Cries of “Cocco bello, cocco fresco” carry intermittently across the beach as a coconut seller slaloms between rows of bronzed Neapolitans outstretched on sunbeds under a collage of coloured umbrellas.
I am doing as the locals do in the fishing town of Santa Maria di Castellabate, two hours south of Naples. That is, I am sunbathing cheek by jowl on a beach, where phone calls, family arguments and sweet nothings are conducted publicly. For Italians, this vociferous atmosphere is all part of the appeal of the seaside.
Unpretentious Santa Maria town sits astride wide, sandy beaches at the foot of the mountainous Cilento national park. The town is the newer counterpart to the more attractive Norman fortress town of Castellabate – a Unesco site and the backdrop for Benvenuti al Sud, a hugely popular comedy film that revels in the generous southern-Italian spirit.
The seaside Santa Maria, nonetheless, is the preferred place to holiday for many Neapolitan extended families, who squeeze into rented apartments or second homes owned by multiple sets of cousins on weekends in July and over the two-week holiday in August when much of Italy shuts down. Each family holiday is played out in a routine that has been perfected over generations, and one which I – since living in Naples for several years – have been eager to embrace.
At the beach, the neatly arranged rows of sunbeds dictate a social hierarchy, where the punters’ wealth is ostensibly reflected in how close they are to the seashore. However, in the sea the social-economic divides dissolve. Wallowing at waist height in the water, I find myself embroiled in a lively debate comparing the quality of this season’s water with previous years before the conversation moves on to recipes and then lunch.
Rosaria Esposito, who lives in my neighbourhood in Naples and is in Santa Maria with her family, remembers the good old days: “Our mothers used to cook huge dishes of o’ruot o’furn and puparuole ’mbuttunate [Neapolitan dialect for baked pasta and stuffed peppers] and the whole family would sit around a fold-out table laid out on the sand for a full multi-course lunch.” She also recalls how next to the showers at the lido, ceramic sinks were provided to wash the plates and cutlery so everything could be taken home clean.
These days, lunch is picked up at the salumeria on the high street before heading down to the beach. The couple on the sunbeds next to me are opening panini stuffed with nutty mortadella and a tupperware of peeled figs.
“I love the smell of freshly applied suncream and sandwiches,” says Amedeo Colella, a well-known Neapolitan food author and comic who has been coming here since he was a child. He loves being able to slip immediately into the daily beach routine. “It means we don’t have to think, we can just relax,” he says.
After lunch, he and his wife will be heading home for their afternoon rest, nick-named la controra – the counter hour in local dialect. They expect to have to wake up their two teenage daughters, who will still be in bed following a night out in town with their summer pals. “At this rate, we might as well just book a place for two and we can rotate beds,” Colella says half-jokingly, referencing a local urban legend implying that big Neapolitan families do just that.
As the early afternoon approaches, the beach empties of families and a sprinkling of teenagers are left playing cards and drinking lemonada ice granitas at the lido bar. I join them, hot-footing it across the scorching sand to Le Bagnanti behind my row of sunbeds. Only a handful of tables are laid out on the whitewashed decking that overlooks the beach. There are a couple of traditional dishes chalked on a blackboard by the till – spaghetti alle vongole and impepata di cozze (spicy mussel soup), which I discover pairs perfectly with fiano, a light white wine produced in nearby Paestum.
“I like keeping things simple but also celebrating the abundance of this area,” says Alfonso Ferruzo, the young local owner. He insists – just like the local characters in the film Benvenuti al Sud – that I try his homemade limoncello … and I’m soon longing for my own afternoon controra.
After the post-beach nap, there is the ritual of getting spruced up for the evening festivities. The night typically begins with dinner at home with the whole family and ends with hours spent strolling the corso through Santa Maria until the small hours of the morning.
The younger generation hoping to escape their families eat at Pizzeria Le Gatte or the low-key trattoria L’Arcata, both in a stone arcade fronting the marina. But I head out to Da Carmine in the nearby village of Ogliastro Marina, which was emphatically recommended by two of my sunbed neighbours at the beach.
Carmine (Verrone), the late owner of the restaurant, came from humble beginnings. He was a fisherman by trade before his customers convinced him to follow his passion for cooking. Thanks to the family’s knowledge of the sea and its contents, the restaurant has garnered a palpable reputation, one Carmine’s four sons are zealously committed to continuing.
“In July and August the Bay of Naples is teeming with anchovies,” says Mario, one of the sons now running things. “Here they come fried, breaded and stuffed – as a starter, main and side.” I’m unable to resist ordering all of the above, while couples at nearby tables order bowls of linguine alla pescatora, peppered with cockles straight out of the vast tanks at the entrance to the restaurant.
Back in Santa Maria, it’s nearly midnight and children are chasing their friends about the piazza with no bedtime in sight. A Pulcinella puppet show is about to begin and groups of teenagers are dressed up in tight vests and hot pants. Some of the young boys peacock for the girls sitting on a bench under a row of palm trees. I bump into the Colellas, who offer me an ice-cream at the award-winning Gelateria I Golosi. I am full to the brim on anchovies but after a day spent sunbathing on the beach in such close proximity, I am now familiar with the refreshingly open-hearted and generous modus operandi of the local holidaymakers, so it would seem rude to refuse.
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