We are in the Vasto district, a difficult to navigate maze of narrow streets that criss and cross, a market area squashed between Naples’ central station and Centro Direzionale, the business district.
The district’s Via Nazionale, a street adjacent to the station, is a shrine to local gastronomic treasures, and we consider it a true paradise for lovers of good food. It’s a jewelry box of flavors, ideas, and unique and original products. The daily street market on Via Ferrara, another local artery, is one of the city’s most colorful and fascinating – mentioned several times in renowned author Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend.”
It was here, in 2016, that Dario Troise brought to life a project 15 years, if not centuries, in the making: a panini bar that serves only cuzzetiello (which roughly translates to bread bowl sandwiches). To make this singular sandwich, take a large chunk of cozzetto (heel) from a loaf of bread, hollow it out and fill that space with all good things – with ragù sauce, with meatballs, with eggplant Parmigiana. That’s a cuzzetiello. There are two types, actually: The big, stuffed sandwich, and a smaller version, which we would sneakily feast on when mom would send us to buy bread. We’d tear off the heel – the best, most crunchy bite – and dip it directly into the pot of ragù cooking on the stove.
“A brutal, crude sandwich, the typical lunch of the masons…the stuffed cuzzetiello is certainly the oldest and most traditional snack in the city of Naples.”
Grandmothers would serve this snack to grandchildren, leaving the larger cuzzetielli for workers to chow down on during a break, a snack their wives had prepared in the morning. In short, the cuzzetiello has always represented a seemingly ancient, popular, family way of making a snack, a real cult classic in the Neapolitan culinary scene.
It’s why Dario’s place, O’Cuzzetiello, a takeaway panineria, has taken on cult status in just a few short years. “A brutal, crude sandwich, the typical lunch of the masons…the stuffed cuzzetiello is certainly the oldest and most traditional snack in the city of Naples,” the young entrepreneur tells us. “Even today, if you ask a Neapolitan what part of the bread he prefers, they will tell you it’s the cuzzetiello, the cozzetto, the cone, the end part.” After years of study and optimization –the now 32-year-old took on an earlier stint at a sandwich shop for “research” – Dario knew that the cuzzetiello could become the perfect street food, something employees could seek out during an office lunch and an old way of eating younger generations could come to love.
The customers see it too. “The cuzzetiello is the bearer of family memories, a symbol of family intimacy, of gestures that you would never make during an official lunch,” says Antonio De Luca, 55, who is taking a break at O’Cuzzetiello from his job at a nearby business center.
Every morning a Neapolitan bakery (Dario does not reveal its name; it’s a secret) prepares batches of small palatone (a traditional soft loaf) in the form of pane cafone (Neapolitan peasant bread), crunchy in all the right places. The palatone, cut in half length-wise, makes for two cuzzetielli of just the right size, no waste. The hunks of heel are emptied with wise movements of the knife, removing a whole cone of crumb. On request, the cozzetto is stuffed according to the taste of the customer, and the crumb delicately shoved back into the filling, acting as a sort of cork.
The classic filling is Neapolitan sausage and fried friarielli (the legendary Neapolitan broccoli), a combination that locals historically consider to be the best of meat and vegetables. Others prefer to combine sausage with peppers, eggplant, mushrooms, zucchini and chunks of roasted potatoes. Many love the cuzzetiello with meatballs in ragù, or fried meatballs in white sauce paired with green peppers.
“I adore the cuzzetiello with eggplant Parmigiana,” says Barbara Vezzi, 42, a shopkeeper, “I always eat Parmigiana, as an appetizer, first course, second course, side dish – and also in the cuzzetiello.” A young couple, Adriana and Marco, are particularly fond of the “immense” choice in side dishes and meats for stuffing, as well as the attention to history at O’Cuzzetiello. “Everything is rigorously prepared according to tradition, starting with classic sauces and only high quality raw materials,” Marco says.
Vegetarian, seafood, cold and even dessert cuzzetielli are on offer, with fillings such as Caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella and Sorrento tomatoes; polpo alla Luciana (octopus stew with tomatoes and parsley); and Nutella. You can also order your cuzzetiello “maxi” – a whole loaf of stuffed bread.
The most-loved cuzzetiello? “It is the one dedicated to Diego Armando Maradona, the footballer revered in Naples as a god,” says Marco. “I wanted to pay homage to him with the special Cuzzettiello alla Genovese.” It’s pasta seasoned with a white sauce made with meat that is cooked in onions for a very long time. Like the local team Maradona played for, O’Cuzzetiello, after all, is certainly a “Forza di Napoli.”