Food has always been one of life's great pleasures for the Italians. This has been true even from the earliest days: To judge from the lifelike banquet scenes found in Etruscan tombs, the Etruscans loved food and took delight in enjoying it. The Romans became famous for their never-ending banquets and for their love of exotic and even decadent treats, such as flamingo tongues.
Much of Naples's cuisine (spaghetti with clam sauce, or with ragù [meat sauce], meatballs, pizzas, fried calamari, and so forth) is already familiar to North Americans because so many Neapolitans moved to the New World and opened restaurants. However, Campanian cuisine has a list of specialties that are much lesser known. Avellino, for example, has a number of unique dishes that come from the mountain tradition, such as those flavored with truffles, and the delicious cakes made with chestnuts. Benevento has a completely different cuisine, reflecting its distinct history -- it was part of the church's kingdom from the Renaissance onward -- and its strong Sannite heritage. Beneventan cuisine favors meat over fish and includes a large number of specialties made with pork and wild boar. Salerno is the homeland of mozzarella di bufala and the famous Amalfi lemons.
Dining in Campania
Dining hours tend to be later in Campania than in the United States and the U.K: Lunch is between 1:30 and 4pm and dinner between 8:30 and 11pm. Restaurants will rarely open before 12:30pm or 7:30pm, and often they'll only be setting up at that time.
Although you are not obliged to eat every course, the typical meal starts with an antipasto, or appetizer followed by a first course (primo) of pasta, or rice. This is then followed by a second course (secondo) of meat or fish, and/or a vegetable side dish or a salad (contorno). Italians will finish a meal with cheese (formaggio), or a piece of fruit (frutta), and, of course, caffè (coffee). They'll have dessert (dolce) only occasionally, often opting instead for a gelato at a nearby ice-cream parlor.
Note: Ordering a cappuccino after lunch or dinner is a social blunder: Cappuccino is a breakfast or midmorning drink. Also, know that a latte here is a glass of plain milk, not the milk and coffee concoction you are used to. For this, ask for a caffèlatte
Fast-food American style is replaced here by specialized restaurants that serve at the counter: Spaghetterie serve a large variety of pasta dishes, and they are usually youth-oriented hangouts; pizza a metro and pizza a taglio are casual pizza parlors where slices of pizza are sold by weight, with limited or nonexistent seating. A tavola calda (literally "hot table") serves ready-made hot foods you can take away or eat at one of the few small tables. A rosticceria is the same type of place; you'll see chickens roasting on a spit in the window. Friggitoria (frying shops) sell deep-fried vegetables, rice balls (arancini), and deep-fried calzone.
For a quick bite, you can also go to a bar. Although bars in Italy do serve alcohol, they function mainly as cafes. Al banco is the price you pay standing at the bar counter, while al tavolo means you are charged two to four times as much for sitting at a table where you'll be waited on. In bars, you can find local pastries, panino sandwiches on various kinds of rolls, and tramezzini (white-bread sandwich triangles with the crusts cut off). The sandwiches run from about 1€ to 3€ and are traditionally put in a press to flatten and toast them.
A pizzeria is a restaurant specializing in individual pizzas, usually cooked in wood-burning ovens. They will also sometimes serve pasta dishes, and, typically, the menu includes an array of appetizers as well. A full-fledged restaurant is called an osteria, a trattoria, or a ristorante. Once upon a time, these terms meant something -- osterias were basic places where you could get a plate of spaghetti and a glass of wine; trattorie were casual places serving full meals of filling peasant fare; and ristoranti were fancier places, with waiters in bow ties, printed menus, wine lists, and hefty prices. Nowadays, fancy restaurants often call themselves a trattoria to cash in on the associated charm factor; trendy spots use osteria to show they're hip; and simple, inexpensive places sometimes tack on ristorante to ennoble themselves. Many restaurants double as pizzerias, with a regular menu and a separate selection for pizza, sometimes offering a separate casual dining area as well.
The enoteca is a marriage of a wine bar and an osteria; you can sit and order from a host of good local and regional wines by the glass while snacking on appetizers or eating from a full menu featuring local specialties. Relaxed and full of ambience, these are great spots for light inexpensive lunches -- or simply recharging your batteries.
