The team behind Salumeria Upnea, a modern trattoria cum exhibition space in Naples, is not exactly what you’d expect: Gennaro, Luigi, Stefano and Antonello, three pharmaceutical researchers and one lawyer, respectively, were deskbound at a pharmaceutical company not that long ago. Yet these four friends decided to risk everything for their two passions: photography and quality food.
The first step in realizing their dream was founding a cultural association in an old building on Spaccanapoli, one of the three narrow streets that traverse the heart of the ancient city center. Here they held photography courses and photo exhibitions that invariably ended in long dinners with friends; after more exhibitions, and more dinners with friends, Gennaro’s cooking talents saw greater acclaim. His Bourbon ragù, a rich tomato sauce cooked slowly with only the best cuts of veal, became a cult favorite in the city of Naples.
During this time, the four friends were still working at the pharmaceutical company. Yet Gennaro and Luigi decided to up their game by enrolling in Gambero Rosso’s cooking school. Perhaps best know as an Italian food and wine magazine and publishing group, Gambero Rosso (“Red Prawn”) also offers training in the field of food and wine.
The four were soon at a crossroads. Were they willing to change their lives completely to make their dream – a modern trattoria that would also function as an exhibition and studio space – come true?
They decided to make the plunge when an opportunity presented itself: in May 2015, a delightful space in the old town became available. There was a lot of work to do, but after two months Salumeria Upnea was born.
Gennaro went to his old office one last time to return the company car and pack up his desk. From now on, he would be dressing in chef’s whites – no more business casual.
When we asked why they decided to call the spot a salumeria (“delicatessen”) rather than a trattoria, Gennaro responded, “The idea was to recreate the smell of the salumerias of our childhood, the enthusiasm of children entering the salumeria. And then we decided to also sell and promote cold cuts from Campania.”
Were they willing to change their lives completely to make their dream come true?
So Salumeria Upnea wears a number of different hats. Customers come to buy highly sought after products made by small producers in Campania for takeaway, to make a quick snack of bread and salami, or to sit down for a full meal.
On our most recent visit, we decided to sit and stay awhile. We first noticed the chairs, which are solid wood yet still manage to be comfortable. Each one is different from the others. “An ancient craftsman of the old center made them, solid wood and painted with natural colors,” Gennaro explained.
We began the meal with cold cuts from Campania, but there’s a wide selection of antipasti featuring organic vegetables, smoked mozzarella and a variety of soups.
The feast continued with two dishes that are beloved in Naples: the ragù and the Genovese. The ragù is the “Bourbon” one that Gennaro had become famous for, the result of a slow cooking of veal (no beef here). “The Genovese,” Gennaro explained, “is made with respect for tradition, by cooking cipolla ramata [a sweet, fragrant, copper-colored onion grown in Montoro] with the veal until it’s caramelized.”
Both the ragù and the Genovese can be paired with pasta prepared fresh every day. We opted for the pasta alla chitarra (guitar pasta, a spaghetti with a square cross-section that is perfect for absorbing the meat sauce), but fresh stuffed ravioli was also on the menu.
Since we’re in a salumeria, the menu also includes a long list of sandwiches. The classic option is simple yet delicious: bread stuffed with tomato and mozzarella. We tend to go for anything with the wonderful mortadella made from the black pigs of Caserta, a breed with ancient origins, one that produces succulent meat.
The locals’ sandwich of choice is the cuzzetiello, which is made by removing the center of half a loaf of cafone bread and filling it with meat and sauce. The wedge of crumb is then placed at the end to act as a stopper.
The choice of seconds and side dishes is huge. There are at least three dishes made with Caserta pork, including polpetta (meatballs) that are stuffed with a welcome surprise – meat sauce.
In addition to serving excellent food, the restaurant is also impeccably designed. An ancient arch of red bricks soars over the room, and the stone walls are covered by plexiglass, making them an ideal backdrop for the prints of well-known Neapolitan photographers.
It’s a place where gastronomy and photography are combined. Until the end of the year, the restaurant is hosting an exhibition of Sergio Siano’s work, which is dedicated to the unofficial protector of the city: footballer Diego Armando Maradona, who spent eight eventful years playing for the city’s top football team, Napoli.
“We called it Upnea as a tribute to a dream,” Luigi told us. “In Italian we read ‘apnea’ and the message is: Naples, rouse yourself from the apnea you’re experiencing. Start living again, stop sleeping. Nea is also the contraction of Neapolis, the Roman name of the city.”
“On Wednesdays and Fridays we are closed for lunch,” Gennaro said. “That’s when we hold photography courses,” he added, almost apologetically. No need to apologize – photography is the owners’ second passion and in life we must follow our passions.
Gennaro, Luigi, Stefano and Antonello – our four dreamers – have shown what can happen when you do.