Delicious local flavours in Southern Italy

We have always enjoyed delicious local favours in Southern Italy though continue to be amazed at just how easy it is to find wonderful local produce and restaurants serving delicious local flavours.  Our last visit through Puglia, Basilicata and Campania was no exception and the variety and quality of the flavours amazed us again.

Having taken the ferry from Dubrovnik to Bari we journeyed south west across Italy through Puglia and Basilicata then turned north, along the coast, and through Campania. The scenery varies from barren to dramatic, lush to picturesque but what does not seem to falter is the fact that you can stop in any town along the way and you will find good food from amazing local produce with wonderful flavours.

We’ve travelled from Bari west before so we took a windy route through the hills in Puglia to see something new.  Mile after mile we passed through valleys where every inch of the land was green with farmed crops and at the corner of many of these vast fields, abandoned, beautiful old farm buildings made redundant now by mechanised farming and large cooperatives.

First stop, desperate for coffee after our 6am start off the ferry, in what seemed like the middle of nowhere without a town or village in sight, we came across a tired looking roadside café with just a few builders’ and road workers’ trucks parked outside.  As we opened the door we were hit by the most amazing smell – fresh baked bread and cooked tomatoes. Risorante Il Rifugio really was a wonderful refuge, behind the old bar wooden shelves were stacked with huge fresh rustic loaves, locally made Tartalli (savoury biscuits made with olive and white wine instead of butter), local jams and chutney as well as wines.

Rustic bread south italy

We resisted the massive, fresh-made, crusty panini filled with cured hams and mozzarella that the builders were enjoying but welcomed ourselves to Italy with classic espresso’s after buying provisions for later.

Next stop, lunch in Basilicata, the landscape around Potenza was a mix of farming and industry and predominantly modern building with not many places to eat. Finally at the edge of a modern but scruffy looking town a pizzeria hidden behind a shop selling mozzarella.  We ventured in to find two uniformed policemen and a few people in smart business dress enjoying large plates of pasta.  In our shorts and flip flops we too enjoyed wonderful pasta with fresh porcini mushroom and mozzarella sauce.

On to Campania where the road was lined with Buffalo farms many selling Mozzeralla direct. We chose one at random principally because it had Buffalo in the field next to the car park.

Buffalo Mazzarella Italy

Behind an unassuming door in the farm’s immaculate courtyard we found the Caseificio (Creamery) where a queue of people with shopping baskets were busy placing their orders, the lady in a white apron disappeared into the creamery behind and emerged to pass over the counter various sized bags of water filled with various sizes of delicious looking white Mozzarella balls.  When our turn came, we ordered Bocconcini, small mozzarellas about the size of eggs, and carried our prize away like a goldfish from the funfair.

Stylish Mazzarella farm Campania Italy

Through another door a stylish, air-conditioned cafe hid where a couple of tourists in shorts and flip flops like us mingled with Italians in business dress evidently on lunch break.  Though there were artisan breads and cakes filling the shelves, we were all after the same thing; ice-cream and yoghurt made from Buffalo milk. A worthy alternative to classic Italian ice-cream, not as rich but bursting with a fresh milk taste.

Now on to somewhere we know already, the Caseificio and Buffalo farm next to the ruins in Paestum where we know we can camp with our camper van for the night in their olive grove and taste some of their amazing local produce.

Caseifiecio Paestum Mozzarella Italy

In the garden next to the shop we feasted on a 500 gram Mozzeralla, Bocconcini with prosciutto crudo and very simple but extremely tasty tomato salad (sliced, fresh plum tomatoes, sprinkled with rubbed oregano and drizzled in olive oil – all from the farm).  Oh yes and a deep, ruby red Jungano wine from the farms vineyard, full of silky blackberry and vanilla flavours.

The next morning we watched the Mozzerlla and Bocconcini being made…

Production of mozzarella bonconcini

…before a run on Paestum beach in the hot morning sun, which was a memorable but rather painful experience due to our feast of wonderful wine and Mozzarella cheese.

We were late setting off to continue our journey and our bellies called lunch shortly after Naples.  Leaving the motorway at Capua; our hearts sank as we entered what felt like no-mans land, a military town with scruffy industrial buildings on the outskirts.  We trundled down street after street trying to see a glimpse of lunch, eventually we spotted a little sign over a door ‘Trattoria Antica’, it seemed our only option.

