Saturday, 9 January 2016

Restaurant Review: La Caravella, Amalfi

Nothing prepares the appetite for a fine lunch quite like being in the presence of the the bones of a bona-fide saint. Actually I've got no idea if this is true, but it didn't seem to do us any harm. After having staggered down the endless steps from Ravello to Amalfi we had spare time ahead of our appointment at La Caravella, which we killed with a brief mooch round the Cathedral.

Duomo di Amalfi

Amalfi is a smallish town and port on the coast that takes its name, but was at the turn of the first millenium an eminent maritime republic with a population greater than that of Naples. This explains the grandness of the Cathedral which today seems rather out of whack with the modest size of the town. It also explains what some of the relics of St Andrew, whom the Cathedral is dedicated to, are doing here. Lacking a Saint they could call their own, the Amalfitano basically nicked St Andrew from Constantinople when it was sacked in 1208, Peter of Capua bringing the bones to Amalfi. Apparently they give them an airing every now and then on important occasions. Weird lot these Catholics, eh? The Cathedral itself is stunning, with more beautiful frescoes than you could shake a whole battalion of rosaries at.

Crypt of St Andy himself
After taking our place amongst the tourist throng to partake of all this history, it was nice to slink away from the town centre to another, abeit slightly less ancient, venerable institution. La Caravella first fed locals and visitors to Amalfi in 1959 and was the first restaurant in the south of Italy to be awarded a Michelin star in 1966. Federico Fellini and Andy Warhol used to hang out here, don't you know.

Dining room
In a country where the best food can also be the simplest, and indeed the cheapest, I've not felt compelled to seek out Michelin-rated gaffs in the past. However, the blurb for La Caravella was all about how chef Antonio Dipino takes simple, traditional recipes from the region and zhuzhes them up a bit, which sounded like fun. This, plus the chance to try some good local wines - La Caravella has a cellar of some note - was enough to persuade us to sign up for the one poncey blow-out lunch of our trip.

Inside, La Caravella is equal parts calm and charm. The whitewashed walls are dotted with interesting local ceramics in a variety of styles, while the properly clothed tables are set with vivid blue cover plates. A variety of menus are available; we went for the full lunch tasting menu at €80, adding matched wines at, if memory serves, a further €30. Bread was excellent in all of wholemeal, white and stick format.

Fried dough, tomato sauce
An amuse of a perfectly light dough ball with tomato was, I suppose a sort of Italian take on a gougere, and very nice too.

Sushi style fish of the day served with wheat biscuits from Agerola with olives and cherry tomatoes
The menu proper kicked off with some wonderfully sweet and ozoney fresh tuna and prawn, perching on a sort of crispbread which was bathing in a pool of delicious olive oil from Serre. The oil, beautifully grassy with just a little spice, was so good we asked about it at which point a bottle was put on the table, with a couple of small saucers for dipping. Similar generosity was displayed with the bread, which just kept on coming, and with the wine, as our first glass, a lovely local sparkling falanghina was readily topped up before being anywhere near finished. 

Stuffed anchovies with smoked mozzarella served on anchoviy sauce from cetara
The flavours of anchovy in the next dish of croquettes were extremely mellow, completely lacking the pungent salty/fishiness that you get with the jarred specimens. This let the smoked mozzarella take the lead, which so well matched another (non-sparkling) luscious falanghina that we resolved to get a bottle to take home.

Scialatielli local pasta with mousse of red pumpkin and tuna belly
The next dish, the first showing of pasta, was autumnal, but beautifully light. The pasta was excellent quality and had proper bite, the pumpkin mousse pepped up with an array of fresh herbs I couldn't quite identify. Simple, but completely delicious.

Home-made cuttle fish ink pasta stuffed with ricotta cheese and lobster, served with a light tomato sauce, squid and croutons.
More superb pasta came in the form of a rather more luxe dish of striking black ravioli filled with an eerily-light lobster and ricotta mousse in a puddle of vibrant tomato sauce. Baby squid was perfectly tender. This was deft, but supremely satisfying cooking.

White fish gratin stewed with Greco di tufo wine with fennel julienne and sun dried tomato
A final savoury dish of local white fish cooked in wine, topped with a crisp crumb and perching on mandolinned fennel was another late summer into autumn dish. The fennel went beautifully with a Villa Raiano rose, an almost Provencal combination, while strips of sun-dried tomato punctuated the whole thing with some sweet sharpness.

Lemon sorbet
Large fried profiteroles with lemon sauce of Amalfi
It would hardly be a Amalfitano lunch without lemons sneaking in somewhere, and they featured in both a pleasant sorbet and a knock-out profiterole, in which the light pastry gave way to a sensationally rich creme patisserie, a wonderful coda to a very fine lunch.

By this point, full of much bread, oil and wine as well as all the rest of it, we were fairly stuffed and extremely well refreshed, thus feeling in superbly high spirits. Service had been relatively formal - it's a while since I've seen a waiter in a bow tie, or my food arrive under a silver cloche - but completely warm and generous too. We were taken through the kitchen, which is always a bit of fun, to their wine shop, opposite the restaurant.

La Caravella did exactly what it had promised, taking traditional, and fairly simple dishes, but coaxing from them an vibrancy of flavour that justifies coming somewhere like this rather than (or as well as) a local trattoria. A total bill of just over £80 each for this food, and a lot of wine felt like good value. La Caravella has maintained its one-star status in the recent Michelin Italy Guide and it's easy to see why. We loved our meal here, a real high point in a trip that was chock full of them.


La Caravella, Via Matteo Camera 12, 84011 Amalfi
+39 089 871 029

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