Since mid-December of last year, it’s felt like Naples has been at the center of the world, at least gastronomically speaking. Most significantly, UNESCO added the Neapolitan art of pizza making to its list of “intangible cultural heritage.” It’s not merely recognition of Neapolitan pizza as a beloved dish, but also of the important ancient art that was developed in the city and passed down from generation to generation of pizzaioli.
The Mediterranean diet also continues to dominate the news cycle. In fact, a department was created at the Città della Scienza (“City of Science”) museum in Naples specifically to study this diet. And many of the city’s restaurants are also, in a way, doing something similar: the focus has lately been on researching ancient gastronomic traditions and recreating them with only the best raw materials. With that in mind, here are our Best Bites of 2018 in Naples.
Pizza Cafona at Cantina del Gallo
The popular pizza cafona at Cantina del Gallo pretends to be a humble dish, but is actually a gorgeous pie. It’s stuffed simply with oregano, cheese, chile and tomato two ways. The use of both tomato juice and chopped tomatoes is the secret that gives this pizza its special taste.
While waiting for your pie, owner and pizza maker Rosario Silvestri will offer up the establishment’s many specialties including their legendary pizzicotti (rolled little pizzas). Made with panzarotti dough, these small rolls are stuffed in six different ways – peppers, sausage and broccoli, eggplant, cicoli (pressed cakes of fatty pork) and ricotta cheese, mushrooms, and the special tortano, which is packed with cheese, salami and a small piece of boiled egg.
But the truly unique element here is Rosario’s sincere smile, best paired with a glass of honest wine.
Maccheroncini alla Brigante at Taverna a Santa Chiara
The maccheroncini alla brigante, the best primi at Taverna a Santa Chiara, is made with some of region’s finest ingredients: small green peppers, piennolo tomatoes and Roman Conciato cheese, which despite its name is traditionally made in Campania and is believed by many to be Italy’s oldest cheese, dating back to the Samnite civilization.
Potito Izzo is a comfort food chef and has always been faithful to the cuisine of Neapolitan home cooks and families. But he only began sharing his talents with the general public five years ago, when he and his old friend Nives Monda decided to open a restaurant. The end result is Taverna a Santa Chiara, a modern tavern whose greatest strength is the choice of high-quality Campania food items mostly made by small producers.
Gattò at Cibi Cotti Nonna Anna
The Neapolitan potato gattò of Nonna Anna is a potato tortino rustico (a tall, square cake) with layers made of mozzarella, scamorza, ham, salami and more. A baroque dish, this gattò transforms the simple potato into a true miracle of gastronomy. Once you pierce the golden gratin topping your slice, made crispy with butter and breadcrumbs, your fork swims in the luxuriously creamy potato filling, a mash made of boiled potatoes, Parmesan and pecorino cheeses, eggs and milk that is interspersed with layers of provolone cheese and salami.
Cibi Cotti Nonna Anna, a little family-run restaurant tucked in a corner of the La Torretta Market in Mergellina, is where Donna Anna Pappalardo worked all her life and developed her gattò recipe – the best in the city. She was everyone’s nonna (grandmother), and we were all sad when she left us in August 2017 at the age of 93.
Thankfully, her gattò lives on.
Pennette alla Genovese at Trattoria Malinconico
My perfect Neapolitan meal always includes the Genovese, a simple yet miraculous sauce made of meat (veal, beef or pork) and a heap of onions (red or white). Even those who say they don’t like onions are forced to recant once they taste the Genovese – after hours spent simmering with the meat, the tenderized and translucent onion slivers have no trace of the astringent smell or bite of raw onions.
My mother used to prepare it frequently (to be honest, she often made a fake Genovese, replacing the meat with lard or two pieces of bacon), which may explain my fondness for the dish. My wife, on the other hand, believes that the onions reek havoc on a person’s breath and, as a result, makes the Genovese only a couple of times a year (but when she does, it’s outstanding).
So on Tuesdays, I often find myself at Trattoria Malinconico, a popular restaurant in the hilltop neighborhood of Vomero, for lunch. It’s on this day that Marianna Sorrentino makes the best version in town: the sumptuous pennette alla Genovese.
The real Neapolitan ragù at La Taverna del Buongustaio
Ragù, where pasta (usually penne or rigatoni) marries a luxurious meat sauce, is one of my favorite Neapolitan dishes. The best Neapolitan ragù is made with braciola (a roll of lean meat cooked in tomato sauce and stuffed with pecorino cheese and celery). At La Taverna del Buongustaio, daughter Giusy and her father Gaetano prepare braciola as it was made a century ago, and as many Neapolitans still make it today at home.
