Saturday, October 6, 2012

Naples - Grab a coffee, it's a long one.

Over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate the hard work and dedication that most chef’s put into their dishes.  The complexity of the dishes and the many layers of flavor is a complete trip for your taste buds, your mind, and for some, their soul.  But, on my trip to Italy, I discovered those same layers, that same mind blowing complexity in the simplest of dishes.  Minimal ingredients with maximum flavor, this was the food of Napoli.

When I left Milan for Naples, I was speaking with the people working at the hotel and they warned me, over and over to watch out for the gypsies.  They guaranteed that I would surely have my pockets picked or possibly even be mugged, because Naples is shady and dangerous.  On my train ride, I prepared myself, ready to do battle with all of the evils of the streets.  When I stepped off of the train, I knew that I was to meet Daniela.  She was a local that I had arranged a meeting with with a great company called Cup of Local Sugar(They have representatives in various countries/cities, that will meet with travelers, and inform them of the local flavors of that particular city.  It was very helpful for a solo traveler whose knowledge of Italian bled out of my ear as soon as I arrived in Milan).  I wandered towards the end of the tracks where Daniela said she would meet me.  When I got to my location, I saw no one that I thought resembled Daniela.  You know what else I didn’t see?  I didn’t see any gypsies, panhandling, shining shoes, or picking pockets.  I didn’t feel like I was going to be mugged, murdered, or kidnapped.  In fact I felt the exact opposite, I felt like I belonged there, like I was at home.  Then I saw someone sitting there, and I approached her and sure enough, it was Daniela.  We made our way to the street, hopped a cab, and drove up into the hills of Naples, away from Downtown.  During that drive we spoke, but I was so focused on what was around me, I kind of lost track of our conversation.  Naples was a combination of filth and beauty, but even the filth was incredible.  Naples is a city, so you expect to see some spray paint and some garbage, to see the real beauty of what Naples is.  Naples is history, some shady, but mostly biblical.  

We arrived at the hotel and the area was bustling.  It was a residential area that was conveniently located next to the subway and close to all public transportation.  There was a bar across the street and a post office next door.  My hotel appeared to be in an old mid rise, that had a combination of business and residential condos/apartments.  It was an old building, with an old elevator, but once I got upstairs to the hotel, it was a completely different story.  Beautiful, modern, trendy, and well hidden.  The view from my room was breathtaking.  I had a great view of the Gulf of Naples, Pompeii, and Mt. Vesuvius.  Daniela waited in the lobby while I dropped my bags and splashed a bit of water on my face.  Then we hit the ground running!

Now my food loving friends, when I say Naples, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?  If you didn’t say pizza, then we will have to reacquaint ourselves, and yes, it was definitely you, not me.  Of course, the first night there, I did have pizza, but I took no photos of it, because a photo just wouldn’t do it justice.  I can tell you and promise you this, until you have pizza in Naples, you will not have had pizza.  We had pizza at Pizzeria Sorbillo  This pizzeria has been in business since 1935, it has a small menu, but simple to navigate.  It has beer and coca cola on offer as well.  And really, what more do you need?  You all have read my earlier blog on Neapolitan style pizza, and if you haven’t, then shame on you, stop reading this, and go read that so you’ll better understand why this pizza style, to me, is the best.  Sorbillo has gotten some negative press in the past.  Some people don’t understand that when you use quality ingredients, things react differently when cooked.  Take the cheese for example.  When you use regular mozz compared to Bufala, they react differently.  Bufala has a tendency to release it’s liquid when cooked, leaving the center of the pizza a bit liquidy, meaning you must eat the inside with a knife and fork.  Gasp in shock, I know, but it’s ok, it is an accepted practice in Naples to eat the inside with a knife and fork.  The crust remained crispy and delicious.  Don’t get me wrong, the inside was amazing and I’ll go ahead and say that it truly was the most incredible pizza I’ve had in my life.  The cheese was fresh, in fact I swear I heard a moo everytime I took a bite.  The basil was unbelievably full of flavor.  And we were at Sorbillo’s for three hours because the conversation just kept flowing and flowing and flowing, and not once were we even nagged to get out..  Because eating in Italy is about more than the food, it’s about the experience, it’s about socializing, it’s about stories and sharing.  I ordered a simple Margherita pizza, it is my favorite after all.  And as soon as I took my first bite, everything around me became quiet.  At that moment, there was no conversation happening, there was nothing else going on, except me eating that pizza.  This beautiful work of art was the size of a regular steering wheel and totaled 4 euro.  I couldn’t believe the cost, I was in tears.  So please, I encourage you to search for neapolitan pizza, and don’t be fooled by fakers, because they are out there, I know because I was affected by one of those “fakers”. 

