When in Napoli you have to go on a food tour, to delight your taste buds with all the flavours the local cuisine has to offer. And this is exactly what I did last weekend, when I visited the Amalfi Coast for my birthday, and spent a day in Napoli as well. I have been in this area before, a few years ago, and I remember how I ate my way following via Toledo, from Piazza Dante to Castel dell’Ovo. I started with gelato and continued with cannoli, cassata, sfogliatelle, baba and God knows what more, until I couldn’t eat anymore.
So, before I arrived to Napoli I searched on TripAdvisor for a food tour, and I found one with great reviews and a cheap price as well. I am used with food tours to be closer to 100 euros, but this one was only 35, and oh boy, it did not disappoint. You can book it here on Tripadvisor or here from Get Your Guide. It’s the same tour. 🙂
The tour started at 6pm in Piazza Dante, and the group was medium sized. Besides the food tastings we also got a history lesson about the city and did a bit of walking into the historical centre of the city, where our guide Alex explained more about the local traditions and architecture. If you have only one day to spend in Napoli, I do recommend taking this tour either for lunch or for dinner, you won’t regret it.
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A little bit about the Neapolitan food
I guess you could say that Napoli is the “bad boy” of Italy: chaotic, dirty, loud. Many people avoid visiting Napoli, fearing that they will be robbed. Seeing military with machine guns on the streets doesn’t really give you a settling feeling. But Napoli is also the charming, romantic city, with its Mergellina stretching alongside the sea and views over Vesuvius. Napoli is a labyrinth of narrow streets shaded by tall buildings, with churches at every corner – even 5 on the same street! Napoli has some of the most friendly and helpful people I have met during all my (probably over 30) trips to Italy. And the food… oh my God… the food! If you give Napoli a chance, there is no way you can’t irremediably fall in love with it!
If you are undecided on where to stay in Napoli, check out Terrazza Partenopea. I was very happy with my stay here. It’s just off Via Toledo in the Spanish Quarters and it has a terrace with beautiful views over the city. The room was very clean, spacious and comfortable, with a big bath tub at the end of the bed, perfect to relax in after a day of walking. The breakfast was amazing, with probably over 10 different types of cakes to choose from. There is an elevator as well, so you don’t have to carry your luggage up the stairs. You can check the latest rates on Booking.com. I paid 64 euros a night for a junior suite.
Campania has always been a poor region of Italy, and this is reflected very well in the food: simple dishes, based on fresh ingredients such as vegetables and fish. But let’s not forget that one of the biggest assets the region has is Vesuvius volcano, which covered Pompeii with its ashes in 79AD. Why am I mentioning Vesuvius when I talk about food? It’s simple, because on its volcanic soil grow the most delicious and flavoursome tomatoes in Italy. Other vegetables that you will find very often used in the local cuisine are the aubergines, peppers and zucchini. In fact, if you travel to Napoli in spring and in summer, don’t miss the fried zucchini flowers. I like them filled with ricotta and sundried tomatoes, but originally you eat them simple, just fried. I swear, they are one of the best appetisers I have ever had.
Of course, we can’t talk about the Neapolitan cuisine and not mention pizza. In fact, here is where pizza was born and I am pretty sure that you can’t really find bad pizza anywhere in the city. You should know that Neapolitans are very proud cooks as well, and you should never order extras, such as cheese, on top of your pizza. Mozzarella di bufala is another local product and because it is fresh, it’s so much different than the packed one you are used to at home. Ordering extra on your pizza apparently can get the cook come out of the kitchen, as our guide mentioned. Joke or not, better not upset the chef. ?
In the Neapolitan cuisine the focus is all on flavours. You can try to cook the recipes at home, but without the fresh ingredients grown in Campania, you won’t manage to replicate the same taste.
We started our tour with a classic: the marinara, which is the simplest type of pizza you will find in Italy. The pizza base is layered with Marinara sauce, seasoned with garlic and oregano, and then baked in the wooden oven. As mentioned in the introduction, the tomatoes in Campania are probably the best in the entire country, due to the volcanic soil they grow on. So no wonder that the marinara sauce is enough to top a delicious pizza. In the past, the Marinara pizza was considered a poor man’s dish, often eaten by the sailors stopping into Napoli harbour.
Mozzarella di bufala and local charcuterie
Our second stop was at this tiny shop, just off Via dei Tribunali, where the owner was waiting for us with the table set and wonderful platters of mozzarella di bufala and a selection of local hams and salami.
Did you know that the bufala mozzarella is made in the morning, and usually by evening is already past it’s lifetime? This is why it’s usually eaten at lunch and cooked with for dinner. You might be surprised by what I am going to say next, as you have all probably eaten and cooked with packed mozzarella before. The Mozzarella di Bufala Campana has a protected DOC status and it is soft, very milky, with a semi-elastic texture when you chew it. When you eat it fresh, you will need napkins, as milk will be dripping out of it. If you want to taste the real mozzarella, take a trip to Napoli! ?
The selection of charcuterie was all local and included mortadella, salami, pancetta and prosciutto crudo. It was so good that I returned the next day to buy some more Napoletan treats, as the tiny salumeria shop sells all sorts of local products, such as pistachio cooking cream, spice mixes for pasta and risotto, etc.
The taralli are South Italy’s take on crackers. You will be served taralli as an accompaniment to your beer or wine, but you can also buy them fresh from pastry shops, to snack on while you walk around the city. They have the same texture as a breadstick but are thicker and harder. There are two different types of taralli, sweet and savoury. We have tried the savoury ones, which were warm and crumbly, topped with fennel seeds and black pepper.
