Category Archives: Naples

Prawns of My Grandfather

Seafood and a Sunday Stroll Along Naples’ New Traffic-free Waterfront

Today I was stranded in Naples. A business trip to Puglia all Saturday kept me in town today and far away from Silvia, Sofia and Emily. There are worst fates, but even if

Castel dell’Ovo, Naples (Capri on the horizon)

I was the first civilian visitor to the moon if it was Sunday I would still rather be with them in Pescara biking along the Adriatic Sea towards pizzette at Trieste or just a ride over the pedestrian bridge to the sailboats docked on on the other side.

Hungry for family but nothing else I headed out this morning to explore the new traffic-free miles of Naples’s waterfront stretching from my apartment here towards Castel dell’Ovo on the island of Borgo Marinara. The waterfront is almost the same as has been for decades, what is new is what it is missing.

Traffic.

Naples traffic-less waterfront, from Via Partenope to Mergellina

Almost a month after this stretch of waterfront was closed to traffic to host the America’s Cup catamaran regattas, the sports villages and tents are gone but the city decided to keep the cars away anyway. It has caused the traffic to build up elsewhere but now Naples now has one of Europe’s longest and most beautiful downtown pedestrian rivieras. And it makes hanging along the seaside on Sunday a dream (and walking home from the office on a Tuesday evening a pleasure).

Neapolitan’s love their cars but those who live and work in this area are quickly catching on and the waterfront has come alive. With no plans for the day I set out along the 3-km (2miles) boulevard towards the Castle that has attracted four generations of my family to this city that too many people foolishly fear. It took over two hours with detours into the Villa Comunale park and a climb along the massive white stones of the Rotonda Diaz breakwater. Familes, groups of kids from elementary school to their twenties fooling around on the beach, couples hand-in-hand, families on rented rickshaws were all around me. I even passed a family taking first communion photos of their two young daughters in white dresses and flowers in their hair. About half way along a young man was on his knees, holding the hand of a young woman sitting on the wall, their forms so sweet and intense that even out the corner of my eye I knew he was proposing. So much everyday living theatre in this beautiful natural cinemascope soundstage.

La Scialuppa on Borgo Marinaio, Naples

As I walked over the bridge towards the castle, Ipassed the sailboats towards the restaurants in Borgo Marinaro the sounds of a jazz group was singing Italian and American standards between the the tables of the restaurants made the walk to my goal and the wait for my table that much more pleasant.

La Scialuppa is one of Naples’s oldest restaurants. Its menu says it’s been serving locals and travelers since the unification of Italy in 1860. My history with the place goes back two generations because my grandfather Richard (“Dick” to most of the people who knew him here in Italy) would always eat most of his meals in Naples when he came almost every spring for twenty years. I’m not even a smidgen Italian-american, but I grew up with his gifts and stories from Italy and Graka – our family name for him, is a big part why I’m here and who I am. And his meals and friendship with the Starita family that run the Scialuppa are part of those stories.

Paccheri con Polipetti e Gamberi (La Scialuppa, Naples)

While La Scialuppa is, as some critics accuse, also up-market draw for tourists staying in the hotels across the footbridge, it’s one that is easy to be drawn back to for the food, wine, and beauty of eating surrounded by sailboats under the shadow of a mediaeval castle. As you would expect for a restaurant in a place who’s name means “sailor town”, seafood is king on the menu. I resisted the urge for sautéed shellfish – not easy as mountainous plates passed by me as I sat down – and I went for paccheri (very large flat rings of pasta) with little octopus, shrimp and and baby tomatoes. As I dug in I remembered that growing up I would have never eaten anything with tentacles or an exoskeleton, now I love them, especially when washed down with their excellent house white wine. I followed with a plate of frittura di paranza (a random mix of small fried fish and squid), all of it fresh and tasty.

