Finding a Seat at Parthenope’s Table
Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink—that’s how I can best describe my first failed dining attempts in Napoli several years ago. Everybody unabashedly lauds the embarrassment of gastronomic riches that is Napoli and yet when left to my own devices, I struggled to find a seat at the proverbial table. Perhaps it was sensory overload. Perhaps it was abject ignorance. All I know is that as I winded down the famed Spaccanapoli that slices through the historic center of town, I felt oddly left out. With mounting hunger and surging confusion, I ended up at a kitschy red sauce joint that could just as easily have been found in New York’s Little Italy or even more disturbingly Epcot Center. The food was spectacularly average – a gluey ragù carelessly tossed over flaccid pre-cooked rigatoni, a grilled meat of unknown provenance and a sad plate of seasonal fruit. All of this I enjoyed while drinking a glass of swilly red wine and silently screaming: IS THAT ALL THERE IS?
There are many such restaurants and trattorie that spackle the historic backstreets of Naples. They offer a mishmash of pan-Italian food that is neither regionally Neapolitan nor particularly delicious. I suppose, like dining establishment across all of Italy, these trattorie offer the type of ubiquitously soulless cuisine that one eats at an Olive Garden or a Macaroni Grill. Food romantic that I am, I found this all vaguely unsettling on my first forays into Naples’ labyrinthine dining scene. I wanted real Neapolitan food. I wasn’t really sure what it was. All I knew is that I would recognize it when I ate it.
What many of us neophyte Neapolitan diners want is an experience straight out of the old Vittorio de Sica film L’Oro di Napoli—a rustic little trattoria in which Sophia Loren pummels pizza dough with gusto and hordes of little scugnizzi (street urchins) hawk contraband cigarettes nearby in narrow back alleys. Instead, what we often get is a depressing plate of pre-cooked pasta artlessly drenched in red sauce and a drab view of the omnipresent photographic shrines to the unofficial saints of Naples – Sophia Loren and Totò.
If legend is to be trusted, Napoli was founded when the siren Parthenope drowned herself in the sea after her songs failed to ensnare Odysseus on his journey through the Mediterranean. Parthenope’s lifeless body washed ashore on the island of Megaride, now home to the ancient Castel dell’Ovo and site of the original foundation of Napoli. When the first Greek mariners settled Napoli, they named their town Parthenope in the siren’s honor. Three thousand years later, Napoli, remains insouciant as ever. Perhaps that is what makes chasing Napoli’s moveable feast particularly illusive and all the more enjoyable.
Ferreting out the truly great restaurants amidst all of the colorless culinary cacophony, is the hard part about dining in this city. It is not that there is a paucity of really good trattorie in Napoli. In fact, amazing little culinary treasures are literally everywhere, often hidden in plain sight. It is just that Neapolitan cuisine, as with nearly every aspect of life here, reveals itself in time. Lazy metaphors about onions and Russian matryoshka dolls aside, getting to know the real Napoli (whatever she may be), is a real b*tch. While I won’t purport to be the expert (I’ll leave that distinction to true authorities such as Luciano Pignataro), I have discovered my tried and true so called tricks of the trade. I share them with you, as I firmly believe that with time, we all deserve a seat at Parthenope’s table. Join me in the coming weeks as I explore Napoli’s trattorie, pizzeria, openair markets and bakeries, writing and eating every step of the way.