(CNN) — Colorful towns cling to cliff faces, restaurant terraces offer breathtaking views, and blue waters sparkle into the distance. Vespas weave through cars on narrow mountain roads and the heady tang of lemons fills the warm air.
Hugging the northern shore of the Gulf of Salerno, this curvaceous coastline boasts some of the most jaw-dropping settings in the world. It all adds up to a postcard-perfect Italian summer escape in an area so special that it's UNESCO-protected.
But while the often over-crowded Amalfi and Positano are well established on the mainstream tourist path, one Amalfi Coast town remains less known and offers an intriguing mix of sea views, artistry, beauty and simplicity.
White-washed buildings, clothes hanging to dry, arched doorways and colorful ceramics abound -- meet Vietri sul Mare, the gateway to the Amalfi Coast.
Vietri sul Mare has remained surprisingly hidden compared with other Amalfi Coast spots.
Vietri sul Mare, just west of Salerno, marks the beginning of Amalfi's coastal road and is the ceramics capital of Campania. Vietri's pottery production dates back to Roman times, and back in the day the royal court of Naples was its most important client.
The small town center is full of decorative tile shopfronts selling ceramics of all shapes and sizes, while every establishment is chock-full of them.
Vietri's vicoli (small streets) stretch out from the main landmark, the Neapolitan Renaissance Church of Saint John the Baptist (dating back to 1732) with its colorful bell tower and ceramic-covered dome, which stands out like a beacon on the approach from Salerno. Unlike their more popular neighbors, Vietri and even nearby Cetara have never really relied on tourism for their livelihoods.
As fishing towns, they've historically been reasonably self-sufficient, but they've sparked a little more international curiosity of late -- Vietri for its quiet humility and ceramics trade; and Cetara for its anchovy and tuna prowess and now world-famous colatura di alici -- an exquisite extract of fermented anchovies referred to by locals as "liquid gold."
The narrow streets of Vietri are full of the tangy, distinct perfume of lemons.
The whole stretch of coast has an abundance of lemons and is therefore known for its limoncello and lemon sweets -- the ubiquitous delizie al limone is a limoncello-soaked sponge cake lathered in lemon-flavored cream.
With views that rival its neighbors, and the perfect qualities for an uncrowded and relaxed base from which to explore the rest of Amalfi Coast -- Vietri sul Mare is the unsung sister waiting to blossom.
WHAT TO DO
Think drinks and the Amalfi Coast, and limoncello is what first comes to mind, but the region of Campania also produces wines to rival some of the more celebrated French varieties.
With a true passion for the land, Patrizia Malanga took over a semi-abandoned two-hectare plot in Raito, a district in the hills above Vietri, and started her own organic wine production. The views from the vineyard are nothing short of incredible.
Together with her assistant Alfonso they run daily wine tours and tastings of her certified reds and rosé together with tasting plates for lunch or dinner. They sometimes even throw in a local ceramics demonstration by the neighboring Liguori family. Patrizia may even organize a secret Vietri tour to previously undiscovered thermal baths that date back to Roman times.
Le Vigne di Raito, Via San Vito, 9, 84019 Raito -- Vietri sul Mare, Italy; +39 089 233428
Vietri is an ideal place for buying all kinds of ceramics.
From dinnerware to glassware, serving platters, vases, pots and decorative pieces, you name it -- when it comes to ceramics, Vietri makes it.
Like most producers in the area, Solimene -- the largest and most famous -- follows traditional Vietrese artistry methods. (Ceramica Artistica Solimene, Via Madonna degli Angeli, 7, 84019 Vietri Sul Mare, Italy; +39 089201243)
It's where craft becomes art, each piece decorated by hand, assuring the buyer authentic craftsmanship.
The town is full of shops selling their ceramic wares but at the entrance to the main drag, Solimene stands out with a distinct ceramic-covered building that acts as a factory, warehouse and shop. They offer a pack-and-send service too.