Frittura di paranza (La Scialuppa, Naples)

It’s also in the little things that La Scialuppa touches home – the bread basket included thick slices of neapolitan wood-oven pan cafone bread and neapolitan taralli (ring shaped hard bread that are a bit oilier than their counterparts in Puglia). The sorbetto, a champaign flute of a soft, frozen lemon concoction, hid wild strawberries (visible) and a hint of cedro (the big, sweet cousin of

Lemon sorbetto with wild strawberries

Sorbetto al limone con fragoli di bosco (La Scialuppa, Naples)

lemons and limes used in fancy perfumes).
And last but not least, I could leave thanking Salvatore, who still remembers when he was a little boy and my Graka – his “Dick Bell di Wauwatosa – would come to his father’s restaurant in the Spring.

Fragoline di bosco in sorbetto al limone (La Scialuppa, Naples)

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Meal’s end (La Scialuppa, Naples)

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A Slice of History – Pizza Where (They Say) it All Began

Enjoying the oldest tourist trap in naples.

There are two things that Neapolitans all seem to be experts on: espresso and pizza. I have known people from Naples who brought their own tap water north to Italy’s fashion capital because they were convinced that it’s just not the same without their water.

The water idea is a bit overblown, but in the right place, I have tasted some of the best espresso in the world here (Bar Mexico in Piazza Garibaldi across from the main train station is one of the best http://wp.me/pfkhI-70 ). The real question is, can we really tell the difference between an excellent neapolitan pizza and a sublimely excellent neapolitan pizza? And if we cant’ get the best, is it really such a tragedy to settle for excellent?

Pizza at Brandi......

For some people living under the shadow of Vesuvius, it is. Which is why they frown on Brandi.

Brandi, on a side street of via Chiaia, not far from the San Carlo opera house and the Royal Palace, claims to be the place that made the first pizza named for Queen Margaret of Savoy, Italy’s queen in 1889. The “pizza margherita” is pizza at it’s most basic and essential – dough, mozzarella, tomato sauce, a drop of oil and a few basil leaves to give it the three colors of the Italian flag. Choice ingredients are one of the reasons why it can be so good: buffalo mozzarella from the town of Aversa and tomatoes gown in soil embedded with volcanic ash from Vesuvius are a large part of it. The art of the the few pizzaioli (pizza-makers) who know the exact mixture of flour the best timing for the yeast according to the weather can take whole mix over the top to pizza heaven.

Pizza and fried antipasti at Brandi, Via chiaia

Brandi, despite the history, is not considered the pinnacle of pizzerie like olther famous places like Da Michele, Starita and Sorbillo by the pizza lovers I know here.

In fact, among many it’s reputation in town is not very good. It appears for years it rested on the laurels of history and the convenience of its location and forgot the pizza part. But other friends her have reminded me they got their act together and have talented pizza makers again.

Which is good because the last time my girls were in town with me we happened to be around the corner from Brandi in Piazza Plebiscito just when our sore feet and grumbling stomachs caught up to us. It was early – only 8 p.m. – so we were able to swing the impossible on a Saturday night: the last of the eight little tables outside on the street. We ordered a plate of fried antipasti and four Pizza Margheritas. The two old men singing and serenading the guests had the place as their official territory, making their presence more friendly and less imposing and, of course, we sang along. The atmosphere was both touristy and authentic, and above all fun.

PIzza Margherita yum

Were we missing the best pizzas the world has to offer? Probably. But as we nibbled away at our our excellent pizzas in the cool evening air, we really didn’t care.


Antica Pizzeria – Ristorante Brandi, Salita S. Anna di Palazzo (on the corner of via Chiaia) http://www.brandi.it, Tel 081- 416928
Brandi dates back to 1780, but under another name.

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Hard White Weat

See Naples, Eat Chocolate, and Die


What few people know Naples is famous for

The the names Gay and Odin seem more like a Broadway songwriting duo than a neapolitan culinary landmark, but within sight of Vesuvius the names are linked to some of the best chocolate you can find anywhere.
Chocolate Gelato in the Spaccanapoli
The first Gay – Odin shop I came upon is located around the corner form the Santa Chiara monastery along the Spaccanapoli, the historic street that slices the old part of this city in two. Gay – Odin has been renewing the art of chocolate making every day since. This year during the All Saints Holiday (the day after Halloween) Silvia, Sofia and Emily had come to Naples to explore with me and we had ventured off to the historical center to see if the creche markets around San Gregorio Armeno were already in full bloom. (They were.)

