“See Naples and die!” roared the rich young gentlemen who made the Grand Tour across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Naples was the Tour’s traditional last stop, the apex of the whole experience, and after seeing it one should apparently give up hope of witnessing greater glories. (As Naples was the prostitution and venereal disease capital of Europe at the time, lots of Grand Tourists probably did fulfil both parts of the dictum.) Today, surprisingly few leisure visitors make a beeline for this teeming capital of the Italian South, with its ancient relics and magnificent topography. They’re put off by the city’s reputation for chaos and lawlessness, frightened away by news footage of burning rubbish and stories of Camorra crimes. They’re missing a city of unrivalled vigour and vibrancy. Missing a chance to mingle with the delightful Neapolitans – larger-than-life people who smile in the face of poverty and laugh at the rules of the road. And they’re missing out on some of the very best food in all of Italy.
Naples is beguiling. There’s no other word for it. Noisy, sprawling and filthy it may be, but one look across that beautiful bay backed by the ominous hulk of Vesuvius and your heart starts melting. Stroll around some of Naples’ loveliest streets and visit some of its most wonderful churches, and resistance proves increasingly futile. Then you’ll eat something, and it’s all over. Now you love Naples, and will always love it. There’s no escape. Apparently, Naples always had this power to enchant. It was from here that the sirens sang to Odysseus on his voyage along the Italian coastline (a not-so-mythological journey based on Greeks’ exploratory travels of the 8th century BC). Parthenope was the chief siren of The Odyssey, and also the name of the settlement that occupied this spot 3,000 years ago, before Naples was established here. But enough of ancient history. Let’s get back to food.
Without the spectacular contributions to Italian cuisine made by generations of innovators in Naples, our popular notions of Italian food would be very different. This colourful, exuberant city is home to all the foodstuffs that most commonly signify Italy – pizza, pasta, tomatoes, mozzarella, ice cream. Each was invented here or reaches its apex of quality here. The aforementioned Grand Tourists took home indelible memories of Neapolitan foods and popularized them as typically Italian. Neapolitan émigrés, meanwhile, went in their hundreds of thousands to America and elsewhere, taking ‘Italian’ (i.e., Neapolitan) dishes with them and spreading their fame. Around the world, the food of Naples and the food of Italy are inextricably linked.
Blessed with endless sunshine and fantastically fertile volcanic soil, Naples is superbly situated for growing top-notch ingredients. Set on a wide and well-stocked bay, it’s also nicely placed for excellent seafood. With an arrangement so conducive to good eating, it’s no wonder that the average Neapolitan is mad about food – extremely discerning, almost obsessed. Ask anyone a simple question about pizza, or the pasta sauces their mother used to make, and you’ll still be listening half an hour later, grinning at their enthusiasm and wild hand gesticulations. Food is everywhere in Naples. Street food is a big part of the culture, with kiosks, cafés and mobile cooking-stands ubiquitous across the city. Restaurants are countless, and usually astonishingly low-priced. You’ll pay peanuts for stunning food, and you’ll struggle to find anything that’s just mediocre. In Naples, food is definitely one of the things that makes life worth living.
Pizza was invented in Naples, and this is still the place to eat it. The city teems with spartan, ceramic-tiled pizzerie selling unforgettable pizzas for absurdly little cost. Neapolitans live on it, and their standards are stratospherically high. The making is meticulous. Dough is hand-kneaded to within an inch of its life to ensure a maximum number of tiny air pockets inside, then left overnight or longer to yeastily ferment. Stretched into crude circles and slopped with toppings, the discs are poked into a wood-fired oven heated to about 500°F and left for just 90 seconds. Quick cooking at a high temperature means crispness on the outside and chewy softness inside. The texture is elastic rather than biscuity, with myriad pillowy bubbles charred on the edges and underside. The flavour, meanwhile, is utterly distinctive and pancake-like.
Part of the fun, of course, is that you can watch them making the things. Stretching the dough, casually slinging on the toppings, wielding a mighty oar to nimbly pop the pizzas into a flaming hole and dexterously spinning them about inside. Pizzas as well-made as these don’t need elaborate toppings. In Naples, the varieties are very simple indeed. Forget ‘pizza napoletana’ (it doesn’t exist here), and forget Americanisms like ‘deep-pan’. The Neapolitan staple is the marinara – topped with tomatoes, garlic, basil and oil. (Note the absence of cheese, and don’t let the name fool you it contains seafood!) The other basic is the margherita, with its mozzarella, basil and tomato sauce patriotically creating the colours of the Italian flag.