Famed artist Enrico Camponi has more than 350 pieces on permanent display at the Raito Ceramics Museum located within the historic Villa Guariglia. (Strada Provinciale 75, 7, 84019 Vietri sul Mare, Italy; +39 089 211835)
His collection of interwar artworks differ from the more modern ceramics in design and color and have been displayed in private public collections worldwide.
Day-tripping in Cetara
Putting the more popular towns on hold frees up time to visit Cetara instead.
This quintessential Mediterranean town remains relatively unspoilt with colorful houses built around a domed church and a small port and beach dotted with old wooden fishing boats.
A short drive from Vietri is Pasquale Torrente's historic Al Convento, serving the famous local specialty spaghetti with colatura di alici.
Al Convento, Piazza San Francesco 16, 84010 Cetara; +39 089 261039
Exploring with the experts
There are a few excellent tour operators who can customize and organize dream Vietri and Amalfi Coast trips. Carol Ketelson is an Amalfi Coast tour expert organizing luxury culinary tours across the region. Annie Ojile and her team at Personalized Italy are another source of local knowledge. Walks of Italy offer small-group tours, and exclusive and often even after-hours access to many sights and monuments.
WHERE TO EAT
Nine years ago Riccardo Faggiano opened this modern restaurant, following in the restaurateur footsteps of generations before him.
The welcomes given here are even more memorable than the food, and the food is pretty hard to beat. They've taken the very best of local produce -- from tuna and anchovies to tomatoes and lemons -- and created refined dishes that aren't over the top.
The house tasting antipasto is a selection of six fun and delectable creations like fried baby octopus with purple potato purée. Locally produced wine adds another authentic layer to your meal.
Ristorante Evύ, Via Diego Taiani, 1, 84019 Vietri sul Mare, Italy; +39 089 210237
Il Golfo serves traditional dishes with a twist, using the best local ingredients.
For a gourmet dining experience, you can't beat Il Golfo at the luxury Hotel Raito, a few minutes' drive from Vietri town.
Young and talented chef Francesco Russo flirts with tradition and takes the best of local ingredients to make gnocchi stuffed with buffalo mozzarella and even a swordfish parmigiana (a twist on the eggplant version).
His raw seafood platter is exquisite.
34 da Lucia
If you're not Italian but always wondered what it was like to eat in an Italian home, then 34 da Lucia is for you.
Family-run and a local favorite for decades, it's the sort of place where you need to trust your waiter as they guide you around the daily seafood catch like pasta with tomatoes and grouper or flash-fried calamari.
Ristorante 34 Da Lucia, Via Scialli, 48, 84019 Vietri sul Mare, Italy; +39 089 761822
Along Vietri's waterfront marina, a steep walk away from the town center, and among beachfront bars and a few restaurants, lies the humble Dal Pescatore.
As the name suggests ("the fisherman"), award-winning chef Giuseppe Zaccaria's menu is seafood-based and the spaghetti with clams is a standout.
WHERE TO STAY
The beachside boutique hotel Relais Paradiso has a chic gourmet restaurant.
Perched in the Raito hills high about Vietri town, this five-star property boasts a day spa, indoor and outdoor swimming pool complete with pool bar and gourmet Mediterranean restaurant. The location is spectacular and many rooms have balconies with stunning sea views.
Superior rooms with sea view start at 170 euros ($190) in low season and 350 euros ($390) in high season.
Hotel Raito, Via Nuova Raito, 9, 84019 Vietri sul Mare, Italy; +39 0897634111
A short walk from the beach, this boutique luxury resort has an outdoor swimming pool located on a terrace with a sun deck and beautiful sea views. The property features a chic gourmet restaurant and all rooms have private terraces with sea views.
Relais Paradiso, Strada Provinciale Vietri Raito Dragonea, 10, 84019 Vietri sul Mare, Italy; +39 089 763 2301