Eating Well in Naples, Italy

Valero Doval

Eat, drink and be merry in arguably the world's best food city.

Tripe. Why is it always the damned tripe? A vast plate of the stuff, gleaming and faintly sinister. From a distance, it looks like fleshy seaweed, ragged curls of meat with incongruously pretty frills. Naked as the day it was cut, there’s no sauce, no garnish save a desultory slice of lemon. No respite. I dig my fork deep into the pile of chopped, boiled stomach and transfer it to my mouth. The texture is the same as ever, rubbery with the faintest squeak as it’s crushed between the molars. The taste, too, a hint of decay, a whisper of the farmyard floor. But wait…there’s something else. Something firm and gelatinous yet crunchy. I look up quizzically at my hosts, Carmine Pauciullo and Maria Luisa Gagliardi, and point toward the plate. “Esophagus,” says Pauciullo, a handsome native Neapolitan. “A real treat. You like it?” I pause and chew for a moment longer. Then I nod. The tripe’s superlative. Magnificent. The throat, too. “Naples,” he cries, his hands held aloft. “The best food in the world!”

We’re sitting at the back of Antica Cantina del Gallo, an osteria and pizzeria many miles removed from the usual tourist trail. Pauciullo and Gagliardi are the greatest of guides, as well versed in the city’s Greek roots as they are in the glories of chile-spiked friarielli, that great, bitter broccoli-like vegetable. Here in Rione Sanità, a district outside the old city walls, sumptuous old palazzos peep out from behind dreary concrete façades. In this poorer part of town, the past is a luxury, something to be used rather than preserved. But wherever you are in Naples, it’s impossible to be unmoved.

People may moan about the din, the crime, the trash, the heat and the dirt. They scurry through the shadowy, narrow street of Spaccanapoli, eyes firmly ahead, cameras and watches well hidden from sight. To them, this is a place to be endured, to tick off before retiring, battered but unhurt, to the limpid, civilized charms of the Amalfi Coast. I’m a tourist, too, of course. But one who adores this Italian city above all others—the allure of the singsong accent, the theatrical aplomb of the most mundane conversations. And the food, dear God, the food. Because in Naples, every mouthful is relished as if it were the very last on earth. Which is hardly surprising, considering the city is close to a major fault line and less than six miles from Mount Vesuvius. The volcano is both provider and destroyer, with its lushly fertile slopes and the ever-present threat of its next eruption.

Rosario Silvestri, the owner of Antica Cantina del Gallo, is short and intense, his hands dusted with flour. He’s in full flow, but I can barely understand a word. As the conversation becomes more intense, he gestures wildly, grabs my shoulder and grips my arm. Is he predicting the end of civilization as we know it? Or acting out what he’d do to anyone who disrespected his daughter? Nope, he’s just recounting the history of his restaurant, which served its first customer back in 1898. This is the Neapolitan way. He implores me to smell the tomatoes. He inhales, deeply, his eyes closed in ecstasy. I love this man. And his tomatoes, too: San Marzano, of course, fresh from the slopes of Vesuvius. The best in the world. Just like the mozzarella, sweet and coolly lactic. And the seafood hauled from the Bay of Naples.

The simple feast filling the table before us is divine: A burnished ball of baked dough is stuffed with a tiny tomato that bursts its contents all over a blob of molten provolone as you bite in. “When I first came here from Rome,” says Gagliardi, “parts of Naples seemed like the Middle East. It was just so exotic. At times, it doesn’t seem Italian at all.” Local Gragnano pasta comes next, plump, ridged tubes with a scattering of fresh ricotta. Every bite delights, the pasta pert and the cheese fresh. “In Rome, everything is imposing,” says Pauciullo between bites. “In Naples, everything is a theater. But it’s not some Italian Disneyland. Everybody lives.”

Even the very poorest. Between 1880 and 1920, millions of Italians left Vesuvius and southern Italy behind them and set off for a fresh start in the New World. With them came meatballs, pizza, pasta and tomato sauce. The most famous food of Italy is the food of Naples and the country’s southern half. Bastardized, sure, but there’s no doubting its roots. “No ethnic community has had as powerful an influence on American food as they have,” writes Claudia Roden in The Food of Italy. “…And from there the pizzas and pastas and ice creams of southern Italy went on to conquer the world.”

Okay, so even the most fervent Naples adorers have to admit the city is not entirely pristine. R. W. Apple Jr., the late, great New York Times correspondent, contributor to these very pages and a man who covered more war zones than I’ve had fritti misti, admitted that in the late ’80s, Naples became the “city that Italy forgot and everyone else avoided. Poor. Dirty. Hopelessly corrupt.” Things are better now. But Pauciullo nods when I ask about its reputation and says, “This is an area traditionally ruled by the Guappo.” He digs into the friarielli, so beloved in this area. “Not enough chile,” he mutters. “They aren’t the Camorra, which is the local criminal group. Or the Mafia, who are Sicilian. Rather…” He looks up at the wall, with all its old family photographs and the ubiquitous portraits of Totò, the great comedian, and Sophia Loren. Along with San Gennaro, these are the patron saints of Naples. He chews thoughtfully and says, “They’re father figures, people who sort out disputes.” With a gun and a blackjack? I ask. “No,” he says. “Naples is a city where smuggling has always gone on. And the law was open to interpretation. And perhaps they were involved in cigarettes and the like. But never drugs. When the drugs came in, everything changed.” He shakes his head. “We have a saying, I migliori affari si fano a pranzo—‘the best business is at the table.’ Things were sorted out in a civilised way.”

