What She’s Having
Antica Osteria da Tonino
Walking into Antica Osteria da Tonino often makes me feel strangely nostalgic without really grasping why. Of course, there are the hundreds of old photographs and frayed newspaper clippings decorating the wood paneled walls. And then the dented copper pans and ceramic wine carafes precariously hanging from rafters and balancing from shelves. All of this is not an uncommon decorative aesthetic in trattorias across Naples, and yet it is solely Tonino that causes this unpredictable feeling of yearning. A feeling that is best described by the Portuguese word, ‘saudade,’ an expression even Neapolitan writers and musicians have been known to appropriate when describing that inexplicable longing that occasionally overtakes them when walking through the hidden streets of Naples. I don’t know why I feel this way upon entering Da Tonino. Perhaps I had been there before in another life. Perhaps I will be there again. What I do know, is that when I am there, it is unequivocally where I want to be in that moment.
Antica Osteria da Tonino has been on the same quiet corner of Chiaia since 1880. I stumbled upon it one afternoon on one my first solo jaunts to Naples when I was still living in the provincial hinterlands of Agerola. At the time I was eager to discover where actual Neapolitans ate but I was too embarrassed to actually ask any of them. In fact, I am not entirely sure I knew any of them. For a long period, I lived by certain self-imposed dining dictates that amounted to: don’t eat at restaurants decorated with braids of plastic garlic, lemons and tomatoes; immediately distrust overly friendly servers; not all wood burning ovens are created equally and some of them are gas ovens masquerading in sheep’s clothing. Eventually, I would also learn that inevitably all cab drivers tell anyone who asks for a dining tip to go to Da Nennella. And while I still maintain Nennella is just about alright, I always sneakily suspected that there were other valid dining options throughout Napoli.
We are generally told to neither judge books by their covers nor wine bottles by their labels- and yet that is precisely the logic I employed when deciding to eat at Tonino that Saturday several years ago. This osteria was thankfully free of plastic garlic, overtly exuberant servers and shoddily fake brick oven. I also observed at the time that Antica Osteria da Tonino was charming without being tacky, and the menu pithy without being paltry. Not much has changed in the intervening years.
The menu is still hand-scrawled and photocopied onto sheets of white A4 paper. The service remains efficient with occasional bursts of puckish enthusiasm. And the food, well the food is likely the same as it was upon Da Tonino’s inception over 130 years ago- uncomplicated and terrific. I don’t even usually bother reading the menu. I hungrily look at what others are eating and then shout to no waiter in particular, “I’ll have what she’s having…….”
Their ragùs never change and that’s the way I like it. Many restaurants throughout the world have alternately received acclaim for the cotton candy Parmesan foams and hyper-local foraged lichen featured on their menus. Barring the arrival of a Neapolitan Massimo Bottura on the scene, Napoli remains the gastronomic antidote to the avant-garde. Osteria da Tonino, firmly planted in the firmament of Naples’ old guard, unapologetically serves the same red sauced based dishes it has for years.
There are no surprise, riffs, takes, interpretations or creations on its menu. Order the ragù and you will receive a wide shallow bowl of ridged rigatoni slow braised in meat sauce, flecked with ricotta and topped with a decorative leaf of basil. It costs 5 euro and for an additional 3 euro, you can also enjoy with a ¼ liter of wine. There are also the lentils simmered in spinach, which I often order because they make me feel virtuous and old legend says that lentils bring fortune. I forgo antipasti, instead, heading straight for the pasta and occasionally following with a portion of braciole (meat rolls) or the carne alla pizzaiola.
There is nothing intrinsically unique about Da Tonino’s militantly traditional menu, yet it is precisely that adherence to tradition that makes this Osteria if not unique, then special. It is the sort of place many of us in Napoli often take for granted. It is also the kind of place that we immediately miss when we travel or move abroad. Da Tonino is my Saturday afternoon ritual, and this little corner of Chiaia has been offering the same dishes to the same generations of families for years.
On my latest visit, a server at Da Tonino sat a young Neapolitan couple at a four-top table with my husband and me. (Yes, it gets crowded so either prepare to wait or share a table.) They had recently returned to Naples after living in London for the past year. I know that not because they told me but because I eavesdropped. Nobody can ever accuse me of not acting like a local. When their plates arrived, the young woman sighed, “This is what I missed. Finally, a decent plate of pasta.” I offered her my unsolicited solace when I told our server, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Antica Osteria da Tonino is located at Via S. Teresa a Chiaia, 47, 80121 Napoli