Seek and you will find these culinary gems in this boisterous Southern Italian city
When you first arrive in Naples, Campania, it'll probably strike you as being quite different from anywhere else in Italy. It lacks the glamour of metropolitan Milan, the elegance of Florence, the rustic charm of Bologna, and the laidback ease of Sicily. It has a reputation for pickpockets and petty crime, and visitors are often warned that it can get particularly unsavoury by nightfall. If you don't speak Italian, you really feel it here. But if you can look past all of that, there's something very special about this Southern Italian city. Naples is really a place that's been stripped back and laid bare, that doesn't really care what you think of it. On the one hand, it's noisy, hectic, chaotic. On the other hand, it's full of life and character. Oh, and to say that you will eat well here is quite an understatement. Below, just a sampling of carnal pleasures to whet your appetite.
If there's one thing Naples is famous for, it's pizza, which is said to have originated right here over 2,500 years ago. The defining quality of Neapolitan pizza is the sparingly light-handed use of yeast, which other pizzerias (even the very good ones) around the globe often rely on for its properties as a quick-acting raising agent. Not so here. Dough is left to rise slowly, often the day before, yielding all the same lightness without that disappointing hollowness, and definitely none of that overwhelming yeastiness.
Visitors to Naples often flock to L'Antica Pizzera da Michele for a slice of the action. The pizzeria rose to prominence after the world saw Julia Roberts eat here in the film adaptation of Eat Pray Love. But if you want to avoid the crowd and indulge in another Neapolitan must-eat at the same time, head to Ciro a Santa Brigada instead. Ciro a Santa Brigada is conveniently located just off Via Toledo, the main shopping street in Naples. The staff are warm and friendly, and are more than happy to make suggestions. Nevertheless, you can't go wrong with the classic margherita, with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and basil.
Naples is located right by the sea, opening up into the waters of the Mediterranean sea, so it is unsurprising that they have access to some of the freshest seafood imaginable. Luckily for you, Ciro a Santa Brigada also specialises in seafood, so one visit here would mean eating two things off this list. This is one of the best places to try Polpi alla Luciana, a classic Neapolitan dish of tender baby octopus with olives, garlic, lemon and parsley. Also worth trying is the Fritto di Paranza, a dish of locally caught whitebait, deep fried to perfection.
For the sweet-toothed amongst you, you might be glad to learn that Naples is rather famous for its pastries. Top of any traveller's list is sfogliatella, a deep-fried shell-shaped pastry filled with cool, creamy custard. One of the most famous places to get sfogliatella is Pasticceria Pintauro. However, if you're after more variety, hit up Pasticceria Scartucchio. Located in the buzzing Santa Chiara district, this place has been here since 1920. Besides churning out some fabulous sfogliatella, they also do plenty of other delicious pastries. A firm favourite is the Torta Ministeriale, a cake of chocolate, hazelnuts and rum.
One of the best things about this charming pasticceria is the attention they pay to the provenance of their ingredients — hazelnuts are sourced from Avelino, walnuts from Sorrento, almonds from Nola, chestnuts from Calabria, and pine nuts from San Rissola. On that note, you absolutely can't miss a cup of the latte di mandorla, which is basically almond milk — you know, the real, honest-to-goodness stuff, before almond milk became a thing.
4. Caffè alla Nocciola
If it isn't amply clear by now, Italians love their coffee. So if don't want to look foolish, you need to know the do's and don't's of Italian coffee culture. Firstly, you usually have to order and pay for your coffee at the till before proceeding to the bar to order your coffee. Secondly, "espressos" do not exist. What we know to be "espresso" is in fact simply caffè, and a double espresso is a caffè doppio. And finally, you never order a milky coffee after a heavy meal. The Italians are rather obsessed with their digestive health, and having milk after a heavy meal would just interfere with the efficacy of their digestion.
But if you are going to have milk in your coffee, why not cream? Or better yet — some house-whipped sweetened hazelnut cream? No visit to Naples is complete without making a trip to Il Vero Bar del Professore for the caffè alla nocciola, which is essentially coffee topped with the most delicious hazelnut cream, almost like a warm affogato of sorts. Be warned though, it's definitely on the sweeter side of things. In fact, during the cooler months, they serve this in an ice cream cone. Located on the end of Via Toledo, on the corner right where it meets Piazza del Plebiscito, everyone in Naples seem to converge here, making this buzzing café the perfect place to people-watch.
5. Family-style Neapolitan Classics
A short uphill walk—more of a gentle incline than a steep climb, fret not—away from Il Vero Bar del Professore is Osteria della Mattonella. This eatery is as quintessentially Neapolitan as it gets, and is the perfect place to sample dishes such as you might eat in someone's home. It's tiny, with seating comprising of only six tables. The décor is rustic, with worn tiled walls, all the more charming for their imperfection, and wine served in heavy ceramic pitchers.
The polpettone (meat loaf) here might just be the best you'll ever have, with a crisp crust and a moist, tender interior, oozing chunks of melted mozzarella. Another dish well worth trying is the pasta e ceci (pasta with chickpeas). The chickpeas here are cooked down until creamy but reatin much of their mealy texture. Combined with the pasta, it's incredibly filling. It's an interesting dish you'd come across quite often in Naples, but are unlikely to find anywhere else.
Love it or hate it, your best bet is to take Naples for what it is. Embrace the noise, the crowds, the congestion, and discover this unique city where you are guaranteed to eat well.
About Stephanie Ang
Raised in Singapore, Stephanie is a PR girl who's more than a little obsessed with food and drink, as well as the culture surrounding it. When she's not working for an artisanal food company, she's writing about the latest restaurants and bars in London. Her current project sees her eating her way across Italy.