POSITANO, ITALY: The astounding Hotel Buca di Bacco captures the very heart and soul of Positano and the Amalfi Coast. This magnificent property has the singularly most amazing location in all of Positano. Situated right on the Marina Grande beach, it dominates the sprawling base of this glamorous and historic resort town.
With only 46 rooms and a history going back over 100 years, Buca di Bacco combines elegance, style, a beautiful fine dining restaurant, and a legacy of greatness. The owners, Salvatore Rispoli and his family, are the third generation of the Rispoli family to run the hotel. Together with his sisters Carla and Marianna, they continue to insure the traditions that began 103 years ago, in 1916.
Buca di Bacco: From Hemingway to Steinbeck
Princess Grace and Prince Rainer of Monaco, Jackie Kennedy, and Ernest Hemingway were guests here over the decades. John Steinbeck stayed for months and wrote about it for Harper’s Bazaar in 1953. When he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1962 the owner, Fratelli Rispoli, sent him a congratulatory telegram, and he replied, “I wish I was sitting in front of the Buca at this moment. That would be better than a prize.”
During the La Dolce Vita era of the 1950’s Positano became the focus of the international jet set. Buca di Bacco was at the center of it all. Director Franco Zefferelli lived in Positano for 35 years, and his residence, Villa Treville, is now a hotel.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton catapulted the Amalfi coast to even new levels of notoriety during the filming of Cleopatra in1961 when they ran off together for weeks in Positano and Amalfi. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote Midnight Rambler while vacationing here in Positano in the late 1960’s.
Buca di Bacco: The soul of Positano
Buca di Bacco was there at the birth of the growth of the Amalfi Coast, and was an integral part of the development of this astonishingly picturesque town known worldwide. Positano is today a thronging tourist resort filled to the top of the cliffs with a scintillating jumble of hotels, shops, and restaurants. It is one of the world’s most desirable destinations.
But the real Positano, the one that matters, is here at Buca di Bacco. Where Princess Grace brought young Prince Albert when he was 4. Where Hemingway and Steinbeck found peace. In the midst of a tourist explosion the classic feel of what the town was like before the boom is still found here. In the food, and the atmosphere. And in the physical structure of the hotel, restored to immaculate condition, but with the same footprint as 1936.
Buca di Bacco; A stunning property
The property itself is gorgeous, situated right in the center of Positano, on the Marina Grand beach. Essentially two different buildings connected by an elevator through the granite cliff, the main building was the original hotel and restaurant, and holds the reception desk, the restaurant, and 7 rooms.
Up two stories through the elevator is the second building, purchased by the Rispoli family in the 1970s. It is intact just as it was in the 1930s when it was a private villa, standing like a sentinel on the cliffside, with 39 rooms, most with amazing terraces overlooking the town and the azure Mediterranean Sea.
Buca di Bacco: 103 years of history in Positano
Look at pictures of Positano from 80 years ago. There is the main building of the hotel, and the upper building, standing out as almost the only large structures in town. Even more astonishing, the terrace of our incredible room is there in the picture, exactly as it looks today.
Except today the hillside is filled with a sprawl of development crawling all the way up the cliffs. Modern Positano is amazing, a flurry of upscale hotels and restaurants, and a high level of congestion. Where is it not congested? Within the confines of Buca di Bacco.
Buca di Bacco: A legacy of the Rispoli family
Here one can luxuriate in the style of La Dolce Vita and extol the virtues of a world gone by. That is the essence of what Salvatore Rispoli and three generations of the Rispoli family have preserved. It is a way of life, an attitude, a sense of being that is magical, important, and essential. It is what people come to Positano in search of, and find here in ways that John Steinbeck once found so inspiring.
The lobby is a small space with vaulted ceilings just off the beachfront. The crack staff, many of whom have been here for decades, is precise and efficient. Salvatore Rispoli himself comes out to greet us. A genial, handsome man, with a wry personality and an effervescent presence, he is the direct link to the legendary Positano of our dreams.
A youthful 70, he talks of the changes in Positano over the years, and how proud he is to keep Buca di Bacco as close to the way of life he remembers as a child. The way we all imagine Positano to be.