The pane e coperto (bread and cover charge) is a 1€ to 4€ cover charge that you must pay at most restaurants for the mere privilege of sitting at a table. To request the bill, say, "Il conto, per favore" (eel con-toh, pore fah-vohr-ay). A tip of 15% is usually included in the bill these days but, if you're unsure, ask, "È incluso il servizio?" (ay een-cloo-soh eel sair-vee-tsoh?).
At many restaurants, especially larger ones and in cities, you'll find a menu turistico (tourist's menu), sometimes called menu del giorno (menu of the day) or menu à prezzo fisso (fixed-price menu). This set-price menu usually covers all meal incidentals -- cover charge and 15% service charge -- along with a first course (primo) and second course (secondo), and sometimes even a drink, but it almost always offers an abbreviated selection of pretty commonplace dishes. The above menu should not be confused with the menu dégustazione (tasting menu) offered by more elegant gourmet restaurants: That's usually the way to go for the best selection of food at the best price. Except in those special restaurants, ordering a la carte will offer you the best chance of a memorable meal. Even better, forego the menu entirely and put yourself in the capable hands of your waiter.
The Passeggiata -- This time-honored tradition takes place nightly in every town in Italy. Shortly after 6pm, men and women, young and old alike and dressed in their best, stroll before dinner in the town center, usually through the main piazza and surrounding streets. Often members of the same sex link arms or kiss each other in greeting. There's no easier way to feel a part of everyday life in Italy than to make the passeggiata part of your evening routine.
Pasta, Mozzarella & Pizza
The stars of Campanian cuisine are so well known, they have become epicurean symbols of the nation: Italian cuisine as a whole is associated with pasta, pizza, and mozzarella. Yet these three creations were a direct consequence of the fertility and characteristics of Campania, defined by the Romans as "Campania Felix," or the happiest and most perfect of countrysides. To this day, Campania is considered one of the most important and even ideal agricultural provinces around.
Famous for the quality of their pasta since the 16th century, the many mills of the Monti Lattari, at the beginning of the Sorrento peninsula, are counted among the best producers of pasta in the world (the ones in Gragnano are particularly renowned). The pasta here is still trafilata a bronzo (extruded through bronze forms), a procedure that leaves the pasta slightly porous, allowing for a better penetration of the sauce for tastier results (as opposed to steel forms, which makes the pasta perfectly smooth).
This region created the kinds of pasta that we eat today -- penne, fusilli, rigatoni, and so on, each type strictly defined: Spaghetti is thicker than vermicelli, and both are thicker than capellini.
The warm plains of Campania are also home to the rare native buffalo, which is still raised in the provinces of Caserta and Salerno. Campanians have made mozzarella with delicious buffalo milk for centuries and look with disdain on what we all know as mozzarella -- the similar cheese made with cow's milk -- for which they use a different name, fiordilatte (literally, "flower of milk"). Indeed, once you've tasted the real mozzarella di bufala, with its unique delicate flavor and lighter texture, you'll surely be converted too, and will look down on regular mozzarella as an inferior kind of cheese. It's delicious as is, or try it in the caprese, a simple salad of sliced mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, and basil seasoned with extra-virgin olive oil.
Putting together the wheat, the mozzarella, and the third famous produce of this region, the tomato, Neapolitans one day invented pizza. The unique local tomatoes -- especially those produced on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius -- have basically no seeds: Imagine a tomato with no central cavity (no spongy, white stuff, either), but filled just with fruit meat, both flavorful and juicy. These are the pomodorini or small tomatoes of Mount Vesuvius. Obviously the result couldn't be anything but a bestseller, and pizza quickly spread from Naples throughout the world.
Be forewarned that many tourists, however, are disappointed by Neapolitan pizza. Here the dough and the tomatoes are the key ingredients -- together with the olive oil, of course -- and cheese is an option. If you ask for a Neapolitan pizza in Naples, you'll be offered a "marinara:" a thick, puffy crust that is crunchy on the outside and covered with fresh tomatoes, olive oil, and oregano, with no cheese at all. Funny enough, what Romans and the rest of Italy call Neapolitan pizza (pizza Napoletana, with tomatoes, cheese, and anchovies) is referred to here in Naples as "Roman pizza" (à la Romana).
