Day 7 Part 2
After an amazing week on the Rustichella d’Abruzzo Primograno Tour, my Italian adventure continues as “Follow Me Foodie” and I leave Pescara, trapped in a glass domed bus with minimal air conditioning and some seriously windy roads. Fortunately, we were both in a state of sleep deprivation , so we dozed the entire trip to Napoli. I’d post some unflattering, “drool-y” shots of “FMF,” but she’d probably never forgive me and “I could not possibly live a single day” with that consequence. After four hours of “bus riding bliss,” we arrived in Naples, settled into our apartment (booked through AirBnB) and began our exploration of Neapolitan pizza.
Our apartment was ideally located in the middle of the historic centre, so within a few minutes walk, we were on Via dei Tribunali, the most historically important street in Naples. Not that history isn’t a priority for us, but we were more concerned with the fact that numerous pizzerias, bakeries, bars and restaurants were located on Tribunali. We settled on a late lunch at Pizzeria di Matteo; there was a considerable lineup, but we didn’t care. We just basked in the Napoletana sunshine, people watched and snacked on delicious mozzarella stuffed suppli. We were definitely a little giddy at this point; Pizzeria di Matteo came highly recommended, everyone around us seemed to be enjoying their food, the food looked and smelled delicious and we were about to eat pizza in Naples for the first time. With an ice cold Peroni in my left hand and a glass of “frizzante” water in my right, we placed our order and our pizzas arrived without much delay. The first was a classic Margherita with mozzarella di bufala DOP. We decided to use this pizza as our benchmark and ordered this pizza at every pizzeria we visited. The second pizza we ordered was their award winning Ripieno World Cup DOC pizza, a folded pizza with ricotta, bufala mozzarella, baby tomato and cicoli (rendered bits of pork fat and meat). Long story short, everything was breath taking. Very eye opening to say the least and though we were already debating different Neapolitan pizza concepts like the soupy center, lack of crispiness, the way the cheese was cut, the amount of basil, the amount of char and the quality of the ingredients, we knew this was just the beginning. Since this was only pizzeria uno, we left di Matteo with wide smiles, our bellies full and our pizza focused minds completely wide open.
We spent the rest of the day exploring Naples on foot and managed to cover a lot of ground during our first day in town. Two non-pizza eating highlights of the day; one was street side, super fresh mozzarella di bufala, made in Campania that morning, perfectly squeaky, milky and delicious. The second was heavenly, straight from the oven sfogliatelle at Antico Forno delle Sfogliatelle Calde Fratelli Attanasio (that’s a mouthful). Beautiful, caramelized, crispy layers, amazing ricotta filling, still warm from the oven, who could ask for anything more. We also ate 3 more pizzas later in the day. Unfortunately two of the pizzerias, high on our list, were closed for renovations or on summer vacation, so Starita and Sorbillo, we hear you’re amazing and we will eat you next time we’re in Naples.
After stumbling upon Pizzeria Port ‘Alba, I thought we should give it a try. Sure, the restaurant had servers wearing bow ties and a nicely appointed patio; I personally thought we were about to relax, enjoy some wine and experience what the Italian call “la dolce vita.” Keep in mind, this pizzeria comes highly recommended and appears on top journalist’s lists of important pizzerias in Naples. As we waited for our drinks, I could see “FMF’s” mood change from excitement and anticipation, to anger, then impatience and finally disgust. She had been observing everything going on around us and she wasn’t too impressed. She only allowed me to order one pizza, their Margherita DOP; the pizza arrived, looked nice by most people’s standards, but was sliced in the kitchen, before being served to us. Upon further inspection and tasting, it was as if this pizza was made specifically to be served to tourists with preconceived notions of what Neapolitan pizza is and what “a traveller” might enjoy. In hindsight, this pizza didn’t have the moisture and flavour I was looking for; the cheese was rubbery, dry and tasteless, the tomato lacked the bright, balanced flavour I craved, it was desperately unseasoned and the pizza was easily the crispiest, toughest and driest pizza we ate in Naples. We barely ate 1/2 of the pizza; “FMF” blamed me for choosing this dud, claimed that she would select the restaurants for the remainder of our time in Italy and that we shouldn’t waste perfectly good stomach space on touristy, mediocre food. She threw down some Euros in repugnance and dragged me from this place in search of something far more authentic and delicious.
