Naples’s Quartieri Spagnoli, the “Spanish Quarters,” are a part of the city with a long and tumultuous history. Founded in 1500, the Quartieri Spagnoli were created by Don Pedro De Toledo to accommodate the Spanish soldiers who were residing or passing through Naples. With the arrival of the soldiers, the network of narrow streets became a hotbed for illegal economic activities, from cigarette smuggling to drug dealing to prostitution, earning the district a bad reputation that stuck for centuries – even Neapolitans from other neighborhoods were afraid of entering the Quartieri Spagnoli.
In recent decades, however, the atmospheric district has become one of the city’s tourist attractions, recognized as one of the centers of Neapolitan gastronomy as well as a place of craftsmanship, cultural and anthropological initiatives. The area is also all-too-quickly filling up with tourist food traps. In the midst of these changes sits Alimentari da Maria, a small delicatessen with four tables (and just two during the colder months) that serves traditional Neapolitan cuisine with a lot of passion in the heart of the Quartieri Spagnoli.
The name Alimentari simply means “food.” It became Alimentari da Maria on a day that the owner of the shop, Gino (58), still remembers: October 14, 1964. That was the date that Maria, Gino’s mother, lost her husband. She was only 20 years old.
Mamma Maria understood that she would have to take over the shop opened by her husband ten years before, a small restaurant with hot dishes for the neighborhood. She transformed it into a small delicatessen, giving up serving cooked dishes, a task too tiring for her alone. The space was renamed after her: Maria.
Today, Maria is 80 years old and still comes to the delicatessen from time to time. She lives in the apartment just opposite the shop in the narrow Spanish Quarter alley, where she prepares side dishes and first course plates for the eatery every day.
In 2003, her son Gino, who had attended hospitality management school and who was helping his mother in the shop, decided to take over; he understood that it was increasingly difficult for a traditional delicatessen to compete with the shopping centers that had now penetrated the city center. That’s why, in 2018, he decided to change the direction of the shop and return it to its original concept from 1955: a classic neighborhood delicatessen and trattoria.
The result it is a small gem in the Quartieri Spagnoli. “I think I have created a beautiful thing,” Gino tells us proudly. “In winter, there are only two or three tables inside, always filled with customers that I take care of one by one.”
Still primarily a delicatessen, the star of Alimentari da Maria is an antipasto platter of cold cuts and cheeses. “I only use excellent southern cured meats and cheeses: provolone, pecorino, caciocavallo, mozzarella,” explains the knowledgable Gino, who strives to offer high quality, niche products. “Among the cheeses are those selected by one of the greatest Italian refiners, Magi of Arezzo, including the famous blue cheese. There’s the Paganoni bresaola from Valtellina, there’s the bacon from the Aurora salami factory in Parma.”
On the menu is the maccheroni allo scarpariello, a dish born here in the Spanish Quarter, made with cherry tomatoes and lots of pecorino cheese. Pecorino has always been the southern Italian cheese par excellence. Before the arrival of Parmesan cheese from the north, the most popular cheeses were pecorino and goat cheese. Scarpariello means shoemaker, who many years ago were paid for their work by customers with a piece of pecorino cheese. It is said that the cobblers, therefore, had a surplus of pecorino laying about, and that a cobbler from the Spanish Quarter invented this simple lunch of tomatoes and pecorino, still one of the symbolic dishes of the neighborhood today.
Among the first courses, there is another legendary pasta made with potatoes and provola cheese – the simple combination of pasta with potatoes generates what is truly one of the tastiest dishes in Neapolitan cuisine (there are two clashing schools of thought regarding the addition of provola to the dish, although it’s clear on which side Gino falls).
There is also the pasta and beans that Gino prepares with the addition of pork leg, a Genovese (slow-cooked onion and meat sauce) that cannot be missed, as well as the gnocchi alla sorrentina (gnocchi with mozzarella and tomatoes). Gino uses artisanal pasta from D’Aniello in Gragnano, a town known for producing the best macaroni. “We only use artisanal pasta, and only pasta from our region,” he says. “The wines are mainly from the Campania region, but there is no shortage of Sicilian wines, as well,”
We also have the side dishes that Mamma Maria prepares every day: aubergines, peppers, and fried friarielli, the slightly bitter Neapolitan broccoli. Her famous ragù is still on the menu as well, a dish that can win over even the trickiest customers. Gino tells us that one day, a Belgian family came to eat. “The parents told me that this boy never ate. When he arrived here, I served him meatballs with meat sauce and macaroni with Neapolitan ragù … and the boy ate his entire dish! The parents were flabbergasted.”
Tourists are fascinated by this quaint little place, but many Neapolitans also come here, especially those from the nearby offices in Via Toledo, who stop by for a quick meal during their break. The city center of Naples is still extremely lively and inhabited, and a network of solidarity in the old city center supports many small businesses like Alimentari da Maria. Unlike other Italian cities such as Florence or Venice, where the historic centers are now filled with hotels and bed and breakfasts, Naples has a very vital ancient center, where a large presence of local residents and neighbors supports local artisan businesses.
The shopkeepers themselves participate in this network. “I only use local suppliers; I only buy from small shopkeepers in the neighborhood,” says Gino. “I buy meat from the Tortora butcher in Vico Tiratoio, the next alley; fish from ‘Gerardo the fisherman’ in via Pizzofalcone – we have been ordering from him for 40 years… first my mother, and then me.”
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