Naples for foodies with Food tour of Naples
There is more to Naples that we were able to experience in our short stay (don’t miss the Veiled Christ sculpture, remarkable) but I did manage to go on a foodie tour (of course) and had a bit of an insider look at the Naple’s food scene that I am happy to share it with you.
I booked a tour with Food Tours of Naples. It being off season we ended up having a private tour with the lovely Napolitana guide Susy. We met her in the morning at the landmark Storico Gran Caffe Gambrinus. This is no ordinary cafe. A belle epoque palazzo like place, located in Piazza Plebiscito, was founded in 1860 and over the centuries served the likes of Oscar Wilde, Giovanni Agnelli and visiting royalty. The grand rooms feature soaring ceiling, broad arches, crystal chandeliers and gold motifs and serve as a backdrop to some of the best coffees and pastries in Naples.
A vast selection of typical Napolitan pastries is made fresh in their kitchen, of which the best known is the sfogliatelle, a crisp, layered leaf-like pastry containing creamy, sweetened ricotta cream with a hint of citrus. We sat at the marble bar framed with gold and mirrors, sipped the espresso and indulged in the rich sfogliatelle that Susy bought, watching everything with amazement. The coffee came in a porcelain cup decorated with floral motifs designed by Richard Ginori of the Italian porcelain fame. I wish I had bought a set to take home.
One of the interesting pastries is the Vesuvius, made from puff pastry shaped like the mountain with sweet lava-like pastry cream erupting on top. Another one is a tribute to the Savoy dynasty: a baba dipped in liquors, filled with vanilla cream and decorated with icing depicting the Savoy royal coat of arms.
Susy told us about a Napolitan custom they call Suspened Coffee. This seemed to fit the warm Napolitanos perfectly. The concept is similar to our “pay it forward”: you have a cup of coffee but pay for two, leaving the second one to be enjoyed by someone else who may be unable to buy one themselves. You either leave a receipt for the second cup in a jar, for them to help themselves, or you leave it with the bar who in turns keeps track of paid suspended coffees.The practice first evolved in WWII and was recently revived in response to economic downturn. It speaks to the generosity of the people and culture, not to mention the importance they place on the social ritual of coffee. The gesture has been formalized to an extent and coffee bars that participate in the tradition can display a sticker with an espresso cup on their windows.It also extends now to a sandwich.
After walking along a few of the streets (Castel Nuvo, Galleria and a couple of cathedrals and monasteries) we headed back to the centro storico for lunch at Antica Pizzeria Port Alba situated on a small side street (Via Port’Alba 18) not far from our hotel. This is the oldest pizzeria in Naples, established in 1738 and Susy’s family has been operating it for five generations. Her father is there now, as was his father before him. We went upstairs and settled at a cloth covered table and before long the food started to arrive. A pasta with puttanesca sauce came first, one of the best I have ever tasted. Puttanesca is a Napolitan sauce made with tomatoes, black olives, capers, anchovies onion and garlic and it a sauce with history. There are a few versions of how the sauce got its name, also known as spaghetti of the beautiful ladies. One of my favourite versions tells that the name puttanesca comes from the word puttana, meaning prostitute, and that ladies of the night would lure their customers to their house with the aroma of the sauce wafting into the night’s air. Who knows, in Naples, anything can happen.
The puttanesca sauce was made with a unique variety of tomatoes called pomodrini de pienolo, (aka Vesuvius tomatoes) tomatoes that grow in round clusters originally planted on the sloped of Vesuvius. Their skin is thicker than the usual tomatoes and they are good for making tomato sauce for pasta and pizza and of course, make a wonderful puttanesca.
Next came an eggplant parmesan that according to Susy is built like a lasagna with layers of eggplant, tomato sauce and mozzarella. They use long and dark eggplant that works best for this dish. The green vegetables you see in the image is fiarielli – brocooli fiarieli di Napoli – similar to rapini but unique to Naples and I hate to say it again and again but this fiarieli was hands down the best we have had on this trip. It was cooked and flavoured to perfection but I also suspect that it was so good because it was uniquely local. They do not boil the fiarielli first, as some do in other parts of Italy to remove the slight bitterness, only saute it in olive oil, garlic and pepperonicini, and the result was flavour and texture perfection.