Which brings us to mozzarella, another Neapolitan triumph. Banish all thoughts of the rubbery bland goo that bedevils cheap pizzas outside Italy, we’re talking real mozzarella – made only in the Naples area, using 100% buffalo-milk. (Make it with cow’s milk and the cheese is fior di latte, not mozzarella.) Pearly-white and latex-like on the outside, proper mozzarella drips with buffalo buttermilk when you cut into it. Velvety and moist in the mouth, it has a faintly mossy, faintly musky flavour and tastes strangely non-dairy. Neapolitans often serve a huge ball of it as a starter, drizzled with oil, sprinkled with black pepper and ringed by rocket leaves and tomatoes. Delicious. If you’re shopping for mozzarella in Naples, look for the D.O.P. guarantee on the label (like D.O.C. for wine) and the words ‘mozzarella di bufala Campana’. Lesser local mozzarellas come blended with cow’s milk, but are still nice. Go to a street vendor and try mozzarella in carrozza (‘mozzarella in a carriage’) – thick slices of cheese tastily fried up between slices of bread.
Pasta has long been a Neapolitan speciality, with the dry conditions and fertile soil around the city ideal for growing durum wheat. Arguably Italy’s best pasta, and certainly the only pasta in the world with the equivalent of D.O.C. status, is made in Gragnano – a hill village just outside Naples. Gragnano’s cool temperatures and constant flow of drying air have proven ideal for a slow drying of pasta which perfectly preserves the structural integrity of the wheat. Better-structured wheat means better taste and texture. Gragnano pasta is robust enough to be cut and shaped with bronze implements, rather than the Teflon commonly used on other pasta. Cutting with bronze means a slightly rougher surface texture, which gives a better mouth-feel and allows the pasta to grip more sauce.
Traditional Neapolitan pasta sauces, as you’d expect, make use of what’s locally abundant. Here that means tomatoes, and seafood, and garlic and oil. Spaghetti alle vongole is perhaps the city’s signature pasta dish, with vivid chunks of fresh tomatoes sitting prettily amidst clams still clinging to their open shells (it can be tiresome freeing the meat from the shells, but serving them like this guarantees freshness). Other pastas are served alla pescatore (with seafood, garlic and oil), others just al pomodoro (dressed with intensely flavoursome tomatoes). All Italian localities have made a contribution to the vast catalogue of pasta shapes, and Naples’ is pacchieri (‘slaps’). Big, slabby tubes about 3 inches long and 4 around, they hold masses of thick sauce and slop very satisfyingly round the plate and the mouth.
Vesuvius is a totemic feature on the Naples skyline, and it has surely helped to shape the Neapolitan character. Still an active volcano, and capable of wiping out a million people in a few minutes if it chose to, the brooding cone is emblematic of nature’s power and man’s ephemerality. It’s a constant reminder to citizens that they should seize the day, that they should live at full tilt – and eat like kings – for death could come tomorrow. More prosaically, it also gives Naples the best tomatoes in the world. The mineral-rich volcanic soil at the mountain’s foot combined with the sunny Campanian climate creates the ideal terroir for the reddest and most flavoursome tomatoes possible. One variety in particular, the San Marzano, is famously delicious and grown to perfection only on the Vesuvian plain.
Astonishingly deep red (and thus packed to the brim with health-giving, anti-oxidant lycopene), San Marzano tomatoes have a characteristic long shape with a pointed teat at the bottom. They have thinner skins than most varieties, contain less water and therefore more pulp – making them ideal for sauce-making, with a maximum concentration of flavour. They’re very widely used in Neapolitan cooking, sliced fresh into salads or cooked up in pasta and pizza sauces. With tomatoes as stunningly full-flavoured as these available, it’s no surprise that tomatoes have long formed a cornerstone of Naples’ cuisine.
Nature has been extremely generous in facilitating lovely foodstuffs for this city. The same sun and fertile soil that breeds superlative tomatoes also breeds superb peppers, and soft fruits, and huge citrus. With hot summer days to survive, succulent fruits hanging from the trees, and snow-topped mountains teasing in the distance, perhaps it was inevitable that Naples should be the birthplace of ice cream (which was first made here in its recognisably modern form in the mid-1600s). It’s still made to perfection here now. As elsewhere in Italy, look for the words “produzione propria” or “gelato artigianale” before you slip inside a gelateria. These tell you that the ice cream is made on site, to artisan standards. When Neapolitans aren’t squishing local fruit into gelato, they’re stuffing it into cakes and pastries. Don’t leave this city without trying a sfogliatella – an intricately ridged, shell-shapedcase of flaky pastry filled with ricotta, semolina, candied fruit peel and cinnamon. Mmmmm. Che buona!