On tables by the bar a few people enjoyed plates of pasta as they watched The Simpsons on a small tv on the wall, a strange combination but the food looked good so we took a seat in the other room next to a few men who looked to be discussing business over their pasta. We listened discreetly but as we often find in southern Europe, their noise and gesticulation could have been arguing, agreeing but one thing we did understand was their enthusiasm about the food.

Trattoria Antica Capua Italy

They downed their espresso and left us to our simple yet delicious food; freshly made pasta with wonderful ingredients expertly combined to make the sauces.  My seafood pasta was piled high with mussels and clams with a tomato sauce that tasted like it had been infusing and simmering for days to get such an intense flavour and Adam’s simple sounding Spaghetti Pomodoro was perfectly seasoned and packed full of flavour.

Our schedule meant that we had little time left in Italy and after a long day on the road we chose the location for our last overnight camp, on the recommendation of friends who live in Rome, Sabaudia on the west coast just south of Rome.  A little touristy, as our friends had warned, particularly near to the pristine sandy beach dotted with cool beach bars, beds and umbrellas but overall an intriguing and  beautiful place.

Over leisurely morning coffee watching the sun rise over the lagoon, we recalled the amazing food we had had the day before and suggested it was almost inevitable that during the course of the day to come, we would have a similar experience in some unexpected place somewhere.

Sunrise over Sabaudia lagoon

We walked back across the lagoon into the town itself, very sleepy on a Saturday close to the end of the summer season.  In a street off the main square we came across an amazing delicatessen, packed to the rafters with an array of local produce and with tables outside suggesting we may find lunch there.  It looked like the shop had been the same since the 1950’s, there wasn’t a menu, the lady simply told us all she had available that day which was pretty much anything you could possibly desire.  A normal occurrence, it seemed, for several locals who nonchalantly took tables inside and sat chatting to each other or their dogs and reading newspapers until their delicious lunches arrived.

Sitting outside in the sunshine, we were treated to a huge plate of mixed cured meats, marinated, grilled vegetables and fresh crusty bread, simple and simply not reproducible in the UK.

delicatessen local produce sabaudia Italy

After these days exploring Italy, punctuated by delicious, conversation-stopping, local produce our eyes, taste buds and bellies were completely satisfied and full (for now).  We slept, one last night in Italy, dreaming of ruby red wines, the complex flavours of cured meats and melt in the mouth Mozzarellas.

We have travelled a lot in Italy and always we marvel at the unassuming ability to convert local produce into fantastic yet simple food with incredibly rich and distinct flavours. It all seems so natural and effortless, not food for special occasions, just food for every day.

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Greek Ruins and Mozzarella of Campania

We knew near Paestum we could see the Greek ruins and Mozzarella of Campania but first we wanted to explore Agropoli; the medieval old town that we missed the day before as we searched for our beach hideaway and to experience it in the evening.

Our map showed a campsite in Agropoli itself but this was not to be found anywhere rather we found a great little camper place at Trentanova, just a couple of miles walk back into town and actually, with its own pleasant village where you find a great delicatessen and a bar restaurant.  Camping Trentanova was a pleasant surprise at first it looked like you would be parking in a disused industrial ground with a huge barn welcoming you to the site but the good mix of sun and shade below the Eucalyptus trees and absolutely amazing, pristine, beautifully decorated toilets, showers and washing up area made it a great base from which to explore Agropoli.

strange quiet camper stop Agropoli CilentoOur first experience of Agropoli was the day before as we had passed through at the beginning of our testing Cilento coast day. As we entered the narrow streets of the ‘new town’ at 8am it already had a charm and bustle about it.  After breakfast, coffee and Coronette (Croisant) in a friendly little bar close to the centre, we noticed a delicatessen type shop that sold mozzarella so went to investigate.  We couldn’t see any at all amongst the great selection of cheeses behind the tiny counter but the lady old us there would be a new delivery in 5 minutes.  We wandered further, buying more wonderful plump Italian tomatoes (our rule is that you can never have enough tomatoes) and returned to the little deli 10 minutes or so later to find a queue out of the door.  The Buffalo Mozzarella had arrived and the locals obviously knew that it did so every day at that time and that the early bird catches a very fresh and delicious mozzarella. We bought our precious ration and couldn’t resist just a taste of the buffalo milk ice-cream too.
Buffalo milk icecream in Agropoli Italy
After a lunch at the van of our wonderful Mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, (too much) Greek Rosé and delicious melon, we lazed in the sunshine rather than risk any crowds at the beach. Later as the sun dipped, we scrubbed up and flip-flopped into Agropoli for dinner.

