The hotel where I would be working, Hotel Santa Caterina, was located along the road just before the center of Amalfi. Amalfi is on the waterfront, but has no beach. The town of Amalfi used to rival Venice and Genoa as a substantial maritime republic and its maritime law, the Tavole Amalfitanae, was the ultimate authority in the Mediterranean for centuries. Amalfi was the home of Flavio Gioa, the inventor of the maritime compass. The main piazza is dominated by the Romanesque styled Duomo di Sant’Andrea, founded in the 9th century, the Piazza Duomo, and Museo della Carta, the 13th century paper museum. A tourist destination today, it features a cluster of cafes, souvenir and retail shops around a central piazza or square.
The piazza was bulk-headed with large, gray boulders and there was one long pier stretching out to meet ferries and the occasional cruise ship. Even though it was early when I arrived for my first day of work, people sat outside the cafés sipping their cappuccinos and eating croissants, delivery trucks were unloading their wares, kayakers were in the water playing basketball with a floating basket, and the ferry was boarding for Naples. I exited the SITA bus I had ridden from Positano and started the one-mile trek up the hill to the hotel.
The road was steep and passed through two tunnels cut into the rock. I stopped to catch my breath and watched a construction crew hollowing out the hillside to expand one of the tunnels. A man with a tan, weathered face led three donkeys down the road with panniers filled to the brim with heavy rocks. I watched as he unloaded them into a pile on the side of the road. A small dump truck was parked nearby, which looked like it would take the rocks away later in the day. I wondered how many trips the workman made up the hill each day with his donkeys. It was hard enough walking up the steep road just once—without pulling three stubborn animals.
Hotel Santa Caterina is curved to fit the road and clung to the hillside several stories down between the road and the sea. It was cream-colored stucco with dark green trim adorned with window boxes spilling with colorful flowers. A brass plaque to the left of the front door identified it as a “Five Star Hotel” and a “Member of the Small Leading Hotels of the World.” A valet in black pants and a gray long-sleeved jacket trimmed in burgundy opened the car door for an arriving guest. Another deftly removed luggage from the trunk and followed the guest into the front door. Red, yellow, silver, blue and white motor scooters were huddled by the employee entrance to the left of the main door. I was a little nervous as I entered the hotel and walked up the ramp to find the kitchen.
The head chef, Domenico Cuomo, (we call him “Chef” and everyone else is called by their first names) welcomed me and told me that the laundry staff would wash and press my uniform for me. My Italian was sketchy, but we managed to understand each other. He had one of the girls who wash dishes show me where to take it. I noticed that there weren’t any men washing dishes either, although there was one man who was not a chef that furiously operated the espresso machine for the restaurant and staff throughout the day.
He had one of the dishwashers, Conchetta, show me where the locker room was so I could change. I had carried my chef’s uniform on a hanger that first day. Conchetta led me down three flights of stairs (Ugh! I’m going to have to walk back up) to the basement where she let me share her locker. The room was the size of a coat closet and I was sweaty from the walk uphill. I started to wriggle my damp body into the freshly pressed uniform. Then I trudged up the stairs to start work.
The hotel had two kitchens – the main one serves breakfast and dinner and the lower one, by the pool, serves lunch. The pastry chef, Roberto, spoke some English, so they decided to start me with him for the first couple of weeks and would gradually shift me to the savory side of the kitchen.
Roberto, greeted me as he dusted flour from his hands with a dish towel. He was short and stocky with a graying crew cut and smiling brown eyes framed with glasses.
“Good morning, Mar-cha.” (The Italian pronunciation for “ci” is “ch.”)
“Buon giorno,” I replied.
Roberto beckoned me over to a quieter corner of the room where a long marble table was surrounded by a large double oven, three small refrigerators, a sink, a rack of wire shelves holding baking pans, and a bank of flour and sugar bins. This was his domain as pastry chef.
He handed me a paring knife and showed me how he wanted me to cut strawberries, pineapple, apples and oranges for a fruit salad. I washed my hands and started slicing the fruit into large glass bowls. Roberto laid out 210 small plates on the marble counter and began arranging the fruit. It took us most of the morning. I helped Roberto transfer the plates to a wire holding rack.
Then Roberto opened a huge can to expose what looked like a large transparent green pear
“Che cosa è? What is it?” I asked.
“Cedro,” he replied. “It is the fruit of the cedar tree,” he replied.
I didn’t even know that cedar trees had fruit, but later learned that this was citron, which is primarily candied and used in many desserts like fruitcake in the US.
“Is very bitter when fresh, “he continued. “ It must be canned with zucchero (sugar) for 3 or 4 months before you can eat it.”
We cut the fruit into strips, rolled them in sugar & dipped them in chocolate. We also made Cantucci di Firenze – like small biscotti that you are supposed to dip in Vin Santo liqueur after dinner. Biscotti means “twice baked” in Italian and that is exactly how these are made. Unlike savory cooking which you do basically by the seat-of-your-pants method, baking is a science with ingredients that have to be weighed and measured very precisely.
When Roberto told me it was time for lunch. I washed my hands and followed him to the buffet where we helped ourselves to grilled chicken breasts, penne with a plain tomato sauce and oven roasted potatoes. He led me out on to the porch and indicated that I sit down at an empty seat next to him. I was the only woman among 12 men at the chef’s table and I felt a little self-conscious. I don’t think they’d ever had a woman chef at Hotel Santa Caterina before.
“Buon appetito. Enjoy your meal,” Roberto said to me.
“Altrettanto. Thank you, the same to you,” I replied and cut a piece of the grilled chicken breast. The chefs were conversing in very rapid Italian and I could only understand a few words. Then I heard Chef’s staccato reply but only caught the words “signora finite” in them. I knew they were talking about me and Chef had told someone to wait until I was finished. I ate as quickly as I could and excused myself. Perhaps someone was not pleased to be eating lunch with a woman?
After lunch I helped Roberto make dinner rolls for the hotel. He showed me how to pinch off a portion of the dough and roll it on the counter top to make it round and firm. We had filled several sheet pans of rolls to be baked after I left that afternoon to return to Positano. I was exhausted!