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A special memory of a celestial night of food in Positano

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The night began on the terrace of Le Agave Hotel, a five-star facility that boasted one of the most amazing views in Positano. I stood there lost in the smell of the sea. The gentle waves lapped at the shoreline, and I could hear that gentle splash from the great height of our terrace. Soft music flowed through space and gently awakened my senses. Below, the lights of small and large boats twinkled against the dark, gently rolling water of the Mediterranean Sea. Already seduced by the legendary Sirens of Li Galli, I slowly turned my back on the sea to look up into the mountain. I remember being drawn to the lights and the raw power of those cliffs. I was fully absorbed in that quiet moment standing alone on that terrace. My mind was free and I was completely at peace.

I felt a gentle touch on my arm and turned to find my wife Liz clinging to my arm dressed in a simple yet enticing outfit, ready for dinner and more adventures in Positano. I was enthralled as the beautiful surroundings and aromas combined with her sparkling eyes and a hint of lemony scent. This promised to be a perfect night.

During our stay at Le Agave, we befriended the night manager of the property. He spoke understandable English and he enjoyed and found some comic relief in my feeble attempts to communicate in Italian. Yet we became friends, and he still writes to me on occasion even now, nearly six years later.

He told us to be patient as he would arrange for us to have a car and driver pick us up. We were fine with that because in Italy, dinner does not usually start until around 8:30 p.m. Plus,  having transportation was very convenient. I didn’t really want to drive those roads in Positano at night.

Right on time, our transportation arrived. The driver greeted us in Italian that I happened to understand. He then informed us that we were going to a restaurant called La Tagliata (The Cut). We thanked him and sat back to enjoy the drive. Our relaxation came to an abrupt stop when the driver made a sharp left turn directly into the mountain. All I could see was a solid wall of rock. Miraculously, a tiny road appeared hewn into the rock wall. Now at what felt like breakneck speed our driver zigged and zagged up the ridiculously steep incline of an ever-narrowing road in to the mountain. Suddenly, the driver stopped the car and informed us that we had arrived. I looked around and said, “arrived where?”

We were stopped on an extremely steep narrow drive surrounded by the mountain. As I looked closer, I caught a glimpse of a tiny arbor marked as an entrance. We stepped into this entranceway where Liz discovered an old-fashioned phone box. I was able to get it open to find a phone. I picked it up and after hearing several beeps buzzes and static, a voice said  “Ciao.” This voice told me to stay where I was and he would come to get me. Since the car was long gone, it was dark and we were on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, I decided that waiting was our best option. A few minutes later, the door to a tiny elevator opened and a very friendly young man greeted us into the elevator. It was a tight squeeze, and I had my doubts about our survival. But down we went. The doors of the elevator opened, and we stepped out. We were greeted by an open-air dining room with a clear view of the sea on one side and the stone face of the mountain on the other.

It was a weeknight, and the place was filled with a few tourists like us. But mostly locals. The aromas wafting from the kitchen quickly had my stomach growling and I was excited. We were promptly seated at our table. Immediately, we were offered an unlabeled house red and white wine. Along with the wine came basic wine glasses and a corkscrew.  The entire restaurant staff were family members. We didn’t have a specific server waiting on us. Whoever happened to be coming in our direction delivered food. Notice I didn’t say our meal. That is because this restaurant offered no menu and no options. Basically, you ate what they served. The entire experience was in the agricoltori culture. Every morsel of meal came directly from the family farm to this family restaurant. It was fascinating and amazing.

Small plates began to arrive at the table. Each plate was a hand-painted work of art. On these beautiful plates we received pickled vegetables, bean salad, and a lineup of assorted delicacies. All were accompanied with freshly baked breads, house olive oil and house balsamic.  Next came the pasta course. One of the family members cleared the small plates and another member of the team arrived with a huge platter of various pasta dishes. The platter was placed on the table with the intent that we would try everything offered. Each pasta dish was made with freshly prepared pasta.

We tried pumpkin ravioli with a pumpkin puree, tagliatelle with pork ragout, cannellini stuffed with cheese and spinach and served with fresh tomato sauce and rigatoni with Bolognese sauce. The entire platter was topped with a generous helping of shaved Parmesan cheese and fresh herbs. Each of the pasta selections was unique and more delicious than the last. Once this course was cleared and we had a moment to relax and sip the outstanding house wine, the meat course arrived. Again, there was a variety of meats cooked on the traditional open flame with olive oil and herbs. This was presented on another of those beautiful hand-painted platters. This course included pork, lamb, duck, chicken, beef and sausage. The blending of the wood smoke with the olive oil, herbs and those amazing Positano lemons is something that I will never forget. This course came to an end, the wine bottles were empty and I couldn’t imagine that there could possibly be much more.

Yet again, another member of the family arrived with yet another gorgeous platter filled with a spectacular assortment of hand-made sweets. Liz’s reaction was “how is this possible?” We weren’t offered to select one dessert from that platter. The entire platter was placed on our table for us to sample at our leisure. Right behind the desserts, yet another member of the team came to the table with coffee or espresso quickly followed by tall thin iced glassed filled to the brim with their house-made limoncello.

Liz and I sat for a moment contemplating this spectacular dessert display. A young girl approached the table to describe each dessert. She was the youngest family member working in the restaurant. She proceeded to describe the first as “grandmama’s favorite cream cake. Next was papa’s lemon cake, another was custard pastry and the last she described as “the staff’s favorite” and regional specialty lemon torte. Nearly every restaurant in Positano serves their own version of lemon tart. This was the family secret recipe and was the pride of the family. I took one bite and immediately understood why. The flavor was so delicious that it literally brought tears to my eyes.

By the time this phenomenal culinary experience had drawn to a close, we could not have taken another bite. I paid the check, and the entire family came by to thank us for coming and enjoying the meal. I explained that as I am in the culinary business, this was a very special treat for me. I requested to stop in the kitchen to pay my respects to the chef and the culinary team. Liz and I were escorted into a tiny kitchen where the chef was Papa and his staff consisted of Mama who made all the desserts and an uncle who helped with prep and such. In that kitchen we were treated like long-lost family. Handshakes and hugs were exchanged. They could feel our love and appreciation of their food. In turn, we could feel the pride and passion that these simple but brilliant people had for their craft. This is the standout memory that I have of our time in Positano. Writing about it some five or six years later, the personalities and the food are as vivid as that night on the mountain at La Tagliata.

 

Murray Schulman
Author: Murray Schulman

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