In life, it’s never too late to try changing course. It’s not always possible, it’s not always easy, but when you succeed, what satisfaction. Seventy-year-old Raffaele Cardillo, with his smiling face and white beard, can attest to that.
After 20 years spent working as a lawyer, shuttling between courts and meetings with defendants, and puzzling over lawsuits and problems to unravel, he decided to give up his law career and transform his passion – cooking – into a real job. Spending his evenings at the stove was a favorite pastime, the way he relaxed after a long day in court.
In 2000, Raffaele opened a restaurant named Il Castagno in Camaldoli, a suburb of Naples; it quickly became a destination for lovers of Neapolitan gastronomy. He ran it together with his wife, Alda, and his son, Gabriele, both more than happy to accompany him on his adventures.
Then in 2011, life offered him a new opportunity: to open a restaurant in Naples’ Santa Lucia district, a maritime area whose beauty has inspired numerous artists, poets and painters. And so Il Ristorantino dell’Avvocato, an elegant and intimate spot, was born.
We are a few meters from Castel dell’Ovo, the seaside castle on the former island of Megaride, where the city of Naples was born in the 6th century BC. The promenade is teeming with higher-end restaurants, many of which have people stationed outside, inviting in visitors. But at Il Ristorantino dell’Avvocato nobody invites you to enter – it’s not necessary, as this is a restaurant whose good reputation is spread through word of mouth.
As soon as we enter, a smiling Raffaele greets us. He has just finished all the day’s prep work in the kitchen. “Today I’m going to let you taste some stuffed and fried zucchini blossoms,” the kind former lawyer informs us.
He goes on to explain more about the offerings: “Our fish and meat menu is inspired by the typical dishes of the Neapolitan tradition, but it is re-proposed in a modern key. Plus, the raw materials from the vegetable garden and the sea are always fresh.” And served, we must add, in a truly handsome setting.
Even though we were steeped in the punk ethos, we enjoy eating in an elegant restaurant every now and then. In fact, we must confess, we simply adore this place. It’s where we go when we need to make a good impression on a guest, when we want to splurge.
“I am convinced that only by returning to the roots of Neapolitan cuisine is it possible to find new ideas.”
“Half of my clientele are regular customers, the most loyal ones. They know the quality of the food I prepare. Then there is another group of occasional customers, and many tourists,” Raffaele tells us. “At lunch, though, they are mainly professionals and lawyers – my former colleagues.”
In fact, there is an easy lunch formula for people who work in the area and are looking for a quick and inexpensive midday meal: a seafood appetizer and a first course at the prices of a trattoria in the center, not a refined restaurant on the seaside.
We find his dishes to be an exquisite peek into the past, for Raffaele is enamored with historic recipes. “For years I have studied the history of Neapolitan gastronomy. I am convinced that only by returning to the roots of Neapolitan cuisine is it possible to find new ideas,” he explains.
Recently he took part in a program on national television wherein he explained the Neapolitan 18th-century style of cooking: Bourbon cuisine, the inventive, French-influenced dishes that flourished under the ruling Bourbons, some of which went on to become synonymous with the region. And, in fact, one of the dishes on the menu at Il Ristorantino dell’Avvocato is rice sartù, a rich timbale from that period stuffed with rice and earthy elements (livers, boiled eggs, peas, ham). It’s one of the very few Neapolitan recipes to feature rice.
While the rice sartù is beautiful, as well as the baccalà (salt cod) in all its variants (creamed, fried or roasted on polenta), our advice is to order the tasting menu: “I thought to offer this menu mainly to welcome foreign guests, who always seem to be undecided on what to order,” says Raffaele. “I always like to offer baccalà cod, which is an important part of the history of Neapolitan gastronomy, as part of the menu.”
The menu then continues with broken candele pasta in Genovese sauce “which I make with three meats and three onions,” adds Raffaele. And then another fried fish, “always fresh.”
It ends with the king of Neapolitan pastry: the babà al rum. All at a reasonable price, showing a value for money that has no equal in the city.
“I love to suggest my tasting menu, because in some way it represents me – philosophically, it describes the path that I followed as a chef and allows the person to taste the various characteristics of my cuisine, the dishes that I care about most,” says Raffaele, who it turns out is not just a lawyer and a cook but also a philosopher.
This article was originally published on February 27, 2020.
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