Neapolitan cuisine encompasses such a variety of dishes, ingredients and preparations that sitting down for lunch in Naples is always a feast of smells, tastes, colors and sensations.
Menus here are populated by numerous meat dishes and equally many seafood options, and the extraordinary variety of vegetables are complemented by unique dairy products, preserves and sweets steeped in history and quality. Restaurant kitchens know how to be baroque (as demonstrated by menesta maretata, a complex soup that “marries” a variety of vegetables and cuts of meat), sumptuous (as in eggplant parmigiana), or deceptively simple (as in the classic spaghetti aglio e olio, which combines the basic trio of pasta, garlic and oil to great effect).
With this wide range of dishes the notable thing is that the ultimate in Neapolitan cuisine is the combination of traditional pasta with simple ingredients like beans (pasta e fasule), chickpeas (lagane e cicere) or potatoes (pasta e patane).
There are plenty of restaurants that indulge in preparing sophisticated and complex dishes with fancy-sounding names, and there are those that prefer to do the simple things well. Excellent Neapolitan cuisine focuses on simplicity, on substance and not form. An exemplar of this is Mangia e Bevi (the aptly named “Eat and Drink”), our ideal place for eating out in Naples. No frills, all substance.
Originally it was just a wine cellar selling bulk wine, the type of place that kept a running tab for workers heading home, but then the place grew and started serving food. Here, the array of simple dishes varies day to day and so do your dining companions – the ample tables offer communal seating. During the week the place teems with professors and students alike. You might find yourself having lunch next to a Chinese woman who teaches at the Università Orientale or near a Calabrian youth studying in Naples.
(How many friendships have been born here, one wonders, and how many loves?)
At Mangia e Bevi, there’s no coperto – that customary per-customer cover charge in Italy. When you enter, Luigi brings you a list of dishes, a piece of paper and a pen. Then Gennaro takes you to the table and hands you the basket with bread and cutlery, napkins and bottle of water. We call Gennaro the sommelier even though he simply asks, “White or red?” Mariano, like us, is a bit too portly for the narrow spaces but is very efficient and always smiles. Salvatore, Luigi’s son, brings you the food. Everyone shouts in Neapolitan. The resulting cacophony is wonderful.
Luigi Grasso, the owner and “art director,” is very friendly; he takes pride in what he has managed to achieve. “I love working with my family, and I always care about the quality of products and the simplicity of the dishes that we prepare every day.”
He proudly showed us the newspaper article that talks about the place in glowing terms as well as the photo of the Coen brothers who, searching for an authentic local eatery in Naples, dined here in 2008.
The menu always includes soups, risotto and pasta with legumes. Mondays are pasta with beans, Tuesdays pasta with lentils and Fridays are pasta with potatoes with provola cheese. You choose a first course, second course and side dish, all for €8. The food arrives immediately, perhaps not in the right order, but that’s all part of the experience. You can eat the salad before the meat course and then the pasta – whoever said that pasta had to be a first course?
This Neapolitan eatery treats its dishes like children in the knowledge that they benefit from rest. Just before each preparation finishes cooking, Luigi’s wife stops the chef and distributes the pasta onto individual plates. Then she covers each plate with another plate and piles the plates high, stacking them one on top of another.
The kitchen in the late morning is full of towers of dishes awaiting customers. As soon as you order, the plate is uncovered and quickly heated, a sprinkling of parmesan cheese is added and the pasta is ready.
We think that in the dark, under the plate that covers it, a gastronomic miracle occurs: the rice and pasta, while resting, blend perfectly with the potatoes or beans. The flavor changes ever so slightly, improves, the integration between pasta and legume becomes complete. The dish becomes much more than the sum of its parts.
In short, Mangia e Bevi is the kind of place we pray will remain forever as it is so that our children and their children can one day enjoy the pleasures of eating and communing with strangers just as we do now.