Reid's Travels

The true confessions and real adventures of a professional travel writer—bizarre stories, amazing characters, and comic mishaps that never make it into the guidebooks

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Dangers of Dinner in Sorrento

Sorrento is one of the very few places in Italy where it is easier to eat badly than well.

Mark it down to a constantly changing clientele—why bother putting yourself out to cook a great meal when the tourist you're making it for is going to be gone tomorrow, never to return? The food at Hotel Loreley was just a step above Boyar'dee. The grub at Taverna dell '800 was only decent. And there's one place, tucked into a cave halfway down the switchback road to the Marina Piccola docks, where I once got food poisoning—though my traveling companion, J, got it even worse; started throwing up on the ferry over to Capri.

This time, I'm wary, so I've reverted to an old habit picked up in seventh grade in Rome: scooping up the hard little pellets that have shaken out from between the tough petals of umbrella pine cones, staining my fingertips black with the layer of sooty dust on their shells. After I've collected a good handful's-worth, rattling around in my pocket, I find a quiet corner and a good sharp rock. It's a delicate art, cracking the thick shells of pine nuts without squashing the tender pinoli within. It's laborious (no wonder the suckers cost so much shelled), but the meat tastes so much sweeter when you have to work for it.

Since a man cannot live solely on pine nuts and fruit filched from low-hanging branches, I do have to find restaurants for dinner. The only place in town where I've ever had memorable meals is the massive La Favorita O' Parrucchiano—and even that one is quite touristy. Green waist-coated waiters keep up a brisk two-way traffic on the terraced staircases between the kitchen and the dining patio up top, carrying laden platters up and empty trays down, calling out table numbers and orders to a woman sitting at a lonely table to one side, scribbling furiously at an array of still-open restaurant checks spread out on the table to keep them up to date.

The food, at least, is of very good quality, and the jungle-like dining patio is lovely, hung heavy with vines, pomegranate and lemon trees, and other signs of Mediterranean lushness. Shame I can't do anything about the inevitable guitar-mandolin duo—though it's a sight better than the piped-in schlock at most Sorrento restaurants—who are strumming their way through the Play List of Approved Sorrento Songs for Tourists: O Sole Mio, Funiculi Funicula, My Way, Tu Vo' Fa L'Americano (a weird mambo number from the 60s poking fun at a Neapolitan who pitifully apes everything American), and, of course, That's Amore!

I swear to God, if the moon hits my eye like a big pizza pie one more time, I am going to go Audrey Hepburn on one of these guys and smash the guitar right over his head. Plus, I keep catching myself whistling Funiculi Funicula, which must be annoying not only to me but to anyone within earshot. Little wonder that one gets stuck in my grey matter; it was one of the world's first successful commercial jingles, commissioned to inaugurate the funicular (cable car) up Mt. Vesuvius.

Given how fully Sorrento has been given over to the mass tourism machine, I'd argue that it's really a place for folks who really don't want to be in Campania in the first place. They just want to check the region's Big Ticket sights (Pompeii, Capri, Amalfi) off their list, and Sorrento is the most convenient base from whcih to do it. Sorrento also happens to save folks from many of the little inconveniences of being in a foreign country.

This place is no tourist-friendly it's boring. English is without a doubt the first language in town. A ridiculous number of English-style pubs try to entice people in with blackboards promising to screen upcoming rugby and (British) soccer matches. Even the tourist office is installed in the entrance to the old Grand Tour-era Circolo dei Forestieri—the Foreigner's Club. OK, so I admit I always repair here in the late afternoons, in some pale imitation of Grand Tour style, in order to catch up on my notes and sip a Campari-soda while watching the sunset fire the surrounding cliffs, the night slip over the triangle of Vesuvius across the way, and the lights twinkle on around the Bay of Naples.

Sorrento is bursting at the seams with giggling German schoolgirls, Americans and Aussies teetering along under their impressively large backpacks, and British package tourists letting down their hair for a Mediterranean holiday—the women donning spangly skirts in showy colors, the men opening their shirts to the sternum to display pale or sun-reddened pecs. I don't mean to poke fun at any of these people. I just wonder why they came all the way to Italy, to one of its most beautiful corners, and then all ended up clumping together in this relatively uninteresting town, spending time in each other's company at the pubs, rather than seeking out some place more genuine, more Italian.

Instead, everyone congregates here to sip overpriced cappuccino or catch gelato drips with their tongues while having the same five basic conversations, with slight variations:

"Did you see that brothel at Pompeii? [giggle]"…"Oh, you simply HAVE to do the Blue Grottto. The boatmen even sing for you! (I know; the trick is getting them not to.) No, it's on Capri; you can just catch the boat over and be back in a few hours."…"Did you hear, Fred got pickpocketed at the Naples train station!" (Sadly, a likely story. Even more sadly, that's the one bit of Naples most of them ever see—and it serves Fred right for not keeping his valuables in a moneybelt). Then there's in inevitable debate on whether to ride to bus down the Amalfi Coast and back, or just relax in Sorrento tomorrow.

Oh, and: "Where are you headed to next?" (Most common answers: "Home" and "Paris.")

Not me. I'm in Sorrento for two days, largely to give myself a chance to recover from jet lag in a place where I won't be tempted to sightsee, go sniffing around for odd and interesting things, or otherwise try to get any work done.

Yeah, sure. That plan only lasted until my second morning.

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  • At 5:40 PM, Blogger Italophile-UK said…

    Why the hell do you go back if you think it's so bad?

    OK there are lot's of cheap and no-so cheerful places to eat, but there are also many great places to eat, and if you think food in Sorrento is bad, I can tell you from experience that Venice at carnival time is deplorable, and I struggled finding anything edible in Chianciano Terme in Tuscany.

    But in Sorrento I know that the seafood at La Fenice is going to be great and reasonable price, as is O Parruchiano, Taverna dell '800 is just what it says - a tavern, not a restaurant even though they do serve food.

    If you want to know what this bar is really like, go in the evening when it's full of Italians talking (in Italian) at the top of their voices, drinking coffee, singing and dancing. There will probably be a table full of them sharing a plate of patate fritte, and a small selection of either quite tourists who feel a bit intimidated, or loud tourists who are drunk. To get the most out of Taverna dell '800 or Sorrento as a whole is to join in - like anywhere else, an attempt to speak the language makes all the difference in the world. My wife and I had a great evening with a couple from Naples who didn't speak a word of English, but between my pidgin Italian and the help of the waiters at Taverna dell '800, we had such a good time that the couple from Naples invited us back!

    When I took my grandaughters into a shop in Piazza Lauro called Diddlmania for a pencil sharpener, we ended up with another opportunity to make friends. I didn't know the Italian word and the shopkeeper didn't know the English, so we both learned something, and because I had my grandaughters try to speak Italian, not only did they get a gift on their way out, but the shopkeeper also called my wife and I back to give us a gift because we always return to Sorrento for our wedding anniversary!

    Ignore the gift shops and Limoncello shops and try to talk to the people, and ask about them - not about the 'sights' to see, and you'll find that Sorrento has what all of Campania has - warm and friendly people, as well as a warm and friendly climate.

    Every year, as well as returning to Sorrento, my wife and I go to other parts of Italy, Venetzia, Alto Adige, Rome, Tuscany - Le Marche - and many other places, often more than once. All of Italy has it's good and it's bad, but let's get real, if the food is bad, the tourists are a pain, the atmostphere is false and contrived, then wise up - don't go back again and then complain!


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