Foragers, Flames and Focaccia: Savoring Italy with S.A.L.T. Experiences
There’s a soul-stirring plateau in Puglia, far from the all-too-familiar whitewashed masserie, with a man who roams it every day, rain or shine. He sports a huge silver mustache and rides a Gilera motorcycle with off-road wheels, a massive bunch of wild herbs and flowers strapped to his back. His name is Ciccillo and he’s a master forager. He forages for the best young cooks of the region, like the Montaruli brothers, whose restaurant near Bari specializes in smack-your-lips veggie-centric Mediterranean cuisine. Foraging, cooking and eating with Ciccillo and the brothers in the Pugliese countryside is a life-changing experience. And guess what? You can sign up for it, as part of S.A.L.T. Italy, rolling out on Silver Dawn in March 2022. Full disclosure: it’s one of my favorite shore excursions on the program.
S.A.L.T. is an acronym for Sea & Land Taste, Silversea’s new immersive culinary program. “With the Mediterranean and Europe, the trick is to always dig deep and find new angles and areas of investigation in a region that feels very familiar to many,” says Adam Sachs, the award-winning writer and editor who serves as Director of the program. For the past 3 years, he’s been drawing from his experience and a vast Rolodex of chefs, cookbook writers, historians, anthropologists, winemakers and other food experts to create the ultimate global food journey. “Happily there’s no end to the dishes, ingredients and tastes to explore.” There really isn’t, as long as you’re willing to dive deep.
While designing S.A.L.T. Italy, both Adam and I developed strong attachments to either this or that destination. If you’ve been following his travels, whether via Instagram or his Silversea podcast, for instance, you’ll know he’s a Sicily aficionado, and a pasta connoisseur. Unsurprisingly one of his favorite shore excursions is “Wine, pasta & cannoli: a Sicilian feast with Sallier de la Tour.” Sallier is one of the estates of counts Tasca d’Almerita, outside Palermo, the ideal destination for a stroll through the vineyards with a glass in your hand, sure, but also for sampling delicious pasta made with local wheat by the masters of Pastificio Feudo Mondello, tossed with sauce in big wooden troughs, and the Piana degli Albanesi cannoli, filled with freshly whipped sheep’s milk ricotta.
In Sicily you can also choose to go wine tasting on Etna, a volcano that’s as hauntingly stunning (and eerily energizing) as it is revered for its crus by wine enthusiasts world-wide. Terroir is a leitmotiv in S.A.L.T. Italy, which figures seeing how the country is built its culinary lesson on the “power of the ingredient.” On the hills of Lucca, Tuscany, where the country’s biodynamic wine scene is writing its new chapter, you’ll have a chance to visit the Sardi Giustiniani farm; their vintages pair spectacularly with the fire-cooked dishes of resident chef Damiano Donati. Ripping a page off Francis Mallmann and Asador Etxebarri’s playbook, he has designed a set of custom-built barbecues and ovens where he roasts, sears, slow cooks the farm’s bounty in front of his guests. Under the Tuscany sun is a land of cowboys and farmers, their hearts beating to the rhythm of conspicuous flavor.
Adams Sachs often talks about the importance – and difficulty – of connecting travelers to the places they’re visiting through the lens of food. Of delivering absolute taste, culture and adventure while walking the tricky line of authenticity. It’s about generating the right amount of unexpected, without losing sight of what people crave, particularly from a place like Italy: comfort, and memories to last a lifetime. “We achieve this by also linking shore excursions with lectures and hands-on onboard cooking experiences and ever-changing regional menus served at the S.A.L.T. restaurant.” While testing out “The Franco Pepe experience” I was accompanied by Nadine, the S.A.L.T. restaurant’s chef; together we visited the master who makes mozzarella for Italy’s most famous pizzaiolo: she returned to the ship’s galley with an armful of artisanal cheese to add to the dinner’s menu.
This is such a good example of how S.A.L.T. works: you take something as potentially cliché – and yet unavoidable – as pizza, and you flip the script. For “The Franco Pepe experience” we dock in Naples, head outside Naples, past the Vesuvio (another volcano!) and deep into a lush natural park, to the old town of Caiazzo. Here is one a pizzeria with a crazy long waitlist, Pepe in Grani, the destination of so many pilgrimages by top chefs and pizzaioli from all over the world: it will open just for you, and you’ll enjoy a private tasting of pizza with Franco Pepe himself, at his chef’s table. Before that, you’ll visit the cheese farm where his buffalo mozzarella is born (if you’ve never tasted just-pulled warm mozzarella, you’re in for an extra treat. But save some room for pizza!)
Pepe will make a surprise appearance in Sorrento too, for a 4-hand lunch cooked with his friend, chef Peppe Guida (legendary maker of some of Italy’s most celebrated pasta dishes), at agriturismo Villa Rosa. With a picture-perfect view of the Gulf of Sorrento, you’ll be served fried antipasti, pizza made in the garden’s wood fired oven, spaghetti and dessert. On your way up the hill, you will first stop for a tasting of award-winning Provolone del Monaco, at Italy’s second oldest cheese shop. You can’t say you know provolone until you try this one: it will set the bar so high you’ll be spoiled for life.
This 4-hand lunch is one date only, something for the books. Chef Guida will then return solo for a string of dates designed to let you immerse in his delicious cuisine, surrounded by the jungle of trees, aromatic herbs and flowers of Villa Rosa. Guided by Peppe Guida you will pick fresh vegetables in the garden (have you ever tasted a tomato straight off the vine, still warm from the sun? What if I told you you’ll taste as many as five different kinds of tomatoes?) and then head to his spacious open view kitchen to watch him prepare the ingredients for your lunch. You’re welcome to help him if you want, whether it’s shaping gnocchi or slicing eggplants for a parmigiana – both known endorphin-boosting activities. Lunch is under a pergola. With that view, yes.
Speaking of vistas, Sardinia too will provide some serious eye candy with our Olbia shore excursion. Hosted in a renovated stazzo (a traditional farming shed of the Gallura area), with views of the Maddalena archipelago and Costa Smeralda, you will enjoy some of the region’s most interesting wines and meet a few of the celebrated artisans who, far from the swanky touristy beach resorts, handcraft wondrous cheese and charcuterie. They work in isolation, in the mountainous part of the island – making this encounter and the tasting of their products even more special. Two generations of women will then come together around fresh filindeu (“threads of God”) pasta: one will expertly weave this famous tapestry of Semolina dough, her ancient hands as agile as a pianist’s, the other will transform the golden sheets into flavorful dishes for your lunch al fresco.
From the emerald waters of Costa Smeralda to the deep green of the Monte di Portofino, in Liguria. The region’s peculiar shape – a strip of land squeezed between the sea and the mountains – makes for incredible vistas. One of the best can be enjoyed from La Portofinese, an eco-farm on a mission to revitalize local agricultural practices with contemporary tools, working on clean energy production and deep mountain water extraction. This is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, beginning with the drive through the woods of the Portofino natural reserve on special porters, the only vehicles allowed on this private road, which twists and turns taking you higher and higher, past secluded cottages (the high-profile residents are notoriously private) and secret gardens, up where only few lucky ones can go. Once on top, you’ll visit beehives and vineyards, taste the farm’s own wine, beer and nectars, and get ready for a picnic with a spectacular view of the bay down below. The pièce de résistance will be warm focaccia ligure and cheese-oozing focaccia di Recco, freshly baked in a wood fired oven. The farm’s chef will teach you how to make them so you’ll be able to summon a taste of Liguria back home. But not the vista – for that, you’ll have to go back.