We’ve got a thing for small, family-run spots in Naples, particularly those that are multigenerational. If a restaurant or bakery or producer has been open for at least a century and has always stubbornly stood in the same place, continuity and quality of product are all but guaranteed.
Take, for instance, Cantina del Gallo in Rione Sanità. Established in 1898 and run by four generations of the Silvestri family, this is one of the few real outdoor taverns left in Naples. Over the years, this cozy, simple spot has attracted artists, intellectuals, musicians, travelers and many Neapolitan students looking for good food at reasonable prices.
The first hint that you’re at some place extraordinary is, funnily enough, when you park the car. At first the owner seems to beckon you to park inside the restaurant’s courtyard, but then you pass through it and go down, down, down to the garage, which is located inside a huge cave dug into the soft tufa stone. First excavated by the Romans, this now urban grotto was used in the Second World War as a shelter during aerial bombings.
If that introduction doesn’t sufficiently enchant you, then getting to know 61-year-old Rosario Silvestri, the owner of Cantina del Gallo, is sure to. Also the chef and pizza maker, Rosario is always at the center of the scene, like a conductor.
He greets you with hands covered in flour, talking constantly, whether or not you understand Italian.
He greets you with hands covered in flour, talking constantly, whether or not you understand Italian. With foreign visitors he uses simple Italian spoken slowly and loudly, even though they don’t understand him. Yet he still makes an effort, while gesticulating cheerfully, to explain the quality of the ingredients he uses.
“Look at this flour I use, it’s excellent,” he tells an American guest who obviously does not understand a word. “Smell this tomato: it’s the best, the real San Marzano.”
Rosario is the fourth generation to run Cantina del Gallo (he was preceded by his great-grandfather Minicone, his grandfather Gennaro and his father, Mariano). Today his sons Mariano, 30 years old, and Alessandro, 20 years old, help out at the restaurant.
The cantina began as a store selling bulk wine and oil. It was only in the 1950s, when the legendary Aunt Cuncetta began cooking, that it became the simple and genuine tavern it is today.
There are three dishes that are the restaurant’s workhorses, and the ones we always seem to rotate between: the pennette alla sorrentina (a variation of the classic gnocchi alla sorrentina, seasoned with tomato, basil and stringy mozzarella), the baked cod (although the fried cod is just as mouth-watering) and the pizza cafona (peasant pizza), topped with oregano, cheese, chile and with double the tomatoes (tomato juice and chopped tomatoes).
“The way it was described to me, I thought it was similar to a marinara pizza,” says Alberto, a friend who accompanied us on a recent visit. “But after tasting it, I have to say that it is on a totally different planet, a real surprise.”
Before the pizza comes out, Rosario brings around many of his specialties, like the legendary pizzicotti, small rolls of panzarotti pasta stuffed with six different fillings: peppers, sausages and broccoli, eggplant, cicoli (pressed cakes of fatty pork) and ricotta cheese, mushrooms, and finally, the tortano. Named after the Neapolitan Easter bread, the tortano is something exceptional, packed with cheese, salami and a small piece of boiled egg.
“We are very proud to continue the family legacy, one that has lasted for over a hundred years,” says Mariano, smiling. “Above all we are proud because we love Rione Sanità, a neighborhood that for too long has been considered dangerous, but is now starting to see a resurgence. Nowadays it’s a place people want to visit and rediscover.”
To finish off the meal, we order the pizzicotti filled with Nutella and served hot – it’s absurdly good.
But while the food is exceptional, the truly unique element here is Rosario’s sincere smile, especially when paired with a glass of honest wine.