With lunch we had a (big) glass of local dry white wine – falanghina – produced in Campania from an ancient grape variety cultivated along the coast. It was distinct and assertive for a white and complimented the full flavoured food beautifully.
Eventually we said our thank you and goodbyes to her family and moved on to experience more of Naples with Susy. Since we have had pizza alla Napolitana the night before, she suggested we try a different kind of pizza today – pizza fritta, or a fried pizza. The night before we stopped for our Pizza Napolitana experience at Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo (Pizzaioli dal 1935) on Via Tribunali 32. Now this is an institution with cult-like following of locals and tourists. The lineup outside is long and ever present but seems to go fast and the pizza experience is definitely worth the wait.
The making of pizza fritto
Antica Pizza Fritta de Zia Esterina Sorbillo, the fried pizza place, also owned by the Sorbillo familia, is next door to the larger pizzeria. The Antica Pizza Fritta is a small, hole in the wall kind of place where you watch your pizza being made from scratch, folded and fried, then placed on a paper and handed to you to eat sitting at the back or standing outside.We were so full by then we could hardly think of eating another bite so we ordered one fried pizza to share and were hoping that Susy would share it with us but no such luck as she was leading a pizza class afterwards and had to save room for that. Pizza fritta is Napolitano street food that you don’t see often outside of Naples. The pizza dough is made and rolled into a circle, then stuffed with meat, cheese and sauce, folded, sealed and immersed in hot oil until crispy on the outside, soft and melting inside. It is handed to you in a piece of paper and you better be hungry because it is large and filling. I hate to admit that we were too full at the time to fully appreciate it. Must get to Naples again soon to do this justice.
As if we could eat any more, we still had a number of stops to make. I won’t recount them all, but I can say we stopped at a cheese vendor for tasting of fresh mozzarella di bufala from Campania that was soft, creamy and fragrant, and at Campagnola, a fried food restaurant beloved by locals that had a short line up in front with people sipping wine compliments of the house. We got in quickly so no wine in the line-up for us but this was another fascinating place that felt like nowhere else. A musician played a guitar, children were dancing to the music, food came and went and conversation all around was lively and stimulating. We asked for a small portion and tasted fried anchovies, stuffed red pepper and a seafood plate, all made fresh in the kitchen a few feet away visible from the dining area.
When life gives you lemon, make limoncello. One of the specialties of the Gulf of Naples is of course the famous Limoncello and we indulged in the limoncello ritual often during our stay in this beautiful region. Limoncello is a liqueur made from the zest of special variety of Sorrento lemons called Femminello St. Tertesa. The zest is peeled off the lemons, leaving the pith behind, and then steeped in grain alcohol until the essential oils are released. The resulting liquid is mixed with water-sugar syrup and kept at certain temperature until the sugars and oils emulsify. There is also Crema de Limoncello. a creamed version that I particularly like, made with the addition of cream I believe. Limoncello is an after dinner drink popular all over Italy, and at least along the Amalfi Coast I think it’s compulsory to have it after dinner.
Hand making artisan limoncello at Limone, Naples
We stopped at Limone, Fabrica di Limoncello, a limoncello making artisanal shop along the Via Tribunali in the centro storico. Here they make limoncello by hand without use of chemicals with an old family recipe. The family grows their own verdello lemons that apparently have special digestive properties (remember, in Italy it’s all about the digestivo). Lemons are peeled by hand and the process is a pure and authentic as it gets. They make fragrant limoncello, velvety crema de limoncello and a range of other products from lemon flavoured pasta to lemon honey, jams and more. Let’s just say that a few of the products found their way into my expanding collection of suitcases.
As with most food tours in Italy you end at a gelato shop and we did here as well. I no longer remember the name of the gelateria but I am sure it easy to get a great gelato in Naples.
I wish I had more time to spend in Naples. This means i have to get back and soon. Susy, save me a spot on the next tour