When in Naples – EAT!

In my opinion, there is nothing to do in Naples except eat! Surely, its a historic city with lots of UNESCO world heritage sites and beautiful views, but the sole reason to come here is for the food. Naples is the birthplace of pizza and many other dishes. It is the former capital of Italy and is largely responsible for all things we know of as “Italian cuisine” in most of the world.

On a Tuesday morning, my guide, Alberto from Context Travel and I set out on a food tour of the historic area. We start at Duomo di Napoli (Naples Cathedral) and see the remnants of Saint Januarius inside this spectacular 14th century construction. We walk down the famous Via dei Tribunali, making small detours to see narrow alleys with towering residences on both sides. During the 4-hour long eating spree, we take intermissions between courses to step into a church or a monastery, look at local crafts, and discuss more of – you know what – Italian food!

Here are some highlights of my Food Tour in Naples with Context Travel…

Sfogliatelle is a traditional Neapolitan pastry with thick flaky layers of dough filled with lightly whipped ricotta and a little powdered sugar dusted on top. There is also a brioche version of this. It’s best eaten when warm out of the oven, and locals enjoy it for breakfast or afternoon snack.

Sfogliatelle naplesBaba au Rhum is a fluffy sponge cake made with eggs, milk and butter, and soaked in rum. It is recognizable by its shape, a 2-inch cylinder. You can also find cream filled Baba at pastry shops across Naples. It is said that this pastry originated from France, but has Polish roots as well.

baba naples

Italians are passionate about their coffee. When I ordered a cappuccino at 10am, Alberto looked at me in horror. “If you want to drink coffee during the day, it has to be an espresso” he explained. Though coffee is not grown in Italy, they brew it the Italian way, with lots of ground coffee and little water, for a very short time (40 seconds). As a result, the coffee is dense but has less caffeine. You can add sugar, but there’s no room for milk in that tiny Italian espresso cup.

naples pizza fritta

Next we eat the local street food, Pizza Fritta. This light and fluffy deep fried pizza dough almost reminds me of sopapilla from New Mexico. It is topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil. Just the perfect snack before lunch!

There is also a stuffed version of the Pizza Fritta which basically looks like a Calzone. Ricotta cheese, salami and tomato sauce are the only ingredients that are put inside, sealed and deep fried in hot oil. It never got popular outside Naples but out here it is a favorite street snack.

naples pizza frittaArancini are my favorite Italian appetizers. These fried risotto balls are stuffed with ragù (meat and tomato sauce), mozzarella, and peas, though there are other variations with mushrooms, eggplants, or pistachios as well.  It can be pretty much made with whatever leftover ingredients you may have. Note ragu with pasta is a special Sunday meal. The ladies of the house will start to cook ragu 24 hours in advance, simmering the tomatoes on very low heat till the sauce is thick and flavorful.

Being in southern Italy, cheese, olives, and cured meats are staples. Alberto took me to a speciality grocery store where locals shop for these products. Here I learned that if you can squeeze out milk from Buffalo Mozzarella with the tip of a fork, it means that its fresh. He recommends that Buffalo Mozzarella should be eaten within 24 hours, and should never be used for cooking pizza. We also taste Goat Ricotta, which is used to make pastries, and Smoked and Aged Provolone perfect for snacking with wine.

buffalo mozzarella naplesFritto Misto are also popular street foods in Naples. You can often see display windows full of fried snacks including fried zucchini, eggplant, calamari, shrimp, potato croquettes, or whatever is in season. You would order it by Copa (paper cones) and snack on it with a glass of beer or aperitif.

Next, we head to O Cerriglio – Trattoria Cucina Napoletana to try our hands on making pizza. The chef gives me a brief demo and makes it look so easy, but it isn’t! I have made pizza before, but the extremely thin dough of Neapolitan Pizza Margarita needs some skills to stretch, lift, and twist without burning or forming holes. We stretch the dough with only our fingers (no roller), spread 2 tablespoons of tomato sauce, few slices of fior di latte mozzarella (cow’s milk mozzarella), sprinkle grated parmesan cheese and top with fresh basil leaves. It takes only a minute to make the pizza and another 45 seconds to bake it in this very hot brick oven reaching temperatures of 700-800F. This is why the pizza has a crunchy crust and a soft center.

pizza cooking class naples

Alberto was a wonderful guide and showed me a lot of hidden gems in the historic area that I didn’t even knew excited, even though I had been through those streets few times before. He is available for walking food tours in group sizes 1-6 booked through Context Travel.

Read more about the history of pizza.

If you have another Neapolitan speciality dish to share, leave a comment below.