Buca di Bacco: The Room
Our room in the upper building is a treasure. Gorgeously appointed with antique furniture, a sumptuous king size bed, 16 foot vaulted ceilings and a crystal chandelier, it is an opulent chamber of sheer magnificence. Stunning floor tiles of blue, orange, and gold fill an intricate mosaic on the floor.
Large glass paneled French doors open up onto a terrace from which the joy of all existence can be found. There, in a stunning panoramic vista, all of Positano stretches out below. From the beach to the top of the cliff, and up and down the coast, the signature view of this acclaimed former fishing village unfolds like an exquisite hallucination.
The Terrace balcony overlooking Positano
The L-shaped terrace is massive, with two lounge chairs overlooking the coastline from Positano to Capri to the West, and Praiano to the East. The views are all inclusive, 180 degrees of Amalfi Coast, deep blue Mediterranean Sea, and an array of boats just offshore. It is a glorious vision of sheer incalculable joy.
There is no price that can be put on this view. There is no better vantage point in all of Positano. This historic building on the hill above the town square is the essence of what Buca di Bacco is all about. Grand vistas in a legendary hotel that capture the essence of the past and bring it forward in all its glory into the present.
Buca di Bacco: experiencing paradise
39 rooms, each individually designed on 4 floors, all share this astonishing vista. All have terraces or balconies overlooking the heart of Positano. Some on lower floors have even larger terraces than ours, with vine covered trellises. All are amazing places to create individual memories that will last a lifetime.
The bathroom is a marvel of gorgeous glass tile, with a deep tub, and the most remarkable shower I have ever seen. The shower stall is an octagonal chamber covered floor to ceiling in aqua blue and white tile, with a rain shower and a large window overlooking the sea. Showering in the morning light, water washing over us, while gazing out across Positano and the Mediterranean, is absolutely surreal.
As the sun begins to set the lights of Positano arise and begin to glow, and the sky becomes a blazing canvas of pink and red. The view from the terrace isn’t just beautiful, it is soul enhancing. Every moment pressed against the railing, taking in the vista, is an eternity of bliss we will never dispel from our mind.
Buca di Bacco: an immersive fine dining experience
Dinner at Buca di Bacco is a fabulous immersion into 100 years of tradition on the Amalfi coast. The original restaurant was opened in 1916, and today is under the direction of Chef Andrea Ruggiero and his amazing staff.
The kitchen is on one side of the entrance to the restaurant. Watching Chef Ruggiero in action is a beautiful phenomenon all to itself. The coordination among the staff is a constant flurry of activity. The comradery among the kitchen staff is a joy to watch. It is the heart of Buca di Bacco.
Indeed the name, Buca di Bacco, meaning cave of Bachus, was given by a group of artists who used to gather here for parties over 100 years ago. Now, in 2018, Master Chef Andrea Ruggiero creates an evening of unforgettable classic Italian cuisine that is as fabulous as it is authentic.
The restaurant itself sits across the portico from the kitchen, on the second floor over the beach. When meal orders are up, the waiters cross the portico to the open kitchen door and bring them up a short flight of stairs to the restaurant.
The dining room is a large open space with coral themed chandeliers and white bunting, overlooking the beachfront. Out one side are the cliffs and village of Positano and the port area. Out the other is the rolling Mediterranean Sea, and in the distance the village of Praiano and the church of San Gennaro.
It is a bucolic setting unchanged in decades. The energy in the room is palpable. The atmosphere is informal, like a casual trattoria. The pace is just short of frantic, as a bevy of waiters serve a roomful of enthralled customers. It is a joyous cacophony that captures the Neopolitan nature of the Italian culture.
The menu is traditional, but extensive. The portions are large. The food is amazing. This is no petite restaurant. This is a hearty, earthy immersion into genuine Italian culture, a unique indulgence into a real family dining experience.
Buca di Bacco: Glimmers of history in every corner
Carla and Marianna Rispoli run the restaurant and created the interior design cognizant of the traditions that have made Buca di Bacco famous. Two fiery, vivacious women, they and Salvatore never grow weary of the joyous responsibility they share to continue the legacy that has entranced so many through the decades.
