The Other Amalfi
The main road that clings to the Amalfi Coast is a precarious one. It is, as John Steinbeck wrote, "carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side," and most drivers heading west from Positano decide to turn off as quickly as possible, dropping into Sorrento, relieved to see a few acres of flat terrain. But those who persevere and continue west beyond the tiny town of Sant'Agata sui due Golfi to the even tinier village of Nerano are rewarded with one of Italy's most beautiful bays.
Nerano is a pretty place, with one church, two shops, and a bar whose owner sells naïf paintings on the side. Just below the village, along the gray sand-and-shingle beach of Marina del Cantone, are three of the best restaurants on the coast. Two, the Taverna del Capitano (dinner, $155; 10-11 Piazza delle Sirene; 39-081/808-1028; www.tavernadelcapitano.it) and Quattro Passi (dinner, $240; 13N Via Amerigo Vespucci; 39-081/808-2800; www.ristorantequattropassi.com), get the gourmet plaudits and deserve them.
But it's the third restaurant, Lo Scoglio (dinner, $85; 15 Piazza delle Sirene; 39-081/808-1026), that attracts the cognoscenti. The kitchen is on terra firma, diners sit above the waves on a wooden pier, and the motor-launch brigade pulls up to a landing platform. (The Sirenuse, San Pietro, and Santa Caterina hotels can also arrange transfers.) Mamma Antonietta has been cooking here for 45 years, marinating homegrown artichokes and tossing mussels and clams into a big copper pan for frutti di mare. Her speciality is spaghetti alle zucchine—a cheesy, buttery meld flecked with basil and black pepper.
To reach the peninsula's greatest treasure, however, it requires a 45-minute walk. Just beyond Nerano's last shop, take the path marked via ieranto to the right of the main road. Level at first, the path ascends past flowering marjoram and straggly olive trees before descending to what is, quite simply, one of the loveliest bays in a country of lovely bays. Baia di Ieranto is a long blue inlet with a small but perfect beach where, legend has it, the Sirens once played. The bay is owned by the Fondo per l'Ambiente Italiano (FAI), Italy's equivalent of the National Historic Landmarks Program. Entrance is free, but it's well worth calling ahead to arrange a visit through the local FAI representative, Antonella De Angelis (39-335/841-0253). You'll climb the Saracen watchtower, learn about the site's geology and wildlife, and meet Salvatore, the sunburned guardian of the reserve. Boat transfers from Marina del Cantone or Positano can also be organized.
The Picture-Perfect Island
Procida's trattoria-lined quay looks like a location scout's dream of a sleepy Mediterranean fishing port—which is why, of course, scenes of Il Postino and The Talented Mr. Ripley were shot here. Unlike its more high-profile cousins, Capri and Ischia, Procida has no boldfaced cultural sights, no glamorous night scene. It is an island of sailors and fishermen, of villages built to withstand Saracen raids, of orchards and farmhouses and villas. You come, like the filmmakers, for l'ambiente.
The island makes for a perfect day trip. Hydrofoils leave from Naple's Molo Beverello for Procida, its banks lined with pretty pastel houses. (We had our best caffè shakerato at Il Cavaliere [39-081/810-1074], one of the waterfront bars.) Take a microtaxi—an open-air minivan with the engine of a scooter but the heart of a small truck—up to Terra Murata, the island's original town-fortress, dominated by an abandoned prison, Il Castello. From here, walk down to the fishing village of Corricella, a steep labyrinth of arches and stairs, balconies and buttresses. Some of the restaurants, notably Caracalè (dinner, $75; 62 Via Marina Corricella; 39-081/896-9192) and Gorgonia (dinner, $100; 50 Località Marina Corricella; 39-081/810-1060), are very fine indeed. But the classic Procida thing to do is call La Conchiglia (dinner, $40; 10 Via Pizzaco; 39-081/896-7602) and ask that they send the little orange motorboat to pick you up. On the beach of Chiaia, a 20-minute walk west of Corricella, the restaurant is a long, stilted boathouse of a place above a gray lava-sand beach. Try the pasta with broccoli and mussels, washed down with a carafe of the sweet and winsome local white wine.
There's no obvious place to stay on Procida; the best contender is La Casa sul Mare (rates, $110-$195; 13 Via Salita Castello; 39-081/896-8799; www.lacasasulmare.it), a bright but basic ten-room villa clinging above Corricella, with a spectacular view of the marina and the Med.
How to Do Sorrento
For years, beautiful but busy Sorrento had slipped off our radar, lost in a tangle of tour buses and shops selling T-shirts and visors. But the Pullmans have left this Amalfi town. And while the flip-flop vendors still dot the streets off the main square, a spruced-up and more sophisticated Sorrento has taken hold.
WHERE TO STAY The venerable Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria is looking better than it has in decades. The Grand Tour decor, discreetly enhanced over the years by the hotel's owners (the Fiorentino family has continuously operated the hotel since building it in 1834), is in full bloom. Caruso's Suite, where the legendary Neapolitan tenor spent the last months of his life, receives much of the press, but we find it somber and fusty. Instead, choose the Margaret Suite in the oldest wing of the building, overlooking the panoramic terrace (a good spot for lunch or a drink). The room is a warm clutter of antiques, and the bathroom, with its freestanding Belle Epoque tub, is the nicest in the hotel. Rates, $425-$2,400. At 34 Piazza Tasso; 39-081/807-1044; www.exvitt.it.
WHAT TO BUY Intarsia, or marquetry work, is Sorrento's speciality. Pass over the mediocre and downright tacky (we even spotted a weeping clown) and head straight for the real thing at Attardi (45 Via Padre Giuliani; 39-081/878-1291). This emporium, in the centro storico, comprises several serious artisans' studios producing remarkable examples. The finest is that of Giuseppe Rocco, whose dexterity with the gouge and awl is equaled by his proficiency as a draftsman. For antique intarsia, look up Massimo Gargiulo (21 Via Padre Giuliani; 39-081/878-4879), the grandson of Francesco Grandi, one of the great 19th-century craftsmen. Massimo has an exquisite Pompeii-themed table with ivory detailing, which his grandfather carved in 1881 (around $48,000).
WHERE TO EAT They're used to giving directions over the phone at Ristorante La Torre del Sarracino, but leave the hassle of getting there to a taxi driver. You'll want to pay full attention to Gennaro Esposito's creative way with such local ingredients as swordfish, which he turns into ravioli. It's not an unheard-of dish in southern Italy, but this chef uses the pesce spada itself, cut pasta-thin, to form the ravioli case, which is then filled with a mix of diced spring greens and served on a bed of scarola (escarole), lightly mashed new potatoes, and pine nuts. A gentle bear of a man, Gennaro seems to spend as much time working the tables as he does cooking. Dinner, $145. At 9 Via Torretta, Marina di Seiano; 39-081/802-8555.
WHERE TO CATCH A CLASSIC "I've been doing a hotel in Sorrento," wrote Italian designer Gio Ponti in Domus, the influential architectural review he founded, "and I decided to give each of the hundred rooms a different floor pattern." The Parco dei Principi, Ponti's playful neomodernist masterpiece, had only recently been inaugurated in 1962. He was less extravagant with his color palette: At the hotel, you can have any color you like—as long as it's blue. Ponti's classic, with its purpose-made furniture and pebble-mosaic walls, looks perfect after a recent refurbishment, and the semitropical park that extends behind the hotel is a cool green refuge. This business-oriented hotel doesn't have the service or facilities to match its good looks, but design mavens should definitely stop off for a drink in the bar. At 1 Via Rota; 39-081/878-4644; www.hotelparcoprincipi.com.