baccala and all the usual suspects. We drank wine and had a wonderful time, me my brother Jimmy, Uncle Frank, Uncle Tony, cousin Anthony and Debbie and all my other cousins. Yes we were having a wonderful time and were chatting of course when Tony mentioned that the fares to Italy were real cheap and hinting if I wanted to go. “Of course,” I said, “when do you want to go?” And we agreed we would go. It was going to be a sort of ancestral trip combined with a regular vacation to Sicily hitting Palermo, Cefalu, Trapani, and some of my friend’s vineyards at Donnafugata in Marsala and my friend Francesca Planet at Planeta Wines in Menfi. One of the big parts of the trip we were planning was to go to the town of our Grandparents on my mother’s side, my Grandfather Philipo Bellino and his wife my maternal grandmother Josephina Salemi Bellino, both born in Lercara Friddi, Sicily before immigrating to New York in 1904, and moving to Lodi, New Jersey a few years later. So we were going to go, or so I thought so. I kept asking Tony about the trip and when we were going to go and he said yes. As it turned out Tony backed out at the last minute so what to do. Well I made my plans, I started looking for a plane ticket and when I first started the prices were quite high ($1200 to $1500). I kept looking and found a great fare to Napoli direct from JFK in New York on Meridiana Air. So I got the flight and continued making plans. Well the trip was always to Sicily and just to Sicily when I was talking about it with Tony, but now things were different. I really wanted to take this trip with Tony, but he was no longer in the picture and I had to go it alone. So now that I got my ticket to Napoli, I figured I’d do 4 days on The Amalfi Coast before heading down to Sicily. Then I was going to Palermo, Lercara Friddi and I had made appointments to visit my friend Giussepe Tasca at his winery as well as my friend Francesca Planeta at Planeta in Menfi.
A couple weeks before I was to leave on my trip, I was watching Youtube videos of Sicily and The Amalfi Coast to get psyched for my trip and see if I could find out any new info before I went. While watching Italian videos I came across a video made by David Rocco a celebrity chef from Toronto Canada. The video was shot at a wonderful little place in the small town of Minori on the Amalfi Coast. It was of the Villa Maria Agroturismo Lemon Groves. For those who may not know, an agroturismo is a farm where you stay at some sort of working farm in Italy, you live within the farm with the farmers, you eat wonderful home cooked food that’s prepared with products of the farm and you have a quite marvelous experience that is unique to just about any other type of vacation stay. These agroturismo spots are always quite delightful and people who take part in them cherish their experiences. There are all sorts of different type of agroturismo farms including winery’s that make wine and possibly other products like olive oil, vinegar, salami, and maybe honey. Some might be Olive Grove Farms that make olive oil or you might go to a farm that makes cheese or whatever. Now this particular agroturismo Villa Maria that I came across was primarily a Lemon Grove Farm in Minori. Villa Maria also has Olive Trees for Olive Oil, Grapevines for making both local white and red wines, and they had pigs for making Salami. Also they grew all sorts of fruits and vegetables as well. The two owners Vincenzo Manzo and his wife Maria looked like absolute gems, and watching the video made me fall in love with them and their place in an instant. I loved it and just had to go, it looked like Paradise and my suspicions would prove to be true. After watching the video, I immediately looked up the place on line, and found their website. The place looked marvelous, they had 6 lovely little rooms, a restaurant where Maria made wonderful four course dinners for guest every night, and in the morning you would wake up and eat one of the most amazing breakfast you’ve ever had in your life. I had a great time looking over the website and imaging the wonderful time I’d have staying there. I thought about what days I’d be able to go and I sent them an email to see if they had availability. I got a reply the next morning. They had rooms available, so I replied back (to Nadia, Vincenzo’s daughter) to please reserve one for me. She had the 3 days I wanted so I booked it.
I flew from JFK to Napoli on May 29th, 2015 and arrived in Italy on the 30th of May. I stayed one day in Napoli, having Pizza at Pizzeria da Michele, at Pizzeria da Gaetano, and Pizzeria Presidente. Now that’s a lot of Pizza! Well Napoli is the Pizza Capital of the World and I needed to hit some of the places I hadn’t been to before. That was quite a day. I was tired from traveling overnight and all the running-around back and forth to airports and whatnot.
The next day, I got up, packed my bags and checked out at whatever the name of that hotel was in Napoli. I then went for an Espresso and a Sfogiatelle and Orange Juice before going to the train station to catch the Cirumvesuviano Train to Sorrento in-route to Minori and the Villa Maria Agroturismo Lemon Farm. More traveling. I waited about 15 minutes for the train to arrive, I got on and settled in for the ride from Napoli to Sorrento. As soon as the train took off there was a wonderful little Trio Band that was playing some whimsical music that really set a nice mood for the train ride. It was a Sunday morning and the train was packed with Neapolitan beach-goers of all ages going to one of the various beach points along the way.