And since this is a temple of tradition, I always finish my meal with either the babà or pastiera, the two cornerstones of the Neapolitan pastry shop, after my ragù. They’re made, of course, in the traditional way.
– Amedeo Colella
Mimi alla Ferrovia
As Neapolitans were busy kicking out the Nazis during the Four Days of Naples (“Quattro giornate di Napoli”), the popular uprising against the German occupying forces in September 1943, they must have worked up quite an appetite because the iconic restaurant Mimi alla Ferrovia opened at this most unlikely of times. The family-run spot has been going strong ever since. While the international jet set including Diego Maradona and Sophia Loren have come here for years, it is the traditional fare as prepared by Salvatore Giuliano, current head chef and grandson of the original owner, that keeps me and countless others coming back and clamoring for more.
Chef Giuliano has hit his stride with faithful but personal interpretations of Neapolitan classics including the puparuoli mbuttanati (stuffed peppers) that are both ethereally light and unlike any rendition of this plate found in the region. But perhaps my favorite dish here is the crowd-pleasingly nostalgic Neapolitan Genovese, consisting of stewed onions and bits of beef. Naples’ cucina povera is alive and well in Chef Giuliano’s capable hands.
Concettina ai Tre Santi
Located in the heart of Naples’ Rione Sanità neighborhood, Concettina ai Tre Santi has become a cult favorite over the past few years. The current head pizzaiolo, Ciro Oliva, may only be in his twenties, but he is one of the hottest pizza makers in Naples right now. In recent months, Pizzeria Concettina has shot to fame after appearing in the New York Times and in scenes of the television series “Gomorrah.”
Oliva and his team are certainly having fun, which is definitely part of the appeal – their inventive pizza flavors embody the best of Naples’ classic cucina povera, albeit in a slightly new form. The Pizza al Ragu, a traditional Neapolitan pizza, is here stuffed with slow braised ragu and whipped ricotta and folded into a half moon – it is disgustingly good. Perhaps the most addictive of Oliva’s inventions, though, is the Genovese pasta fritter: it’s a riff on the traditional Neapolitan fried pasta bites that he playfully stuffs with Genovese sauce. Naples has been known internationally as a pizza mecca for decades, but oddly enough it’s a pizza joint that reminds us there is more to the city than its pies – its people and ingredients are equally as special.
Chef Marianna Sorrentino is, in her own words, “an unlikely chef and more of a home cook.” When her husband passed away and left her in charge of the family trattoria she stepped up to the plate like the lady boss she is, turning this unassuming little spot into a venerable culinary destination. Not only is Trattoria Malinconico packed at lunch everyday, but is now also open on Friday and Saturday nights due to popular demand. I always go on Friday when Marianna makes her famous zuppa di cozze, stewed mussels topped with a plump octopus arm and glistening with hot pepper oil. The best part of eating this dish is rooting around to the bottom layer of mussels where you will discover a piece of fried bread with which to sop up the seafood juices and hot oil, locally known as Olio Santo or holy oil.
Malinconico also has some of the best polpette in sugo, meatballs in tomato sauce, in Naples. I have personally watched Marianna make them several times – she promises there is no secret – and yet inevitably when I make them at home, they are lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. I put it down to Marianna just doing her thing: keeping the trains running on time and feeding the hungry mouths of Napoli.
This discreet tavola calda is more than just a Neapolitan fast-food joint – it is also a social movement on an unexpected stretch of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. What makes this place so special is not only the typically Neapolitan food at very reasonable prices but the fact that it employs individuals with developmental disabilities. A kind of social collective, Sfizzicariello trains local adults to prepare Neapolitan classics including sartù di riso (rice casserole), escarole pizza and polpettone al forno (baked meatloaf) – comfort food at its best. I almost always order the potato gattò, mashed potato gratin mixed with mortadella and smoked provolone cheese, as theirs is one of the best versions in Napoli.
Admittedly there is something shocking about vegan raw Neapolitan food and yet that is exactly what you will find at Vitto Pitagorico. If you want to see Neapolitan dishes distilled to their most essential elements and then reimagined with new techniques and ingredients, a visit to Vitto Pitagorico is a must. Even the biggest fan girls of Neapolitan cuisine (myself included) reach moments of red sauce and pasta fatigue. And then a restaurant like Vitto Pitagorico comes around to surprise and delight us. Their Neapolitan lasagna is both raw and vegan, and while it features many of the common vegan food ingredients I would expect to find in my native California (cashew cheese and shaved raw zucchini), it is excitingly and self-assuredly Neapolitan. Vitto Pitagorico proves that while Neapolitan cuisine remains steadfastly steeped in tradition, there is always room for adventurous reinterpretation.
– Kristin Melia