The last two nights, I’ve had starkly different dinners in the town of Amalfi. Each one cost about €25. One of them I’ll remember for years. The other I’d already forgotten while I was still eating it.
Travelers have choices, and the best options are rarely the easiest ones. And this is never so true as when you’re restaurant-hunting. After a few days in Italy, I feel like I’ve seen the same menu dozens of times. Pasta with clams. Seafood risotto. Lasagna. Spaghetti Bolognese. Because this is the Amalfi Coast, they often throw some lemon in there somewhere. Only the restaurant’s name changes.
Last night, moments after arriving in town, I went looking for restaurants. On a relaxed little neighborhood piazza just a few steps from the main drag, I zeroed in on a promising-looking place. I grabbed a table, ordered a pasta, salad, and dessert, and — while the food was pretty good — the experience barely made an impact.
Tonight I got more ambitious. I had asked a local guide, who leads food tours in a neighboring town, where she eats when she’s in Amalfi. Her answer: Taverna degli Apostoli, tucked around the side of the cathedral’s grand staircase. And sure enough, it was the best meal of the trip so far. Here’s the play-by-play.
Service: Last night, I sat outside, a few feet from where the owner was trying to drum up business. His running banter with random passersby was comically desperate. “Hey! Where you from? You want a good meal? Very cheap ’cause we’re not on the main square. Come on! I promise you like it!” Entertaining as it was to watch him set his hook in a family of four from Vancouver, then expertly reel them inside, it distracted — and detracted — from my dining experience. Tonight at Apostoli, my soundtrack was mellow jazz rather than aggressive sales pitches, and the service was astute and warm. When I asked if the broccolini was particularly bitter, she gracefully acknowledged it was, and nudged me toward something else. When the table in front of me opened up, she suggested I scoot up for a better view.
Interior: Last night, it was the predicable red-and-white-checker-tablecloth-with-melting-candles atmosphere. You couldn’t tell if you were in Italy, or in Little Italy. Tonight at Apostoli, I peeked inside. It was a former art gallery, they explained, and they chose to keep that decor intact in the cozy upstairs dining room. And, while my experience outside was perfect for a hazy late-April evening near the sea, I could imagine very happily lingering over a meal inside, too.
Menu: Last night, it was a list of completely predictable standards. Tonight at Apostoli, the menu was thoughtful, intriguing, even educational…to borrow a trendy phrase, it felt curated. Things like pasta with anchovies and walnuts. (I didn’t have the guts to order that one, but now I wish I had.) I had the sense that these were all dishes I’d never heard of before, even though people here have no doubt been eating them for centuries. I couldn’t choose…and, I imagine, I couldn’t choose wrong.
Food: For me, the most important part of any dining experience is the food itself. Last night, the pasta was actually quite good: noodles that were clearly handmade, with stewed tomatoes, melt-in-your-mouth roasted eggplant, and gooey mozzarella. But the “mixed salad” consisted of greens on the verge of wilting, flavorless tomatoes, and a few kernels of corn from a can. I sprinkled more and more salt and balsamico onto the salad trying to tease out some flavor. I failed. Oh, and there were about five tasteless olives. At one point the owner peered into my salad bowl and said, “You’d better eat those olives! I paid for them!” Finally, the desert (delizia di limone, a lemony sponge cake) tasted store-bought. Tonight at Apostoli, the salad was a revelation: ripe cherry tomatoes, shaved fennel, hand-torn basil, and — that extra-mile finishing touch that distinguishes a great chef from a merely competent one — a few little flecks of raw garlic to pull everything together and make the flavors pop. The pasta was hand-cut ziti with a sauce I’d never heard of, genovese neopolitana: slow-simmered onions and celery, giving each bite a savory, rich, caramelized sweetness.
Decision: Apostoli, in a walk. You can guess which restaurant is going in the next edition of the Rick Steves’ Italy guidebook.
What’s to be learned form this? First, if you care about food, expect more from your meals. Don’t settle for the same old trattoria on the same old piazza. Seek out that special place that dares to upend the clichés. A very fine line separates restaurants that deeply care about food from restaurants that care primarily about making money. Fine-tune your radar to detect that difference.
And finally, don’t get stuck in the TripAdvisor rut. I find that restaurant ratings on TripAdvisor skew heavily toward crowd-pleasing tourist traps. Last night’s restaurant ranked in the mid-twenties on TripAdvisor; Apostoli is buried about 10 places lower. Based on my personal experience the last two nights, you can follow the herd — or you can challenge yourself to find something better.