My mind was on getting to Scaturchio for coffee and a treat. We just had a nice lunch of Pasta alla Genovese (which in Naples is an onion sauce, not sweet basil) and I need both an espresso for the caffeine and maybe pastry (the usual baba or sfogliattella conundrum). We were almost there when Silvia and Emily made a detour, diving headfirst into the crowded little corner store.

They had found Gay – Odin.

The little shop, like many of Naples’s better chocolatiers or pastry shops is a feast for the eyes – from the art-deco sign and bars of chocolate with wrappers that reproduce their historic designs from the first half of the last century. Every little detail to remind you that this chocolate has been making mouths water in Naples for over 90 years.

Despite the autumn chill and pre-storm wind, most of the crowd was pressed up against the glass curve of the ice cream counter, and Silvia and Emily were in the thick of it (Sofia and I were waiting like sly hyenas out front. I was able to talk Silvia out of some of hers – an indescribable good dark chocolate and orange and dark chocolate and rum. Emily even let her older sister try some of hers – in part out of love, in part because she had also bought herself a handmade boero.

A boero is a dark chocolate ball around a chocolate mouse and liquid rum core. It is strongly suggested that you pop the whole thing in your mouth and don’t talk to anyone until it’s melted away or your risk dripping all over you shirt.

And as we pushed down the darkening street towards my espresso and San Gregorio Armeno’s manger statues, that is exactly what Emily did.

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The Gay – Odin shop we visited in Via Benedetto Croce 61, Naples (Italian only): http://www.gayodin.it/punti_dettaglio.php?id=9

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Coffee is King, Especially When He’s Got No Clothes

Coffee Consciousness V – Don’t hide what you love

I am not coffee purist, although I do love my coffee black and unsweetened – be it Neapolitan espresso or good American brew. I feel that if I don’t enjoy it straight up, I’m not fully qualified to comment on coffee that is doctored up with milk, sugar, chocolate or whatever else they are offering.

Espresso a Scaturcchio


It goes the other way around, too. My grandfather would alway say you could tell a good ice cream parlor by it’s coffee ice cream. If it tasted like good coffee, you could trust everything else they made.

Please don’t take this as yet another attack on that giant international coffee bar giant – that’s not my goal here. Even though I am very critical of the whole concept of the place, that did that did not stop my daughter Emily and I from enjoying a chocolate and coffee concoction at atrium to the Louvre this summer. Similarly, my love for locally grown and cooked Italian food does not stop me from getting my Big Mac fix about once a month. It’s benchmarking for research.

Espresso, again


So even though I usually prefer coffee straight up and black, there are times when you want something a little different. Since when in Italy drinking a cappuccino in the afternoon or evening will instantly brand you as American, I suggest ordering a marocchino or veneziano (“moroccan” or “venetian” – the name changes depends on the town or bar) will get you around this. Usually served in little glass mugs and poured so that the coffee, chocolate and foamed milk are layered, it’s the afternoon pick-me-up that won’t buy you amused looks when you order.

Even in the birthplace of espresso, coffee companies and bars are on the lookout for new ways to get you to drink more, and the veneziano has blossomed into scores of other versions. Adding other aromas like cinnamon and liquor like sambuca and grappa have been around for ages, but I believe that the coffee has to stand out. Coffee is still king.
As I write this I have the good fortune of getting to spend a lot of time in Naples for work. Naples is one of Italy’s hardest but most beautiful cities, surrounded by a coastline (Sorrento and the Amalfi coast) and islands (Capri, Ischia) that attract Hollywood movie stars. But tourists often shy away from the city – most recently because its trash collection problem makes the nightly news the world over.

