In 2017, when Francesco Cancelliere and his brother-in-law Oreste Improta opened their small trattoria in Piazza Cardinale Sisto Riario Sforza, a splendid little-known square behind Cattedrale di San Gennaro, they drew inspiration from a nearby masterpiece: Caravaggio’s The Seven Works of Mercy, which was made for, and is still housed in, the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia, located close to the cathedral.
First was the name of their new trattoria: Caravaggio. But they really leaned into the theme. “All the tablecloths and napkins were inspired by a Caravaggio painting. But it happened that napkins disappeared every day, because tourists took them as souvenirs. One day a foreign tourist, young and pretty, asked if she could buy the waiter’s shirt that had the Caravaggio logo and the young waiter gave it to her, practically remaining bare-chested,” Francesco explains.
“Then one day, we don’t know how, even a tablecloth disappeared and so we changed things up. Today we use the classic tablecloths of the Neapolitan trattoria, those with red and white squares,” he adds.
But this basic spot needs no adornment when it sits in such a magnificent square, in the shadow of the most elegant and beautiful of the three Spires of Naples, columns built to celebrate the end of plagues or other calamities. This one, the Spire of San Gennaro, was designed by Cosimo Fanzago, an exemplary architect of the Neapolitan Baroque, in the aftermath of the eruption of Vesuvius in 1631 (the most disastrous in Neapolitan history, apart from the eruption in 79 A.D. that buried Herculaneum and Pompeii).
In addition to satisfying the eyes, Caravaggio satisfies the stomach by serving up the great classics of Neapolitan cuisine. Top of the list is candele al ragù, prepared with pine nuts, tomato sauce, veal and pork. The ragù cooks for 12-13 hours, according to Francesco. He only takes it off the heat once it has passed the “bucatino test,” wherein he takes a bucatino (the long spaghettone with a hole in the center) and places it vertically in the sauce. If the bucatino remains standing in the dense sauce, then it’s ready. Otherwise it continues to cook. The ragù is served on candele broken by hand – this special-occasion pasta is rarely used in restaurants because it requires a fair bit of labor.
The restaurant’s other star dish is the Genovese ragù, served with traditional ziti, which are similar to candele but with a smaller diameter. They, too, are broken by hand, into pieces of four to five centimeters.
In these choices, and in the other pasta dishes (including artisanal pasta with potatoes and provola cheese, and bronze-drawn spaghetti with cherry tomatoes), it is clear that Francesco took great care when it came to selecting shapes – he aims to please Neapolitans, macaroni-eaters for whom pasta is culture, idea and ecstasy.
While Oreste, 41, manages the dining room and does all the shopping, fresh every morning from local markets and shops, the kitchen is Francesco’s domain. “At 7 and 8 years old, I was already cooking but only for pleasure – there are no cooks in my family. It was not a family tradition. At 18, I went to work in small restaurants as a dishwasher. Then I made it into a career. I became a waiter for a catering company, and I always went into the kitchen to understand how to cook for large numbers of people,” the 37-year-old explains.
In 2010, Francesco and Oreste opened a fish shop in the suburb of Secondigliano. They had a fryer in the shop, and sold both fresh fish and fried fish served in paper cones.
“In 2017, my brother-in-law and I found a place here in the ancient center of Naples in this wonderful but incredibly under-valued square.”
But the duo had bigger dreams: They wanted to open a small, traditional restaurant. “And so in 2017, my brother-in-law and I found a place here in the ancient center of Naples in this wonderful but incredibly under-valued square,” says Francesco, whose arm features a tattoo of a chef’s knife and the words, “The boss Caravaggio” – a sign of his devotion.
A year after setting up the trattoria, they opened a small pizzeria just 20 meters away, on Via Tribunali, that also goes by the name Caravaggio. Diners can order both from the trattoria and the pizzeria. “We just send the order by telephone to the guys who are in the pizzeria,” Francesco says. The Caravaggio pizza, topped with swordfish, is particularly popular.
“Everything seemed to be going so well,” he continues. “On the same tables we offered the products of Neapolitan gastronomy and one of the best Neapolitan pizzas. Then in February 2020, we were overwhelmed by Covid and shut down completely for 14 months.” Caravaggio – both the trattoria and pizzeria – finally reopened on May 20, 2021.
The clientele is mainly made up of Neapolitans who love traditional cuisine. But there is no shortage of tourists – actually, more discerning travelers, explorers in search of particular places, rather than tourists. Many of them come here, visit the Caravaggio masterpiece and then visit another Caravaggio, this time for lunch under the Baroque obelisk.
Both are finding their way back to the restaurant, attracted by the powerful combination of excellent food and a beautiful setting. “Some customers in the middle of winter, I remember it was freezing cold, but they still wanted to eat outside,” Francesco tells us, shaking his head in disbelief. Such is the pull of a charming Italian piazza.