I have somehow become the unofficial travel agent for my family, friends (and friends of friends). Especially when it comes to Italy, where I spend so much of my time. People ask me for recommendations—hotels, museums, gardens—and most of all, restaurants because they know (a) I am dead serious about food. (b) tourist traps make me cry (the thought of anyone I know and/or love taking a once in a lifetime trip to Italy only to spend it eating in "Americanized eateries" breaks my heart! (c) being a very type "A" personality, I don't just tell people where to go... I tell them when to go, what to order, and where to sit. I care about the whole experience!
So the list I'm about to share with you focuses on my favorite place in all of Italy: The Amalfi Coast… the 32-mile, hair-raisingly beautiful coastal road which winds from Sorrento to Salerno through paradise. This list has become kind of famous among my extended circle. It has been passed from traveler to traveler in a kind of a code of silence for years. So here you go... my favorite restaurants and a few other tips.
(Since most newcomers to the Amalfi Coast stay in or around Positano, I’ve kept that in mind when putting this list together)
Where to Eat
Il Pirata in Praiano (about a 10 to 15 minute drive from Positano) is my favorite restaurant in the whole world! (big bold statement, but hand-on-my-heart true) The setting is magical, the food is simple and delicious... and the short walk to the restaurant through a carved out rock is wonderfully dramatic. You should reserve a table on the little terrace which juts out over the water but keep in mind it will have to be either 7:30 or 9:30 (7:30 is my preference as I like having daylight and moonlight during the same dinner). The spaghetti with vongole is out of this world.
Da Adolfo in Laurito is THE legendary beach restaurant on the coast. Only way to get there is by boat... unless you fancy walking up and down about 500 steps. The Da Adolfo boat will pick you up in the Positano harbor (watch for the little red boat with a fish flapping in the breeze). There is no charge for the boat ride but you must have a lunch reservation. (Or you can go by private boat taxi.) You can also use Adolfo's private little beach while you are there. Food is good... but one doesn't go for the food (exception: mozzarella wrapped in lemon leaves)... it's all about the trendy crowd and fun setting.
The 17th Century Monastero Santa Rosa in Conca dei Marini looms large and foreboding high up on a hill as you leave Amalfi heading back toward Positano. It's an impressive site. This is where resident nuns first made the famous local pastry... sfogliatelle. If you are lucky, the chef will offer you one (they are usually only made these days for hotel guests). It has to be the most peaceful place in Italy for lunch (must be the nuns' lingering karma). The hotel rooms are amazing... and perfect if you want a privacy/luxury combination. (Several suites have beautiful private gardens—if you really want to feel special.)
Everyone who has heard or read about Positano knows about the Hotel Sirenuse. I always recommend it for a drink in the evening. (dinner is a little too formal for me) Sitting there sipping on an Aperol Spritz I feel like I can reach out and touch the "movie-set" that is Positano. Great atmosphere.
Donna Rosa is an amazing cook and her eponymous restaurant in Montepertuso (high up over Positano) is a foodie paradise. This mother and daughter chef team are very well known, so you need to book. No view, but honestly you won't care. If braciole is on the menu... do not hesitate. It's just like grandma put in her Sunday "gravy"! (My suggestion is eat dinner here after drinks at the Sirenuse.)
The Hotel San Pietro is my favorite hotel on the coast road just outside Positano. Like the Sirenuse, it’s perfect place for a drink only (and dinner elsewhere). The bar on the terrace is reminiscent of Cary Grant’s grandma’s house in the old film An Affair to Remember. And there are great views of Positano (not as "touchable" as from the Sirenuse, but breathtaking just the same) And the gardens are amazing.
Aqua Pazza is in the main square of the wonderfully charming and sleepy fishing village of Cetara (which, by the way, is about as far East as you'll probably want to go unless you want to buy pottery from Vietri further along the coast). Food is delicious. Google the menu. Superb. It is one of the best kept secrets on the coast. If you get there at lunchtime and you don't feel like a big meal... the little paninoteca across the street (part of the Aqua Pazza family) is perfetto.
At some point during your stay you’ll want to charter a little boat (rentals abound!) in order to take in the whole coast from the sea, and a great place to stop for lunch is Conca del Sogno in Nerano. The boat ride from Positano can be anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the calmness of the sea and the speed of the boat, but going by car can take forever! (Order the spaghetti with zucchini—specialty of the house and really amazing!)
Awful restaurant name but the best food you'll find in the immediate Positano area. Up on the main road... it’s an easy walk from the center of town. No sea view but lovely garden and great menu. (Zucchini Blossoms stuffed with ricotta are second to none!)
Touring tips for when you’re not eating!
Unfortunately after 10am this historic little town is overrun with tourists. If you can manage to get there early I suggest sitting in the main square and having a cappuccino and warm sfogliatella (OMG) at the famous Andrea Pansa Cafe. (Right next door to the magnificent Duomo of St Andrea.) Then buy some Amalfi paper (world renowned) and get out before the hordes arrive.
Check out the Hotel Avino (gorgeous) and the gardens at Villa Rufolo (you will recognize the iconic view that's in every guide book). The lovely main square has pretty average restaurants, but a paninoteca with atmosphere will do just fine if you’re hungry. Or you could leave town and lunch at Monastero Santa Rosa (which is back in the direction of Positano) or continue along the coast to Aqua Pazza in Cetara. A tiny village you might want to visit along the way home is Atrani. Adorable.
Whether you are staying in Positano or not, it will eventually drive you crazy. The steep walk down to the water from the coast road is full of tourist shops (read: tacky) and hundreds of tourists willing to buy them. Once at the bottom you may be too hungry or thirsty to climb back up (and go over to Next 2). So if you absolutely need some nourishment, Chez Black and Tre Sorelle have pretty much the same menu. Decent fare (it is Southern Italy, after all) and not bad pizza. But again, only if you can’t get back up to the top and out of the center of the madness.
Last but not least, my favorite town on the Amalfi Coast. Praiano is where I like to stay and pretend to be a local. It just feels like home. No tourists (to speak of), very few shops, apart from a butcher, vegetable market and a one-of-a-kind convenience market aptly named Tutto per Tutti which sells everything from paper towels to the best prosciutto you’ve ever tasted. Also, one fab gift shop called La Bacheca which sells beautiful hand-made pieces from Vietri. It's a working village with great views and very friendly people. (BTW, it’s the town where I leave my heart every time.)
Driving on the Amalfi Coast road is not for the faint-hearted. The sudden twists and turns are bad enough, but coupled with oncoming large tour buses traveling at the speed of light (and in most cases driven by locals who love scaring rental car drivers) and the steep cliffs which are ever-present in one's peripheral vision, it can make for a white-knuckle afternoon. But it's all part of the experience. So my advice is: make sure you travel with one (very brave) designated driver. Otherwise I hear buses are pretty convenient and there are always taxis. Little secret: when I feel like resting the rental car and having a second glass of something local, I call on a very cheerful man called Paolo who drives a golf cart. He'll take you anywhere and keep you entertained on the drive. Everyone in the area of Praiano knows him as “Paolo with the golf cart.” No last name needed here.