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When in Rome – Ischia with Eric Matthews

I must start this article by apologising. Ok here goes… Ischia I’m sorry! I’m sorry for writing this! I feel I’m betraying the trust of the good people of Ischia.

Allow me to explain – Ischia is our little secret. If you have ever been, you have obviously sworn the blood oath never to reveal the island’s beautiful mysteries.

My first journey to Ischia was with my now-wife Ciara. We had first spent a week in Sweden visiting my dad, who was living there at the time. So, after a 2 hour car journey, a 2 hour train journey and a 2 hour flight, we had made it to Naples. Now everyone says Naples is dangerous and dodgy etc. – well, you would be right, but no more so than any large city with attitude, and Naples has that in spades. Unfortunately for us, we weren’t hanging around, so after all the travelling, we were on the road again. A taxi to the port and an hour ferry ride later, we arrived at porto D’Ischia.

ischia with eric matthews

At that point it was late and dark, so not much of a view. We jumped into a taxi and barrelled our way around tight, winding coastal “roads” into the interior and finally arrived at our final destination. Upon check in, which must have been at least 10pm, we are greeted by the most astonishing Jeffrey Rush lookalike. I am not exaggerating. This guy was so spot on Jeffrey Rush, (think, The King’s Speech Jeffery Rush) I was convinced he had retired to run an ageing 1960s seaside hotel on an island most people had never heard of. After realising that alas, the lovely gentleman was not a Hollywood star, we dropped the bags off and went in search of a bite to eat and a much needed cold drink.

We were staying in Forio, which is on the other side of the island, and we set off up the beach in the dark, a bit like the 2 blind mice on the search for food. We passed a few places and after a few maybes, in the corner of my eye I spotted an old women, cigarette in one hand and rolling pin in the other, she had flour all over her apron (100% a real story). I said to Ciara “this place, this is the one”.

ischia with eric matthews

We sat on a sort of pontoon jutting out into the sea. I ordered spaghetti vongole and Ciara had paccheri with lobster and tomato. I can honestly say, to this day, I still think about those two plates of food. Yes, you can say “but Eric, you were starving and sure anything would do.” I agree, but everything about that meal was perfect. I later asked the waitress, who it turned out was one of 3 of the chefs’ children working in the restaurant, what their mother’s secret was. She said, “Every morning, her mother fills her pasta pot with the water we are sitting over”. That was my introduction to Ischia and my god, what a start.

The next morning, we woke to finally see the incredible beauty that is the island – volcanic and mountainous. Ischia is one of three islands close to Naples. We’ve all heard of Capri, but perhaps Ischia, and the smaller island of Procida, are places we should all be looking at. Ischia is a real Italian holiday; it’s filled with Italians on their vacation. I mean sure, you’ll get the odd German and Irish person asking you, “Do you know such and such from such and such,” but these encounters are rare. What’s not rare is finding amazing, and I mean stunning food, and beautiful places to eat it.

ischia with eric matthews

The island is not massive so if you have the stomach for driving a car around the island’s tight, twisty roads, you would easily do it in a few hours, but a taxi won’t break the bank and the buses are pretty regular and clean. We were there for 2 amazing weeks but a week is definitely more than enough time to soak it all in.

The best areas to visit are Sant Angelo, Forio, porto D’ischia and Casamicciola.

If, like us, you fancy a trip to Capri, Sorrento or Pompeii, do some research, or you might get scammed like we did. I will explain. We booked a trip to Pompeii with what looked like a reputable agent, but were brought on a 9 hour journey for nothing. Upon arrival at Pompeii, we were brought to a hotel several miles from Pompeii and told to have food before we went in. In total, myself and Ciara spent 45 mins in Pompeii. Most couples would have probably lost their shit. Ciara was happy enough she got to see the brothel of Pompeii and said lets get a beer and a panino. I definitely married the right woman. All scamming aside, the trip and the views of the Amalfi Coast were just breathtaking.

ischia with eric matthews

My first trip to Ischia was something I longed to experience again. Whenever I was deep into a long shift in the kitchen, I would think of lying on a beach and playing cards with my wife before getting dressed up to go to another amazing restaurant on the island. So when we were getting married we knew exactly where we wanted to go for our honeymoon.

