“At first, it’s the view that fells you.”
No wonder so many marriage proposals have been made here over the years (not all of them planned). Of an evening, the soft glow helps, cast by hundreds of suspended candles that take a waiter called Raffaele an hour to light in the evening and almost as long to extinguish. But musicians Franco and Andrea have to shoulder their share of blame too, for making things so damn romantic. Their lilting guitar and mandolin melodies have melted many a heart.
Any chef will tell you that stunning backdrops like this are a challenge. How to compete? The answer, according to La Sponda’s executive chef Gennaro Russo, is to understand where all that beauty comes from. That Positano view that we snap in a second and post on Instagram is the result of years, decades, centuries, aeons of slow growth and symbiosis, geological, environmental and human.
So is what’s on the plate. Take an apparently simple dish of pasta al pomodoro, or a line-caught fish grilled to perfection, or a Neapolitan babà dessert, the sponge so light and fluffy you can cut it with the side of a fork. There are stories in there you wouldn’t believe – stories of conquistadors and peasants, fishermen and princes. There are heritage grains, ancient tomato varieties, there’s oil made from olives that arrived in the Bay of Naples with the Ancient Greeks, recipes that criss-crossed the Mediterranean from Constantinople to the Straits of Gibraltar and evolved in the process. And then there are the years of technique.
“Fresh, local and seasonal is not a fashion – it’s an imperative.”
These days, so many restaurants bang a big drum about their ‘fresh, local and seasonal’ approach. Honestly, why would you eat any other way? Gennaro Russo has been doing fresh, local and seasonal since he first began to cook at home in Somma Vesuviana. That’s just the way they do things around here. You won’t find peas on the menu in September or pumpkin in April. To extend the season, he and his kitchen brigade use time-honoured techniques like drying, preserving and bottling, or turn to trusted artisanal producers of piennolo tomatoes, Mediterranean anchovies, smoke-cured provolone cheeses.
“Anyone can do fancy. The really difficult thing is to do simple.”
But it’s not enough just to find the perfect ingredients – you need to respect them too. The trick, Gennaro believes, is to listen to the land, to its culture, its produce, and then distil what you’ve learned to its purest essence. Any chef worth their salt can do fancy. The really difficult thing is to do simple.