The requirements for a place to qualify as an authentic Neapolitan trattoria are simple: It must be tiny, intimate and quiet, with a small menu and a genuine atmosphere. In other words, it must be La Cantina Di Via Sapienza.
This is not a trattoria with fake antiques strategically placed inside to draw tourists or chic Neapolitans looking for “aesthetic” culinary experiences. Rather, La Cantina Di Via Sapienza is a true neighborhood spot that serves meals to the employees and nurses of the nearby polyclinic, and to the students and professors from the various universities of the historic center.
The Latin saying “Nomen omen” – in a name is destiny – certainly applies in this case. Sapienza means “wisdom,” and a lot of it is needed to cook the Neapolitan classic the kitchen at La Cantina Di Via Sapienza turns out so reliably every day.
In reality, the cantina – a term given to a wine cellar or bulk wine shop, which is what the restaurant used to be – got its name thanks to the nearby convent of Santa Maria della Sapienza, which was founded in the early 1900s and is still functioning today. (The convent was long famous for the culinary skills of its nuns – even now, there’s still a Christmas sweet sold in Naples called “Sapienza,” made with almonds mixed with honey.)
“The place was originally managed by a pair of brothers called Buono,” Gaetano Formato, the current owner, tells us, “and it was a real Neapolitan cantina that dispensed wines and oils in bulk for the residents of the area.” Like many cantinas in the early part of the 20th century, this one at some point started offering hot dishes at lunchtime for area workers.
The Formato family took over in 1987, when the cantina had already evolved into a full restaurant, and left the structure intact: two cozy rooms connected by an ancient arch in the center, with around thirty seats in all.
The initial Covid-related lockdowns put a severe strain on the restaurant – indeed, its very survival was in question – but we were happy to see things back to normal during our recent visit. Under the dining room’s wooden beams, the restaurant is swarming with professors and especially students who prefer to eat a hot meal outside rather than cook up something at home.
Gaetano, 55, has been running the trattoria together with his parents since they took it over some 30 years ago. His 85-year-old mother Angela used to be in charge of the kitchen, only recently handing the reins over to her son.
Despite the change, the food here remains superb. Our first selection – eggplant parmigiana, the real jewel in the crown of the Sapienza cantina – did not disappoint. On this visit, we ordered it together with a couple of meatballs in tomato sauce, which were served in the same dish as the eggplant. It was a perfect marriage, one that has been going on successfully at this trattoria for over 30 years.
Beyond the eggplant parmigiana, there’s no shortage of traditional dishes from the Campania region here, with the menu changing daily. Some days it’s pasta with potatoes, on others it’s ragù or Genovese, sometimes escarole and beans or roasted sausages with broccoli rabe.
On this particular day, the primi piatti special is scialatielli, long rectangular noodles that land somewhere between spaghetti and tagliatelle, with pesto.
It was, simply put, extraordinary. Just the kind of thing we would expect from a true Neapolitan trattoria.
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