In 2017, the Naples food scene took many steps forward by taking a step back: Restaurants resurrected ancient ingredients and most importantly, in a city famed for its pizza and pasta, old flours native to southern Italy made a comeback. The renewed interest in quality can be observed in all corners of this great city, from fast food joints to starred restaurants.
My favorite eats of 2017 centered on those spots that attach importance to the basics, serving Neapolitan cuisine made with only the finest traditional ingredients. But it wasn’t the food alone that hooked me: The special people who manage these places played as large of a role, if not larger, in drawing me back to their tables time and time again.
The “rested” pasta with potatoes and provola at Mangia e Bevi
This is my ideal kind of place – all substance, no frills. Originally an old cellar that sold bulk wine, it morphed into a tiny tavern that now prepares a variety of cooked dishes. Today, you can try their exceptional soups, risottos, and pasta with legumes (the menu changes daily, but there is always a pasta of some sort available). I tend to go on Fridays, which is when they have pasta and potatoes with provola. You can get this dish almost anywhere, but it’s special here because the pasta and potatoes “rest” on the plate for at least one hour before it’s served. How, exactly, does this work? Just before a batch of pasta finishes cooking, it’s distributed onto individual plates, and each plate is then covered with another plate and left to rest. As soon as you order, the plate is uncovered and quickly heated, a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese is added and the pasta is ready. I think that in the dark, under the plate that covers it, a gastronomic miracle occurs: the pasta, while resting, blends perfectly with the potatoes, improving the flavor. The dish becomes much more than the sum of its parts. I savor it while chatting with my fellow diners, who are usually professors and students, at the communal tables (its low prices and proximity to the nearby university make this spot a de facto university canteen). While I can always count on having the pasta and potatoes with provola on Fridays, I like the constant variety in my dining companions.
Pasta and chickpeas at Trattoria Da Nennella
Trattoria Da Nennella is situated in the heart of the city’s Spanish Quarter (Quartieri Spagnoli), founded in the early 16th century by the Spanish viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo. The menu is simple – you won’t have much to choose from. But hidden in this unassuming spot is the queen of pasta dishes: Nennella’s pasta and chickpeas. Devoured by employees from the nearby financial district who come here on their lunch breaks and tourists who crowd the alleyways of Quartieri Spagnoli, this dish is worth braving the crowds that line up for a seat at this traditional Neapolitan restaurant. Although the restaurant also offers an excellent pasta and potatoes with provola cheese, as well as a scrumptious pasta and beans with mussels, I can never say no to the pasta and chickpeas.
Fried pizza at Friggatoria Masardona
At any time of the day, dozens of fried pizzas leave Friggatoria Masardona for the most remote corners of the city. While the taste of a baked pizza changes when delivered, the fried pizza keeps better during transport – the outside is still crisp to perfection and the fillings inside retain their flavor. It tastes almost like you bought and ate it in the shop. Friggatoria Masardona, which is owned by Enzo Piccirillo, has fried pizza down to a science, and no wonder: It’s the only thing they make. The dough is improbably light, filled with ricotta, crackling, provola, tomato and a pinch of pepper. This is followed by Enzo’s vigorous punches on all sides of the pizza, which ensure that the fillings will not leak out of the dough. A few gifted, quick movements, inherited from the maternal side of the family, and the pizza is in boiling oil. As soon as it’s in my hand, it goes straight to my mouth – while the fried pizza is well suited to delivery, I prefer having it fresh out of the fryer.
Spaghetti with Octopus at Trattoria Vigliena
Trattoria Vigliena performs miracles daily by mixing spaghetti, fresh octopus caught in the morning, heirloom piennolo tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil. I add pepper and chile to the dish, and it becomes a fairy tale. After the spaghetti is gone comes a beautiful scarpetta, the tradition of mopping up the last bit of sauce, made all the better by the excellent peasant bread at Trattoria Vigliena.
Spaghetti with octopus is not commonly found in Neapolitan trattorias, mostly because it can be difficult and expensive to source the right amount of fresh octopus each day. At Trattoria Vigliena, however, this beloved dish has been prepared for at least 50 years, a consequence perhaps of its proximity to the port. It also speaks to the dedication of its current owner, Raffaele Esposito, to family recipes – he is the third generation of a family of chefs who founded this restaurant in the middle of the 20th century.
The Babà at Pasticceria Capriccio
The babà at Pasticceria Capriccio is one of the best and largest in the city: It’s tall, soft, has the right degree of moisture, neither dry nor dripping. The recipe for this perfectly balanced babà is secret, handed down from father to son. I always visit the pastry shop right around 11 a.m., when the babà has just finished being prepared by Raffaele Capparelli, the owner and keeper of the secret recipe. A very private person, he spends his time in the laboratory, continuously experimenting with black chocolate, white chocolate and other sweets. While I’ve tasted all his new creations, which have won him a large number of trophies and awards, nothing can best the babà (which is why the pastry shop is the starting point for our Naples culinary walk).
The Scaturchio ministerial
The ministerial (il ministeriale) is a historic, delicious chocolate medallion produced by Giovanni Scaturchio at his pastry shop in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. Scaturchio is considered one of the most important Neapolitan bakers; his pastiera (the most famous Neapolitan cake) is, in my opinion, the best in town.
But it still doesn’t beat the ministerial, which can’t be found anywhere else. It is a disc of dark chocolate filled with a liqueur cream, whose recipe is kept secret. My wife and I have tried many times to suss out the ingredients but without success. It is produced only from September to May because it has no preservatives and is sold in two sizes: normal and small. I always go for the normal, because why skimp?