Every foodily inclined person I talk to, including my sister who lives in Florence, tells me Naples is no place to go for good food. Pah, they say. It’s fine if you’re looking for pizza but otherwise…
This can’t possibly be right, can it? I ask local food wizard Antonio Tubelli in his delicious little shop, Timpani & Tempura, a temple to everything Neapolitan and one of the city’s best delis and lunch counters. ‘Que stupidezza!’ He calms down long enough to tell us about Naples’ culinary background, about when the inhabitants were called mangiafoglie – leaf-eaters – because that’s exactly what they did.
He also feeds us a selection of the city’s keynote dishes: friarielli, a pleasingly bitter, peppery vegetable like budding broccoli rabe, that’s often served with fat, meaty sausages; paccheri in piedi, Naples’ beloved vast pasta tubes, stood on end and stuffed with caciocavallo cheese and ricotta. Gattò is a rich, cheesy French influenced potato cake. There’s dense sartù di riso, baked into a savoury pudding; and polpette, meatballs suave with veal and pork fat and covered with the ultra-slow-cooked Neapolitan ragù of ravishingly good San Marzano tomatoes.
No, it’s not delicate or sophisticated but if this is what we’re in for, the naysayers are a bunch of numpties.
Next day, Antonio takes us to the narrow streets round Pignasecca, home to one of the city’s much-loved food markets. Here, we find the first evidence of the Neapolitan love for street food, at the Friggitoria Fiorenzano (Piazza Montesanto 6, 0039 081 551 2788), right next door to the tripperia of the same name: frying stalls used to be a feature of every street corner. This one is a thing of almost mournful, vintagefunctional beauty, churning out a stream of deep-fried goodies: artichokes, maybe, or crocchè – croquettes of potato with ham, cheese or aubergine.
From one extreme to the other, we find ourselves in two of the city’s highest-falutin’ establishments in one day. At Palazzo Petrucci, 16th-century former stables in one of Naples’ loveliest squares, chef-patron Lino Scarallo is a charming, self deprecating chap. He takes the food of his area and twists it into wonderful, creative dishes: milkiest mozzarella, sandwiching raw local prawns with a rich broccoli sauce. His interpretation of the paccheri in piedi makes a playful, light pasta course from this heavy timpano: contemporary and clever.
While Palazzo Petrucci is all spartan sophistication, the other haute joint, La Cantinella (Via Cuma 42, 0039 081 7648684) verges on the comical: bamboo furniture lends it the air of a tiki bar, while sombre, suited front-of-house gentlemen lead you to expect trolleys, flambée-ing and O Sole Mio. Instead we get a series of intriguing, wonderful things – two of the city’s favourite dishes collided in one, for instance, a babà made with friarielli instead of the conventional rum syrup-soaked sponge. Despite the innovation, it’s still firmly rooted in the Neapolitan terroir. I love it.
Both of these poshos have their fair share of local custom, but real natives frequent the likes of Da Tonino (Via Santa Teresa a Chiaia 47, 0039 081 421 5333), in the back streets behind the upmarket Chiaia district. This tiny, family-owned trattoria is as unpretentious as it gets: silver-haired local gents read the paper over plates of spaghetti with little violet telline (clams), while the owner and the head waiter chink glasses of bitters. We eat cicinielli – fish as small as squiggles of grated cheese, raw and splashed with lemon and oil. And it’s our first experience of the traditional Genovese sauce, a curious and delicious ragù made from meat and vast quantities of onion that is purely Neapolitan.
Did you think I wasn’t going to mention pizza? Hell, no. Naples pizza is light years away from the travesties that pass for this noble, ancient dish elsewhere. At Pellone (Via Nazionale 93, 0039 081553 8614) in the gritty Vasto area, we try pizza fritta, fried pizza: no, not a Glaswegian joke item, but pizza as light and fresh as stuffed, fried dough can be. We love the frittatine too, breaded fritters filled with pea-strewn macaroni cheese.
The montanara pizza as served by Starita, up in the ancient, hilly streets of Materdei, is a reprehensible and addictive number (currently wowing them in NYC, so expect it on these shores soon). Its fried dough base is covered in finest mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes, then shunted into fierce, wood-fired heat for the final blast. Utter, utter joy.
I’d say the finest pizzas in town are at La Notizia, off the main drag in swanky Posillippo. Enzo Coccia is a man so fiercely passionate about his product that he verges on the terrifying. He has fed princes, TV stars and Heston Blumenthal, with pizzas featuring everything from courgette buds to truffles. They are truly ambrosial: the dough deliciously elastic and marshmallow-light. ‘Only 60 seconds in the oven. 60. Seconds. Only,’ he glares.
The popular picture of Naples is as a city locked in the past. It has a staggering wealth of ancient beauty, sure, but there’s modernity too – in the food, in hotels such as ours, The Romeo, and in the art scene. Maybe it’s because Naples clings to the side of an active volcano, but the locals sure know how to live. And, whatever those pooh-poohers say about the cuisine, how to eat.
By Marina O’Loughlin (@MarinaOLoughlin)
Written June 2012
Main image above taken by David Thomas