I spent a few off-season weekends in the vertical citta of Positano, and on one slightly overcast night after my arrival from Roma, I found myself wandering around the beach area contemplating my restaurant choices. The combination of the long, exhaustive trip from Rome and the disappointing weather had left me feeling a little blue, and I was sure that I would feel worse if I did not choose the right restaurant. There are a few very touristy options down by the beach, and as a tourist it is sometimes difficult to figure out how to navigate the traps from the quality restaurants. After pacing back and forth and perusing many menus, I finally asked one gentleman who was walking by me. “Scusi, una domanda,” I said. He, being a local, would surely know the riff from the raff. He offered a few of his opinions before asking me if I was planning to eat right then. “Si, ho fame,” I said. “Okay, we eat together. Come,” said he. So now, not only did I have a local’s suggestion on where to eat, but also I had a funny, older Italian gentleman to keep me company. Perfetto.
We ate at La Cambusa a few steps up from the beach. Being a local, Christian knew all of the staff and we were treated congenially. I ordered one of southern Italy’s specialties and my personal favorite, spaghetti con pesce di mare, mixed seafood and spaghetti. Our dinner was fine at La Cambusa. Perhaps it is because I had become so accustomed to the southern Italian menu and was growing slightly tired of the same choices, but I did not think the meal was four stars. We of course finished off with a dessert. Even though Southern Italy is not known for its desserts, Italians always finish their meal with something sweet. My kind of finale.
I explained to this gentleman how much I loved food and how I was hoping to take a cooking class while on the Amalfi coast. I had read about all of the top-rated ones on TripAdvisor, but most of them were quite pricey and I was hoping to find something more reasonable. He took out his cell phone and called his friend at Ristorante Max. A few minutes of quick conversazione later, he put his cell phone away and turned to me. “Va bene. 10am tomorrow, you go to Ristorante Max, and you have a cooking lesson by yourself. Then, tomorrow night, we eat what you make.” Si, signore!
The next morning, with the sun casting its approval on my new adventure, I followed the narrow cobblestone path outside of my hotel to the restaurant’s unpretentious entrance. The lavender hanging from the vines overhead seemed to have grown an unreal amount overnight, infusing this short walk with its fragrant omnipresence. I hesitantly descended the staircase down to Ristorante Max, stepping around one young boy sweeping the stone stairs, and found the door to be open. Employees were going in and out, preparing for the day, carrying crates of fish, lettuce, herbs, and plates. One young man was shining the silverware, one by one, in the entranceway. I found Christian’s friend, and was quickly given an apron and a cap and whisked into the white and ocean blue kitchen.
So there I was, in a beautiful restaurant kitchen in one of the Amalfi Coast’s most famous restaurants. While the course was not as hands on as Andrea’s cooking class in Roma (a wonderfully organized day of cooking with ten other vacationing foodies), it is always an experience to stand in a working kitchen and watch all of the prep that goes into a day’s work. In one corner, a young, tall, dark, and handsome Positano-ite was cleaning and peeling shrimp. I ventured over to him, and he opened a few stainless steel refrigerator doors to proudly show off the catch of the day. “What should I order tonight? Sta sera? What’s fresh?” “Tutti fresca. Sempre fresca. Ma sta sera, branzino,” said the young Italiano. I knew Christian and I would not be dining on any of my own cooking.
None of the chef’s had professional training: they were simply raised in a restaurant kitchen and learned from their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers. Salvatore, my teaching chef du jour, made a margherita pizza, eggplant parmigiana, and fried zucchini flowers. I watched him effortlessly mix together the dough, roll it out into a thin circle, and spread San Marzano tomato sauce over it with a ladle. After breaking up fresh mozzarella and crumbling it onto the sauce, he popped the pizza into their small pizza oven. Next he pointed to the small pan of boiling oil, his fat finger gesticulating the process for the zucchini flowers. Also into a separate pot of oil: the sliced eggplant for the parmigiana. Everything was rapido, ingredients whipped up and disappearing before my eyes without my even touching them. For 60 euros, I would have hoped for a little bit more involvement, and perhaps a longer time spent in the kitchen as it was all over in about an hour, but nonetheless I enjoyed witnessing the action in the kitchen, watching and listening to the Italian men as they prepped for the night’s events. And knowing that I was to be dining at Ristorante Max that evening, I felt at ease knowing what a clean, organized, and well-maintained kitchen the restaurant had. As I was leaving, the man in the entranceway had only just finished polishing the forks. So at least we also knew how diligently the stemware was cleaned.