The second-most traditional pizza in Naples is the margherita. Named after Margherita di Savoia, queen of Italy, who asked to taste pizza during her residence in the Royal Palace of Naples before the capital was moved to Rome, the pizza bears the colors of the Italian flag: basil for the green, mozzarella for the white, and red for the tomatoes. The new pizza met with immediate favor, eventually surpassing the popularity of its older counterpart. Pizza evolved with the addition of a large variety of other toppings, but purist pizzerias in Naples (such as Da Michele) serve only these two types. In Naples, you can also taste another wonderful type of pizza: pizza fritta. This wonderful creation is served only in truly old-fashioned places where a double round of pizza dough is filled with ricotta, mozzarella, and ham, and deep-fried in a copper cauldron of scalding olive oil. It arrives as puffy as a ball, but as you poke into it, the pizza flattens out, allowing you to delve into the delicious (though not exactly cholesterol-free) dish.
Antipasti e Contorni
The Italian enthusiasm for food has remained strong in Campania throughout the centuries, seemingly in spite of the region's poverty. In fact, this poverty prompted the development of an important local characteristic when it comes to food: expediency. Ease and quickness, and making something out of almost nothing, were the driving forces behind Campanians coming up with some of the most delicious, yet simplest, concoctions in the history of cuisine. Check out the antipasti buffet of any good restaurant, and you'll be certain to find variety, from scrumptious marinated vegetables to seafood dishes such as sautéed clams and mussels, toasted in a pan with garlic and olive oil. Alternatively, go for polipetti in cassuola or affogati (squid cooked with a savory tomato-and-olive sauce inside a small, terra-cotta casserole). Among the vegetables, do not miss the typical zucchine a scapece, sliced zucchini sautéed in olive oil and seasoned with tangy vinegar and fresh mint dressing (the same preparation is sometimes used for eggplant); or involtini di melanzane (a roll of deep-fried eggplant slices, filled with pine nuts and raisins, and warmed up in a tomato sauce) and, when in season, the friarelli, a local vegetable that is a cousin to broccoli but much thinner; it's usually served sautéed with garlic and chilli pepper, and is traditionally paired with local sausages.
Soups & Primi
One of the most surprising and delicious associations you'll come across here is the delicious zuppa di fagioli e cozze (beans and mussels soup), which is common south of Naples and on Capri; another good and unique soup is the minestra maritata, a thick concoction of pork meat and a variety of fresh vegetables. The simple comfort food pasta e patate (pasta and potatoes smothered with cheese) will surprise you by how tasty it is. At the other end of the spectrum, the elaborated sartù (a typical Neapolitan baked dish made with seasoned rice, baby meatballs, sausages, chicken liver, mozzarella, and mushrooms) matches the difficulty of its preparation with the satisfaction of eating it.
Our preferred dish is the local pasta, including scialatielli (a fresh, homemade, eggless kind of noodles), served with sautéed seafood (ai frutti di mare). Another delicious, but more difficult-to-find pasta, is homemade fusilli. They can be served with all the traditional sauces: con le vongole (with clams), zucchine e gamberi (shrimp and zucchini), or al ragù (a meat sauce, where many kinds of meat can be cooked with tomatoes, including braciole, a meat involtini with pine nuts and raisins).
The cuisine of Naples -- shared by most of Campania's coast -- focuses on seafood, and some of the best main courses feature fish. The frittura (fritto misto elsewhere in Italy) of shrimp and calamari is always a great pleasure, and here you will also find other kinds, such as fragaglie (very small fish). The local version of zuppa di pesce is more difficult to find, but it is a delicious fish stew. Much more common and equally delicious are the polpi affogati or in cassuola, squid or octopus slowly stewed with tomatoes and parsley. Large fish is served grilled, with a tasty dressing of herbs and olive oil; all'acqua pazza, poached in a light broth made of a few tomatoes and herbs; or alle patate (baked over a bed of thinly sliced potatoes, and absolutely delicious). You might also find it al sale, baked in a salt crust to retain its moisture and flavors. Finally, if you have a taste for lobster, you should not miss out on the rare and expensive local clawless variety -- astice.
