“His name was Mr. Antonio, and they called him the captain,” says 35-year-old Giusy Aiese, launching into the story of La Taverna del Buongustaio. “He was a wine producer from the province of Caserta, and he established a wine-making cellar here in the Fascist period, around 1930.”
As we listen to Giusy recount the history of the tavern, we can’t help but think about hers: she comes from a family tree brimming with lovers of Neapolitan cuisine. Her 65-year-old father, Gaetano, a genius in the kitchen, has run La Taverna del Buongustaio since 1996, the year he bought the restaurant from Francesco de Micco, another excellent cook and, funnily enough, Gaetano’s wedding witness. Francesco had been at the helm of this spot for 35 years when he finally handed over the keys to Gaetano.
“After the Second World War, the cellar became a tavern with a kitchen, a place where [food] was cooked on the coals and simple, very simple dishes were prepared – pasta and chickpeas, pasta and lentils,” Giusy continues, mentioning two dishes that are still in fact served at La Taverna del Buongustaio.
When Gaetano and Giusy, father and daughter, eventually took over the restaurant, a small, pleasant place on a side street adjacent to the crowded Via Toledo, the quality improved enormously.
Yet they decided to focus solely on traditional cuisine – no room for innovations, for deconstructed dishes or light cuisine. Here they serve real Neapolitan food. And incredibly today it is precisely the preservation of tradition that is the real innovative element, given that so many others are trying to reinvent the wheel.
“I cook as I learned from my father, and my father as he learned from his mother,” says Giusy, a succinct summary of their philosophy. The braciola (a roll of lean meat cooked in tomato sauce and stuffed with pecorino cheese and celery), for example, is still made as it was a hundred years ago and as it is still made in the homes of Neapolitans.
“When I come here, it’s like going to eat at mom’s house,” says Antonio, a shopkeeper from the nearby Montesanto market. The restaurant is usually packed at lunch with professors and students from the nearby university and people who work in Naples’ historic center.
Every morning, Giusy goes to the Pignasecca market, one of the largest and most colorful markets in Naples, and buys the very best things. This fine fresh produce forms the backbone of the many vegetable dishes that dominate the window at La Taverna del Buongustaio’s entrance: eggplant cooked in a variety of ways; zucchini alla scapece (fried and seasoned with plenty of vinegar); friarielli soffritti (pan-fried rapini, the legendary Neapolitan broccoli).
Some main dishes are always available: pasta and beans with mussels; the Genovese (pasta with a sauce made of meat and onions that are stewed together for a very long time); and the real Neapolitan ragù (the Neapolitan meat sauce that cooks for hours). And there are always a couple of pasta dishes with legumes: pasta and beans, pasta and chickpeas, pasta and lentils, although they change depending on the day. We recommend coming in for a full one-week cycle to try all the first courses.
The second courses are always fresh: anchovies stuffed with provola cheese, then breaded and fried, and meatballs, a true workhorse of the tavern, served in three different ways every day – fried, cooked in the Genovese sauce or with the ragù meat sauce.
“I cook as I learned from my father, and my father as he learned from his mother.”
“All without sophistication, without any revision. Today everyone wants to ‘revisit’ but it is a word that I hate because it means not having any historical rule of tradition,” says Gaetano.
The place is filled with caricatures of Neapolitan artists made by the famous Neapolitan cartoonist Francesco del Vaglio, who works for the city’s most important daily newspaper, Il Mattino.
Francesco has been gifting his cartoons to Gaetano for years, and on every one he writes a vignette dedicated to the talented cook. There are even some featuring father and daughter behind the stove, and the restaurant’s logo is obviously his design as well.
“My father is the pillar of the taverna, without him I would feel lost. But I also have a dream: to continue his work by creating a school of Neapolitan historical gastronomy, without reinterpretations, only tradition and orthodoxy,” says Giusy.
“To eat well there’s no need for many ingredients or expensive ingredients and sophistication,” she continues. “Simple things are enough, but you must know how to do it, and to know how to do it takes years of learning.”
As for dessert? This being the temple of tradition, only the babà and the pastiera, the two cornerstones of the Neapolitan pastry shop, are on offer. And they’re made, of course, as tradition and history dictate.