The second time around, we stayed in a beautiful small family run spa hotel in Sant Angelo. Now, spa sounds fancy, but as I mentioned earlier the entire island is one big volcano so most hotels, if not all, are called a ‘spa’, thanks to the ancient Romans who came here for hundreds of years and introduced thermal baths.

ischia with eric matthews

Okay, let’s get down to food

The island, as you can probably guess, does food very well from what I’ve just been rabbiting on about…Ahem. Speaking of rabbit, thanks to the ever wonderful Stanley Tucci who filmed on the island (after I was already there… so there, Stanley), he showed the world the delightful dish of Coniglio all’Ischitana, or incredible rabbit stew cooked over fire with garlic and spices from the island, which comes from the restaurant Il Focolare, but I’ll get to that. Pasta is absolutely a must, I’m really sorry if you are coeliac but Italians are all about the carbs… sexy bastards! I enjoyed the greatest pizza of my life on the island – again, I’ll get to that – and honestly, some of the freshest seafood on the planet. Here is the best part… are you ready? It’s a fraction of the price of anything on mainland Italy, or Ireland for that matter. Admittedly not as cheap as my first visit – I blame Stanely Tucci for the price hikes. However, don’t fret, the value is still fantastic.

As I always say these are not the best restaurants on the island, these are just some places that I enjoyed and visited a few times just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.

Il Focolare

Did I mention Stanley Tucci? This place is rated one of the best on the island, so yes, this is where you might bump into tourists. This should not put you off getting an “authentic” experience. The restaurant, like so many, is family-owned and run. The kitchen is the heart of the restaurant and quite rightly so. The atmosphere is warm and exactly what you want. Situated in the hills, a taxi is definitely required. Drink local wine and start with the rabbit ragu then work up to the famous Coniglio all’Ischitana. On our first visit our waiter noticed we were Irish and told us he had spent 3 months learning his English in Letterkenny… which would explain a lot.

Umberto a Mare

I recently had a friend visit Ischia to pop the question to his now fiancé. He asked for “romantic, epic views and stunning food”. The answer was Umberto a Mare.

Ok, maybe forget what I said earlier about affordable and great value. I’m not saying this place is 3 star Michelin prices, but for Ischia, it’s pricey. It is a fish restaurant first and foremost, but offers beautiful meat and vegetable dishes. However, come here for the stunning fish pastas and simple grilled whole fish. The views here will make any man or women say yes to marriage, even just for the night so as not to spoil the view. The wine list at the restaurant is superb, mainly big boy European wines but a heavy lean on super Tuscans. I, however, don’t have the pockets deep enough to go down that road, but if you do, this is the place to do it.

Ristorante Cantine Pietratorcia

Ischia produces fantastic wines. There are Cantines located in the hills all over the island so to find one that has a restaurant attached matching food with examples of their labour, I’m all in.

The meal here was delicious – simple homemade pasta, beautiful fresh seafood and meat dishes to allow their wines to shine. Myself and Ciara were pretty proud of ourselves for finding this place and were very happy gazing over the hills and into each others eyes when we began to smell the wonderful aroma of smoky wood. Thinking to myself, “Oh, they must smoke their own fish or meat”, we quickly realised the hill on which the restaurant was situated was on fire. I mean seriously, on fire, and we had to be evacuated to safety by the fire brigade who later had to call in the coastguard to fly over and quench the fire. Luckily, no one was injured and thankfully the restaurant was not damaged but scary all the same. Hopefully this will not be repeated if you go, as I really enjoyed this place and the wine was fantastic.

Ciccio Ischia Pizza

Remember I casually mentioned something about the best pizza I ever had? Well, this is the place. I could waffle on and write something clever or witty but simply put, the pizza here is a work of art. The first time I was here I saw Lionel Messi, I joke you not. The story goes, the people who own this place operated in Naples for a long time and this is sort of them having a quieter life, but I only saw a jam-packed restaurant turning people away because it was so busy, and for the right reason.

