Top Ten Pizzerias in Naples

Let’s get one thing straight ragazzi- pizza is just one of the MANY iconic dishes that Naples offers. Still no trip to Bella Napoli is complete without it.  The original Neapolitan pizzas are the simple Marinara of San Marzano tomato sauce, oregano and garlic or the Margherita of tomato sauce, mozzarella or fiori di latte cheese and basil.  The secret to enjoying a good pizza is to keep it simple.  And for the love of God, don’t drive the pizzaioli of Naples crazy by trying to customize your f*cking order.  Order what is one the menu and basta!

Five Best Thermal Spas of Ischia

Since when the Greeks arrived on Ischia about 3,000 years ago, the Island has been highly prized for her volcanic waters.  The Romans created thermal baths in grottos here cleverly pumping bubbling naturally hot water into cavernous rock saunas.  After both world wars, veterans came to Ischia seeking rest and relaxation.  Today, the island’s famous thermal baths feature fresh and saltwater pools as well as water and mud treatments of every type imaginable.  That is not to mention access to the best water therapy there is- the beach! Below you will find my top five thermal parks on Ischia.

How to Get to the Amalfi Coast (and not go completely crazy…)

Let me tell you a little story about my first journey to the Amalfi Coast.  My friend met me in Rome.  Easy enough. We stayed two nights.  Did our thing- Spanish Steps, Vatican, Trastevere.  Drank too much Frascati, woke up one morning hungover and it was time to take the train to Naples and continue onward to the Amalfi Coast.  Feeling plucky, we decided to take the Freccia Rossa high speed train. We had tramezzini sandwiches and little bottles of prosecco to wag a hair out of the dog or whatever it is they say about drinking more alcohol to cure drinking too much of it. In spite of the fact that we seemed to be approaching our upcoming holiday with the same mental fortitude as a harem of spring breakers in Panama City, I was feeling pretty good about how the day was going.  

Ribollita

Tuscan and Neapolitan cuisine are natural cousins.  Both hark back to days of poverty in their use humble, oft-discarded ingredients.  Both feature beans prominently. Both do weird things with offal, although that is true for nearly every Italian region.  Nowhere is the cucina povera link more apparent then with the peasant dish of ribollita.  Literally meaning, re-boiled, ribollita utilizes a mish-mash of ingredients that may have found their fates in rubbish bins were in not for the ingenuity of Tuscan home cooks in leaner times. The most compelling use of an otherwise discarded food would of course be stale bread.  Every region in Italy has its own take on stale bread usage.  This Tuscan version is among the most famous abroad.  Strangely a bastard cousin of ribollita is often called Tuscan White Bean Soup on generic restaurant menus in the United States  The resulting dish is a flaccid and less nutritious version of the original and oddly includes entirely too much pancetta.  Ribollita it is not. 

Top Ten Cafés in Naples

You have to try hard not to drink good coffee in Naples.  Every neighborhood bar is a window into the vivacity of that sliver of Neapolitan territory.  The first thing I do every morning after rolling out of bed and making myself look generally presentable (locals might argue that lululemon pants and crocs do not qualify as presentable Napoli- and who am I to quibble) is head to the bar across the street from my house.  I go for the company. The invasive inquiries into my personal life. The exchange of hyper local recipes and even more hyper local gossip.  This is the bar where I start my day.  Twelve hours later, I will also end my day here with a spritz or a gingerino and a complex discussion of what was for lunch and what will be for dinner and how I will spend my Easter and whether I will make or buy my pastiera. It may only be February, and yet this is the idle chatter heard in Neapolitan bars everyday across the city.  To know Napoli is to know her bars.  Below are the most iconic. 

How to Order Coffee in Italy

There is a generous degree of debate regarding who has the best coffee in Italy.  Neapolitans will unfailingly boast that ours is the best coffee in the world.  I agree with that assessment.  But I am also biased.  As a rule, the coffee of the South is earthier and more full bodied.  As you move up the boot, coffee brands change.  In Naples Kimbo is King.  In Rome you find a lot of Lavazza.  Trieste is home to Illy.  The brand you use at home says a lot about your allegiances so never give a Neapolitan a gift of Illy coffee.  This will be unapologetically offensive.  I did this once so I should know.  After learning that I was supposed to take coffee and sugar to a dead relative’s family to commemorate a death-o-versary, I took Illy, thinking it posh.  Let’s just say I made them all forget the somber occasion of the day.

