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.
Alfonso Gallotti bills the food at Taverna dell'Arte as Neapolitan peasant cooking. Meals—fried ricotta, cured pork, lentil and chestnut soup, sausage stuffed with mozzarella and tomato—are certainly rustic. The authenticity of the palate-cleansing basil granita before desserts such as torta caprese (chocolate almond cake) is debatable, but I'd be the last to complain.
Coffee and Dessert
Traditionalists insist on caffè made with a three-piece Neapolitan pot, with its boil, flip, and drip method of brewing. Stop in at Gran Caffè La Caffettiera or Gran Caffè Gambrinus, both chic places to be seen drinking an espresso or a cocktail before dinner. Those who add milk to their coffee after 10 a.m. will not be taken seriously.
Visitors with a sweet tooth should be warned: Naples is a dangerous place. Try the two types of sfogliatelle pastry: riccia (crisp layers of flour, water, and lard) and frolla (flour, sugar, and butter), filled with sweetened ricotta and candied fruit, at Carraturo, near the train station.
The most stellar gelato in town is dished out at Otranto, where Ciro Otranto makes all his ice creams—pistachio, coffee, almost-black chocolate, hazelnut—from scratch. The flavors are the most intense I've ever had and are worth every calorie.
If you're looking for something more thirst-quenching than coffee, spend a day walking the city's tree-lined strade and tasting the offerings from the street stalls and neighborhood vendors. Try just-squeezed lemon or orange juice and mineral water at a banco dell'acqua stand or seasonal fruit frullati (smoothies) from Chiquitos, a kiosk that specializes in macedonia di frutta (fruit salad).
Only the intrepid should order the Neapolitan fishermen's breakfast (octopus broth) at Da Tonino. Pay extra for a ranf e' purpa, or tentacle.
Taralli—tender, twisted rings of dough flavored with pepper and almonds—are an addictive snack, the Italian equivalent of pretzels. I always stop by Tarallificio Leopoldo and bring a bag home as a Proustian reminder of my trip.
Faith Willinger is a cookbook author and food writer living in Florence.
Making the Rounds: Pizza
Pizza originated in Naples and is delicious here. Perhaps it's the traditional domed wood-burning ovens, which heat up to more than 600 degrees and bake the pizza in less than 90 seconds. Perhaps it's the neon-ringed shrines to Saint Anthony (the bakers' patron) near most pizza ovens—Neapolitans are relentlessly superstitious. The crust here is thicker and more doughy than crisp northern-style pizza, because it's patted flat by hand rather than rolled out. I like the margherita (tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil), but purists insist on the cheeseless marinara (tomato sauce, oregano, and garlic). The right way to eat pizza: cut a wedge and, beginning at the point, roll it up. Then cut across the roll, impale on a fork, and eat. Some pizzerias even provide special knives that have their tips lopped off at an angle and sharpened to facilitate the process.
My favorite pizzeria is Cafasso, in the Fuorigrotta area. It's always busy, and the pie is excellent. It's the ideal combination of a chewy, almost burnt crust with a light coating of San Marzano canned tomato purée. Also on the menu are deep-fried dishes such as crocché (potato croquettes) and pizza fritta (dough folded in half around ricotta and salami). • For a truly authentic (if rather down-at-the-heels) experience, try Pizzeria Addò Riccio, in Sanità. The menu is written on a black board on the wall. Check the refrigerator for beer or soft drinks (try San Pellegrino Aranciata Amara, a bitter orange soda), and snack on deep-fried migliacelli (cheese and prosciutto-studded semolina patties) or arancini rice balls before the main event: crisp pizza that rivals that of Cafasso. Pizzaiolo (pizza maker) Enrico Fiorenzo will call you a taxi when you're ready to leave. • Ciro a Santa Brigida makes tasty pizza, using buffalo mozzarella on its margherita. Plus, unlike most pizzerias, it takes reservations.
Europeo Dinner for two $58. 4-8 Via Marchese Campodisola; 39-081/552-1323
La Stanza del Gusto Dinner for two $87. 21 Vicoletto Sant'Arpino; 39-081/401-578
Osteria da Dora Dinner for two $90. 30 Via Ferdinando Palasciano; 39-081/680-519
Rosiello Dinner for two $90. 10 Via Santo Strato; 39-081/769-1288
Taverna dell'Arte Dinner for two $50. 1A Rampe San Giovanni Maggiore; 39-081/552-7558
Cafasso Dinner for two $30. 156-158 Via Giulio Cesare; 39-081/239-5281
Pizzeria Addò Riccio Dinner for two $23. 46-47 Via Fontanelle; 39-081/544-6292
Ciro a Santa Brigida Dinner for two $68. 71-74 Via Santa Brigida; 39-081/552-4072
COFFEE AND DESSERT
Gran Caffè La Caffettiera 30 Piazza dei Martiri; 39-081/764-4243
Gran Caffè Gambrinus 1-2 Via Chiaia; 39-081/417-582
Carraturo 59 Corso Garibaldi; 39-081/554-5344
Otranto 78 Via Scarlatti; 39-081/558-7498
banco dell'acqua 61 Riviera di Chiaia; no phone
Chiquitos 2 Via Mergellina; no phone
Da Tonino 52 Via Alessandro Poerio; 39-081/201-121
Tarallificio Leopoldo 212 Via Foria; 39-081/451-166