I have eaten here a few times now just to double check but it really is something special. I have since spoken to some famous pizza guys from the south of Italy who have said Ciccio is where some of the best Pizziola trained. That’s good enough for me. The restaurant can be extremely hot if you go in July or August so be sure to dress light and bring a fan. Go there and thank me later.

Bar Ristorante Emanuela

Ciara being the travel scout that she is found the small peninsula of Sant Angelo for a little day trip. It’s a beautiful little area/village. Once in the town, moving into the hills is only accessible by a golf buggy. Don’t worry, you don’t have to bring one, there is service in the town. It’s really fun bombing around with your legs dangling out the back overlooking what can only be described as Italian paradise.

We sat one day having an espresso and maybe a beer at 11.30am and thought, “where shall go for lunch?” What we found was truly an experience. Bar Ristorante Emanuela is one of the most beautifully situated restaurants in the world. It’s accessible only by the golf buggy, or the other way as we did the first time, getting a taxi boat to the restaurant, which in my opinion is the only way one should come to this place (the boat was 4 euro each). Honestly, I felt like James Bond stepping off the boat onto the beach and being escorted to the restaurant for a lunch of a lifetime. Again, family-owned and operated – the name Emanuela is the great matriarch of the family. The kitchen is run by her son and the room by his daughter; literally, a family affair.

Emanuela is not a fancy restaurant, it is simple and no fuss. The food is local seafood and simple spaghetti di mare and vongole. What makes this place so special, other than the very warm hospitality, is the view and the beach on which to let your lunch digest. The water is incredible. Imagine a restaurant with its own private beach. This time, the price is definitely right. Think lobster pasta, big fat grilled fresh prawns, a few cold beers, Prosecco and stunning octopus salad all for under 90 euro for 2 people.

I have been to this restaurant about a dozen times. I would recommend going early to enjoy the beach then have lunch and head back to the beach and make a day out of it. I truly can’t wait to go back here.

Ristorante Peppina di Renato

So you all heard about Il Focolare, which is great, and thanks to that famous actor the place is constantly rammed.

How and ever if you, like me, wanted to go somewhere that the Italians like to go, then this place is a must. Serving similar dishes, but this place for me just pipped Il Focolare to the post on the night we ate there. The atmosphere again is super, in the hills with a gorgeous view below. If you can, ask to sit outside on the patio terrace, especially in the mid-summer when the heat is stifling. Of course, rabbit is the speciality of the house and the island so don’t be scared, its basically chicken. Finish off the meal with their cheesecake and a limoncello.

Drinking on the island

I normally talk about incredible bars and pubs, super cocktail spots or fantastic wine bars, however, you don’t come to Ischia for that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always Negroni time in Italy, and yes the cocktails are fab, but everywhere on the island will serve you delicious libations and always accompanied by crisps and olives.

For me, nothing beats an ice cold beer in a piazza and Ischia has plenty of that. My advice is don’t get hung up on fancy bars here, just get lost. There is always live music or a festival being celebrated so just go with the flow.

Ischia is a real hidden gem, Capri might have the flashy shops and 20 euro beers but if I was asked where I would like to be right now, the answer is always on Spiaggia dei Maronti having a cold beer before lunch, reading a book or being whooped by Ciara in gin rummy for the 17th time in a row. So if you find yourself on the beach in Ischia, get a Negroni, eat the olives, and order the spaghetti vongole made by some passionate granny… When in Rome!

When in Rome- Ischia with Eric Matthews
Eric Matthews

For the last 6 years Eric Matthews was the head chef at Dublin’s famous Michelin starred Chapter One. Eric has over 18 years experience working in Michelin starred restaurants around the globe, having trained under some of the best chefs in Ireland and internationally, including Heston Blumenthal, Philip Howard and Guillame Brahimi. This year Eric was named in The Independent’s annual Top 50 People to Watch in 2022. Eric is also a food content creator and a regular at Taste of Dublin. More recently Eric was a judge on the RTE series ‘Battle of the Food Trucks’.

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