Naples used to have a terrible reputation. They'd steal your wallet, your luggage, your car. Now they just steal your heart. I go there whenever I need to escape Tuscany and the conservative Florentines. Naples is the Italy I sought when I moved to this country 30 years ago, with the kind of food I always dreamed about. Volcanic soil (twin-peaked Mount Vesuvius is never far from view), sun, and sea are what make the cuisine of Campania—and of Naples, its capital—so extraordinary. Tomatoes, still warm from the vine, explode with flavor. Buffalo mozzarella oozes whey when sliced. Fish is redolent of the sea. Even the simplest dishes taste better here than they do elsewhere. Pasta is more al dente, tomato sauce—infused with sweet basil—is never bland, white wine seems to evaporate from the bottle. I have a theory that the magnetic energy of the volcano is what makes everything so good. Perhaps it's that same energy that draws me back to Napoli year after year. Below, a guide to my 16 favorite places to eat.
Naples has the kind of old-fashioned trattorias that are harder and harder to find in Italy. Fish such as pezzogna (blue-spotted bream), spigola (sea bass), orata (gilthead), and rombo (turbot) are served grilled or poached. Rare vegetables abound: several types of broccoli leaves, unusual sweet peppers, spicy wild arugula, delicate green zucchini flowers. Though most restaurants have menus, Neapolitans never use them. Trust the host to bring you what's best that day.
The two comfortable rooms at Europeo are packed with people dining on delicious pizza and simple dishes such as country-style legume and pasta soups. Let the host, Alfonso Mattozzi, guide you through the seasonal specialties, but don't skip the salad of semi-ripe tomatoes with oregano and celery. Local tomatoes have enough acidity that the only dressing required is a splash of extra virgin olive oil. Another standout is the flawlessly prepared spaghetti with tender mussels and zucchini flowers—Campania is the only place I've ever found this dish.
Chef Mario Avallone spent 10 years in Sicily, and his menu at La Stanza del Gusto reflects it. He uses currants, plenty of garlic, and seasonal vegetables like wild fennel greens for his rich, characteristically southern cuisine. Order a three- or five-course tasting menu paired with wines from Puglia, but save room for the superb artisanal cheese course.
Osteria da Dora selects the best fish and seafood and then does as little as possible to it. From the street, you can watch whole fish being cooked on an open-air charcoal grill. Start with sweet langoustines or a dozen raw tartufi di mare, tiny clams served on their ridged shells. Don't bother asking for lemon; Neapolitans believe it's used only to mask inferior seafood. Follow up with deep-fried raschetelle (squidlets the size of a fingernail), so crisp yet tender that one order may not be enough. If you stay late you'll be serenaded by Consiglia, the singing waitress, accompanied by guitarist Roberto.
The view from the terrace at Rosiello—the sea, the island of Capri, and owner Salvatore Varriale's lush garden and vineyard—is a major distraction from the sparkling dishes served there. Linguine with house-cured sea-bass roe (bottarga) is delicious and mild. The briny flavor of cicala, a native flat lobster, is best alongside Salvatore's homegrown vegetables. Don't miss his sister Carmela's apricot tart or sanguinaccio (chocolate pudding) with candied lemon.