The city of Naples sits nonchalantly in the shadow of Vesuvius, which has remained quiet – yet active – since the famous eruption in 79 A.D. that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Despite its prominence, Vesuvius is not even the most powerful volcano in Napoli. That distinction belongs to the Phlegraean Fields, an underground caldera that forms the Bay of Naples. Around 12,000 years ago this super volcano exploded so violently that it shaped the continent of Europe.
You might think that with all these active volcanoes around, Neapolitans would be afraid. They aren’t. In fact, most seem to relish the nearby volcanoes, claiming that they make the food here taste better.
To start, there are the San Marzano tomatoes that grow on the fertile slopes of Vesuvius. Across the Campania region, there are also the Falanghina and Coda di Volpe grapes that are resistant to phylloxera, the pest that has ruined many European grape crops, thanks to the highly sulfuric terroir here – another gift of the volcanoes.
Yet even more fundamentally, water found in the area is an essential ingredient in many typical Neapolitan dishes. When water is filtered through volcanic rock it not only is stripped of harmful elements, but also gleans beneficial minerals in the process. Physicians, pizzaioli, pasta makers and housewives prize the water of Naples and Campania for its mineral content, flavor and medicinal properties.
We first learned about the special waters in Naples when a Neapolitan housewife told us that whenever she traveled she brought bottled tap water with her to make coffee. “Acqua del Sindaco,” or Mayor’s Water, is what she called it. Accustomed as we are to the undrinkable fluoridated water that flows from taps in many U.S. cities, we found the whole idea of traveling with coveted sink water ridiculous. Yet Neapolitans swear that you cannot make proper coffee without the town’s most prized ingredient: water from the area’s aquifers, which feed into the public water system.
The town of Castellammare di Stabia, which sits along the Bay of Naples and below the ancient chestnut groves of the Monte Lattari Mountains, has made a name for itself as the land of 28 types of water. The thermal baths here have been famous since Caesar’s time – the Romans created a distribution network of spring water even before the explosion of Vesuvius. The volcano’s eruption altered the rock surface and, consequently, the Roman network, giving rise to the 28 springs the town is famous for today.
“The waters of Castellammare can cure almost anything.”
Doctors still prescribe the town’s waters for various medical conditions including gallstones, infertility and reportedly the evil eye. Nicoletta Cerchia, an 84-year-old former doctor at the Thermal Baths of Castellammare, proudly told us, “The waters of Castellammare can cure almost anything.”
Each of the 28 volcanic waters can treat a surprising variety of physical and mental ailments. The town’s Ferrata water, high in bicarbonate, contains traces of lithium and can treat depression. Saint Vincent Water, rich with sodium chloride can cure chronic diarrhea and dyspepsia. If you suffer from goiters, osteoporosis, renal infection or atrophic gastritis, then a visit to Castellammare’s Aqua della Madonna water fountain is in order. It is free, across from the town’s port and next to the excellent seafood restaurant Chalet Annamaria. Bring empty recycled water bottles and prepare to wait in line. Madonna water is popular with the town’s geriatric gentry.
Nestled above Castellammare is the town of Gragnano, the self-described world capital of pasta. Gragnano specializes in dried paccheri and conchiglioni pastas made of durum flour. Its microclimate and – you guessed it – volcanic aquifers make it the ideal place for pasta production. Throughout the later days of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, which governed Naples in the 19th century, the region provided their pastas to King Ferdinand II’s court.
Today the Government of Italy recognizes Gragnano pasta with a special I.D.P (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) distinction. Michelin-starred restaurants and family trattorias around the world serve the same Gragnano pasta that kings ate over a century ago. One of the key ingredients in this internationally lauded durum flour pasta, both then and now, is water from the town’s aquifers.
It’s also believed that Neapolitan water played a role in the birth of the Margherita pizza in the late 19th century. Although the unified Republic of Italy was established in 1861, regional politics and rivalries lasted well into the 20th century. In the 1880s, Northerners, particularly Torinese, maintained that Neapolitan water was inferior and unsanitary, a claim that was perhaps influenced by the virulent cholera epidemic that hit Naples in 1884.
So when Queen Margherita of Savoy, the first queen of the unified Italy and herself a native of Turin, came to visit her new subjects in Naples in 1889, legend has it that Raffaele Esposito of Pizzeria Brandi invented a tricolor Margherita pizza of red San Marzano tomatoes, white Fiori di Latte cheese and a single leaf of basil. This pizza was made with water from the Piscina Mirabilis cistern in the heart of the volcanic Phlegraean Fields, which ran through the Serino Aqueduct directly into the wells at old pizzerias located in Naples’ historic center.
To this day conspiracy theorists allege the invention of Margherita pizza was actually an elaborate political ploy to prove the safety and superiority of Neapolitan water. It must have worked – as the story is commonly told, Queen Margherita took a liking to her namesake pizza (and, fortunately, suffered no ill effects from eating it). Regardless of its exact origins, today we find versions of Margherita pizza across the world. Purists still argue, however, that you can’t make a true Neapolitan pizza without Neapolitan water, which is higher in calcium sulfate due to the region’s volcanic activity.
The Serino Aqueduct is no longer the singular water supplier to the pizzerias of Naples. Nonetheless, the city’s pizzas are without peer. Likewise, Gragnano pasta still perfectly holds its shape when tossed in ragù, and Castellammare’s Acqua della Madonna continues to cure the evil eye. There must be something in the water other than calcium sulfate. Either way, Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields could blow at anytime, in which case, we will have a lot more special water to look forward to after the apocalypse.
Editor’s note: Our recurring feature, Building Blocks, focuses on foods and ingredients that are fundamental to the cuisines we write about.