By now the Greco di Tufo is flowing, and we’ve demolished a pizza, with its thin smattering of tart, fragrant tomato sauce and small pools of melted mozzarella. In Naples, though, it’s all about the crust: a great billowing, black-blistered cornicione, that triumphantly puffed-up rim and a thin, dense, chewy base. Neapolitans say the pizza was born here. The ancient Persians, with their topped flatbread, might disagree. But who cares? This is a dish conceived in poverty, a mélange of scraps and cheap ingredients that grew into a global superstar. Whatever they say, it’s best here. At Da Michele, my favorite and perhaps the most famous spot. Or Trianon da Ciro, just down the road. Or Pizzeria di Matteo or Lombardi a Santa Chiara or Brandi. Or a hundred other places, way beyond the reach of the ghastly TripAdvisor, Fodor’s and Lonely Planet.

It’s getting late, and my belly is beginning to puff up like that splendid crust. We’ve discussed Neapolitan ragù (“Has to be simmered for at least five hours”); the brilliance of Pauciullo’s mother’s cooking (“Seriously, UNESCO should list her”); corruption (“It goes hand in hand with our beauty. You can’t separate the two”); calcio (soccer) (“Winning the cup last week was magic”) and calcio food (“A sausage sandwich packed with friarielli”). We finish with lamb’s intestine with cheese and potato and then fresh strawberries, naked and sweetly alone.

The next day, we’re still talking about soccer. All that remains of the weekend’s wild Italy Cup celebrations are a few scraps of blue banner. “We’re Neapolitan first, Italian second,” says architect Paola Brancaccio as she elegantly bites into a slice of pizza. We’re at Pizzeria Lombardi a Santa Chiara on Spaccanapoli, and midway through lunch. A bowl of polipetti, tiny octopus cooked in a rich tomato sauce, has long been finished along with crisp, greaseless fritters flecked with local seaweed. “When we won the World Cup, the celebrations were nothing in comparison. Nothing,” Brancaccio says. “It’s all about verace, a Neapolitan expression meaning ‘true,’ or ‘wild,’ or ‘real.’ It’s used as much about our local fish as it is about pizza or people.” The streets outside are slick, slathered in a sudden downfall of rain. At once they turn darker, taking on a more sinister hue. Even the pastel red walls, so gaudy in the sun, turn the color of blood in the slippery gloom. For one brief moment, I catch a glimpse of a different Naples altogether.

“When we wake, the first thing our mother asks is, ‘What do you want to eat tonight?’ ” says Brancaccio as we sip rich, acidic coffee in Caffè del Professore. Here caffè is always espresso. Well, in the proper places, anyway. “We’re obsessed with food,” she says.

And Naples is a city that has it all. That doesn’t mean grim, pursed-lip Michelin restaurants, where conversation is muted and real pleasure fleeting. It means great dense meatballs, polpette, from Osteria della Mattonella, swimming in a tomato sauce of such intensity that it seems to contain the fruit’s very soul. Faintly ribald old Neapolitan songs play in the background while Antonietta Imperatrice, the housecoated owner, cooks up pasta Genovese (named after the original recipe’s creator, rather than Genoa), for which three types of onions are cooked for hours with scraps of meat until the whole thing melts together into one sweet, deeply savory sauce. For more seafood delight, duck into Ristorante da Dora. Its spaghetti con vongole is reason enough to go to war. Tiny clams swim in a deeply fruity oil, all tangled with al dente spaghetti and a verdant slap of parsley. Or eat them raw, sprawled out on a bed of seaweed. Ristorante Mattozzi Europeo, a mere scamorza’s throw from the port, serves fragaglie, tiny, fried newborn fish that crack between the teeth, and pasta con le cozze, mussels peppered with tiny orange buds of intense sweetness.

That’s the problem here: too much to eat, too little stomach space in which to store it. Naples is a city in thrall to the siren’s song. So unblock those ears, follow her call and dive right in.

My Own Private Naples

Antica Cantina del Gallo At Via Alessandro Telesino 21; 39-081/544-1521; cantinadelgallo.com.
Caffè del Professore
$ At Piazza Trieste e Trento 46; 39-081/403-041.
Da Michele
$ At Via Cesare Sersale 1; 39-081/553-9204; damichele.net.
Osteria della Mattonella
At Via Giovanni Nicotera 13; 39-081/416-541.
Pizzeria Brandi
At Salita Sant’Anna di Palazzo 2; 39-081/416-928; brandi.it.
Pizzeria di Matteo
$ At Via dei Tribunali 94; 39-081/455-262.
Pizzeria Lombardi a Santa Chiara
At Via Benedetto Croce 59; 39-081/552-0780.
Ristorante da Dora
At Via Fernando Palasciano 28; 39-081/680-519.
Ristorante Mattozzi Europeo
At Via Marchese Campodisola 4; 39-081/552-1323.
Trianon da Ciro
At Via Colletta 44–46; 39-081/553-9426.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.