The Cilento coast in the Salerno region of Campania is an area of unspoiled beauty and pristine waters along the Tyrrhenian Sea, approximately two hours south of Naples. The area is dotted with seaside towns attracting throngs of high-season tourists. Nearby are the ancient ruins of Paestum, which date to 450 B.C.
We came to taste the wines of San Salvatore 1998 located in the heart of the Cilento National Park near Paestum. Owned by local hospitality entrepreneur Giuseppe Pagano, San Salvatore 1998 produces 100 percent certified organic and biodynamic wines. Prolific Italian oenologist, Ricardo Cotarella, serves as consulting winemaker. The wines have received numerous accolades, including impressive sparkling metodo classico, white, and reds, all utilizing native grapes. U.S. importer: Banville Wine Merchants.
The top reserve wine is named for professor and artist Gillo Dorfles, a close friend of Pagano. Dorfles created many of the wine labels for his namesake wine. He died in 2018 at the age of 108, a testament to the region’s Mediterranean diet.
An interesting fact I uncovered when researching this article is that American physiologist Ancel Keys, a top researcher on the impact of diet and health and champion for the Mediterranean diet, also lived in Cilento and died at age 101. This area is known for its high percentage of nonagenarians and centenarians.
Born and raised in Cilento, Pagano serves as an unofficial ambassador for promoting the local terroir and products. We watched a video in the very modern winery with Pagano walking through the vineyards, talking terroir and history. But it’s not all slick marketing. Pagano also owns olive groves and a herd of more than 750 buffalo whose milk is used to make this region’s world-renowned mozzarella di bufala. Honestly, I could eat an entire mozzarella ball in one sitting with a bottle of San Salvatore’s Pian di Stio Fiano IGT Paestum, a crisp white, from an estate mountain vineyard by the same name.
Pagano also owns the five-star Savoy Beach Hotel and Spa in Paestum, a striking white building along the Cilento coast. The hotel is home to the Michelin two-star restaurant, Tre Olivi, where we dined for our one evening in Cilento. A second restaurant of note, La Dispenda Paestum, serves traditional Cilento dishes prepared by a team of women cooks; most are nonnas (grandmothers).
After five days of eating at traditional home-cooked Campania fare at many wineries- all delicious but similar to seasonal tomatoes, eggplant, baked pasta, and mozzarella, we were ready for a culinary adventure and some Michelin magic to our meals. Tre Olivi delivered that experience.
As we entered the lobby, we could hear wedding party revelry on the floor below. But once we entered Tre Olivi, the silence and simple elegance of the room with its warm olive wood interior enveloped us. The restaurant opens to a large outside patio featuring a spacious garden and an imposing black lava reflection pool. We settled into a quiet corner table inside, ready for the parade of dishes on the tasting menu. We lost count at one point.
Executive Chef Giovanni Solofra worked in the kitchens of Heinz Beck, La Pergola in Rome; Quique Dacosta, Quique Dacosta Restaurant, in Alicante, Spain; and two restaurants in Sicily, Ciccio Sultano in The Duomo Restaurant in Ragusa and St. George Restaurant in Taormina. Solofra joined the kitchen at Tre Olivi in July 2020. Not too soon after, the restaurant was awarded two Michelin stars. Working alongside Solofra is his life partner and pastry chef, Roberta Merolli.
The menu is a poetic love letter to Cilento and its local ingredients. The tasting menu was named “Subbicassuta,” the local dialect for “upside down.” Indeed, many dishes we tasted were deconstructed, tromp l’oeil, and served up a touch of whimsy, attracting the eye- and our camera phones- before tasting.
The bread presentation alone could have filled us up—at least six different selections with a selection of spreads and butter. We tried not to overindulge.
There were too many courses to recount here, but I will share a few highlights. Everything was exquisite and often plated tableside by our masked servers, who appeared almost meditative as they worked.
I always smile when I see someone’s reaction when I respond, “I don’t eat meat,” when I visit Italy. It’s a surprised “deer in the headlights” expression. Sometimes I am offered lamb instead (smile). The servers were nonplussed at my comment, and Chef Solofra seemed to relish the challenge. We were blown away by a presentation of “charcuterie” that was all vegetarian but looked like salumi. Tre Olivi had me at the antipasti; I had to temper myself.
I eat fish, and the presentations were creative and delicious. One example is thin strips of fresh Mediterranean tuna “spaghetti” (see photo below).
Another was tuna tartare stuffed with red pepper with capers, sea urchin, and egg yolks. See below.
A pigeon torso covered in blue sage butter was brought out for consideration. Stunning. I won’t share the photo. But my dining companion, David Ransom, said the nice and tender preparation was excellent. The entire pigeon presentation was one-of-a-kind.
We wisely left plenty of room for dessert. Pastry Chef Roberta Merolli also has a knack for whimsy. Shaved pineapple ice was the perfect palate refresher, much like the Hawaiian ice, we enjoy back in the USA.
The brioche from the elaborate bread presentation returned for dessert, this time with a small jar of Nutella and a bowl of chocolate truffle and cocoa nibs to reflect the soil of the region,
Finally, we had to smile at Merolli’s playful Macedonia fruit salad and sorbet with fresh and dehydrated watermelon, strawberry, kiwi, and banana.
Of course, there was mozzarella. The presentation reminded us that food could be playful, interpretive, and serious at the same time. So many wonderfully inspired and executed dishes. Three cheers for Tre Olivi! And maybe one day….a third star!
For information and reservations visit:
www.treolivi.com Follow: @ristorantetreolivi
www.savoybeachhotel.it Follow: @savoybeachhotel
www.sansalvatore1988.it Follow: @sansalvatore1988wines