Somehow, we snaked our way back to Tribunali and ended up eating a couple more pizzas at Pizzeria Vesi. We ordered a Margherita DOP and a gorgonzola, provola, walnut pizza. Both lovely, but so different from every other pizza we ate that day. Keep in mind, all three pizzerias we ate at were Associazione Verace Pizzeria Napoletana members and it really got me thinking and questioning about what the AVPN standard is all about. After those pizzas, we kept on trucking, explored a few more back alleys, ate some gelato (go figure), snacked on a couple of sub-standard sfogliatelle and eventually found our way back to our Naples home.
We hopped on a train specifically to go have lunch at Pizzeria 50 Kalo di Ciro Salvo. While we were waiting for the restaurant to open, “FMF” performed her due diligence, chatted with the staff and the locals, while I had an espresso and found out I made it into the Il Messegerio, a national Italian newspaper. They soon opened the doors and I knew we were about to experience something significantly different, than what we had the day before. 50 Kalo had only been opened for 6 months, was much more modern and upscale, but there was clearly a focus on seasonality and quality sourcing of all their ingredients. It was the first time we looked at a menu where the purveyors and producers were showcased prominently. Anchovies from Cetara, olive oil from Don Alfonso 1890, cheese from specific producers in Campania and tomatoes from only the best farmers around Vesuvius. First up, some fried treats. Very appetizing and “FMF” was blown away by the fried bucatini fritter. Nicely fried (too bad it wasn’t fried in AlfaOne Rice Bran Oil), well seasoned and a great combination of textures and flavors. Then the pizzas arrived; the first being a Margherita with mozzarella di bufala DOP and the second featured fior di latte, zucchini flowers, and Conciato Romano cheese. The dough of the Margherita was exquisite; tasty, tender, elastic-y, fluffy (as “FMF” likes to call it). The taste of the crust, the flavors and textures of the tomato and cheese were just an amazing interplay of classic ingredients. The white pizza with the zucchini flowers was sensational; cheese-y and rich, but not over powering the delicate nature of the zucchini blossoms. Outstanding pizza and easily the best of the trip thus far. The quality of the ingredients was clearly a cut above, the service was exceptional and the dough was just so satisfying and different from the other pizzas we’ve eaten thus far. Chef Ciro and the staff took great care of us, hospitably doting on us, answering all of our questions, satisfying our curiosities and giving us important insight into the dough. Of course “FMF” could not skip the dolce, so after some lovely house made gelato, we continued our Napoletana adventure, riding high on a “fluffy pizza dough cloud.”
Overall, I would consider Naples to be a relatively chaotic, congested and dirty city; particularly in the historic center, it can be a bit of a madhouse, however the Mergellina district where 50 Kalo is located, was completely different. We ended up following the gorgeous coastline for most of the afternoon and was just blown away with stunning views and incredible weather. Throughout the afternoon we snacked on more Campania mozzarella di bufala, assorted pastries and numerous scoops of gelato. Gran Caffe Gambrinus was a highlight; we enjoyed a pastry there named after Mt. Vesuvius, sfogliatelle exterior with a rhum baba interior, it was two of my favorite desserts in one.
Later in the day, we made our way to the infamous Pizzeria da Michelle, infamous because it was showcased in the movie Eat, Pray Love. Quite often I can forgive mediocre service if the food is excellent, however the service at da Michelle was completely void of any hospitality. We waited outside (which I had no problem with) and then waited inside at a dirty table unsure if we were at the right table at all. They would not answer our questions until they eventually shifted us all around at their convenience, haphazardly wiped the tables and threw down some cutlery. On the menu, two choices, Margherita or Marinara pizzas. Simple choice, we’ll take one of each please. I appreciate how they only serve two pizzas and I have the utmost respect for restaurants that focus purely on what they do best. When the pizzas arrived, I certainly wasn’t blown away, they were just OK. I did think the pizzas clearly showed a lack of care, with sloppy construction and a lack of consistency during the cooking. I guess when you make hundreds of “margs and maris,” at a brisk pace all day, speed is the main concern, not the pursuit of perfection. My biggest issue was I really couldn’t get over the server’s clear disdain towards the guests. He didn’t seem to care and he certainly didn’t seem interested or proud of the restaurant he was working in. I didn’t finish the pizzas, I left angry, “FMF” on the other hand was not quite as bothered as I was. We’ve never talked much more about this experience; I think we learned earlier on this trip, to simply agree to disagree.
