With a gastronomic culture that dates back almost 3,000 years, it’s no wonder that tradition plays an important role in Neapolitan restaurants. Many of our favorite places in the city have been run by the same family, in the same spot, for four or more generations. In fact, we often view this doggedness as a quality guarantee of sorts.
But that doesn’t automatically discount new entries to the dining scene. Even some of the most recent additions can still be steeped in tradition, like Januarius, a restaurant born under the star of San Gennaro (Saint Januarius), the patron saint of Naples – it has solid cultural, aesthetic and culinary roots despite only opening late last year.
The restaurant has a very precise concept: San Gennaro. In fact, it opened on the feast day of San Gennaro, September 19, when locals flock to the Naples Cathedral to watch the saint’s blood liquefy. (Supposedly after Gennaro’s beheading a pious woman collected two vials of his blood, and later these vials of dried blood began “melting,” i.e. spontaneously liquefying, three times a year.) The miracle is said to be a good omen for the city; it also, apparently, was a good omen for this new spot, which sits right across from the Cathedral.
The cult of San Gennaro is incorporated into the design of Januarius in such a way that pays tribute to the saint without going over the top or verging into kitsch. We credit the success of this strong personality to owner Francesco Andoli, a cultural heavy hitter in Naples thanks to his role as the deputy editor of Identità Insorgenti, a popular online magazine focused on the culture and politics of southern Italy.
There are many tangible signs of the theme: the ceramic floor of the restaurant is a reproduction of the historic floor of the Royal Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro (a chapel adjacent to the Naples Cathedral that houses the vast treasure inspired by and amassed in honor of the saint, which includes priceless works of art). Likewise, the famous fresco by Vincenzo Lanfranco that covers the chapel’s dome is reproduced on the restaurant’s ceiling.
But there’s even more to see and so many details to discover; we gape at the small treasure trove of art and let the religious symbolism wash over us. With our sight satisfied by this homage to the cult of San Gennaro, we turn to the next task at hand: to see whether our stomach is also satiated.
Andoli’s idea for the restaurant was to go back to Naples’ roots, both religious and culinary: classic Neapolitan dishes revisited with the use of excellent ingredients. This is implemented in Januarius’s “trident of gastronomy” (as we like to think of how they’ve set things up).
At least now we can pay [Saint Januarius] proper tribute not just with our heart but also with our stomach.
The first branch of the trident is the salami and cheese counter that welcomes customers at the entrance. “We only sell high quality salami, exclusively from the south of Italy,” says Andoli, “and the result of a multi-year search conducted by me and my father Vincenzo.”
“In the shop you can buy everything that is consumed in the pot: pasta, oil, tomatoes, honey, jam, all products of extraordinary quality,” adds papà Vincenzo.
“Has the artisanal bresaola from Buonanno arrived?” a woman asks at the counter as we arrive. Andoli explains that it’s a niche product, one that those in the know often seek out. They carry a wide range of these types of products, like tuma persa, the famous Sicilian cheese, salami made from the meat of black Calabrian pigs, and pasta del Camporeale.
The second branch of the trident is the street food counter, which features the best of Neapolitan street food, such as fried stuffed pizza, slices of Neapolitan pizza and Neapolitan sandwiches.
Last but not least, the third branch of the trident is the restaurant. Similar to the deli counter, the focus is on quality ingredients. “The pasta is only that of Camporeale, of the Caccese farm, farmers who for centuries have cultivated 20 hectares with ancient grains,” Francesco tells us proudly. And they only use extra virgin Schinosa di Trani, an olive oil that in 2016 won the Golden Award for best extra virgin olive oil at the New York International Olive Oil Competition.
As we consider what to order, we overhear an elderly couple a few tables over from us. “Francesco, what are you preparing for us today?” they ask. Later, Aldoni tells us that they have come here twice a week since the place opened. “They feel at home,” he adds.
After much deliberation, our group decides on a charcuterie board, which is miraculous – the exceptional cheeses and salamis are accompanied by honey and homemade jams. We also spring for the polpo alla Luciana, octopus cooked in the manner of the fishermen of Santa Lucia, with cherry tomatoes and capers.
For the primi, we order spaghetti alla Nerano, a dish that sees a happy marriage between fried zucchini and provolone del monaco, a semi-hard cheese made from the raw milk of cows raised in the Naples region, and spaghetti with santissima trinità sauce, which is made from the three typical tomatoes of the Campania region: the San Marzano DOP tomato, the Corbara tomato, and the Piennolo cherry tomato.
For the mains, Francesco recommends two dishes with deep roots in Neapolitan culinary traditions: the baccala with Neapolitan escarole, and the eggplant parmigiana.
They were all so excellent that it was hard to choose a favorite. Each one got a thumb’s up from our group, unlike poor San Gennaro, who is believed to have gotten the thumb’s down – like many others during the so-called Great Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire – and was subsequently beheaded in Pozzuoli around 300 AD.
At least now we can pay him proper tribute not just with our heart but also with our stomach.