My wife and I spent a few days at my parent’s house. We arrived at lunchtime, and for people that know me, that is my favorite part of the day. It was time to prove my wife why Italian food is the best in the world.
At home, my parents had prepared a traditional Neapolitan lunch. Freshly made pane cafone – the traditional Neapolitan bread. Made from natural yeast and cooked in a wooden fired oven.
When in Napoli, ask to try it, it is exquisite with a bit of olive oil. Sitting by the bread there she was…the queen of the table – the Mozzarella di Bufala Campana.
As my wife took her first bite, I knew that from that day on she would have never again called a mozzarella: cheese.
A note for Londoners and New Yorkers, do not store the mozzarella in the fridge. She has to be enjoyed at room temperature, whilst milk drops from her side. No topping allowed.
The mozzarella was served with a delicious thinly sliced San Daniele Ham and Neapolitan Salami. As I enjoyed the last bite of that amazing antipasto, my mum dropped a Spaghetti alle vongole (Spaghetti and clams) in front of me.
The latter tasted like the Mediterranean Sea. The pasta was al dente – Neapolitans do not tolerate softer pasta. It was from Gragnano, a town on the outskirts of Napoli. Their pasta is made of durum wheat, as opposed to softer one. It is worth a try for any pasta lover.
With our lunch, we had a wine from the Feudi di San Gregorio. This vineyard pioneered Campania’s wines, which until the nineties has little exposure to the outside world. Their best wines are the Fiano, Greco di Tufo, Falanghina and the Aglianico. Anyone passionate about wine should take some time to visit the Irpinia region. It is one hour away from Napoli and a great place to discover and enjoy sublime wines. Some vineyards are still run by old school farmers.
Time seems to have stopped out there.
To conclude our lunch, we had a Limoncello from Sorrento and a Neapolitan Espresso- using a traditional Moka; coffee in new machines is not the same. If you visit Napoli, you have to understand that for Neapolitans coffee is more than just a drink. It has an old heritage and precise customs.
Coffee in Napoli is not on the go. Coffee is not taken whilst seated – unless you are at home. You drink a coffee standing up at the counter of a bar. Before drinking a coffee, a barista (bartender) will give you a cup of water. The water is for rinsing one’s mouth, in order to better taste the coffee afterwards. The coffee is served as a 3cs come cazz coce (how the hell does it burn). If the cup does not burn, well it is not a real Neapolitan coffee.
My wife nearly split the whole cup on her first attempt. Coffee is not measured in small, medium, large, one shot or two shots. All you have to say to the barista is “un espresso perfavore” (one espresso please); he’ll do the rest.
Luciano De Crescenzo- one of my favorite Neapolitan writers – goes beyond when he conveys the history of coffee in Napoli. He writes “Back in the days, the tradition of the caffe sospeso existed in Napoli. Wealthy individuals used to pay the barista for extra coffees. Later in the day, anyone who was worse off could enjoy an already paid caffe sospeso”.
As for my parents, they are both great cooks, and they work perfectly together. Dad is usually the head chef – it is not unusual for an Italian man to love cooking- and my mum is the sous chef. If you love Neapolitan cuisine as I do, Chef Cannavacciulo’s book is a must to read – he is originally from the Amalfi coast.
We spent the next few days discovering Napoli. It is really unfortunate that tourists generally avoid the city. Once landed, they travel directly to the Amalfi coast and the islands. The city is accused of being dangerous. Well, every big city can be dangerous. You just have to be careful. Napoli has, in fact, a lot to offer.
We started our trip from via San Gregorio Armeno. A must see if you visit Napoli. It is part of the old city. The road is famous for its presepi (native scenes), manufactured by hand by the local workshops. Close by you will find the Basilica of San Gennaro, the patron of the city.
The Basilica houses the blood of San Gennaro, which is brought out twice a year – on the first Saturday of May and on the 19th of September. If the blood fails to liquefy, the legend goes that a disaster will hit the city. Neapolitan’s faith is a mix of superstition and Christianity.
As we moved on we reached the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) in Piazza Plebiscito – the home of the Spanish Borbones. Napoli was under the Spanish influence for many years; the crazy way we live is a clear example of it. Our dialect has also words that we borrowed from the Spaniards.
Napoli reached its cultural pinnacle during the Borbone’s influence. Some Neapolitan mesmerizing on our wealthy past, still wish the Borbones would return – that tells you a lot about Italians as one nation. We passed by via Chiaia – our 5th Avenue – and ended up at a small pizzeria facing the Castel dell’ Ovo and the Mediterranean Sea.
On a clear day, you can see Capri and Ischia – it is a beautiful scene.
I had narrated tales of the Neapolitan pizza to my wife, now it was time for her to try it. The Margherita is probably Neapolitan’s greatest creation. Cooked in a wood-fired oven, the Margherita was made for the first time in 1889 by Raffaele Esposito in honor of queen Margherita of Savoy – hence the name Margherita. Thin in the middle, high on the side, tomato sauce, little olive oil, mozzarella di bufata, a leaf of basel and voila’.
We watched the sunset on the Mediterranean Sea. Around us there were kids running around, a waiter shouting, scooters parked on the sidewalk. There was confusion, but in a peaceful way. Because that is how Napoli was meant to be. An interesting mix of love, beauty, confusion and sadness.
In that moment I felt home, and thought back on a famous quote from Totò – the acclaimed Neapolitan artist – “See Napoli then die”….
To be continued…
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