After Pizzeria da Michelle we went for a specific pasta dish at Ristorante Europeo di Mattozzi. Candele spezzate a mano con Genovese, a local macaroni dish with onion and braised beef in a Genovese style. It was really tasty, the pasta was cooked perfectly and the sauce/ragu was very flavorful. I had an incredibly hard time ordering a bottle of wine from the list that was actually in stock, so we hit the streets again, got incredibly lost (Google Maps sucks), ate some gelato (do you detect a trend?) and experienced Napoletana nightlife.
Woke up a little later, decided to make our way to Pompeii. We hopped on a train, walked miles in the scorching Pompeii sun, got ripped off by a corrupt taxi driver, fortuitously stumbled upon La Bettola del Gusto and settled in for lunch. The food was great, the service was excellent and it was nice to have a multi-course lunch in a peaceful and comfortable surrounding. Of course “FMF” need some dolce, so fortunately there was an excellent gelato shop just a few doors up. With our stomachs full, we spent the next few hours roaming the spectacular Pompeii ruins. By late afternoon, we got back on a train, “plotted a solution” to Caserta, to have dinner at a restaurant called Pepe in Grani. The restaurant is actually located in a town called Caiazzo, so we grabbed a cab, watched our driver Antonio channel his inner F1 driver, while I spoke as much broken Italian as I possibly could. We were under a bit of a time crunch because the last train leaving Caserta was at 10pm, but we boldly continued on with our pizza mission. We finally made it to this old world town, found the tiny alley that led guests to the restaurant, put our name down with the host and waited. As we waited and took in our surroundings, we knew we were somewhere special. The pizzas looked incredible, the place was buzzing and the entire operation was a well oiled pizza and hospitality machine. As we waited, “FMF” was getting more and more excited, while my practical nature kept one eye on the clock, to make sure we’d catch that last train. As our wait for a table exceeded an hour, we hit the point of no return and instead of ordering some food to go, we threw caution to the wind, trusted the fact that we’d find our way and we would wait it out and enjoy the full Pepe in Grani experience.
Eventually, a server approached us and led us on a tour of the restaurant. The gorgeous dining rooms, the superb patios, the interesting dough room/R&D lab and the stylish B&B on the top floor of this temple dedicated to pizza gastronomy. We were sat at a perfect table on the second floor, right by an open balcony, a bottle of Contadi Castaldi Prosecco arrived, we toasted and we both knew we were in for something special. The restaurant offers a pizza tasting menu, but due to “FMF’s” insatiable appetite, we decided to order a la carte. We started our meal with tomato bruschetta and potato croquettes. Perfect, delicious, so simple, ideal. Next up was a calzone. This was a game changer; fried pizza dough stuffed with ricotta cheese, smoked scamorza, salami and black pepper. I stuck my “super nostril” into the opening of the cut calzone and the aromas were simply unbelievable. The dough was like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. Perfectly fried, so light, so tender, so pillow-y. The ricotta was spectacular and easily the best ricotta I’ve ever eaten. So fresh, so rich, so creamy, so flawless. Paired with the Prosecco, I was completely floored. I’m “gleeking” right now just thinking about this pizza fritta. I believe “FMF” reacted quite similarly to me, maybe just a little louder, a little more dramatic and with a “few more profanities.” We polished that puppy off; I believe I asked “FMF” for her last bite of the calzone and fortunately she did not deny me. Next up was Chef Pepe’s PDO Margherita. Again, a clear dedication to seasonality and local, high quality producers. Great tomatoes, ultra-fresh Campania bufala, outstanding olive oil from Caiazzo. As tasty as the toppings were, it’s was all about the dough. This dough was ethereal, it was truly exceptional. Instead of fried, this dough was cooked in their wood oven. Perfectly round, a sexy poof-y crust, an ideal amount of char and leopard-ing, with a moist, but not overly soupy center. Nothing crispy about this pizza, it was perfectly seasoned, this pizza was easily the most magnificent Margherita pizza I’ve ever tasted. Next up, two more pizzas. One with lard from local black pigs, pepper, oregano, Caserta pecorino and a fig jam. The other with fior di latte, Caiazzo chickpeas, lonza of local black pig, curly endive and that killer Caiazzan olive oil. The figgy pizza was amazing, maybe just a touch sweet for my palate, but that faultless dough kept me coming back for more. The chick peas pizza was magnificent as well, but just a touch of salt would have went a long way for me. After the savoury, a couple of desserts, with a little dessert wine and espresso to boot. Perfetto. Chef Pepe and a battalion of servers had been checking in with us all night and now with a full time translator, he toured us through the entire facility and answered all the questions we had for him. We discussed the dough, his philosophy, his process and the science and research behind it. Based on the info he gave me, I could pretty much reverse engineer his dough recipe based on his ratios. Quite simply, his dough is completely made by hand, made with specially selected low protein flours, a super high hydration level for Neapolitan standards and a long, but controlled proofing time. By this time, we had missed our train by a long shot; Chef Pepe generously offered us lodging upstairs, but we found Antonio patiently painting out of his trunk and decided to head back to Naples that evening. What a magnificent night and one of the most special dining experiences of my life. “FMF” referred to our dinner as a Michelin starred experience, dedicated to pizza excellence and I’m tempted to agree with her analogy. I barely remember the rest of the night; I think “FMF” and I were just too “high” on what was easily the best pizza of our lives.
