As a travel expert, it’s a personal dilemma when I’m presented with the discovery of a legitimately hidden place or local secret. Such greatly shrouded information is more often than not, one main reason that the secret in reference is also alluring. The adventure of a first time experience in an area that’s not so commonly known, is one of the honest joys of travel, and it makes one want to preserve that intimacy and privacy, as much as possible.
Hence my dilemma when traveling to one of Italy’s most undiscovered gems. A short, one hour ferry ride from Naples lies a glistening jewel of the south. While the islands of the Bay of Naples have been a popular tourist destination for years, Capri and Sorrento have taken the spotlight, front and center, with Instagram no doubt contributing to the surge of global guests each summer, eagerly seeking the photogenically colorful sun kissed beaches, and crystal clear waters.
But here, quietly to the side, lies Ischia, the largest of the islands. If you’ve never heard of it before, you’re not alone. It’s without question, played the lowly sibling to Capri and Sorrento, sitting modestly in the shadows, much to the delight of Italian nationals. As I travel to my accommodation for the weekend, the majestic Regina Isabella hotel, my driver explains in a very matter of fact manner, “Sorrento has been colonized by the Brits, and Capri has been colonized by the Americans. But Ischia? It’s for the Italians,” he boasts, proudly. I’m not sure what to make of this opening remark - if I’m being welcomed as a local, or warned to keep quiet about it as a foreign journalist.
Opened in 1956, L'Albergo della Regina Isabella has forever been the pinnacle of Italian elegance on this classic island. Charlie Chaplin, Maria Callas, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton, have all spent summers here, soaking up the flavors of southern Italy, be it on the gentle sands of the hotel’s private beach, or in the world acclaimed dining rooms. The hotel oozes traditional opulence and Italian charm. Walking through the front doors, it revels in a dignified, old school European grandeur. From ornate marble staircases to flamboyant ceramic tile floors, the property is littered with resplendent embellishments that remind you of its lustrous history, and the many distinguished personalities that have walked its hallways. You feel part of the hotel’s legacy; a belongingness within this Italian family secret, and you’ll want to sashay through the lobby with a flamboyant toss of a satin scarf over your shoulder as you put on a pair of oversized sun shades.
The rooms of Regina Isabella are modest and simple, in a gracefully stylish and epicurean manner. Beds are comfortably austere, without any ostentatious furnishings, and the living space itself is sparsely decorated with restrained trimmings. It’s refined elegance that’s practical, and almost respectful of the lead performer - the breathtaking view from the balcony. Open up the large, wooden, Venetian doors, and a magical postcard of miles of ocean is revealed before you in the most awe-inspiring of flourishes. It’s a myriad of blue hues, with the glistening summer seas seamlessly transitioning into cloudless sky. Many rooms come with their own outdoor jacuzzi, naturally heated by the island’s underground thermal springs, with the therapeutic waters pumped in from hundreds of feet below. It’s an incredible way to end the day, immersing yourself in the most comforting of naturally warm waters bubbling around you, while you gaze out into the island’s natural magnificence - a mesmerizing southern Italian sight that is truly enthralling.
Speaking of the wondrous views from the hotel, it’s not just your eyes that are satiated while at Regina Isabella. The hotel is a foodie’s hidden utopia, consecrating the internationally acclaimed flavors that southern Italy is rightly known for, but also, the more local Ischian bites that aren’t as widely popular. Three on site restaurants all sharing iconic table side ocean views are overseen by Executive Chef Pasquale Palamaro, a local Ischia native who manages to bring a vibrantly immersive food experience to travelers seeking a taste of the area. Breakfast at DolceVita Restaurant opens the day with one of the most charmingly picturesque Italian mornings you could ever dream of. Deckside seating, literally over the island’s waters, surrounded by fishing boats and golden sands, sets the scene for an incredible array of the freshest produce brought in from the bountiful island, baked treasures from the in-house bakery, and masterfully cooked Italian food from the kitchen’s chefs. With the sun rising, lighting up the serene coastline, it’s without question, an positively memorable breakfast experience for the most seasoned of hotel guests, anywhere in the world.
My biggest piece of advice to visitors to Regina Isabella, nay a pleading recommendation, would be to ensure you make a reservation for the hotel’s Friday evening Neapolitan buffet. Even if you don’t stay at the hotel itself, securing a seat at this remarkable dinner will give you an unparalleled taste of southern Italy that you’ll savor for years to come. It’s a somewhat of an understated gem, hidden away at the hotel, yet a weekly tradition that’s celebrated by locals in the area who flock to the hotel to feast on some of the most eye popping, jaw dropping, taste bud teasing Italian cuisine you’ll ever see. Literal tables upon tables upon tables of enticing platters are laid out in an alluringly vigorous exhibition of Neapolitan delights. Think the freshest of octopus and sardines, the most melodious and flavorsome parcels of local mozzarella, and stations of skilled chefs masterfully creating local made to order dishes right in front of your hanging tongues. A true kaleidoscope of colors is spread out in one of the most extensive antipasto displays I’ve ever seen. Calzones are stuffed before you, chefs meticulously working their hands around the fresh pastry, massaging into perfect semicircles, before they’re cooked and thrown on to your plate, still piping hot. The most tenderly cooked pasta is tumbled around a luxurious wheel of parmesan cheese, in an orgy of tantalizingly seductive naughtiness, before scooped up and laid upon your plate. Buffets of more obscure, local dishes, like a traditional rabbit is offered up; an opportunity to sample as little or as much of the lesser known Italian dishes for the adventurous traveler.