It was then 9pm and the streets were full of life and intrigue. The fresh fish shop had tables outside where a few enjoyed dinner, the fruit and vegetable stores cascaded colourfully onto the street and the smell of wood smoke from the fresh baked pizza ovens filled the air. As we approached the central square, the sound of hundreds of people promenading, dining and taking in the warm night air gave the town a vibrancy we had not expected.   We strolled, mingled and had just slowed to their pace when the power to the whole town failed; screams and giggles filled the square and a multitude of mobile phone lights soon lit up the evening.  We continued slowly in the dark weaving our way through those paralysed by the dark and eventually found a little restaurant where emergency lights and gas stove meant they could still serve us a great Spaghetti Vongole (clams) and Frittura Mista (wonderful lightly battered and quickly fried calamari and little fishes).

The lights came back on again a few hours later allowing us to find the way up to the old town and explore the cobbled streets, a beautiful and intriguing place but still packed with people at midnight.  A fascinating evening to end our few strange days and now we had seen (sort of) Agropoli and the old town, it was time, we both agreed, to leave the Cilento Coast and head north. Not an easy decision as any direction north now meant closer to home.

Now for Greek ruins and the Mozzarella of Campania! One last brief stop in Paestum to buy more Mozzarella the following day turned out to be very fortuitous. As we pulled into the driveway of the farm directly opposite the amazing Greek temple ruins we noticed a familiar Camper sign.  It couldn’t be that we could camp in the olive groves surrounding the Buffalo farm right next to the shop and restaurant where they serve an amazing array of Mozzarella and Scamorza could it? It could!Camper van in olive grove Paestum ItalyJust us and one more VW camper in the vast olive grove soaking up the sunshine and marvelling at the Greek ruins just a short stroll from the camper van…

Wonderfully preserved Greek ruins Italy

We toured the farm and said hello to the generous Buffalos…

Paestum Buffalo farm Italy

before a delicious feast of cheese, meats and of course wines from the farm.

Cheese feast at Buffalo farm Paestum Italy

Next stop Rome to see our friends, who have rather fortuitously found themselves living there, so in the morning we bought a huge (500g) Mozzarella, local Aglianico wine for them and filled our fridge with a few of the cheeses from the shop before, sadly now, saying goodbye the Paestum Greek ruins and to Campania.

Challenged by the Beaches of the Cilento Coast, Italy

We had very mixed emotions about leaving Greece and heading to Italy without even knowing how we would be challenged by the beaches of the Cilento Coast.

We were looking forward to Italian food and wine but we would miss Greece, the quiet places we had found there, the wonderful beaches and friendly people.  We expected Italy to be busy with those that were avoiding Greece this year and we knew from experience that unfortunately any beautiful beach in Italy is most likely shrouded by a blanket of umbrellas and sun-beds.

After our intermittent and disturbed sleep on the ferry, we planned an easy day, going back to an area we know already so we didn’t have to factor in finding a perfect place to stay for that night.  We would settle for the night in Paestum where we knew it was ok, not amazing, just a quiet campsite, great sunset views from the long sandy beach and a couple of good places to eat nearby.

So reluctantly we drove straight through hot and bustling Bari whose confusing maze of alleyways we have explored before and would love to explore again one day, when time and energy are on our side.  We drove straight across Italy leaving the rich wines and olives of Puglia behind and on to Salerno, south of Napoli in Campania, the gateway to the sweeping coastline towards ancient Agropoli and to a wonderful place where grazing Buffalo’s and a little Italian magic produce delicious Mozzarella.