To be honest with you, up until this dinner, I thought I knew a fair bit about pizza. I love pizza, I’m ridiculously passionate about pizza, I’ve studied it, I’ve researched it, I’ve practised it, I’ve preached it, I’ve eaten a lot of it, it’s a big part of my life and I’ve considered myself a pizza expert of sorts. This dinner at Pepe in Grani and all of our pizza experiences in Naples has really got me thinking and it’s got me challenging everything I know and think I know about pizza. I’m so excited now to learn more, to test and research some of these new thoughts/concepts and I can’t wait to see how it translates to making pizza in Vancouver. But that’s a whole other post.
After an amazing night, we slept in a little and decided we’d make our way to Capri. Without much delay, we caught a ferry and was in for another day of unexpected surprises. We didn’t really plan on visiting Capri and really backed into it rather last minute. Again we were blessed with gorgeous weather and a spectacular boat ride to the island. Amazing opportunities for photos, just a few too many “banana hammocks” and amorous Italian men in the background for my taste. As we approached the island, our jaws dropped and we were blown away by the sheer beauty of the approaching harbour. Long story short, “FMF” and I scooter-ed around the island exploring, checking stuff out and just enjoyed a magical day in Capri. We ate some tasty food at a local take out spot, where we met the chef smoking in the back alley. He suggested his specialities to us and we just nodded and ate. He like most was astounded by the incredulous amount of food “FMF” can consume, but he just kept feeding us. After lunch, we had some delicious gelato and “FMF” picked up some classic Capri sweets that we later enjoyed at an incredible ocean-side lookout. More scooter-ing, more exploring, more gelato and a few litres of “frizzante and natural water” later, we wrapped up a very special day on Capri.
On our way back, we caught a fast ferry back to Naples. We witnessed a ridiculous sunset from the water and made some plans on how to spend our last evening in town. We tried to go have some pizza at Pizzeria Brandi, but we really weren’t feeling it. We were getting some Port’ Alba deja vu, so we decided to eat somewhere else. We ended up at a traditional Napoletana trattoria that came recommended from someone in “FMF’s” network, had a reasonable prosciutto e melone and a linguine with seafood, but we weren’t terribly impressed. “FMF” cut our dinner short and declared we could not end this epic trip to Naples with a mediocre meal, so we headed back to Pizzeria di Matteo and enjoyed a couple of pizzas there. It made sense for us to come full circle, to end it where we began, especially now having experienced so many other pizza places. The pizza was great; there was a bosciola pizza (fior di latte, tomato, panna, peas, mushroom, ground meat) and a pizza fritta stuffed with provola, ricotta, tomato, cicoli and salumi. Delicious. I never get tired of good pizza.
Post di Matteo, we walked, we talked, we reminisced the pizzas that we ate. I’m sure there was more gelato, but that’s no surprise. I was still on a cloud from our time in Capri and didn’t want this day to end. We knew he had to pack and get a few things sorted, so we picked up some pastries at Pattisserie S. Capparelli, to enjoy back at our Naples flat. Most of the pastries were blah, but the rhum baba was killer and what a day to remember.
Day 11 Part 1
Woke up, made our way to Garibaldi train station. I realized how close we were to our favorite sfogliatelle bakery, so I honestly considered booking a later train, so we could eat just one more perfect pastry. Instead, I lost a pair of sunglasses and booked a fast train to Rome, so we could continue on our Italian adventure. Sorry for the wordiness and poor grammar; I’m a cook, not a wordsmith. Stay tuned for the Rome installment next.