For the turf, you might try coniglio all Ischitana (rabbit with wine and black olives), a very tasty creation typical of Ischia; brasato, beef slowly stewed with wine and vegetables; braciola di maiale, a pork cutlet rolled and filled with prosciutto, pine nuts, and raisins cooked in a tomato sauce; or the simpler meat alla pizzaiola, a beef cutlet sautéed in olive oil and cooked with fresh tomatoes and oregano.
If Sicilians are famous for having a sweet tooth, Neapolitans come in a close second, with many delicious specialties on offer. Naples is famous for its pastiera, a cake traditionally prepared for Easter but so good that it is now offered year-round in most restaurants. Whole-grain wheat is soaked, boiled, and then used to prepare a delicious creamy filling with ricotta and orange peel in a thick pastry shell.
Another famous dessert is babà, a soft, puffy cake soaked in sweet syrup with rum and served with pastry cream. The famous sfogliatelle (flaky pastry pockets filled with a sweet ricotta cream) are so good with typical Neapolitan coffee that you shouldn't leave without tasting them; a special kind from Conca dei Marini on the Amalfi Coast is the sfogliatella Santa Rosa, filled with pastry cream and amarene (candied sour cherries in syrup) instead of ricotta, which was invented in the 14th-century Convento di Santa Rosa.
Each town in Campania, including the smaller villages, has some kind of sweet specialty, such as the biscotti di Castellammare, shaped like thick fingers in several flavors, and the several lemon-based pastries from the Sorrento and Amalfi regions: ravioli al limone (filled with a lemon-flavored ricotta mixture) from Positano; the Sospiri (Sighs) -- also called Zizz'e Nonache (Nuns' Breasts) depending on which aspect you focus, the taste or the look. The dome-shaped small, pale pastries filled with lemon cream come from Maiori and Minori; and dolcezze al limone, the typical lemon pastries of Sorrento, are small puff pastries filled with lemon-flavored cream.
Ice Cream in Campania: A User's Guide to Gelato -- Gelato is the Italian version of ice cream. It is milk or egg white-based, with cream used only for certain flavors, which makes it much easier to digest and in general less caloric, particularly the fruit flavors, which are made with fresh fruit (technically, these are usually water-based, making them sorbetto, or sorbet). Also, the fresh-made gelato contains less sugar than most ice cream, and is cholesterol free.
You can choose to eat your gelato from a cone (cono) or a cup (coppetta); the number of flavors you get depends on the size (two scoops for the small and up to four for the large). Locals often ask for a dollop of whipped cream (panna) on top: Specify if you don't want it: senza panna (sen-zah pan-nah).
Here are some important tips to help you spot the best gelato parlors:
- The bar or parlor bears a sign saying PRODUZIONE PROPRIA or PRODUZIONE ARTIGIANALE, which means it is made fresh, in small batches, and from fresh, mostly local, ingredients (no large-scale industrial production).
- Avoid overly bright colors -- no neon green for pistachio, for instance, or bright yellow for lemon. Natural colors are off-white for banana, pale green for pistachio, white for lemon, and so on.
- The flavors on offer include seasonal fruits, such as peach, apricot, and watermelon in summer, and orange, mandarin, and chocolate in winter.
- They tend to be gelato specialists: Gelato is all they sell, or at least, the section devoted to it is substantial, with a large cold counter well in view.
Another cold treat is granita, a close cousin to slushies. A classic granite is made from frozen lemon juice (made from real lemons, of course) or coffee, but other flavors are sometimes available, such as almond milk, watermelon, or mint. Coffee-flavored granite are usually served with panna. You'll also see street carts selling shaved ice with flavored syrup, which they call granita as well. Though still a refreshing treat, it's not quite the same thing.