We reached Salerno in time for lunch and headed for Restaurant Pinnochio, tucked away in a tall terrace alongside the promenade.  When we travelled this way before, we stumbled across this restaurant on a hot Sunday and so knew that we would find great food here, sitting amongst the locals that, judging by the familiar welcome they received, dined regularly there.  Yet again we were warmly welcomed, well fed and felt a little better prepared for our onward journey.

After leaving Salerno, the next two days were the most difficult, stressful and frustrating of the whole trip so far….

Paestum campsite was just ok. It was amazingly empty, beautifully hot and the on site pizza restaurant was open serving great Buffalina pizza. Yet it was not a patch on the Greek sites; no sea view, lots of shade (not our preference), the sea had a fine sheen of green algae (not dirty just not crystal clear), the beach was a mix of pristine private beach areas (regimented rows of matching umbrellas and sun beds) and scruffy unnecessarily crammed together umbrellas and towels in the public areas of the sand.  Still it did have the amazing sight of Paestum just around the corner…

Paestum Greek ruin in Italy

We moved on, further south to the Cilento coast where the guide book promised old towns tumbling into the sea where glorious sandy beaches entered the clear Mediterranean sea – why do we keep falling into the trap of believing the guide book!

Our criteria are, we know, reasonably demanding for the Italian coast; a beach but not end to end umbrellas, a shop for provisions but not end to end Lilos and souvenirs, a restaurant but not end to end beach bars with pictures of food. As we set off we naively commented that Cilento coast ‘looks like a junior Amalfi coast but not so busy’.

Cilento Coast hilltop town

For several hot hours (both the weather and our tempers) we drove the twisting road above the sea searching for at first the perfect place, trying every promising little track to the shore but every inch of coastline was a sprawl of umbrellas and bad taste. We reluctantly changed our criteria to simply a place we would feel comfortable for the night, we certainly being challenged by rather than enjoying the beaches of the Cilento Coast.   We lunched and cooled down at around 3pm at a rare oasis of calm on the road above the beach, a quiet pizzeria with a great view of the coastline stretching out below.

Quiet bay Cilento coast Italy

Finally on, our third passing, we spotted a beach with only a few umbrellas, this could have been the lateness of the hour but our hopes were rekindled and we turned down to Ogliastro Marina (of no interest according to our map and guide book – this could be it!).  A shabby chic beach bar served ice cold beer ‘alla spina’ (draught).  Drained and defeated, we suggested over beer that we could probably have made ‘our’ space at any of the places we had discounted over the past hours so we decided that no matter what, the scruffy ‘Sosta camper’ (camper parking) sign revealed around the corner, this would be our place for the night.

The Sosta Camper place was as scruffy as the sign suggested but the owner was friendly and welcoming and the beach and a couple of places to eat were within a mile.  The owner and the few other campers (relaxing by their vans in the shade) looked on curiously as we debated over which pitch to take. To their bemusement we made ‘our space’ in the pitch with most sunshine, an electric point and nearby trees (for night time ‘toilet trips’). We could stop now.

As we sat watching the sunset across the bay, nestled in a corner of restaurant Le Cefalo (way more sophisticated than the sweat stained shorts and t-shirts we were wearing), we agreed we had found the right place, not a perfect place but not bad considering everything else we had seen that day.  We also admitted that we were envious in a way, of the hundreds of people for whom the crammed campsites, towns and beaches of the rest of the coast must be ideal or why would they spend their precious time there.  The coast and beaches challenged us.  Is it us or them that are wrong?  The Cilento Coast really is a beautiful place, or was until the beaches were covered with umbrellas and people and the towns that must have been founded by fishermen, were transformed into tourist destinations.  Most days we face the same dilemma, do we continue searching for our ethereal place or do we settle for what the majority seem to want, making the most of it as everyone else seems to do.

The following morning, determined to make the most of where we were, rather than rush off to search again, we set off with our rucksacks on to explore round the headland. We trudged past the few umbrellas and lilos already on the beach and marvelled at the enthusiasm of the swimmers in the cloudy, dirty waters.  Equipped with water proof bags and fins/snorkels, we swam from the boat area around the headland, eventually finding a rocky but very clean and private little bay.  We spent a couple of hours here swimming, drying off in the sun and swimming again. Sitting with our toes in the water, we reflected on what we had had to do to find a tiny piece of shoreline sanctuary.  Lunchtime, back at the van, we packed up and started our search again.