No Italian city’s culinary offerings can be summed up in three dishes – believe me, I know this. But when travelers have only a limited amount of time to visit, it’s important to make sure the absolutely-can-not-miss dishes are at the tippy-top of your dining priority list.
This, therefore, is my attempt to guide you toward the quintessential dishes of Naples.
I am, obviously, leaving out a million amazing things to eat in Naples. Hearty polpette, rich and flavorful (and never served over spaghetti). Any number of “cucina povera” pasta dishes, from pasta e fagioli to pasta alla puttanesca. Sticky sweet baba al rhum cakes. And the coffee – can we talk about Neapolitan coffee? (Another time, perhaps.) Yes, I’m leaving plenty of deliciousness out, but eating in Italy is like sightseeing in Italy – you can’t do it all in one trip.
With this list of three things you must try in Naples, at least you’ll be well on your way to having three memorable culinary moments during your stay in Naples.
You really don’t need me to tell you to eat pizza in Naples, right? Right. This is, after all, the city where pizza was born.
(At least according to most scholars. Not all, but most.)
The story goes that the pizza we know and devour today comes from some traditional flatbread recipes that were prepared in Naples in the 18th century. Even up until the early 1800s, pizza was a street food, sold from the 19th-century equivalent of a food cart. In 1889, Queen Margherita was to visit Naples, and a Neapolitan pizzaiolo created a pizza in her honor with the colors of the Italian flag – tomato sauce for the red band, fresh mozzarella cheese for the white band, and leaves of fresh basil for the green band.
And a legend was born.
Today, there is a consortium in Naples that makes sure pizza makers are using only certain (read: approved) ingredients and preparation methods (otherwise they can’t call their pizzas authentically Neapolitan). Outside any pizzeria that’s been approved by the consortium, you’ll see a sign that reads “Vera Pizza Napoletana” (true Neapolitan pizza) with the symbol of the Pulcinella figure (he looks a bit like a court jester, all in white and wearing a black mask) holding a pizza peel.
To be perfectly honest, while I’ve had some delicious pizzas in Naples with all sorts of different toppings, my very favorite – and the standard by which I judge a pizzeria – is a humble pizza Margherita (preferably with mozzarella di bufala). When a pizzeria makes a culinary symphony from such a short list of simple ingredients, I know they’re worthy of praise.
As an aside, I may need to write a completely separate article on eating an authentic Neapolitan pizza, but for now let me just say that if you’re accustomed to slicing pizza into triangles and picking them up to eat them… You won’t do that with pizza in Naples. These pizzas are sort of (for lack of a better term) soupy in the middle from the sauce and cheese (that’s a good thing, despite how I’m making it sound), so they’re eaten with a knife and fork. Also, pizzas are basically single-serving. Each person typically orders his or her own, and that’s dinner.
One of the things I love about eating in Italy is how healthy it tends to be. Seasonal ingredients, lots of fresh vegetables, olive oil in place of butter, sensible portion sizes – healthy food tastes so great in Italy, you almost forget the stuff you ate back home.
And then there’s Naples, where they’ll deep fry just about anything.
Fritti (fried things) are found both in restaurants and as street food. You can pick up a little paper bag of fried veggies, fish, and even cheese to munch on with friends in the piazza, nibbling on a snack to tide you over until dinner, or you can order a plate of fritto misto di mare (mixed fried seafood*) as your main course at dinner.
Neapolitans are so fond of fried food that they’ll even deep-fry their famous pizza dough.
Many authentic pizza places in Naples double as fritti vendors, so look for crowds outside a restaurant at midday – you’ll often find that there’s a display case of fried goodies (or items waiting to be ordered and then fried). It’s a cheap snack and, depending on the season, may include such items as deep-fried squash blossoms (filled with cheese and/or an anchovy).
I am such a pizza lover that I rarely deviate from my pizza diet when in Naples, but I always make room for fritti.
I have a fondness for Italian foodstuffs that are also fun to say, and sfogliatella absolutely falls into that category. The bonus is that it’s also a sweet, delicious pastry treat.
The sfogliatella (pronounced svol|yah|TELL|ah) is a shell-shaped pastry about the size of the palm of your hand. There are two versions. One has a smooth exterior (sfogliatella frolla), and on the other you can see the many layers of flaky dough (sfogliatella riccia). The former is easier to make, the latter is prettier (in my opinion). In both cases, the pastry is typically filled with a sweetened ricotta or almond paste.
The origin of the sfogliatella is actually closer to Salerno at the Santa Rosa monastery, but it’s been a signature pastry of Naples since the early 19th century.
My first impression when I was handed the sfogliatella I had ordered at the pastry counter? “Holy wow, this thing is way heavier than it looks!” In other words, this is the polar opposite of that light and airy cornetto you had for breakfast. These things are much more filling, so keep that in mind if you grab one in the afternoon thinking you’ll still have plenty of room for dinner.
Tell me, what three things would be on your must-eat list in Naples? What three things are you most excited about tasting when you go to Naples?
* If you need a break from pizza (what??!?) that isn’t deep-fried, note that Naples tends to be more seafood-centric than meat-centric. Spaghetti con le vongole (with clams) is common, as is a seafood risotto called risotto alla pescatora. Mussels (cozze) are also popular, though I’m not a fan of mussels, so I can’t vouch for the Neapolitan version.