Limoncello and lemon biscuits
Half way through the tour our bellies were already full, so we stopped for a little digestive: limoncello, the typical lemon liquor of Italy. The little limoncello factory is surprisingly right in the middle of the historic centre of Napoli, and uses the lemons from their own plantation, in the nearby hills of Vesuvius, Campi Flegrei. The lemons are grown without using any chemicals, are harvested without using machines and peeled one by one, by hand.
The factory is quite small but is situated on the foundations of the Dioscuri’s temple, just above the underground tanks of a Greek-Roman aqueduct. It is open for visits, and the ticket costs 3 euros, including a glass of limoncello. To make limoncello they only use the skin of the lemons, and with the flesh they make all sorts of other delicacies, such as cakes, biscuits, chocolate and even pasta!
I have to admit that I did hear about the Italian frittata before, but I have never tried it. I have never seen it on a menu and last time I explored the streets of Napoli I didn’t come across it at any shop. A friend of mine who lives in the city told me that it’s the sort of comfort food that Italians usually make at home, so I was glad when our guide, Alex, came with a box filled with round fried squashed patties. The Italian frittata is made out of leftover pasta mixed with scrambled eggs and cheese, and then fried on both sides in the pan. It tastes like…. Deep fried mac and cheese, it’s very gooey on the inside and firm on the outside. I could have gone for seconds if Alex wasn’t just coming from around the corner with three boxes of pizza margherita, just taken out of the oven.
Did you know that pizza has Greek origins? In the past, Napoli was an important port for the Greeks to stop over on their way back to their country. They bought with them the pitta bread, and the locals have adopted it into the culinary culture, calling it “pizza”. Fast forwarding, in 1889, queen Margherita of Savoy asked for a pizza to be created to resemble the colours of the Italian flag, white, red and green, honouring the Italian unification. And this is how pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito created the Margherita pizza, with mozzarella (white), tomatoes (red) and basil (green), dedicated and named after the queen of Savoy.
Are you one of those people who, when looking over a pizza menu, order the one which has the most ingredients? I used to do this before I travelled to Italy for the first time and discovered how much flavour can a 3 ingredients pizza have. The secret of the Neapolitan pizza is not only the use of the freshest ingredients, but also the dough. A good pizza will be cooked in a wood-fired oven for 90 seconds, not longer. The base will be soft but not soggy, and when you eat the pizza, you won’t feel it heavy in your stomach.
It might not be Neapolitan, but espresso is drank differently in Napoli than in the rest of Italy. If you have travelled to Italy you will know that people usually take their coffee in the morning at a local Bar, standing up. It only takes a couple of minutes to drink the coffee and be on their way to work, so the entire experience is very fast. Together with the espresso, you will receive a glass of water as well. Well, whilst in the rest of Italy the glass of water is for after the coffee, in Napoli is the other way around. Here, you have to drink the water first, to clean your palette, and then proceed with the espresso, so that its taste will stay with you the entire day. If you drink the water after your coffee, the barista will think he did a bad job and you didn’t like the espresso.
Don’t forget, when ordering coffee in Italy, never go for cappuccino after 11AM!
Of course that the food tour had to finish with gelato! We got to choose two different flavours of this delicious Italian sweet. And no, gelato is not ice cream! I usually go for pistachio and amarena combination, but this particular shop didn’t have the latest, so I went for lemon (as I just returned from Sorrento that morning). Another tip that Alex shared with us was how to know if the gelateria you are buying gelato from is a good one. Look at the pistachio gelato: if it’s bright green, pass! Pistachio gelato, made out of real pistachios, is not bright green, but slightly light maroon.
There are two desserts that have not been included in the tour, but you should definitely have to try whilst on a foodie quest in Napoli. These are the babà and the sfogliatella.
You will find the best sfogliatella in Napoli on the corner of Galleria Umberto with via Toledo. Right at the entrance there is a small pastry stand which you can’t miss, as there are always people in the queue. But when I say queue, don’t imagine a civilized person after person kind of a line, but a chaotic mess where everyone pushes to get in front and place their orders. So do the same, find an empty space and push yourself towards the front, with the exact change in your hand, saying loud “sfoglia riccia, per favore!”. I promise you, it will be the best sfogliatella you will ever have. But what is a sfogliatella, you may ask? The answer is, pretty much the heaven of all pastry! Crunchy on the outside, this small shell-shaped dessert is formed out of layers and layers of perfectly crispy puff pastry, filled with the most delicate ricotta mixed with semolina, sugar, eggs, lemon zest and candied fruits.
As there is always a queue at Sfogliatella Mary Pasticeria, the pastry is always warm, just taken out of the oven. Definitely a must try when you are in Napoli!
Babà al rum
Another delicious treat which is not included in the tour but which you should definitely try is the babà al rum, a traditional sponge cake soaked in a sugar and rum syrup for 48 hours. You can also find it in a more refreshing version, soaked in limoncello instead of rum. You will find it everywhere in Napoli, but don’t get fooled by the fancy appearances. The babà has the shape of a mushroom and sometimes it’s served with cream and berries, it’s not a fancy dessert but it tastes delicious. When you buy it, make sure it’s not dry but not over soaked either.
Explore Napoli with Lonely Planet, my preferred travel guide book
Did you go to Napoli and tasted the food? What was your favorite? If you didn’t, what would you like to try first when visiting Napoli?
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