Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Sweet Sour of Sorrento

SORRENTO, ITALY – One continuous, artistic slit with his pocketknife and the old man cut away the entire dimpled rind of an oversized lemon. Then he stepped away from the fruit stand, cradling a naked yellow citrus, blade still bared.

Without breaking stride, with his feet or his knife, he pierced the exposed lemon, popped out a wedge and slid it straight into his mouth. The sun, filtering down past the awnings and laundry lines, illuminated his stoic face. He did not flinch. He did not pucker. He just repeated the step, until he ate the whole lemon. Then the pocketknife was pocketed and the old man continued strolling past tourists and locals alike, with a sunny smile on his face and the leathery, yellow coil of the lemon peel bouncing from his sun-cracked fingers.

Fresh, frozen, liquefied, baked, fermented, candied, etched, painted – there are innumerable iterations of lemons here in Sorrento. But luckily there are plenty of locals, promenading old men included, who have refined their citrus skills to a more memorable point.

Perched upon a high bluff overhanging the Bay of Naples, in close proximity to Pompeii and acting as the gateway of sorts to the rest of the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento’s tourist appeal is heavy. And to satisfy the masses, the lemon-centric theme is abundantly front and center, infused in most everything you eat, see, smell and feel. Lemons are featured menu options, role player ingredients, garnishes, fragrances, decorative patterns, snacks, souvenirs and sightseeing stops. Sorrento’s ‘dolce vita’ is unabashedly tart.

But a more authentic, and easier, way to experience Sorrento’s lemon obsession is to get lost amidst the town’s patchwork of cobbled, uneven, sea-bound roads, some main thoroughfares but others barely wide enough for a scooter (although riders still manage with speedy ease). Wander and you’ll find a more genuine Sorrento: a veritable treasure trove of lemon-soaked hidden gems.

Peering through gates and over stonewalls, I noticed bright yellow citrus trees filling residential gardens and backyards. Tucked away specialty shops featured lemons on their artisan items, like a woodworker who crafted stunning wooden jewelry boxes and photo albums, inlaid with delicate lemon tree landscapes.

Meandering along Via Correale led my family to a veritable Italian Eden, hidden behind massive stone walls, through an old archway adorned by a sign promising refreshment from the brutal summer sun. This was Il Gardini di Cataldo, a family limoncello maker.

There, under the shade of umbrellas and tree limbs, we cooled off with fresh lemon granitas, icy concoctions made from the establishment’s main attraction. Despite no tours going on, we were allowed to pop inside their factory and see the rows of limoncello bottles.

Then we tasted. In a town doused in the liquor, the Cataldo limoncello was puckered perfection. It went down smooth and tangy, with a sweet finish and barely any alcohol aftertaste. Of course, we left with a few bottles of our own.

The fairytale continued when we entered a nearby lemon grove, L’Agruminato. We climbed a stone stairway, entered the elevated public space and were immediately hit with a pungent citrus aroma. Lemon trees, loosely wrangled by rustic wooden fences and trellises, scattered in all directions away from a central path. We were mostly alone during our peaceful stroll among the arbors, until we reached the end of the path where a kiosk waited to offer us free limoncello samples made from the park’s fruit. It was an iconic Italian experience – the sheer beauty of nature and what humans can do with it, finished off with free booze. 

Of course, in Italy, the food is what makes the most vivid memories and in Sorrento, lemons made the most memorable food.

Take the gelato – of which we partook at least twice a day (it was hot). At Raki, a small shop slipped in next to a colorful fruit stand overflowing with massive peaches and lemons, my daughter shoveled a combination of peach and lemon gelato into her tiny mouth. On the other side of town was Davide il Gelato, a larger ice cream shop where the kiwi flavor was interwoven with chunks of actual kiwi fruit and the tiny black kiwi seeds gave the impression of natural chocolate chips. But as is fitting for lemon-centric Sorrento, the most memorable flavor at Davide il Gelato was its succulent limoncello. The perfect balance of tart and sweet, it was a frozen aperitif.

Fine dining restaurants here feature lemons in various ways, from sweet to savory. But as is the case in so much of Italian cooking, freshness and simplicity reigned supreme.

Mt. Vesuvius loomed in the distance as we sat seaside at Ristorante Bagni Delfino. The fishing boats came and went and my family discussed what life must have been like back in the ancient times. Then our meal arrived, perhaps reminiscent of that older, more modest era. I ordered a branzino, simply grilled. The only seasoning was the dousing of fresh lemon juice, applied by the waiter after he sliced and served the fish tableside. As one of the top restaurants in Sorrento, Delfino’s dish was expertly prepared, pairing fresh fish recently plucked from the adjacent sea with fresh lemons recently picked from nearby trees.

Sorrento’s premier dessert, delizia al limone, is a shining pillow of moist, spongy lemon cake covered in a smooth lemon cream dome.

Like its lemons, Sorrento is a vibrant city that needs to be engaged, not just observed.

Early one evening, a party began to emerge down at the Marina Grande. People were gathering around a haphazard line of tents and food stalls selling everything from balloons to roasted nuts. A rainbow of fishing boats had pulled into the harbor and children skittered along the marina. My family had unknowingly stumbled upon the town’s festival of St. Anne.

As we explored, we learned of the night’s highlight – a fireworks display. A sign promised the show would begin at 9:00pm and a passing local promised it was worth staying up for. As such, we determined to stake out a spot to witness what was promised to be an extravaganza. 

We secured a waterfront table outside a small bar and dragged enough chairs around it to hold our entire group. And we waited – because when Italians say promptly at 9:00pm, they actually mean about midnight.

But when the show did begin a few hours delayed, it did so with an eruption. Audibly, the booms rocked the surrounding cliffs sending echoes reverberating down through the cobbled piers and onto the seawater. Visually, the Italian sky was lit up in a color array that would rival even the best gelato display. The fireworks show lasted for hours, seemingly unending, as if they just kept finding a few more shells under the seat cushions.

My young daughter stayed awake for much of it, well past proper parenting hours. But the flocks of Italian children scurrying around the harbor reminded me we were far from America and far from any need for a reasonable bedtime. She ooed at the yellow fireworks the most, the ones that looked like lemon bursts.

While the rockets blasted overhead, my family made a few toasts and sipped glass after glass of local limoncello. I thought about how hidden gems – food, gardens, fireworks, festivals – are sweet.

But not in Sorrento. Finding a hidden gem here will pucker your smile and leave a sour taste in your mouth. And that's a very good thing.