Well I think it was about 35 minutes or so to get to Sorrento which was the end of the line. I had been through Sorrento a few times before but never spent any time there, so I got off the train, checked by bags at the train station and then strolled around Sorrento for an hour and a half to get a bit of the lay of the land before hopping on the bus to Amalfi. I had a pannini and some cappuccino at a nice caffe, then walked around a bit before catching the Red Bus to Amalfi. Now this ride from Sorrento to the town of Amalfi on the Amalfi Coast is one of the World’s most spectacularly beautiful journeys you could ever wish to take. Believe me, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything more stunningly beautiful than a ride on the famed Amalfi Drive. The road and the scenes along it are absolutely fantastic and not to be missed. And after not being there for a few years, I was no less enthralled as the first time I had witnessed the beauty of this trip through Sorrento, Praiano, Positano, Amalfi, Maiori, and Minori on one of the most scenically enchanting rides on God’s good Earth, “Trust me.”
I arrived at Amalfi and then had to catch one more bus to take me to Minori. I got in the center of Minori and went into the famed Caffe Riso for some Gelato and to make a call to Villa Maria. The lady at the counter made the call for me and told me Vincenzo would be down to pick me up in 15 minutes. I enjoyed my Gelato and then got another Espresso while waiting for Vincenzo. Fifteen minutes later Vincenzo was right on time, picking me up in his little Fiat Panda station-wagon. This ride was another I will never forget, a little scary going up on Vincenzo’s homemade road and bridge to the farm of Villa Maria.
When I got there, Vincenzo introduced me to his wife Maria and his daughter and son. They gave me a nice glass of Lemonade and I was in heaven. The place was spectacular. We were high up on the mountain above the sea and the town of Minori with Ravello just above us, and the views there are out-of-this-world. After chatting a few minutes they took me to my room. I got situated, took a shower, then put on some fresh clothes.
VINCENZO & HIS LEMONS
Vincenzo Manzo of VILLA MARIA
I went back out to the terrace and Vincenzo asked me if I wanted a little lunch? “Hell yeah.” He asked me if I wanted some pasta with seafood? Heck yeah! Some wine? Yes again. He bought me some of his homemade Greco di Tufo and again, I was in 7th Heaven. Fifteen minutes later Vincenzo brought me a beautiful plate of Pacceri Frutta di Mare, and again it was Heaven. The Pacceri Frutta di Mare with mussels, shrimp, and clams made by Maria was absolutely perfect. I was sitting atop Minori at a table on the terrace of Villa Maria a Lemon Farm high up in the hills overlooking the sea below. I took another sip of wine and ate my pasta. Looking out on this spectacular view of Minori with Ravello to the right and the Amalfi Coast across the way, I thought to myself “It just doesn’t get any better than this,” and guess what? I was right.
My PACCERI FRUTTA di MAREat VILLA MARIA, MINORI, Italy
I stayed at Villa Maria Agroturismo for three glorious days, starting each day with what I call The World’s Best Breakfast, and it was. With all the goodies (the food) and a seat on the terrazzo at Villa Maria on Italy’s gorgeous Costiera Amalfitana, this is a scene that you’ve just got to see for yourself to truly believe. The spread that Maria and Vincenzo put out for breakfast is absolutely amazing; homemade Lemon Cake, fresh fruit and coffee, with yogurt, fresh juice, Sfogiatelle, and toast for the 8 different homemade jams that Vincenzo makes and bottles. I’d go to the buffet table, load up and bring it back to my table on the terrace to enjoy my blissful moments of sipping coffee at Villa Maria, and eating the tasty Lemon Cake while planning out my day that lay ahead of me. Again, I must say, “I was in 7th Heaven,” truly.
THE WORLD’S BEST BREAKFAST
VILLA MARIA AGROTURISMO …. MINORI ITALY
Villa Maria is and has been a working farm for almost a hundred years now. It is perched at the very summit of the coastal town of Minori with the sea down at the bottom and the lemon and olive groves of Villa Maria and other farms climbing up the hills. The town of Ravello is above Villa Maria and to the right if you’re looking down towards the sea. Vincenzo has thousands of lemon trees on his farm, along with his Olive Tree Groves, vines of Piedrosso and Greco grapes for making his local wine he also has fruit trees and vegetables that are grown on the farm. Vincenzo also keeps pigs for making Prosciutto and Salami as well as chickens for eating and to get farm fresh eggs from. As I’ve already mentioned, you start the day with what is for me is the World’s Greatest Breakfast, and in the evening you have a wonderful 4 course dinner made by Maria and Vincenzo’s sister. This meal is produced with all the fresh ingredients that is grown on the property. This is an experience not to be missed and one I’ll never forget, of my three days staying on this lovely lemon grove farm; eating and drinking Vincenzo’s homemade wine and Lemoncello and having the most wonderful time imaginable. I do highly recommend it.
Yes, the Amalfi Coast is a true paradise. The scenery is as spectacular as you’d find anywhere in the world, there are wonderful little towns like; Positano, Minori, Amalfi, and Praiano along with the beautiful Island of Capri, Ischia, and Procida as well. You’ll eat like a king on all the tasty seafood, pasta, and the rest, while drinking local wine or perhaps an Aperol Spritz, and then finish your meal with Lemoncello made from lemons nourished on the spectacular Amalfi Coast. Now what could possibly be better than that? Nothing I tell you, nothing.
EXCERPTED from my forthcoming book MANGIA ITALIANO, due for 2017 Publication
Due for 2017 Publication
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