Via Santa Strato 10, Posillipo
+39 081 769 1288
Meal for two about €90
One of the most famous restaurants in Naples, and many celebrities’ first choice when they’re in the city, the Rosiello enjoys a spectacular position on swanky Posillipo Hill – with a view across its own vineyard to the bay, and the jagged hulk of Cápri in the distance. The food is traditional Neapolitan, prepared with a great deal of flair and refinement. The pasta and the seafood dishes are especially luscious. Order certain fish and the waiters will bring a freshly-cooked, two-foot-long monster to your table to apportion you a generous chunk. Do sample one of the three wines made on the premises.
LA TRATTORIA DELL'OCA
Via Santa Teresa a Chiaia 11
+39 081 414865
Meal for two about €50
This relaxing, understated restaurant with its stylish art prints, gentle music, vaulted ceilings and visibly contented clientele deserves to be far better known. The food is shockingly delicious – every mouthful exploding with maximum flavour. Try the bruschette topped with super-succulent tomatoes and melt-in-the-mouth aubergines (€2.50). Or the intensely-tasty lasagnetti (wide ribbons of pasta) with sausage and broccoli (€8). Main-course highlights include fillet steak in an impossibly rich and creamy green-pepper sauce (€14), and sea bass with tomatoes and green olives (€9). It’s amazing, and very Neapolitan, that cooking of this quality should cost so little.
Via Cesare Sersale 1-3
+39 081 553 9204
Meal for two about €20
It is generally agreed that the best pizzas in Naples are made at Da Michele. That’s quite an achievement in this pizza-mad city, where every citizen is a connoisseur and almost every pizzeria serves stunning stuff. The premises are humble, but the queues outside tell you everything. Da Michele serves only two kinds of pizza – the margherita (tomato, mozzarella and basil) and the marinara (tomato, garlic and basil). Both are indescribably delicious – with each component done to perfection. The pancake-tasting base is crisp on the outside and chewily soft on the inside, with millions of tiny air pockets giving an unparalleled texture. The tomato sauce is full-flavoured, and the mozzarella velvetty smooth. Unmissable.
Vico Giardinetto 78
+39 081 421257
Meal for two about €40
Set on a corner in Naples’ shabby-but-colourful Spanish Quarter, this long-standing, family-run restaurant is a great place to sit and watch the lively streetlife outside. The owners are big fans of the Slow Food movement, and so it’s no surprise that their extensive menu is one of typically Neapolitan dishes prepared in the traditional way. Try the gorgeous spaghetti al pomodoro (€6), with its perfectly al dente pasta and its intensely flavoursome, blood-red tomatoes. The secondi courses (all priced between €7 and €12) consist of good-quality local meat and fish simply prepared. The staff are very friendly and you soon feel absorbed into the family atmosphere of the place.
Via Orazio 116
+39 081 761 1051
Meal for two about €90
Overlooking Naples’ bay from a fine spot on Posillipo Hill, this prestigious restaurant enjoys beautiful premises inside an old patrician villa. The frescoed ceilings and stained glass partitions are impressive, but completely eclipsed by the spectacular food – which includes elaborated versions of traditional Neapolitan dishes as well as creative innovations based on local ingredients. You might start with smoked salmon and apple slices in an unusual, ice-cream-like sauce, and move on to delicate brioche domes of crab and whitefish served with a stockfish cappuccino (a surprisingly delicious cup of fish-flavoured milk foam). A ricotta-filled sponge cake washed down with a particularly light, crisp limoncello completes the ecstasy.
Via Santa Teresa a Chiaia 38
+39 081 400486
Meal for two about €70
This highly stylish enoteca-restaurant is a real gem, newly re-opened after complete refurbishment. The chic, modern décor is especially striking. Black and white stripes streak across the ceiling while multicoloured glass beakers, modish square crockery and oversized wine glasses enliven the tables. The food is absolutely top-notch – creatively put together and beautifully presented. Dishes are rather more elaborate than at many other restaurants in Naples, with densely flavourful sauces recalling the food of France. There’s a stupendous collection of fine Italian wines – at astonishing, supermarket kind of prices.