It is here that Steinbeck and Hemingway dined. Here that Jackie Kennedy, and Jayne Mansfield, and Franco Zefferelli, and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton whiled away the evenings with Salvatore’s father and his 5 brothers. Here that the history of the Amalfi Coast emerged. That sensibility of the past weighs beautifully on the moment, as an evening of grand cuisine begins.
The wait staff have all been here for years, many for decades. As one waiter explains to me, no one ever leaves this place. It is easy to understand why. The atmosphere, the energy, the special nature of the restaurant is unmistakable. After all, it was good enough for Hemingway, and Steinbeck, and Burton.
Dinner begins: Carpaccio, Octopus, and Vongole
The evening begins with a gorgeous arugula and tomato salad. The arugula, grown just up the hill, is peppery and full throated, unlike any found in the United States. A local olive oil and a powerful balsamic make this a salad for the ages.
Carpaccio of swordfish is extraordinary. Large portions of thinly sliced marinated raw swordfish is astonishingly fresh, set on a bed of fresh radicchio. A sumptuous portion, it is a beautiful starting course that is easily shared with fellow diners.
Fresh grilled octopus, caught that day, is a revelation. Served on a bed of burrata cheese and sliced roasted zucchini. Its preparation is as simple as the octopus is delightful. A dark balsamic on the plate is a perfect additive to dip the large portion of sliced octopus in. It is consumed voraciously.
Classic Spaghetti Vongole, with an array of fresh clams, is truly classic, generous, and fantastic. This is the spaghetti vongole of your dreams. Again, the portions are large, like it was prepared for a family gathering. The clams are bountiful and incredibly fresh. The moment is priceless.
Wine, homemade pasta, and panna cotta
The meal is accompanied by a beautiful 2009 Chianti Classico Riserva. A lusciously fruit forward wine, it is made in classic Tuscan style. It opens with peppery undertones of dark berries, and blossoms over several hours into bold expression of the best of Italian wine.
A finale of homemade pasta with mixed seafood is a cacophany of brilliance. A tour de force of classic Napoli cuisine. A variety of different clams, including large juicy razor clams, sumptuous mussels, medium scampi, and large prawns in a zesty tomato sauce is a magnificent combination. The pasta is unbelievable, freshly made, thick noodles intertwined with the bounty of the sea.
Dessert is a phenomenal panna cotta under a layer of marinated berries. Homemade, lusciously rich, but not too sweet, it a classic Italian desert and a perfect finale to a grand meal. Accompanied with a lemon sorbet and expresso, the evening slows to a beautiful ending under starry skies as the Mediterranean laps at the shore mere yards away.
Chef Ruggiero and 103 years of tradition
Chef Andrea Ruggiero and his entire kitchen crew are gracious and engaging, as we greet them and thank them for a marvelous meal. Clowning for the camera, even as they continue their work, the comradery and sense of brotherhood among them is palpable and powerful.
With 103 years of tradition and legacy behind them, this is the essence of what Buca di Bacco is all about. Maintaining tradition and the qualities that made Positano famous, and bringing those traditions into the modern age. Buca di Bacco is truly an island all to itself, keeping the grand history of the Amalfi coast intact by always respecting what made it special in the first place.
After dinner, standing on the terrace looking down over the twinkling lights of the town is to be transported to another world, another place in time. Hours later the sun rises over Praiano like a golden fireball, shimmering down on Positano in the golden glow of the morning.
Buca di Bacco: the eternal soul at the heart of Positano
Here at Buca di Bacco the best of the Amalfi Coast is apparent at every turn, in every chandelier and terrace, in the antique furniture, and every vaulted ceiling. In every view of the cliffs and the sea from the terrace. In the changing lights and shadows of every different moment of the day.
It is the golden treasure at the end of the rainbow. The experience that can be found no other place. The ties to the past that lives vividly in the emotion of the present. The beauty of genuine expression.
Most of all it lives in the hearts of Salvatore Rispoli and his sisters Carla and Marianna, keeping alive the legacy of three generations of the Rispoli family. Keeping alive the history of Positano itself, and creating new and unforgettable memories in the minds of each and every one of their treasured guests that cannot help but last a lifetime. Just ask Steinbeck.
Joel Berliner is a travel writer based in Los Angeles @JoelBerliner
All photos by Alison Reynolds @BigAlPeoplesPal