Returning to Sorrento with a Seattle Restaurateur
Lots of travelers love Italy, but sooner or later you may find yourself looking for places that are free of crowds and easier on the budget than Florence, Venice or Rome. That’s the time to go south. Follow Carol Pucci’s travels in Sicily and Southern Italy.
By Carol Pucci
Seattle Times Travel writer
SORRENTO, Italy, April 22 — Anyone who loves southern Italian food knows about Vince’s Italian restaurants in Seattle. I caught up with the man behind the name here as we began a drive along the Amalfi Coast to a house we’ve rented for a few days in the mountain village of Calitri.
Vince Mottola, 48, runs the chain of restaurants his father started in 1957, three years after the family moved to Seattle from Naples. Vince’s father, Vincenzo Mottola, died 10 years ago, and now it’s his son’s responsibility to keep up the family’s Italian connections. He loves Italy, especially southern Italy, and each year he organizes a 10-day tour of some of his favorite spots.
My husband, Tom, and I spent a whirlwind three hours with Vince and his wife, Carla, in Sorrento where his group of 19 Washingtonians spent six days visiting the sights, sampling olive oil, shopping, taking side trips to Capri and Naples, but mostly doing what Vince loves to do most when he comes to Italy — hanging out and absorbing the life.
In leather loafers, jeans, a fashionably-untucked pin-striped shirt and blue blazer, Vince fit right into the local scene.
“What I like about Sorrento is that it has all the energy of Naples but without all the madness,” he told us as we walked from his hotel overlooking the Bay of Naples into a tangle of pedestrian passageways in the historic center lined with shops selling everything from lemons the size of small footballs to leather bags and lace tablecloths.
The last time I was in Sorrento was 20 years ago. We arrived tired and seasick after a rocking and rolling bus ride along the cliff-hugging roads that skirt what many consider Italy’s most beautiful coastline. We immediately got on a boat for Capri, and I always regretted not spending more time here. It’s a touristy town, but in a fun way. Shopkeepers sell, but don’t gouge, and prices seem lower than in many parts of Sicily.
Vince’s friend Anthony Esposito is one of his favorite local characters. We ran into him as he was singing behind the cash register in his candy shop, Confetti e Agrumetti. There he sells what he calls “Italian bonbons,” little candies shaped like yellow and green marbles and made with lemons, cream and roasted almonds. “Better than Viagra,” he promised.
Lemons are a huge industry here. Sorrento’s streets are lined with shops selling limoncello, a sweet liquor made by soaking lemon rinds in alcohol and adding sugar. We sampled some at Limonoro, a third-generation shop run by a family that used to fish and farm for a living. If there’s a product that can be made with lemons, Sorrento’s entrepreneurs will invent it. There’s lemon soap, perfume and a version of limoncello made with cream.
Lunch was at La Lanterna, a white-table-cloth restaurant tucked into an alley off Sorrento’s main square. Our meal started with a platter of salmon, anchovies, sword fish and squid marinated in olive oil, and ended with a bowl of steamed mussels and clams.
Vince’s family moved back to Naples for a few years when he was in the 7th and 8th grade. He has many relatives in Italy, and visits often, mostly in the south. He has never been to Florence.
“My heart is here,” he said, and after spending a few hours strolling around Sorrento with him, I could see why.
Vince Mottola takes tours through Italy’s front door
By TRACEY COMPTON
Renton Reporter Staff writer
Longtime restaurateur Vince Mottola of Vince’s Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria has launched a successful tour company that’s now in its tenth year. But, don’t call him the Rick Steves of Italy, Mottola’s approach to travel is slightly different than the Edmonds-based guru. “What I do is a little more luxurious,” said Mottola. “He goes through the back door; we go through the front door.”
Although he is flattered by any comparison to Steves, Mottola prides his tours on their luxury accommodations as opposed to the hostels and modest housing offered on Steves’ tours. And Mottola doesn’t like to have every day of his tours scheduled with as many events as some other tour companies. The Italian-American, who has spent almost every year of his life traveling back to Italy to see family, likes for his clients to experience the locals and culture in settings like cafés and restaurants.
What better way to experience Italy, a foodie’s paradise, than with an Italian restaurateur. That’s exactly what a local tour company was thinking when they asked Mottola to lead the tours 10 years ago. After two years, Mottola branched out on his own and started coordinating the tours himself. Now he runs Mottola Italian Tours with the assistance of his daughter Gabriela and accompanied by his wife, Carla. They take groups of between 16 and 24 people on guided tours through Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples, Sorrento, Pompeii and Capri, to name some of their excursions. For the first time this year they will offer two tours in the fall: a northern tour and a southern tour.
“A lot of the reason people choose to go with me is because they know I’m a restaurateur, they know I’m Italian and they know I love food,” said Mottola. “So, we really have a great time at restaurants.”
Mottola is the son of Enzo (Vince) and Ada Mottola, who opened Vince’s Italian Restaurant in south Seattle in 1957. The couple moved to Renton Avenue and Henderson in 1963 and that was the oldest restaurant in the enterprise until Mottola had to close it last year. Mottola believes that his family business is the oldest business run by the same family in Renton. They had a tough time during the recent recession, but have always had steady business and things are trending upward, Mottola said.
Three years ago he opened Pizzeria Pulcinella on Rainier Avenue South. Now, Mottola co-owns and operates all of the restaurants, in Burien, Federal Way and the Highlands, with Fred Martichuski. “So, we have a long history here and the folks of Renton have been really loyal and good to our family and our restaurants,” Mottola said.
He counts himself lucky to have happened on this tour business, which seems like a natural fit, considering his experience with his family’s native land. His parents are immigrants from Naples and almost all of his extended family lives in Italy. Mottola lived there for a couple of years when he was in his early teens.
“You can’t have a bad time in Italy, but you can have a really really wonderful time if you know a few things about the country and the people,” he said.
There is still room on the upcoming fall tours to the north and south of Italy.