In Italia si manga bene! Yes, in Italy you can eat well, very well. But I probably don’t have to tell you that. Because let’s be honest: who doesn’t love Italian food?!
Although great food can be found anywhere in Italy, the southern region of Campania is perhaps one of the country’s culinary frontrunners. Home of the pizza, mozzarella and limoncello (just to name a few), Campania – and in particular its capital Naples – is indeed a foodie paradise. So, which mouthwatering dishes and delicacies do you HAVE to try here? This is my top 10:
This heavenly creation of incredibly thin layers of puff pastry filled with an orange-ricotta filling is one of Naples’ most famous pastries. You can’t leave this city without having had a sfogliatella! Although you can get them in a lot of coffee bars, the best sfogliatelle are served at the historic and stylish Gran Café Cambrinus (Via Chiaia, 1/2). You’ll pay tourist prices here, but as a one-off experience it will be more than worth it (believe me).
Say Naples, say pizza. This city is the birthplace of the pizza, so you will have more than your fair slice of it here. Neapolitan pizza is characterised by a thick, crusty layer of dough (as opposed to the thinner version from Rome). Of course, opinions differ as to which pizzeria in Naples makes the best pizza, but personally I’ve had some of the best pizza ever at Starita (Via Materdei, 27/28). Their fried pizza is a-ma-zing! Although it’s a bit off the beaten track, don’t expect to be the only one here… If the wait is too long, try your luck at nearby Concetina Ai Tre Santi, (Via Arena della Sanità, 7), an equally brilliant pizzeria in a residential area not (yet) discovered by the masses.
Other regular contenders for the best pizza award are Da Michele (made famous by Julia Roberts in Love, Eat, Pray) (Via Cesare Sersale, 1) and Sorbillo (Via dei Tribunali, 32; as well as other locations). But also lesser-known pizzerias such as I Decumani (Via dei Tribunali, 58) serve great pizzas. Be warned though, because once you have tasted pizza in Naples, your local pizzeria back at home will suddenly seem rather mediocre to say the least…
Pasta al ragù
A quintessential part of the Italian diet, pasta has to be on the menu of any traveller visiting Naples and Campania. While northern Italy is well known for its fresh egg-based pasta, the hot south normally relies on dried egg-free pasta, such as paccheri. It’s often served with a tomato-based minced meat sauce, called ragù. Some of the best pasta al ragù in Naples is served at Tandem, a small eatery just off Spaccanapoli (Via Paladino Giovanni, 51 – they also have a bigger new brother down the road). It’s a bit touristy, but the pasta here is fantastic. For a carb-free meal, try their polpette, or meat balls!
Then, all of a sudden, the famous after-lunch dip kicks in… Luckily, the antidote – coffee – is usually around the corner in Italy. In this country, coffee is more than just a drink or caffeine shot. It’s a way of life. Italians take their coffee very seriously – mess with coffee, and you mess with an Italian…! Many people have their coffee in a local bar. It’s not a lengthy affair, though. You pop-in, order your coffee, drink it standing at the bar, have a quick chat with the barista or the person next to you, and you’re out again. Coffee comes in many different styles and sizes and Italy. A caffè is a single espresso shot, a doppio a double one (quite obviously). If you want a drop of foamed milk in your coffee, order a caffè macchiato (macchiato meaning ‘stained’). Or you could get a latte macchiato, which is glass of (hot) foamed milk with an espresso shot. The well-known cappuccino is a version of the latte macchiato but with less milk and more foam. Italians only tend to drink coffee with milk in the morning, though, so don’t be surprised if you can’t get a cappuccino anymore after midday!
There are also lots of regional and seasonal coffee variations. Shakerato is espresso mixed with ice cubes and sugar syrup (shaken, hence the name) and perfect if you’re in need of a caffeine top up on a hot a summer afternoon. Another popular summer drink is crema al caffè, a cold, sweet and creamy (and somewhat artificial, but yummy) coffee drink. The list of coffee specialities goes on and on and on…!
Of course, your coffee in Naples is accompanied by something sweet. You may have figured out by now that the Napeolitans have a sweet tooth – babá is another manifestation of this. This doughy cake-like pastry is drenched in sugar syrup and rum and is a real Neapolitan classic. You can find it at almost any pastry shop and it’s perfect for a post-lunch snack with a caffè. One of my favourite places to try it is Leopoldo Infante, which has several locations including one on Spaccanapoli (Via Benedetto Croce, 30/31).
If there’s one Italian habit I wish I could adopt at home it’s the evening passeggiata at the piazza with a gelato in the hand… Italians make some of the best ice cream in the world and somehow it always tastes nicest during that lovely stroll at the local square at night. In Naples, I’ve had delicious gelato at Casa Infante, Fantasia and Mennella (all with various locations), with the latter one offering incredibly smooth buffalo milk-based ice cream. Once you’ve tried it here, any other ice cream just won’t do anymore.
Neapolitans love deep frying. They fry almost anything, from veggies to pizza – yes, pizza fritta (deep fried pizza) is a thing here!
A popular afternoon snack is cuoppo, a paper cone filled with deep fried goodies, which you can get at a local friggitoria, or frying shop. It usually includes croquet (fried potato croquettes), deep fried veggies such as aubergine, courgette and courgette flowers, as well as mozzarella, panzerotti (stuffed dough pockets) and zeppoline (dough balls). You can often also get each of these individually. In the mood for a deep fried feast? Head to the well-known friggitoria Donna Sofia or Dal Presidente (both on Via dei Tribunali, number 89 and 120 respectively)
Taralli or their smaller versions tarallini are thick ring-shaped biscuits common in large parts of southern Italy. They come in savoury and sweet versions and are sometimes flavoured. Savoury taralli include fennel, pumpkin and seeds. Sweet taralli are often sugar glazed. In Naples, there’s even a whole shop dedicated just to taralli. Taralleria napoletana sells them in a wide range of flavours and colours (and they also do aperitivo!).
Taralli have an incredibly soft bite and are the ideal pre-meal snack – you’ll often find them in the bread basket given to you in a restaurant ahead of your meal. It’s one of those things you’ll miss when you’re back home and fancy something to nibble on…!
Limoncello may be produced across Italy nowadays, it has its origins just outside of Naples, in the beautiful town of Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast. This divine sweet-sour liquor made of lemon zest and sugar syrup is a much loved alcoholic digestive drink. It’s served chilled as a shot, usually after a meal. In Naples, I’ve also seen Meloncello, which is the melon version of Limoncello and also incredibly tasty!
Although pastiera napoletana might traditionally be an Easter cake, these days they sell and serve this cake in Naples throughout the year. The cake is said to be invented by a nun who wanted her cake to have the same fragrance as the orange trees in the garden of the convent she was living in. She added orange flower water to her cake mix of wheat, eggs and ricotta cheese and the result was pastiera. Some versions contain lard, so if you’re a veggie make sure to double check the ingredients.
If you’re not hungry by now, then I don’t know what WILL whet your appetite…