And the desserts. Oh, the magical heaven of desserts. A literal walk down the dedicated dessert section of the dining room will have you tearing up with joy. Traditional rum soaked baba cake almost topples the line between a solid and a liquid, with each bite bursting into a ecstatically spiked drenching. The most delicate of cakes and tarts are laid out like illustrious trophies, and it’s a mountain after mountain of colorful tiramisu, tartufo, and zeppole; an expedition through the sweetest of childhood treasures, with the capacity of your dessert stomach thoroughly tested.
I can’t stress how authentically sensational this Friday evening experience is. Sitting out on the pristine white deck in the open Mediterranean sea breeze, the waves washing up on the shore beneath you, feasting like a joyous local on the true banquet of traditional delights - it’s just an overwhelmingly ecstatic moment. Sitting there, sipping on a glass of champagne in the balmy summer evening, with traditional Italian musicians jubilantly strumming guitars singing with their animated regular dining guests is one meal that you will honestly not stop talking about. And it’s absolutely staggering that it’s somehow still remained a secret dining moment that hasn’t become more widely known with visitors to the island.
What is certainly more internationally acclaimed, however, is Regina Isabella’s Michelin starred restaurant, Indaco. Executive Chef Pasquale Palamaro’s love of local seafood is transformed into an elaborate feast of fanciful riches, with decadent and luxurious ocean platings. “I've decided to dedicate this year's menu to the sea in order to help identify Indaco primarily as a seafood restaurant,” he explains to me, and his intentions sing home with total truth. Most of the local seafood is caught in the evening before dinner service, and then prepared in the kitchen the morning after, resulting in a 24 hour turn around from ocean to plate. A scampi with a beetroot sauce is total sweet and salty bliss with a marvelous blend of various textures, enhanced with the unexpected aromas of a touch of coffee. “One morning, while I was having my usual espresso, I met with a fisherman who brought me some freshly caught scampi,” the chef tells me. “I was so tempted to taste the fresh scampi right then and there, so I tried a bite while I still had the taste of coffee in my mouth, and it was an incredible experience. I then decided to add the beetroot as it provides sugar and, of course, sugar goes in espresso!” It’s a visually captivating, strikingly flavorful plate, and an inspired start to the evening’s proceedings.
A perfectly cooked linguini with a pumpkin seed sauce and grilled mussels is wonderfully gratifying, the perfectly cooked pasta carrying the briny flavor from the chopped mussels into a robust mouthful of ocean piquancy. The cream of the pumpkin seed offsets this saltiness with a gentle sweetness, and while other flamboyant elements of the dish weren’t required, such as an accompanying shot and a fried pumpkin flower, it’s still an elegant and affable plate.
Dessert’s attempt to follow the seafood concerto is a hit and miss affair, which pushes the boundaries of traditional Italian cuisine. Chef Palamaro’s dessert sushi of seaweed, caramelized salmon, and sweet rice, is unfortunately, memorable for seriously lamentable reasons, as an overambitious chimera better suited to being photographed, rather than actually eaten. On the other end of the spectrum, the use of sea urchin in another dessert is much more prosperous. On top of a base of lemon curd, meringue, and pistachio sponge, sits a sea urchin mousse. “Because the theme is the ‘sea’, I wanted to depict aspects of the sea even in the desserts,” explains the Michelin star chef. “The taste of the sea urchin is also, in a way, similar to egg yolk, which is often used in desserts.” It brings a particular salty and sweet flavor to the plate, with a slight resemblance to a light butter. The composition itself makes reference to the striking shape of a sea urchin, with varying textures all unifying together in an arresting bite. The refreshing tartness from the lemon curd successfully prevails, cutting through any preconceived hesitations deriving from the seabed; it’s a capable dish, that most guests will experience as a peculiar and memorable dining first.
Regina Isabella is a European princess, nestled in one of the most exquisite corners of the world. It’s the definition of Italian elegance and luxury, and a nod to the glamor of its celebrity yesteryear which you’ll blissfully play the part of. Its divine food and beverage offerings battle its celestial ocean views for the top prize, but as the sun sets over the endless horizon, and the scent of the seas carried by the evening breeze wafts through the open air dining room, you’re simply hypnotized. You can only be transfixed by the seamless union of southern Italian treasures, and swept up in the intoxicating romance of this beautiful Mediterranean jewel.
The author of this article was hosted by the Regina Isbella