In defense of ITALIAN Food: Ten Commandments

When I lived in America, I always secretly harbored this idea that dried pasta was intrinsically inferior to fresh pasta.  Maybe it was the Calvinist in me that maintained anything that requires more work is naturally better.  I also perhaps romantically believed that all Italians made all things by hand- and by extension that all Italian food was the same.  In the 1990s, regional Italian food was largely non-existent in the United States.  Even New York, bastion of Italian-American cookery was largely void of regional Italian cuisine.  Fine dining chefs served exotic dishes like vitello tonnato (which I never really liked or understood) on the same menus that offered ribollita.  The former is from the Piedmont and has some suspicious origins in French Savoy; the latter is a fine example of Tuscan Cucina Povera.  Call me a zealot, but those two dishes should never be on the same menu together.  It is offensively blasphemous.  Unless maybe you are Massimo Bottura and are doing something whimsically ironic.

Top Ten Foods of the Amalfi Coast (Actually 11!)

Let’s get one thing straight.  This list is by no means exhaustive.  You could eat for years on the Amalfi Coast and still have not tried every plate the region has to offer.  Many of the same dishes are found in the the Gulf of Sorrento, Capri and the Phlegrean Islands. I have tried to limit this top ten list to foods that are strictly native to this wondrous stretch of coast and have stories linked to specific towns.  Sfogliatella, for example, was invented in the Amalfi Coast town of Conca dei Marini.  Parmigiana di Melanzane (Eggplant Parmesan), on the other hand is ubiquitous throughout all of Southern Italy and is a true staple of the Southern Mediterranean summer diet. To understand the foods typical to the Amalfi Coast, one must observe the region’s topography.  

Ten Best Beaches on the Amalfi Coast (Actually 11!)

Rossellini was correct.  The people here are crazy.  They also know how to live.  And the beaches prove it.  After years living on the Amalfi Coast, I have learned a few things about beach going here to make things a little less crazy.

First, there is a different between a private and public beach.  Stablimenti or beach clubs require you to pay anywhere from 5-10 Euro for a beach chair on their part of beach.  Spiggie libere, or free beaches allow you to spread out your towel, picnic and do as your heart’s content.  Often the people on the free beaches can be a bit on the vulgar side.  These beaches attract large families from the provinces who seem to colonize with umbrellas, picnic tables, sports equipment.  You would think they were prepared to head west on the Oregon Trail with all of the equipment they have.  Unsurprisingly, I don’t particularly enjoy these beaches.  From time to time, I may spread out a towel and enjoy a panino on a free beach.  However, if you are on vacation on the Amalfi Coast- be civilized and treat yourself to a lettino.  Otherwise you may end up with an errant beach ball to the head and screechy nonna telling you to move your beach towel over because you are in her spot! There is not such thing as a free beach when a nonna from the provincial hinerlands of Pagani is bellowing at you...

Polpette al Sugo (Meatballs in Sauce)

About two weeks ago, I moved to Siena to complete a project.  Living in Tuscany as an American transplant from Napoli confuses me and nearly every Tuscan I encounter.  The single strangest source of confusion, antipathy even, is my accent.  I had never realized how forcefully I spoke Italian- truncating words and peppering nearly every request, observation and enquiry with hyperbolic exclamations. Even more troubling, I had never fully grasped the extent to which I mixed Neapolitan with Italian, particularly when shopping at open air markets, of which there seem to be few in these Tuscan parts. 

On my first day wandering around the hilltop town I anxiously sought a decent espresso.  I had been to Siena before but it was early in my tenure as a resident of Italy- at a time when my neophyte palate still struggled to ferret out the great from the merely good.  Within roughly twenty minutes of my latest arrival in Siena, I swiftly deduced that coffee here is terrible.  Burnt, flaccid with no character, no texture, no depth, no verve. The same could be said for the Sienese people on further reflection. 

Scarole e Fagioli (Escarole and White Beans)

I could walk for days in Napoli.  Down the Pedementina stairs, past the Pignasecca market through the centro storico, under the streets and even out the city gates.  As I walk, I smell the town.  It is easy to detect who is making stuffed peppers or Genovese or friarielli.  Sometimes I wonder if I hang around below a barred apartment window for long enough whether an ancient nonna in house slippers and curlers might invite me for luncheon.  Mercifully, I still retain a few shreds of dignity and have thusly not allowed this to happen.  YET.

New Years in Naples and the Amalfi Coast

There are some things you should know before spending New Years Eve in Naples or the Amalfi Coast.  First, Neapolitans like to throw things--- lots of breakable things. When the clock strikes midnight toilets, teacups and everything in between are ritualistically thrown out of windows into heaps and heaps of shattered glass, porcelain and general flying shrapnel.  Second, on New Years Eve we wear red underpants.  And third, be prepared for a wild ride because in a town where breaking champagne magnums and then sporting red lingerie is par for the course, anything—AND I MEAN ANYTHING can happen.  The Amalfi Coast is only slightly tamer than Naples.  But it is still raucous, rollicking and fabulous in ways only the South of Italy can be at party times.  For your reading leisure (and preparation), I have listed the top five New Years traditions in Naples and the Amalfi Coast below. 

