Your car arrives around 7:30, and it’s taking you to dinner. You’ve been invited by a famous resident of Sorrento, Giuseppe “Peppe” Fiorentino. You don’t know where you are going, and it doesn’t matter, because Peppe knows his city and its restaurants as no one else does. You are confident that you’ll dine well.

The driver guides the Fiat up a hill, past a man walking a boxer and a woman pushing a stroller. The air is warm, the sun’s light muted; a light breeze pushes a lemon tree’s leaves to and fro. You are hungry. The car pulls to a stop in a small parking lot, and the driver motions you toward a path, a walkway under an archway of magnolia and orange and lemon trees. To your right, a fenced area containing goats and chickens and ducks. You stop to look at the kids and their mother, then continue down the path, at the end of which you see a sign. You are at Ristorante “Da Filippo”.

Peppe comes here often, is like family to the owners, a family themselves. Two daughters of the owner oversee the floor, bringing bottles of wine and glasses of beer to the tables. You walk inside, mention Peppe’s name, and a waiter points to a table occupied by a man and a woman; they seem to be waiting on someone — Peppe had told you on the phone the night before that friends of his, a couple from Mexico City, would be joining us for dinner. I walked to the table and introduced myself to Salvador and Luisa, who told me they were the first to arrive. We poured some prosecco and I learned that they had been coming to the city for years, perhaps 30, and were now looking for a home to purchase in Sorrento. They had met Peppe and his wife, Marina, on one of their first trips to the Amalfi Coast, and became fast friends.

Ten or so minutes went by, and then came Peppe, gregarious and smiling. He stopped to speak to one of the daughters, gave her a hug, then joined us at the head of the table, eyes alit, his smile knowing and open. Ciro, our waiter, came to stand at his side, and the two discussed wine, deciding on a Falanghina, one made not in a “business” winery but at someone’s home. The bottle, when it arrived, bore no label. What was in the bottle was honest, open, crisp, straw in color, a wine that, I would soon decide, paired oh so well with the seafood that came our way. (I first met Peppe in 2016 in Houston, was introduced to him by Tony Vallone — the two men have been friends for decades.)

We were soon joined by Marina and Peppe’s sister. Marina sat next to me, and Peppe was to my right; she was born in the north of England, to an Italian mother and an English father, and she’s as friendly and warm as her husband. I was sitting with genuine, unpretentious people, in their home, and it felt good.

The food began coming from the kitchen: baby octopus followed by calamari and lightly fried sardines caught, as conveyed to me by Ciro, “but a few hours ago.” Crisp, delicate breading on all, the taste of the sea abundant and stark, the frying method astute and learned. (Authenticity cannot be faked; overcooked seafood is not a thing of beauty.) Next, an eggplant Parmigiana, with cheese redolent of tame oak smoke, and eggplant slices slightly tangy, enrobed in a tomato sauce of a hearty richness. Slicing into it released the cheese, which slowly mingled with the sauce. The waiter had served the squares from a large platter, and the table grew quiet as we ate.

Salvador and his habanero powder

Salvador and his habanero powder

The conversation quickly resumed, however, and I asked Salvador what he had sprinkled on his eggplant dish. He was holding a small bottle of what looked to be some sort of powder. It was habanero powder, one that he made by drying the peppers in the sun.

“I leave them outside in the day for two to three weeks, bringing them in at night to keep the moisture away , then I run them through spice grinder,” he told me. I tasted it, and wished he had a jar to sell me. It was full of habanero flavor, and a small shake of it on the eggplant was wonderful. Heat, richness, sun. I’m going to make my own.

Ciro then brought a beautiful oval tray of risotto to the table … the saffron color shone, and assembled around the rice a multitude of vongole, small, shells open, ready for us. These clams were full of flavor, briny, tender, but with a bite, and the risotto was al dente and moist, and a mouthful containing the green beans and tomatoes with the clams and risotto was enough to produce a sigh, a contended sigh.

Risotto and clams, a match made in heaven.

Marina told me how she met Peppe — she had moved to Italy to work in the tourism industry when she was a young woman, where their paths crossed. They dated, and have been together ever since, 40-plus years. As we were talking, Peppe’s niece came in, pushing Paolo in a stroller … three-week-old Paolo, Peppe’s first and only nephew, and though it seemed not possible, his eyes grew even livelier at the sight of the black-haired boy. The family was complete.

Ciro consulted with Peppe about the next course; fish was the decision, and we continued drinking our Falanghina. I discovered that Salvador was the founder and creator of Salvador’s Margarita — he sold the brand a few years back, and is officially retired. (He and his wife travel often, and Salvador, who owned a number of restaurants during his career, cooks often for friends and family.)

To the cod: two large filets, cooked with delicacy and covered with a mixture of crisp and spicy bread crumbs and olive oil (the filets were passed under the broiler for a minute or two at the end of cooking). Buttery in the mouth, moist, a proper main course. Ciro served us, and the meal proceeded.

The cod arrives at the table.

Paolo was “kidnapped” by one of the waitresses, who walked him around the restaurant, stopping by tables and talking with guests. We discussed dessert, Donald Trump, and wine, deciding on cheese and a sweet red wine from the area. A Parmigiano-Reggiano, aged for 36 months, was the star, and a Caciottina canestrata di Sorrento an ample mate. Glasses clinked, the evening grew late, and it was time for Paolo to get to his crib. We lingered over the cheese and wine; meanwhile, the tables around us, now full, were full of laughter and conversation. It was a beautiful Friday evening in Sorrento.

A meal must always end … but only in that way can another begin.

Did you say you were pondering a trip to the Amalfi Coast? If you go, make sure to put an evening at Ristorante “Da Filippo” on your itinerary — tell them Peppe and James sent you.

Dinner with a grand man of Sorrento: Giuseppe “Peppe” Fiorentino