LO SCOGLIO DA TOMMASO, AMALFI COAST, ITALY

Peppino on his fishing boat, Marina del Cantone, Italy
 

Peppino on his fishing boat, Marina del Cantone, Italy


 

The mythological stretch of sea that starts at the gates of Capri and ends at the Li Galli islands is home to Peppino and the Lo Scoglio family. Ulysses was warned about this very place by Circe, the goddess of magic, in Homer’s Odyssey, “First you will come to the Sirens, who enchant all mortals who go near them. If anyone unwittingly draws too close and hears the Siren voices, he will never see his wife and children again, for they sit in a green field and draw him to his death with the sweetness of their song.” In fact, back then it was difficult to sail near Li Galli. The wind dies down and shipwrecks on the rocky shores of the islands were common. Luckily for the De Simone family, this very phenomenon was one of reasons for opening Lo Scoglio.
 
 

Lo Scoglio is a waterfront restaurant, hotel and private beach in the town of Nerano, on the bay of Marina del Cantone, the northernmost point of the famous Amalfi Coast. Lo Scoglio opened in 1952. Antonietta de Simone noticed that the bay in front of her house was always full of boats seeking shelter from the wind and high seas and realised that it would be a perfect location for a restaurant. Her husband Aniello (nicknamed Pappone, which means a person with a good appetite), a good looking man, fell in love with Antonietta because of her beauty and most importantly because of her cooking. In his eyes she was the best cook and he loved the idea and supported her initiative. It was an instant success, frequented by a wide array of characters: the rich and famous, Italy’s intellectuals, fishermen and smugglers and their neighbours: theatrical maestro Eduardo de Filippo and ballet great Rudof Nureyev. No matter their social status, everyone was welcome and fed in the same way by Antonietta. But the bill wasn’t always the same: her policy was the bigger the boat the more you paid. It would not be fair if a billionaire with a 100-metre yacht paid the same as a fisherman with a gozzo. Lo Scoglio is a place for people who appreciate quality. Its sophisticated simplicity and strong character attracts a certain kind of person, making it a safe haven for people with good taste. Today, that same atmosphere and eclectic mix of people are still around, it’s very common for a Hollywood mogul or rock star to sit at the table next to a local farmer. Lo Scoglio is still run by the De Simone family: a place of so much love and attention could only be a family business. Giuseppe, called Peppino by everyone, is the son of Antonietta and Pappone. He is a fisherman, farmer, poet, pirate and figurative head of the family. His wife, Santina is not highly visible and keeps herself to herself, but something tells me she is in charge. They have two daughters, Antonia and Margherita, and one son, Tommaso. Antonia, the elder daughter, is in charge front of house. Beautiful and charming, she instantly makes everyone feel welcome and at home. She’s a true genius when it comes to hospitality; paying attention and taking care of everybody. Margherita, equally alluring and with a great sense of humour, runs the back office and checks all the orders that arrive in the kitchen. She runs a tight ship. No matter how full the restaurant, I have never waited long for my food. Tommaso is the youngest and is the head chef with important culinary and cultural responsibilities. The rest of the staff are colourful cousins and nephews who all have the same passion and love for the place. There are not many restaurants I get excited about, but knowing that I will be going to Lo Scoglio always puts a smile on my face. The freshest ingredients prepared in a simple, authentic and traditional manner make Lo Scoglio Italian cooking at its best. The service is excellent but not annoyingly formal—after all it’s a beach restaurant where most of the customers hop off their boats barefoot. The mood is relaxed, there are no scenes and, although there is always someone exceptional at a nearby table, no-one is showing off. The big deal at Lo Scoglio is the food. Eating at Lo Scoglio is the ultimate pleasure. I suggest ordering a bottle of local white wine such as Fiano or Greco di Tufo, and letting Antonia tell you what to eat. I have never opened a menu, I just let them bring me what they want: everything is always exceptional. Lo Scoglio serves traditional Mediterranean cuisine, consisting of local, seasonal products prepared to recipes passed down through the generations.