Christmas Cooking in Naples

The Christmas meal in Naples and the province of Campania is a three-day marathon of eating.  There is no way out of it.  If you are invited to the home of a Neapolitan friend just beware—the antipasti is exactly that, just the first dish in a long series of many.  Christmas Eve is all about Fish.  The meal starts around 8PM and lasts late into the night.  Some families attend midnight mass and many children receive their gifts at midnight.  Baby Jesus also arrives in his nativity manger at this time.

 

Christmas Day is for Minestra Maritata, a slow cooked broth with winter greens.  Finally December 26th is St. Stephens Day.  For most families, this means leftovers.  While you may not be in Italy for the holidays this year, you can certainly cook like a Neapolitan with this recipe guide. 

Baccalà Fritto (Fried Cod)

Christmas Eve in Naples is all about fish and lots of it.  While this whole concept of seven fish seems to be distinctly and Italian American thing, we do eat fish in its myriad forms on Christmas Eve.  The logic for this being that we should be abstaining from meat to recall the birth of Jesus.  Obviously gavaging ourselves with 15 kilos of seafood should really do the trick. 

The most common dishes on Christmas Eve often include antipasti of marinated and fried fish, kelp fritter and maybe just a touch of good mozzarella (Although not all on the same plate. Fish + Cheese = BAD in Italy).  For primi we often have Spaghetti all Vongole (Spaghetti with Clams) or Risotto al Pescatore (Seafood Risotto).  

For main dishes or secondi, we enjoy fish both baked and fried.  Generally we bake Orata, Brazino or Spigola (Sea Bass) aqua pazza style with tomatoes, parsley, garlic and olive oil.  And then comes the fried fish.  After soaking salt cod for days, we pat, flour and deep fry.

Struffoli

I have a new hat. It is prominent, synthetic and furry.  Last week when I ventured to Ravello for a concert I felt rather chilled so I bought this arguably monstrous capper.  It has the overall effect of making me look like a cross between Anna Karenina and the Baal Shem Tov.  There are a few reasons I like to where this cap. 

Five Unforgettable Views on the Gulf of Sorrento

There’s a reason one of Italy’s most famous songs is called Turna a Sorriento—Return to Sorrento.  The contrast between jagged mountains of Sorrento and her sparkling seas below is simply irresistible. So much so that it causes one to euphorically burst into song. Walking along the promenades of Sorrento, the trails of Sant’Agata and the marinas of Massa Lubrense make one appreciate the juxtaposition of mare and monti here.  There is something bewitching about this region.  Perhaps that’s why legend suggests this is where the sirens attempted to ensnare Ulysses with their dulcet voices.  This is siren country.  This is Sorrento.  These are our favorite views. 

Torrone dei Morti

On November 2nd, we make Torrone dei Morti, a kind of dark chocolate fudge throughout the region of Campania.  According to old legend, this chocolate treat makes an unbearable day of remembering our departed slightly more tolerable.  It is shaped into one long rectangle that is reminiscent of a bone, a dead body or a coffin.  Today young lovers exchange Torrone on November 2nd as one might exchange chocolate hearts on Valentines Day. 

There are also hazelnuts in this chocolate fudge.  Some people say the crunch of the hazelnuts is reminiscent of bones.  I don’t know how I feel about this textural metaphor, but whatever works.  I suppose the point is mainly to treat death with practiced nonchalance so that we ritualistically unafraid.  Neapolitans are comically fatalistic.  They also love sweets.  It is only natural that Torrone would result.    I enjoy making Torrone because in a strange way it reminds me of all that chocolate I once ate with Antonietta. 

Five Essential Walks in Naples

Every walk in Napoli is new. There are religious curios encrusted into old tuffo walls, charismatic shrines to the football star Maradona and a lot of wildly indecent graffiti.  Today for example, I noticed this sloppily spray painted inspirational quote on the back of Federico II’s Political Science Faculty “Don’t let a perfectly good day ruin your life of shit!”  Thanks Napoli. I won’t!

Walking in Napoli requires a sense of curiosity and humor.  Turn off your phone.  Forget about Google Maps. Stroll, smell a simmering tomato sauce, listen to children screaming at their nonnas that they don’t want pasta and beans for lunch…. All in day’s walk.