A Slice of the History of Pizza Pie

Luca Varuni is a master at his craft. As head chef and owner of Varuni Napoli he swears by the freshest ingredients and uses traditional Italian techniques to create the best Neapolitan pies. Growing up in Naples, Italy, he was surrounded by Italian chefs and studied under renowned chef Enzo Coccia, head chef of the only Michelin rated pizzeria in the world. After years of experience, he has settled in Atlanta with the goal of showing everyone what real Italian food is supposed to taste like. Inside Varuni Napoli you will notice large family-styled tables as well as conventional seating for smaller parties with the aim of creating an atmosphere best fit for you desired experience. Don’t be afraid to go alone, sitting at the bar gives you a firsthand experience and a direct view of the chefs at work. Since Varuni Napoli is based on the idea of tradition, we must travel back in time to see where these traditions originated to appreciate how pizza has ended up on our dining table.

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Pizza has a complex history. Some suggest this dish started in Greece, others say Egypt, but the pizza we are familiar with today, got its start between the late 1700s and early 1800s in Naples, a city filled with the poor and working class.

The majority of the population required a quick and inexpensive meal during the day, before returning to work. Street vendors sold these flatbreads made with different toppings to satisfy the needs of workers. They were not looking for a rich or high quality meal, just a little something to tide them over during the long work hours.

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A man named Raffaele Esposito, considered by some to be the father of modern pizza, was known all over Naples to serve the most delicious pizzas. After Italy was unified, King Umberto and Queen Margherita visited Italy when Esposito was called on to make different pizzas for this royal couple. During the meal, Queen Margherita expressed her delight with the flatbread covered with mozzarella, basil and tomatoes (to represent the three colors of the Italian flag) so much that they named the pizza after Queen Margherita. After approval from the queen, the popularity of pizza grew and expanded beyond the borders of Italy.

Similar to Queen Margherita, Luca Varuni is also passionate about margherita pizza. He says here in this interview, “You can tell the quality and authenticity of a pizza place by the quality and authenticity of the margherita.” He proudly explains that the cheese, sauce and olive oil for his pizzas are all from the region of Naples.

During the late 19th century, many Europeans moved to the United States of America searching for factory jobs where the Neapolitans started family-run pizzerias. Americans couldn’t get enough of this Italian novelty as it spread quickly all over the country. Once pizza made it’s way to US, Gennaro Lombardi opened the first documented pizzeria in New York City in 1905, which still operates today. Pizza is a simple dish that started as a snack for peasants, and is now devoured by young and old people all over the world. There are hundreds of pizzerias all over the United Sates, but the Gayot Guide recently named Varuni Napoli as one of the top pizzerias in Atlanta for 2015.

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Pizza with Pizzazz

Instead of going out with friends for dinner, this Saturday night, I decided to host a pizza party at home. It wasn’t your typical order delivery and drink beer, rather a more mature and sophisticated pizza party for refined adults.

I bought fresh ingredients including pizza dough and toppings to make two different kinds of pizzas. The guests got a hands-on lesson in pizza making and were in the kitchen making pizza. We talked and cooking over a bottle of Chianti, making the evening more enjoyable and relaxed.

The first one we made was an eggplant goat cheese and pesto pizza. First, we sliced 1 medium eggplant into ¼ inch slices and lightly fried them in olive oil, until brown on both sides. Meanwhile, we finely chopped 3 cloves of garlic and rolled out our pizza dough onto a pizza stone. We first coated the sides of the pizza dough with olive oil, and then sprinkled the chopped garlic on top. The fried eggplant slices were arranged in a circle so that the entire surface was covered. This went in a 375F oven for 15 minutes. While we waited, we made a quick pesto using Knorr pesto sauce mix. Just followed the directions on the package. We then sprinkled the sauce over the pizza and added about 3 oz crumbled goat cheese. Now it was time to let it bake for another 15-20 minutes or until the crust was golden brown.

The second pizza was relatively simple as you didn’t need to cook the toppings. We used multi-grain dough to make the base. This time we used Knorr’s four cheese sauce mix and spread it evenly on the rolled out dough. We first baked the pizza throughout for 30-40 minutes until golden brown on the edges. For the toppings, we sprinkles ½ cups finely chopped purple onions, 2 tablespoon capers and 6 oz sliced smoked salmon. (You could even add fresh arugula leaves to it if you like.) This was our smoked salmon pizza.

Both pizzas were significantly different from each other and what you traditionally eat at pizzerias, but were delicious! The guests enjoyed it, learned something new and had a memorable dinner experience. It’s another example of how you can makeover a regular family meal into something with more pizzazz.