There are no international dishes to satisfy trendy palates. Each member of the De Simone family has a role, not only in the restaurant’s success but also to in keeping the culinary tradition of Nerano alive. Peppino is a man of the land and the sea. He has farmed these steep terraced hills and fished these emerald seas since his early years. He has become part of nature, knowing all the best spots for red mullet, the rocks to dive for sea urchins and where each vegetable grows best. The knowledge acquired from his way of life has made him into an authority, a sort of elder, with much to pass on to future generations. Add a childhood of being a friend and valet to one of Italy’s greatest theatrical minds, Eduardo de Filippo, and Peppino is a man like no other: a farming, fishing poet with Hemingwayesque stories and the mannerisms of Marlon Brando. Having learned lessons that one can only learn from working the land, as he says “beneath the eyes of god,” he is brutally honest and determined to follow his own ways. I remember the first time that I met Peppino, I was instantly drawn to him. For me, a man who farms and fishes the right way is a real man and an aspiration. I managed to get in his good books and he took me along for one of his typical days. In the morning, we set off for the Li Galli Islands, a twenty- minute sail from Lo Scoglio, to dive for sea urchins. He prefers fishing at Li Galli because he says the fish there taste better than anywhere else. He believes it’s because the sea-floor has the right mix of rocks, sand and algae. I have fished for sea urchins many times but have never seen anyone spot them and pull them off the rocks with such speed. I could instantly tell he had spent a lifetime underwater by his smooth and efficient technique. After we had filled a couple of baskets, we headed back to the restaurant for a lunch of the raw sea urchins we had just collected. Fresh sea urchins need no condiments; the sea has given them all the flavour they need, adding anything to this masterpiece created by nature would only damage its perfect balance. Eating sea urchins straight from the sea is one of life’s great experiences. In the afternoon, Peppino took me to see the land dear to him and that his great grandfather had farmed; an enchanting steep plot on a point that overlooks the Gulf of Naples and the Isle of Capri. Other than being the place where he picks wild rocket, the land is abandoned but one day he dreams of farming it again in the same way as his ancestors. For dinner, Peppino wanted me to try what he calls “poor fish,” varieties that fisherman cannot sell and keep to eat themselves. They are much tastier than the usual sea bream one finds on every restaurant menu. In the late afternoon, we took an old wooden gozzo back to the Islands of Li Galli and dropped an underwater fishing net. Usually the net is left overnight but since we were catching dinner and didn’t need many fish, we came back as darkness fell to pull the net out of the water. Our catch was just enough to make a traditional fisherman’s dinner and we prepared each fish variety in different ways—fried, sautéed and grilled— just to make sure we got a taste of how it’s best cooked. It was one of those endless, food-and-wine-fuelled dinners where Peppino let me into his world, reminiscing about the many adventures he had at sea. The way we regard each other today is so complicated, it’s refreshing that the simplest and primal of experiences like going to sea and sharing a catch can instantly create comradeship and comfort between people. Peppino’s role is of great cultural importance for Italy. Such figures are disappearing quickly, there are few farmers and even fewer fishermen left. If it were not for people like him fighting against the industrialisation of our food, we would not know what real fresh produce tastes like. The complexity of a properly ripe tomato grown in the right spot is a rare experience: acid but at the same time succulent, with minerality and sweetness. A feast of flavours in perfect harmony. It doesn’t take a long time for us to forget the real flavour of foods; these traditional occupations that have made Italy into the beautiful country it is are fundamental for its future. Although Italy’s food is far less industrialised than in other countries, seasonality and locality are far less prevalent in restaurants because of higher costs. Peppino has maintained Lo Scoglio as authentic no matter what the cost. “Son, don’t get too attached to the land, the earth will bury you. I have always accepted a challenge even from my father. It’s hard work. Not physical but mental. My father wanted me to be a lawyer, doctor or engineer not a farmer but as early as in the late sixties he knew that the future of Lo Scoglio would be to grow its own produce.” Farm to table is a term used too often. What matters is how and where the food is grown and I can promise you that Lo Scoglio’s lands and farming methods are a thing of beauty. Peppino has been farming these lands since the end of the 1960s, when his father realised that the only way to get fresh tasty produce in the future would be to