Chow Report: Napoli / Naples
Best pizza: Da Michele; all other DOC pizzas made with inferior tasting ingredients, and too much of them.
We were thrilled to get to eat pizza in Napoli, but when the rubber met the road just being a certified "Vera Pizza Napolitana" joint was almost meaningless. Yes, the ingredients and method are roughly correct, but that has no bearing on whether the mozzarella was fit for a king or fit for dogs, and the ultimate pizzas varied accordingly. Maybe things are better during summer months with fresh tomatoes, but during our visit in January I was generally struck by how simple and vaguely unpleasant the tomato sauce was in flavor structure.
The best by far was at the venerable Da Michele, Via Cesare Sersale 3, Napoli. They only make 2 or 3 types, the pizzas weren't oversized, the prices slightly higher than elsewhere. The smaller pizza, fewer toppings, and marginally higher prices seemed to translate directly into increased ingredient quality, and it really helped matters. For the record, most of the places that disappointed us with cheaper pies of dubious ingredient quality were on either Via dei Tribunali or Via San Biagio dei Librai, west of Via Duomo.
Sadly, none of the pizzas compared well to what Zuni restaurant turns out in San Francisco during the lunch service, but then again Zuni's pizza is twice the price...yet the ingredient quality is what edges it above what we found in Naples. In trying to find Da Michele's location after the fact, I came across this web page, which perfectly captures my feelings on pizza in Napoli:
We had an excellent and expensive lunch at Ristorante President in Pompei. Among other things, we each had a different Paccheri pasta dish, which is like a large rigatoni. Frankly, it's a tube of dried pasta and the sauce makes or breaks the dish; I'd take fresh pasta any time over paccheri, but it's the local specialty so we gave it a go. Our first choice restaurants were closed for the season, and a tip for anyone visiting the ruins: there is no in and out, so you can't spend the morning in the ruins, go have lunch, and then come back without paying a second time. Welcome to Italy.
For dinner in Napoli, we ended up at Ristorante Bellini. General frustration with the slow food guide's slim pickings, lack of research, tiredness, and the day of the week (Sunday) found us seated upstairs at Ristorante Bellini. On the way in, we noticed a great display of fresh seafood, primarily clams (vongole), larger clams, and mega clams with a red-orange "tongue" lazing out of the shells. My spaghetti with vongole was pretty good, though it didn't have any of the other shellfish I had attempted to try with my order, so I bugged the waiters with my bad Italian until they understood I was asking about the other shellfish. That produced an utterly amazing cooked frutti di mare containing vongole, the larger clams called taratufi, and the largest clams, perhaps 1.5-2" across with the red-orange filter which are called fasolari. They were swimming in savory sauce with perfect fresh croutons to provide a crispy/savory/oily counterpoint to the gently cooked bivalves. Sadly, one of the staff at the restaurant stole my credit card info and racked up fraudulent charges the following day until my card hit the limit. Lesson to learn: always pay in cash in Napoli. Always.
Paying cash is always the best policy - not just in naples, all over Europe. Fortunately there are plenty of ATMS around. Its apparently a common scam in Paris too.
Im curious, did you try the pizza at di Mattei or Sorbillo on via Tribunali? I thought the di Mattei's crust was the best ever - the cheese on the margherita was disappointingly leathery and the sauce too watery, but the arugula/bresaola piewas excellent. At Sorbillo, I had a pie with bitter greens on it which was a wonderful meal - crust a little less wonderful but still excellent. Sometimes lack of purity has its reward.
I got to eat at a couple of slow food places in Napoli- had very good but very simple meals there, but its a problem on weekends in the center- with many restaurants not open. I think there is getting to be a bit of a problem with overly low price parameters for the slow food guide - I hope they can up their meal prices a bit and pull in more true restaurants.
Re Pompeii, yes you take a risk leaving the site - I went out on the side nr the amphitheatre and the town - not near the RR sta - to have my lunch and I was lucky, the guys took pity and let me back in without paying, but you certainly cant count on that.
re: jen kalb
Both di mattei and Sorbillo ring bells; do you mean Di Matteo? I believe the front desk at our hotel told us there are two Sorbillos, and the one further west is the better one, and thus the one we tried. We would have jumped on pies with bitter greens, but we must have missed them on the menus somehow. If I'm thinking of the correct Sorbillo, it had the worst pie, and we felt like we were paying for the marginally upscale interior at the expense of the food.
Yes, Di Matteo. It is the one with the highest rep on that strip but the seating is not obvious (its upstairs vs on street level for Il Presidente, maybe others.)
the Sorbillo I went to was toward the quiet Piazza Dante end of that stretch of Via Tribunali - I think the pizza that has broccoli rabe , was I think salsicca e friarelli (what they call the broccoli rabe there) - it had fresh mozz and was great. I was alone (on Sat night) and appreciated the slightly better atmosphere - sorry you had a less satisfactory experience, mine was very good. indeed.
Both the pies I had and liked were white pies FWIW. I thought the neapolitan tomatoes and tomato sauces were terrific - we were there in march and they were still selling/using those slightly dried tomatoes on the vine.
Thanks for the report, and a reminder of Bellini--they make good pizza, too, and sell it to hungry driveby vespas during lunch as well. By the way, I'm not sure why you expected fresh tomatoes on your pizza; except for the occasional special made with, usually cherry tomatoes, pizza in Naples is made with simply crushed pelati, or canned plum tomatoes, and not a sauce. I second the vote for Da Michele. BTW, I'd not expect too much fresh pasta in Naples, where pasta asciutta reigns supreme, except for scialatelli, a tagliatelle shape often made with herbs and served with seafood; paccheri are the current showpiece,and also a standard with the Sunday ragu. Sad to hear about the credit card--never had a problem with anything fiscal in all our trips there. Meno male.
To respond to both comments, I wasn't expecting fresh tomatoes during winter--canned is better anyway if it isn't the season. I was just disappointed by how simple the sauce was...it didn't taste like there was any effort to season it in most places.
Dried pasta: the staff at numerous locations pushed the Paccheri as a regional specialty of which they were proud...so we tried it...and it was no more and no less than average dried pasta, though the shapes were so large and smooth that they don't really pick up much sauce. Some of the high-end Italian bronze-die-pressed dry pastas have much more flavor and better surface texture than the Paccheri we sampled.
As a European often using credit cards in Europe I have to say that "Paying cash is always the best policy - not just in naples, all over Europe" is pure nonsense. Please do not be discouraged by an incident.
Secondly on the dried pasta: from the Italian perspective one isn't better than the other. The use of either one depends mostly on the choice of sauce. Only the filled ones (ravioli etc.) are usually always fresh in the better places, but being served for example a carbonara with dried spagettoni in a good restaurant is perfectly fine. It is a non-Italian idea that fresh pasta is always the better choice. Though, if you love fresh pasta more on all occasions, enjoy your own preference.
Same for the pasta shapes (spagetti, penne, etc.): most Italians will combine certain shapes with certain sauces and feel that not any sauce goes with any shape of pasta. Outside of Italy often all sauces are combined with all kinds of shapes...
I didn't issue a universal criticism of dried pasta, I said, "I'd take fresh pasta any time over paccheri, but it's the local specialty so we gave it a go." My mild criticism is just that I don't think that Paccheri stacks up very well; I enjoy many other types of high quality dried pasta, but Paccheri is not one I'll be looking for at my local Italian grocery importers.