Garbage is a problem, although not enough to keep you away. Same for traffic, inconvenient visiting hours, inefficient public transportation… what holds down the tourist in Italy is the same in Naples, but more so. But it goes the other way around too.

In need of Espresso, Scaturrchio & p.zza San Domenico Maggiore, Naples


This is also part of why so many other things in Naples – from the pizza to desserts to coffee – can be better than in the rest of the Boot. So after an afternoon of running along the Spaccanapoli from the cloister of Santa Chiara to the traditional crèche piece market at San Gregorio Armeno, you can feel a bit woozy. That’s when you can slip into Scaturchio, one of the city’s most famous cafes in piazza San Domenico Maggiore and a nice cup of black, bitter espresso brings you your own little cup of nirvana.

And if you need it sweet or alcoholic, try eating it with a sfogliatella or a babà. But that’s another story.

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Scaturchio (Italian only): http://www.scaturchio.it/home.htm

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Pizzette in the Land of Pizzelle

What to do in Pescara when it’s a sunny Saturday in November and you don’t want to get the dishes dirty

I’ve been spending most of the last few months in Naples, the city that gave pizza it’s name and fame, so it would appear odd that I’m writing about Pescara’s pizzette first.
The reason is simple, pizzette on the Adriatic coast are a part of the landscape, and at least from Vasto to Pescara, Numana, and Rimini a couple of oven-fresh pizzette have been part of my life for at least 20 years. And my main focus here is not cooking, or food, but life in Italy through an edible lense.
Pescara’s pizza are very different from their bigger neapolitan cousins – they are breadier, crunchier, oilier, they come out of modern (not wood) ovens in individual pans fused together by the dozen like a primordial cupcake pan. What they have in common is an unspiced tomatoe sauce in which you can still taste the sun, and dashes of mozzarella in which you can savour traces of fresh cream.

Pizzette in Pescara!

Pizzette in Pescara!


Until Pescara became our home, and not just a summer day-trip from L’Aquila, it’s unique pizzette were just a special prize after a relaxing post-afternoon swim.
The Trieste beach concession is by far the town’s most famous pizzetteria in town and they seem to excel in keeping summer alive in our tummies and our minds as we pass from one season to another. At least three times in the last month, if the sun is shining on our faces as we were leaving Sunday mass or picking up the girls after school on Saturday* we would magically forget that lunch was waiting for us at home and we would instead steer our bikes down the beach to the river that cuts this city in two. Like donkeys insisting on a rest they would brake in front of Trieste.

If it wasn’t for the long pants, coats and scarves it feels like it’s still Summer; the tables in front are full of people in sunglasses nibbling pizzette and watching their neighbors stroll by. In back it’s even more laid back, same sunglasses but they’re there to soak up what’s left of the afternoon sun. The plastic castles and mazes and swings are still mounted in the sand just behind, and the smaller clients are enjoying the giant plastic toys so much it makes me jealous.
One word of warning, I suspect that one of the secrets to Trieste’s pizzette is that they adhere to Henry Ford’s idea of customer satisfaction: you can have any pizzetta you want as long as it’s a margherita.** The menu does give other choices, basic white (foccaccia), white with sausage, anchovies, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, etc. Only the first two are real possibilities, but mostly in their inland evening joint in the Portanova dining and pub district..
If you really do insiste on anchovies they will make it for you but be willing to wait a while. Except, of course,during the summer; when the beach umbrellas are in full bloom they will look at you like you’re from Mars as they prepare racks and racks of margheritas for the throngs in sunscreen and flip-flops.
Trieste, however, is not about choice, it’s about instant gratification. If you want variety you can choose between wine or beer, Fanta or Coke, still water or bubbly water.
And trust me, the only real choice you will want to make as November’s last rays beat upon your brow, is if you will be eating two, or three, or four……

*In much of provincial Italy school goes from about 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
** Margheria = mozzarella and tomato sauce. Mr. Ford is famous for saying that his clients can have any color car they want as long as it was black.