OSTERIA DA TONINO
Via Santa Teresa a Chiaia 47
+39 081 421533
Only open lunchtimes, and Sat. evenings
Meal for two about €25
Hugely popular with locals but completely unknown to tourists, this relaxed, intimate osteria offers classic Neapolitan home-cooking at laughably little cost. The menu focuses on excellent pasta, meat and vegetables, with a conspicuous absence of fish. Try the comforting rigatoni al pomodoro fresco (thick pasta tubes with tomatoes) for €4,or the tasty pollo al forno con patate (roasted chicken and potatoes) for €5. With no dish priced above €7, you can try a bit of everything if you want! Da Tonino’s owner is a jovial, avuncular man much loved by his customers – many of whom come here for lunch several times a week, and all seem to know each other.
+39 081 553 9426
Meal for two about €20
Open since 1923, this enjoyably crowded and chaotic pizzeria has become a local institution. It’s the perfect place to watch Neapolitans at their loud, lively best – with animated families and friends all chewing elbow-to-elbow. The big, bright rooms and marble-slab tables make an ideal background for the dazzling colours of the pizzas. And if this isn’t spectacle enough, you can always watch the dough being expertly spun into discs, topped with goodies and poked into the fire. The Trianon’s pizzas are among Naples’ finest, with crisp-chewy bases fragrant as pancakes and superlative tomatoes on top. You can opt for Campanian D.O.C buffalo-milk mozzarella.
ANEMA E COZZE
Via Partenope 15
+39 081 240 0001
Open every day
Meal for two about €40
With a location like this, on the main seafront road with tables in the sunshine, Anema e Cozze ought to be nothing more than a tourist trap. But the excellent food, friendly service and reasonable prices show a clear intention to woo regular customers not just passing trade. The pizzas are top-notch and the salads are enormous. Try any salad with mozzarella and marvel at the huge, flavoursome ball of cheese that arrives at your table. Plates piled high with mussels, meanwhile, are a house speciality, and an endless stream of them is carried aloft by waiters from kitchen to table.
Via Luculliana 15 (Borgo Marinari)
+39 081 764 8842
Meal for two about €60
In the tiny borgo of café-filled lanes at the foot of the Castel dell’Ovo, which sits on its own semi-island a few hundred yards off Naples’ seafront, the Transatlantico is one of a group of several fish restaurants. Like the others, it offers sigh-making views of yachts backed by posh hotels and Mount Vesuvius. Bright and spacious, with nautical blue-and-white décor, the Transatlantico serves very good traditional dishes in sizeable portions. Try the classic Neapolitan spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), but be prepared to shell the clams yourself – in Naples they’re served with the shells still attached to guarantee freshness.
As a city, Naples effortlessly jumbles together the shabby and the shiny. Opulence shifts to poverty, and back again, every time you turn a corner. Rather than creating social division, in Naples this somehow encourages social cohesion – everyone, rich or poor, recognizes they’re in this life together, rubbing happily alongside each other. It’s an arrangement that makes for particularly vivid shopping experiences. Gleaming boutiques gaze out onto lurid street stalls. Mesmerising windows of luxury cakes flank those of tripe shops hung with grey intestines. The strange juxtapositions and sudden changes of gear are hugely stimulating – as is the extreme, piled-high bounty of things on sale. Whatever the product, it’s sold with pride. Especially if it’s food – something sacred to every Neapolitan.
Crowded, frenetic Naples naturally has some of the most colourful and bustling marketplaces in all of Italy. The instinct to do things outdoors means that normal Neapolitan shopping streets can often seem market-like, with vendors’ wares spilling onto the pavement in glossy piles. Weaving a path between the goods for sale and the hordes of shoppers while leaping out the way of snarling Vespas can be a challenge! The official food markets are the Mercato Pignasecca, which runs all the way down Via Pignasecca from Piazzetta Montesanto every day till 1pm, and the Mercato Porta Nolana on Via Nolana near Piazza Garibaldi, which is especially good for fish. Also investigate the Mercatino della Torretta on Viale Antonio Gramsci in the Mergellina area – one of Naples’ few covered markets and great for local foodstuffs.