Prior to going for pizza, we stopped by a friend of Daniela’s storefront grill.  Friggatoria Verace which translates to True Barbecue Stall.  Vincenzo, a happy fella, describes himself as a free spirit, a hippy.  He travels between Naples and Florida, opening restaurants and closing them as he gets bored.    But with Friggatoria Verace, he has a hit, and I don’t think the masses will let him get bored.  He has fried foods en masse and if the other things are half as good as what I had, he will definitely never go broke.  I had a polpette(meatballs),  but they weren’t meat.  The polpette I had was a special that Vincenzo was playing with.  If you look at the menu that I photographed, this was the ball of fried heaven that I munched on and it was amazing.  I can’t even begin to describe the flavor, but it was incredible.  All of these ingredients, together in a fried ball of goodness.  The other thing that Vincenzo is known for, is his nightly fish fry.  Vincenzo wakes up early in the morning and goes to the fish market, so he can get a pick of the best.  He heads to the restaurants, cleans and preps the fish, and at 9PM every night, the sidewalk and alleyway in front of his business is packed with people and laughter and music.  And yes, I did say alley, because that is where it happens in Naples, in alley’s, don’t knock it until you experience the alley culture in Naples. It’s such a party like atmosphere, it feels more like a restaurant or a bar.  Vincenzo is known around Naples for his fish fry, and it truly is an event.  We however, after the pizza, were thoroughly full, and just wanted to sleep!

The counter at Friggatoria Verace and the smiling blur is Vincenzo.

The menu at Friggatoria Verace.

The Polpette at Friggatoria Verace.
After a fantastic nights sleep. overlooking the moonlit Gulf of Naples, I woke to the sounds of, nothing.  I went downstairs, and met up with Daniella outside in the promenade, by the hotel and we began la nostra lunga passeggiata.  The best part of this entire journey, I had no agenda, except to eat great things!  And that’s exactly what I did.  We wandered to the beautiful Basilica Santa Chiara, Real Teatro, many an alleyway, markets, finally making our way to the Castel dell’Ovo.  By then we had worked up a great hunger.  So we worked our way back, just a bit, through a sketchy little market, which for the most part was closed for the day.  We ended up in the back of the market, to a non descript little hole in the wall.  Above the door, in big letters, CIBI COTTI.    I had no idea what lie ahead, and I was pretty excited about that. Cibi Cotti, translated means  Cooked Foods.  The kitchen is directed by Mrs. Anna, whom when we walked in was relaxing at a table directly next to the kitchen area, which is not hidden from public view.  Mrs. Anna is over 80 years old and still makes the rules.  The pizza from Sorbillo was an unforgettable pizza, but Cibi Cotti was an unforgettable experience.  The restaurants was filled to the brim with locals, eating, drinking, and laughing, all the things that Italians do best!  Sadly, there was no room at the inn for us, so we missed out on that atmosphere, but we did not leave empty handed.  Instead, we had our food packed for take away.  Before we left, Mrs. Anna made sure that we had utensils and enough napkins, and that sold me on Cibi Cotti.  

