I first tasted Marcella Giamundo's cooking in New York City. After trying her ravioli alla Sorrentina, I knew I was ruined for life. Stuffed with a delicate mozzarella and Parmesan filling and served with a chunky tomato-meat sauce, it had me, unabashedly, going back for thirds. Marcella, who works in New York as a vice president for Richard Ginori, the Italian china company, told me that cooking was a passion she'd inherited from her mother and grandmother and suggested that, if I was ever in Sorrento, I should visit her parents' home for a meal. So, when I found myself in southern Italy recently, the memory of that spectacular ravioli and the lure of more exceptional home cooking took me to Rafaella and Luigi Giamundo's villa for an unforgettable Sunday lunch.
Sorrento, half an hour by car from Naples and 20 minutes by boat from Capri, overlooks the waters where many believe the ancient Greek hero Odysseus narrowly escaped the Sirens' fatal call. The Giamundo property lies off one of the town's narrow, windy streets. Stone walls, camouflaged by ivy, enclose a restored 18th-century house and a small garden thickly planted with lemon, orange, olive and walnut trees. Roses and camellias perfume the air. Lunch with Rafaella and Luigi—and with Marcella's twin sister, her brother, his wife and their children—was in the garden, where we sat at a wrought-iron table in the shade of a leafy pergola.
"Family meals are a Sunday tradition," Marcella says. Her grandmother, Amelia Pane, presided over many of these lunches. Counting Marcella's seven maternal aunts and an uncle, plus spouses and children—all the relatives live within 15 minutes of each other in and around Sorrento—there were, at times, 80 family members there. "Nonna Amelia was an amazing cook," Marcella recalls. One of her earliest memories is of sitting in a circle of high chairs with her sisters and female cousins, watching Nonna Amelia work at a massive kitchen table. "She'd give us dough and we would practice rolling or kneading it, with toy rolling pins and cutters. Cooking was a game for us—she made it fun."
Nonna Amelia's food was so legendary that Marcella's uncle and aunt, Mariano and Rita Pane, compiled many of her recipes into a cookbook called I Sapori del Sud (The Flavors of the South). It became a best seller in Italy. Nonna Amelia's golden rule, and a lesson learned by all her children and grandchildren, was to cook simple dishes using local ingredients, to bring out rather than mask flavors. Many of her recipes featured zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, string beans, tangerines and lemons, all of which grow in the Sorrento region.
Our lunch, which was served buffet style, celebrated Nonna Amelia's philosophy. The antipasti included fried mozzarella balls made from fior di latte, a local cow's-milk mozzarella. "It's less watery than buffalo milk, so the mozzarella balls are firm yet remarkably light," says Rafaella. The Giamundos' kitchen has a built-in wood-burning oven, which was used for the pizza rustica—a deep-dish pie with smoked ham, ricotta and mozzarella inside a wonderfully rich and crumbly pastry crust.
Earlier that morning, Marcella had gone to her Uncle Mariano's home, Villa Tritone, and returned with beautiful tomatoes and zucchini. These were put to good use: in warm bean and pepper salads dressed with spicy tomato sauce and in penne with zucchini, basil, Parmesan and garlic. Villa Tritone, I learned, has some of the most dazzling gardens in all of Italy. Formerly the home of Lord William Astor, the property sits on the edge of a cliff with a sheer drop to the sea and spectacular views of Mt. Vesuvius, Naples and Capri. It is such a beautiful spot that Agrippa Posthumus, a grandson of the Emperor Augustus, built a villa on the site. The gardens are littered with archeological objects—a Gothic well set amid cycads and ivy, an early Christian sarcophagus, Baroque fountains, statues of Roman gods on fluted pedestals—placed among vines, palms, yuccas and native flowers.
The seafood at the lunch was as spectacular as the vegetables. Rafaella remembers the days when fishermen came up to the house early with the morning's catch. "They knew swordfish was one of my mother's favorites, so they would bring her the best selection," Rafaella recalls. Today she uses Nonna Amelia's recipe to prepare swordfish in olive oil, vinegar and mint. Rafaella knows countless ways to prepare squid because her son, an amateur fisherman, regularly came home with mounds of it when he was growing up. Her favorite is grilled calamari spiedini, skewered, then brushed with olive oil and parsley, because it tastes "light and clean."
Cooking with lemons is an essential part of the Giamundo repertoire. The lemons in the mouth-puckering granita came from their trees. "We have such an abundance of lemons from our garden that we have to invent ways to use them," says Marcella, who confesses that she smuggles some home to New York. "I use the rinds to make limoncello [a lemon liqueur] and freeze the juice," she says. The meal ended with a deliciously moist, light and lemony ricotta cheesecake. Rafaella's recipe often wins her first place in the aunts' annual lemon-cake competition.
After lunch, I prepared to leave the beautiful garden. But before I did, the Giamundos invited me to return for a visit any time I was in Sorrento. The offer was as alluring as a Siren's call. But, unlike Odysseus, I shall make no effort to resist.
Sonali Laschever is a former F&W style editor.