grow it yourself. “This is not a vegetable garden, this is land. Everyone can have a vegetable garden—it’s small time, but land is another thing. My land is not organic or biodynamic it’s Godynamic (God dictates what happens). Now everything is organic, it’s a scam, an invented word, there are organic pesticides, ahhahaha…” Visiting his land you soon realise how much hard work has gone into farming these steep terraced hills of the Amalfi Coast. Each crop perfectly positioned for optimal growing conditions, with astonishing tidiness and cleanliness. I have never seen anything farmed so beautifully. Peppino says that God gave him everything to work with except the manual but now, after forty years, he is finally starting to understand how to get the best flavour from each vegetable. Peppino believes that everything that came from the earth must go back into it. The kitchen staff are forbidden to throw away any scraps. He simply puts them back to fertilise the land along with some manure from well-fed, healthy animals and uses no chemicals. The whole region of Campania is known for the best produce in Italy because of the soil and climate. Peppino has the good fortune to have different plots of land at different altitudes, ranging from sea level to above 500 metres, all on very fertile volcanic soil. He calls the sea-level plot ‘Sicily’, the hottest and southernmost region of Italy, the mid-altitude plot of land is ‘Central Italy’, resembling the microclimate found in Tuscany, and the highest plots are ‘Trentino’, the northernmost mountainous region. These different microclimates make it possible for Peppino not only to have the ideal conditions for certain types of vegetable and fruit but also to have fresh produce for longer because at each latitude, or in this case altitude, the growing seasons are different. For example, a tomato grown in ‘Sicily’ will be ready months before a tomato from ‘Trentino’ and so Lo Scoglio can have ripe tomatoes for a much longer season. Whoever has to cook these products must take great care to let them express their full potential and not do anything to lessen or mask their flavour but to accompany it and bring it out. Tommaso is a shy, kindly young man. He’s the head chef, and a very talented one, but here at Lo Scoglio they call him a cook. The very essence of this restaurant is to keep the tradition of ancestral recipes alive and not to reinvent them. Using the title cook instead of chef shows humility and respect for the past and for the ingredients. Tommaso has gone through a very important culinary education and also worked alongside one of Italy’s greatest chefs, Nadia Santini of Dal Pescatore. After seven years experience abroad he returned home saying to his father, “Dad, to eat I have to come home.” This was a very important moment in his personal growth because realising what’s out there and understanding the full potential of his origins was essential in keeping the culinary tradition of Lo Scoglio alive. Tommaso’s homecoming is described by Peppino as his master studies. Tommaso stayed close to his grandmother, Antonietta, in her final years, writing down and absorbing all the recipes she kept in her head, gaining an immense understanding of the local cuisine. Being in one of the greatest places for produce and fish has kept Tommaso humble, making him realise that his role is to communicate culture, place and tradition through his dishes. Today, Tommaso is one of the guardians of Mediterranean cuisine. Lo Scoglio has become a destination for many reasons; the passion and dedication of the De Simone family and the staff, the location, and above all the food. Without that level of quality, it would be just another charming waterfront restaurant rather than a temple of Mediterranean cuisine. Lo Scoglio’s authentic traditional cuisine will always be current and relevant because it is the real deal, there are no shortcuts if you want to reach the highest levels of quality. It has kept its true identity since opening and has now become a part of Italy’s cultural heritage; something to protect and emulate. Lo Scoglio is an example to all other restaurants: keep it simple and authentic, use only excellent ingredients and be true to yourself, have an identity and stick to that course once set. The only immediate plan for the future is to get a fishing boat big enough to supply the restaurant year around. If they ever need a crew-member, I would happily set sail with Peppino and do my part to help keep alive what makes Italy a destination.

 
—Copyright 2018 Gherardo Gaetani

 
 

Lo Scoglio da Tommaso, Marina del Cantone, Italy
 

Lo Scoglio da Tommaso, Marina del Cantone, Italy

 
 

Lo Scoglio da Tommaso, Marina del Cantone, Italy
 

Lo Scoglio da Tommaso, Marina del Cantone, Italy

 
 

Tommaso at work, Marina del Cantone, Italy
 

Tommaso at work, Marina del Cantone, Italy

 
 

De Simone family at Lo Scoglio da Tommaso, Marina del Cantone
 

De Simone family at Lo Scoglio da Tommaso, Marina del Cantone

 
 

Peppino and Baru pulling in the fishnets, Marina del Cantone, Italy
 

Peppino and Baru pulling in the fishnets, Marina del Cantone, Italy