We made ourselves comfortable at a spot, next to the gulf and dove right in.  Panini all Napoletana, was what we broke into first.  You could smell the bread, you know that good fresh baked smell.  Tearing it apart you could see the hard boiled egg, salami, and cheese, and you could actually get a bite of all three on the first bite.  Then we had Spaghetti Napolitan-Fresh spaghetti, tomatoes, black olives, and capers.  This was a salty dish, with the capers, but the flavor was unlike anything I’ve ever had.  Fresh, hand made pasta, cooked al dente brought tears to my eyes.  You can always tell when you have a fresh made pasta, because when it’s al dente, it has a bite that is unlike any other.  Next, Risotto dell’oliva vino rosso-Risotto with red wine and fresh green olives.  I’ve never been a fan of olives, and I’ve always been told that fresh olives are so much better than canned, blah, blah, blah.  Low and behold, these were not lies, it is true, fresh olives are amazing!  And red wine risotto, I mean who does this?  Mrs. Anna does this, and it’s unreal!  Here, we get used to risotto cooked in the traditional manner, cream and cheese, but Mrs. Anna said, meh, and turned up the heat on traditional risotto.  There was a perfect balance of cream, cheese, and red wine.  The addition of the fresh green olives was a great salty compliment and yes, the olives were full of flavor that you lose when you can an olive for an indefinite amount of time.  When you do that, you lose flavor, character, and identification of what that object initially was when you canned it.  Ok, enough, time to move on to the next course, Teglia di Calamari con Patate-Squid with Potato.  I’m going to assume, that since you read my blog, you can appreciate food like this.  When Daniela told me what this was, I was a bit taken back.  Squid with potato?  Not a typical combination in my book, but this isn’t my book to write, this is Mrs. Anna’s book, Mrs. Anna’s restaurant, Mrs. Anna’s rules, and Mrs. Anna rocked it!  I am all about presentation, color, arrangement, etc, etc, unless you can knock me out with flavor.  This was a complete success!  Sure, you have potatoes(white), squid(white), and a light tomato sauce(red), so there isn’t much to appeal to the senses when it comes to presentation.  When I took that first bite, I was floored.  You could taste the ocean and the earth with each bite, you could taste the hard work and sweat that went into this dish.  I did not want to stop eating this.  I wanted to run back and give Mrs. Anna a big kiss and pledge my allegiance to her kitchen, but I restrained myself, because we had one more item to try, the Chicken meatloaf.  Yes, I said chicken meatloaf.  That’s not the official name, but essentially that’s what it was.  Every cuisine needs a comfort food and I imagine that this is part of that family of Italian comfort food.  It was light and tasty and a good way to finish the meal.  Of course dessert would be better, so let’s go find some Semifreddo.
Teglia di Calamari con patate and some sort of chicken meatloaf from Cibi Cotti.
Spaghetti Napolitan and Risotto dell'oliva del vino rosso from Cibi Cotti.

I do wish I could remember the name of the establishment we had our semifreddo in.  It was a fun little cafe, lots of colors, music, etc.  It would remind you of a Baskin Robbins or some other sort of ice cream shop.  But, Daniela guaranteed that this was the king of kings when it came to semifreddo in Naples.  A little back ground on semifreddo, yes?  This semifreddo, looks to be a fluffy whipped cream, moussey type thing.  Translated, it means semi cold, however it is cold, just not fully frozen like gelato is.  It can be the consistency of mousse, but colder.  I’ve only had semifreddo in formal restaurants here in Chicago, however you can find this in a gelateria in Italy.  Now, this being a new experience, I played it safe and ordered the stracciatella(strah cha tel lah), and I have to say, sometimes playing it safe, pays off.  The flavor, stracciatella can be described as fior di latte(fyor dee lahtay),literally translated means “flower of milk”.  It has a fubtle sweet creamy flavor, but it’s the base for the majority of gelato’s and semifreddo, even chocolate.  Then you drizzle chocolate over it, let it harden and you have stracciatella.  You could say, chocolate chip, but stracciatella is what I prefer.  And after all of this food and walking, I’d say it’s time for a bit of a nap, before the evenings events.  

After a brief, but refreshing nap we ventured out.  Not too far from my hotel was this little hole in the wall.  But, not the hole in the wall that we are used to.  This literally was a hole in the wall.  I mean there was a door and a very small placard with the name of the restaurant and there was a light.  If you didn’t know this restaurant was here, you wouldn’t even notice and the Chef likes it that way.  Vienm a Truva is truly a hidden gem, that is run by Chef Sergio Giannetti is doing well.  When you walk in, you are a friend and treated like royalty.  We were seated right above the kitchen, in a lofty style area where we had a direct view of the cooking area and could watch the action.  Now, we were the first seated, because by Italian standards, we were there just towards the end of apertivo time and dinner time, but that’s ok, because it gave me a chance to interact with Chef and we could watch our food being prepared without any other distraction.  First up, Carciofi Fritti - Fried Artichoke and Pasta crescuita - Fried bruschetta.  What can I say?  Fresh artichokes, breaded and fried, more please.  And Pasta crescuita, a spin on traditional bruschetta.  It had all of the flavor, yet seemed lighter than your typical bruschetta.  Next up, Polpette melanzana - Fried Eggplant balls and Chef’s version of Spiedini alla Romana.  His version was a small piece of bread, fried with mozzarella and anchovy and it was amazing!  Before you turn your nose up, there is a tremendous difference in fresh anchovies and what we have available to us here in the US.  What we have has sat in a brine for who knows how long and is salty as the devil.  Fresh anchovies taste like any other fish, except a bit smaller.  Now, when we started this meal, I was still full from our lunch, but I was not going to let a night pass here without enjoying some local cuisine and let me tell you, the final course was worth the discomfort of having pants on.  When the Chef brought out the plate, I was less than amazed.  It looked to be a simple ground beef patty with some roasted potatoes.  Nothing stellar I thought to myself, so why is this guy such a heralded chef?  When I cut into the beef patty, I was worried because recently, here in the US, when I would order a hamburger, I would order it medium rare and it would absolutely destroy my stomach.  So, when I saw an almost blood red inside, my stomach said NO!!!  But my brain and my taste buds said “What the hell.”  I was absolutely floored by the flavor.  I immediately forgot about the cramps that were sure to follow this meal because I had never tasted anything like this.  This patty was from a Grass fed Chianina cattle, which is one of the oldest breed of cattle in the world, and it is from Florence.  There was no marinade in this beef, just a simple Salt, Pepper, and Olive oil, but the flavor was amazing!  And on the side, roasted potatoes with rosemary, salt, pepper, and olive oil.  We ended the evening with a nice spot of limoncello and I was sacked!  I needed sleep and lots of it because the following day, I was boarding a train and heading to Formia for a visit to Daniella’s home.

