The culinary relationship between the British Islands and the Italian peninsula has a history going as far back as the Romans. Today, Italian food is as popular as it is easy to find, from cooking pasta at home to ordering a pizza delivered to your door. And yet, the regional variation of Italian food can at times be confusing.
What makes a Neapolitan pizza special? Why do some restaurants identify as Italian while others as specifically something else? What gets done in a Neapolitan kitchen that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else?
Neapolitan food is typical of the food that comes from the city of Naples in Campania, on the west coast of Italy. A beautiful bay in the shadow of the volcanic Mount Vesuvius, the area
was first settled by the Ancient Greeks as long as four thousand years ago. Being an important coastal town linking Iberia and Europe to the Middle East and Africa, Naples has been a hub of different cultures trading, innovating, and experimenting with food for four millennia. From perfecting the preparation of preserved tomatoes to inventing pizza, Neapolitan food stands out so much so that what is actually uniquely Neapolitan is mistaken by many to be generically Italian. The Fine Ingredients of Campania Naples is the capital of the Italian region of Campania, arguably Italy’s most fertile agricultural region. Campania leads the whole country’s production of tomatoes, and supplies over half of all nuts produced in Italy. Campanian farms produce a huge variety of fruits and vegetables, which is why Neapolitan cuisine bursts with freshness, flavour, and colour. Neapolitan side dishes and salads draw on the unique and bountiful vegetable crop of the region. From the local friarielli (a species of Brassica Rapa growing only in Campania’s volcanic soil) to melanzane (aubergines), endive, fennel, beans, chickpeas, zucchini, pumpkins, rocket and radishes, there’s more to Neapolitan food than the ubiquitous tomato.
And yet the chefs and mamas of Naples have perfected the use of them over the ages after tomatoes came to Europe from the Americas. So beloved is the tomato, that the first time tomatoes were preserved on an industrial scale was in 19th century Naples. The Neapolitans have this down to a fine art, with a great variety of preserved tomatoes being used for different purposes. From the basic preserved peeled tomatoes to the indulgent strength of a conserva, a good Neapolitan chef knows which strength of tomato flavour is needed to make a dish just right. Campanian agriculture is not just famous for its vegetables. The unrivalled cheese Mozzarella di Bufala Campana is a Protected Designation of Origin (DOP), meaning that only a select few cheese-makers within the region of Campania can officially produce this magic mozzarella. And with good reason. Unlike the similar cheese made from cow’s milk (‘fior di latte’ ) many of us might call mozzarella, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana is made from the milk of Italian water-buffalo. Raised and fed on the unique grasses and nutrient profile of Campania, this creamy white gold delights the senses from first sight to last taste. It’s also richer in nutrients, with a higher protein and fat content than fior di latte, and a good mix of probiotics too!
A Cosmopolitan City of the Sea For centuries, Naples has attracted peoples from all over the world to enjoy the sun, the sea, and the fantastic food. Curiously, and perhaps confusingly, some genuinely Neapolitan dishes are named for other regions. For example, the Genevese pasta sauce is famously Neapolitan – likely first prepared by Genoan immigrants to Naples in the Renaissance – and not associated with Genoa today in anything but name. Being a coastal city also means that the bounty of the sea is fundamental to Neapolitan cuisine. From fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar and olive oil, small fishes lightly battered and fried, to octopus salad, Neapolitan seafood dishes are elegant and simple. Neapolitans also know the secrets of the seas abundance, combining clams or mussels with sweet juicy tomatoes to make fantastic seafood pastas. Like their working with vegetables, the focus of Neapolitan seafood remains on the freshness of the ingredients. No Neapolitan worth their sea-salt would settle for anything less fresh than today’s catch. If you wander the busy streets of Naples’ historic centre, there are hundreds of shops purveying street-food unique to the city.
A Neapolitan crocchè with friarielli, deep fried zucchini flowers, or a small street pizzetta, are the perfect snack when wandering Naples's streets. Similarly enticing are the various cakes and pastries that adorn shop windows. The sponge cake soaked in rum and syrup - the babà - is one particular favourite. Pizza, the Healthy Way But of course, the most famous and important Neapolitan food is the pizza. For centuries, people all around the Mediterranean have been eating flat bread topped with oils, herbs, and cheese. But it was in Naples where the first use of tomatoes is said to have occurred. And indeed, the most widely known pizza, the Marghertia, is said to have been made in Naples to honour Queen Marghertia, and bears the colours of the Italian flag: red tomatoes, white mozzarella, and green basil. But while pizza today is often viewed as an unhealthy indulgence, a meal reserved for a cheat day or to be eaten at home and out of sight, Neapolitan pizza is surprisingly healthy. The pizza dough is crafted with great care to be light and subtle. The toppings are generally kept light and simple, with fresh vegetables and quality ingredients a priority. Traditional Neapolitan pizza is only ever cooked in a wood fire oven, with fried pizzas being by far the exception and never the rule. It is a much lighter, less oily, dish than many of the generic fried pizzas one finds all over the world today. Care, Attention, and Love But like all Italian cuisine, what makes Neapolitan food such a fantastic experience is the care, attention, and love, that goes into every aspect of the food. The true art of Neapolitan cuisine is the good judgement in selecting from Campania’s generous bounty, and refining the ingredients through careful preparation to the point where the uniqueness of one dish or ingredient can enthral all of the senses. From the cultivation of quality ingredients, using just the right amount of seasoning, and preparing the food with an eye no less vigilant than any decent Italian mama, makes true Neapolitan food more than just a meal, it always also an act of love.