Meat and fish
Spectacular piles of glittering fish, bright-eyed and fresh as can be, are a regular sight on this seaside city’s shopping streets. For particularly dazzling displays, go to the Pescheria Azzurra (Via Portamedina 4; tel. +39 081 551 3733), where a bounty of finned and tentacled creatures lie shining against bright blue tiles. Or visit the Pescheria Belledonne (Vicoletto delle Belledonne, in Chiaia), where oysters and other seafood are served informally in the evening to shoppers welcome to bring in wine from the enoteca next door to drink with it. Note that all fish shops are closed on Sundays and Mondays. For top-quality meat served by a team of excellent butchers, make your way to the Macelleria Lubrano (Via Pignasecca 3).Delis and bread
Unlike some other parts of Italy (Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio, for example), the bread in Campania is very good. You’ll find a huge range of quality loaves squeezed into the improbably small space of the Antica Panetteria at Via Pignasecca 20. Neapolitan pasta, meanwhile, is legendary. Marvel at the choice of shapes in the tiny Bottega del Casaro at Via Mezzocanone 145 (tel. +39 081 552 2656). As for delis, perhaps Naples’ most prestigious is Arfé at Strada Santa Teresa a Chiaia 45 (tel. +39 081 411822), where there’s a wonderful selection of delicacies. Rather more cosy is Fior di Burro at Via Pignasecca 10 – a lively, friendly little shop stocking great salami, pasta and cheese.
Street food and cafés
Pastries and chocolate
Of course, you’ll need to regularly top up your blood sugar in the course of shopping for all these lovely foodstuffs. Street food is a big part of Neapolitan culture, and outdoor vendors abound – frying up delicious arancini (rice balls), crocchette (potato croquettes), panzerotti (savoury filled pastries) and whatnot on pavement trolleys. (Similar fare wafts temptingly from the windows of countless kiosks.) But sometimes you’ll want a respite from the noise and heat of the street, and then only an indoor snack will do. Naples is richly furnished with excellent cafés and tavola calda places – the latter serving cheap hot dishes cafeteria-style. If you’re in the Chiaia district, go for a perfect piazzetta or two at Caffè Moccia (Piazza Amendola 3; tel.+39 081 403485). The croissant-like base of these mini-pizzas is sweeter and softer than a proper pizza, making them especially good for breakfast. Dirt-cheap at €1.50 each, there’s no scrimping on basic ingredients, and the Moccia’s tomato sauce and mozzarella are excellent.
If you’re on one of Naples’ main shopping arteries, the Via Toledo, pop into the snazzy little Augustus caffè and tavola calda at number 147 (tel. +39 081 551 3540). Join the buzz of well-dressed businesspeople knocking back superb coffee and pastries for laughably little cash. Or, for some plush historical grandeur, carry on to the Gran Caffè Gambrinus (Via Chiaia 1-2; tel. +39 081 417582), where you can gasp at the glittering array of pastries and lounge amidst the gilt and mirrors like Oscar Wilde did before you.
If, however, you don’t care about having a sit-down or a coffee, and your sole desire is sfogliatella – the best and the widest choice possible – then check out La Sfogliatella Mary in the beautiful Galleria Umberto I (no.66; tel. +39 081 402218). Locals often form sizeable queues at this smart kiosk to enjoy its many varieties of Naples’ signature pastry – as well as its rum babas and cakes. If it’s chocolate you want, carry on to the superb Gay Odin on Via Toledo (no. 427-428; tel. +39 081 551 3491) or seek out any of its other seven branches across the city. Dark but sweet, with evident high levels of cocoa yet no bitterness, Gay Odin’s luxuriant chocolate is irresistible. The Via Toledo branch feels like a 19th-century pharmacy, with sweets and chocs neatly arranged in big jars and on wooden trays.
Wine and crockery
There are countless good enoteche (wine shops) in Naples, showcasing local produce and bottles from further afield. Try the Enotecca Belledonne (Vicoletta delle Belledonne a Chiaia 18; tel. +39 081 403162) or the Enoteca del Buon Bere (Via M. Turchi 13; tel. +39 081 764 7842). If you like sweet tipples, check out the myriad varieties of sunny limoncello at Limone (Piazza S. Gaetano 72; tel. +39 081 299429). Finally, if you’re looking for vessels from which to eat and drink all your lovely purchases, take a look at Il Cantuccio della Ceramica at Via Benedetto Croce 58 (tel.+39 081 552 5857). In a courtyard off the main street, this salesroom-workshop has a wide choice of interesting cups, bowls, plates and dishes.