The kitchen at Vienm a Truva.  Very small, so each plate is given extra special care.

Carciofi fritti and pasta crescuita from Vienm a truva.

Polpette melanzana and Spiedini all romana from Vienm a truva.

Chianina beef with roasted potatoes with rosemary.

On my final day in Naples, I rush through my coffee and croissant, grab a quick shower, and head to the train staion.  I have a bit of a ride to Formia to experience what this area is known for, the Mozzarella di Bufala.  The train station was quiet, the train ride was quiet, and I was quiet as I stared out over the Italian countryside.  When I reached Formia, it was quiet as well.  I met Daniella and we began our adventure.  Her friend chauffeured us around, and received a fantastic tour of Formia.  It was a modestly sized town, but there was a lot of hustle and bustle for a Sunday.  We stopped into a Salumeria where Daniela ordered some Bufala and Salumi Tartufo.  The women behind the counter let me sample both and let me tell you, it was absolutely amazing!  The flavor of fresh Bufala is similar to how mozzarella tastes after it’s been baking in the oven, on a pizza.  But this was fresh, uncooked Bufala and it had that same flavor and a milky, soft texture.  And the salami, Mama Mia, if you have never had the pleasure of having a black truffle, try it, somehow, someway, try it.  I can’t begin to describe the flavor, kind of earthy and pungent, but it enhances almost anything it touches, sweet or savory.  This was a quick stop, because we had a mountain to conquer.  The final stop on this whirlwind visit to Formia was at the Castellonorato di Formia and the Borgo Antico Ristorante.  I believe, even on the dreariest of days, this had the best view so far.  This Castle was mountainside and built to protect the town of Formia.  It gave the people a place to escape, if necessary, from any invasions.  Now it is the home to a very nice, white table cloth restaurant, that from what I witnessed that day, is enjoyed by many families for special occasions.  The menu, seafood heavy, which is quite appropriate considering the location being right on the water.  Believe it or not, I was still stuffed from dinner that night before, so I wanted to light, so I stuck with a simple grilled prawns and scampi, fresh out of the water.  And let me remind those of you not aware of this, but Scampi, it’s an actual fish, not a style of cooking.  The fish tasted clean, not one ounce of fishy taste to them and they were fat and cooked perfectly.  And what better to wash it down with than a glass of prosecco.   After we ate, we strolled around the castle just a bit more, before I parted way with Daniela and returned to Naples.  It was a bittersweet departure because I felt there was so much more to Formia, but I had the next leg of my journey tomorrow, I was ritorno a Roma.  So, with my cheese and salami in hand, I hopped on the train, made my way back to Naples, and got comfy in the hotel room.  Oh, by the way, I was educated on the proper method of storing fresh mozzarella.  What I had, came in a clear plastic bag, which you leave it in, in the juices that it’s kept at the salumeria.  You then place the bag, in room temperature water and let it sit.  Of course, you’ll want to change the water over the course of three days and that’s the maximum amount of time you want to keep it.  It will remain fresh and flavorful for three days.  When you refrigerate fresh mozzarella, you seize the flavor and it sadly goes away and that is Non va bene.  And since that is the case, I will enjoy the moonlight over the gulf, with my cheese, salami, and fresh baked bread.

Fresh grilled prawns and scampi from Antico Borgo at Castellonorato di Formia.

Until Roma, Ciao!

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