And Some Vino to Wash It All Down
Italy is the largest wine-producing country in the world (more than 1.6 million hectares/4 million acres of soil are cultivated as vineyards). Grapes were cultivated as far back as 800 B.C., probably introduced by the Greeks, and wine has been produced ever since. However, it wasn't until 1965 that laws were enacted to guarantee consistency in winemaking and to defend specific labels. Winemakers must apply for the right to add "D.O.C." (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) on their labels, and only consistently good wines from specific areas receive this right. The "D.O.C.G." on a label (the "G" means garantita) applies to even better wines from even more strictly defined producing areas. Vintners who are presently limited to marketing their products as unpretentious table wines -- vino da tavola -- often expend great efforts lobbying for an elevated status as a D.O.C.
Of Campania's five provinces, Benevento is the one with the largest number of D.O.C. wines, including the Aglianico del Taburno, Solopaca, Guardiolo, Sannio, Sant'Agata dei Goti, and Taburno, but Avellino is the only one with three D.O.C.G. wines: the wonderful Taurasi, the Greco di Tufo, straw-yellow and dry, with a delicate peach-almond flavor; and the Fiano di Avellino, a dry and refreshing white wine, which received its D.O.C.G. label only in 1993.
From the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius comes the amber-colored Lacrima Christi (Tears of Christ), and from the area of Pozzuoli, the D.O.C. Campi Flegrei. With meat dishes, try the dark mulberry-colored Gragnano, in the Sorrento peninsula, which has a faint bouquet of faded violets, and Penisola Sorrentina. From the islands come the Ischia red and white, and the Capri.
The Amalfi Coast also has its share of D.O.C. wines. The Costa d'Amalfi includes the Furore -- white, red, and dry rosé -- the red Tramonti, and the Ravello -- white and dry with an idea of gentian, the rosé dry with a delicate violet and raspberry bouquet and with a slightly fuller body, and a red with the most body.
Produced in the Salerno area, the Castel San Lorenzo red and rosé are D.O.C., but there is also a barbera (fizzy red), a white, and a moscato (sweet). Farther south is the Cilento, another excellent D.O.C. wine.
From Caserta come the Falerno, the D.O.C. Galluccio, and the D.O.C. Asprino d'Aversa, which is light and slightly fizzy.
Italians drink other libations as well. The most famous Italian drink is Campari, bright red in color and flavored with herbs; it has a quinine bitterness to it. It's customary to serve it with ice cubes and soda as an aperitivo before dinner.
Campania also excels at the preparation of Rosolio, sweet liquor usually herb or fruit flavored, prepared according to recipes passed down by families for generations. The most famous is limoncello, a bright yellow drink made by infusing pure alcohol with the famous lemons from the Amalfi Coast usually served ice cold direct from the deep freeze. Others deserve similar fame, like the rare nanassino, made with prickly pears and finocchietto, made with wild fennel. Limoncello has become Italy's second-most popular drink. It has long been a staple in the lemon-producing region of Capri and Sorrento, and recipes for the sweetly potent concoction have been passed down by families there for generations. About a decade ago, restaurants in Sorrento, Naples, and Rome started making their own versions. Visitors to those restaurants as well as the Sorrento peninsula began singing limoncello's praises and requesting bottles to go. Now it's one of the most up-and-coming liqueurs in the world, thanks to heavy advertising promotions.
Beer, once treated as a libation of little interest, is still far inferior to wines produced domestically, but foreign beers, especially those of Ireland and England, are gaining great popularity with Italian youth, especially in Rome. This popularity is mainly because of atmospheric pubs, which now number more than 300 in Rome alone, where young people linger over a pint and a conversation. Most pubs are in the Roman center, and many are licensed by Guinness and its Guinness Italia operations. In a city with 5,000 watering holes, 300 pubs might seem like a drop, but because the clientele is young, the wine industry is trying to devise a plan to keep that drop from becoming a steady stream of Italians who prefer grain to grapes.
High-proof grappa is made from the "mosto," what remains of the grapes after they have been pressed. Many Italians drink this after dinner and some even put it into their coffee. Grappa is an acquired taste -- to an untrained foreign palate, it often seems rough and harsh.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.