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Espresso in Naples – Great Coffee in a Not So Great Area

Some Things Realy Are Better In the Shadow of Mount Vesuvius (Coffee Consciousness IV)

Italians believe in food, and Neapolitans are the true believers. Naples, as it has been for centuries, is a chaotic, bustling metropolis lining the Italian coastline, climbing over the bluffs above the bay. But, even in this crazy city you can find small corners of tranquility and solace –– almost always tied to something edible or, drinkable, like coffee. Expresso, to be exact.

I normally don’t trust restaurants near a big city’s central train station. These establishments are either soulless, standardized outposts of a branded chain or the sort of place that makes you wonder if you should disinfect the flatware as it’s laid out in front of you. But, last Monday night I was tired, and when the kind, small woman at the reception of my hotel told me that the place across the street was good, I decided to trust her. The kindness of strangers may be something to be wary of in the movies, but in southern Italy it is almost always a good thing. That, and that the place ––Trattoria Ettore –– had a few tables full of railway workers happily eating and laughing told me that I had made the right choice.

The crust of the pizza at Trattoria Ettorre’s was the perfect mix of chewy and tasty that has made Naples famous since Chef Rafaelle Esposito served the first “pizza margherita” to Queen Margherita of Savoy, when she was in town, in 1889. And, the lemon cake I had for dessert was fluffy and tasty. Paper thin slices of lemon skin decorated the chantilly cream on top, ensuring a light citrus scent with each forkful.

I have low expectations for coffee served in restaurants. There’s really nothing wrong with it ––industrial improvements in commercial coffee roasting and home espresso machines have made sure that coffee will usually be satisfactory. And, it is almost impossible to find bad coffee in Italy, but truly excellent coffee is found in bars, not restaurants

Although, not, it appeared, in Naples.

The tiny cup of espresso the tired looking, grey-haired man, in his timeless Italian waiter’s uniform, served me made time stop. Or, at least, move in slow motion. It wasn’t sugared (coffee, in Naples, is often served with the sugar already in the cup). Nor, was it bitter or acidic. It was so full-flavored; you could sense the taste of it with a wider part of the tongue. And, there was a hint of macadamia nut (part of the coffee, not an added spice). How could it be? They must have been cheating. Sure enough, as I left the restaurant, I noticed a small doorway to a very worn but traditional coffee bar next door. Mystery solved.

Coffee, or rather, espresso, is part of the fabric of Neapolitan society. Antonio, a friend from my studies in Venice, and my housemate when I first moved to Milan, was very, very attentive when he filled his Moka espresso pot.

On my way out of town the next day, I decided to test my luck. Across the square from my hotel a big orange sign read “Mexico.” With a sign like that it could only be a cheesy snack bar or a traditional espresso bar. The sun was as aggressively hot as the concrete jungle around the station, and I was feeling a bit too sweaty for coffee, but as I had survived the walk across the road, there was no turning back.

When I stepped inside I knew the bar was a promising place. Young men wearing the same uniforms, haircuts and chiseled expressions that their predecessors wore when the place opened decades before, worked behind the bar. Stainless steel and glass counters (worn but as shiny as when they were new) were probably the originals. Tins and foil blocks of ground coffee and beans lined the back wall ––the labels hadn’t changed for decades.

My espresso was even better than the night before. It was made with sugar, but the sugar was resting at the bottom, and not foamy like at St. Eustacchio’s in Rome. I drank it without mixing, then scooped up the coffee-soaked sugar crystal at the bottom of the cup with the demitasse spoon placed on the saucer for that purpose.
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They say that when you go to Rome, if you throw a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, you will return some day. When you leave Naples, have a wicked cup of espresso before you get on the train or plane. You’ll soon be dreaming of coming back for another cup. If you’re lucky, you will.

The Restaurant with bar is Bar Ristorante Ettorre, Piazza Garibaldi 95, Naples
Bar Mexico Henry Coffee is also in Piazza Garibaldi, but at 72 on the other side of the square.

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