Eating in Naples: How to make it just like mama

When in Naples, do as the Neapolitans do. Eat. All the time. And do it with joy. Food writer Carla Capalbo explores one of Italy's great gastronomic cities

My friend Rosaria lives on the fourth floor of a narrow, busy street in the heart of Naples. There's no lift up to her flat and she's not as young as she used to be. So whenever she needs a few things from the greengrocer or a freshly baked roll for her morning caffe latte, she steps out on to the balcony overlooking the street and calls down in a piercing, musical voice to one of the shop assistants on the pavement below. She places her list in a sturdy basket tied to a long rope, leans over the balustrade, and lowers it down.

While she waits, she exchanges the morning's gossip with other women on the balconies around her, as they hang out washing or stoke up the tiny outdoor barbecues they grill meat on. In no time, the basket has been filled and is ready to be pulled up. "Cosi si fa a Napoli!" (This is how you do it in Naples). She delights in my amazement.

Like New York, Naples is a city where life is lived in its colourful, noisy streets. The Neapolitans give themselves over to la passeggiata - promenading - for the pleasure of being in the throng, in the key streets, Via Chiaia, Piazza del Plebiscito, Via Toledo, Via San Biagio dei Librai. It's a way to meet friends and keep up with whatever is happening. The best way to join them is to leave your valuables at home - the city's pickpockets are legendary - and go with the flow.

In the weeks before Christmas, don't miss Via San Gregorio Armeno, where tiny botteghe (shops) sell the Neapolitan hand-made figurines that people the presepe or nativity scenes that Campanian families recreate in their homes. They are remarkably elaborate. Their charm is in the minuscule, realistic details that reveal everyday peasant life: Lilliputian baskets of figs and persimmons, strings of sausages and tomatoes, with shepherds and fishermen, hawkers of octopus or fried seafood, all dressed in the picturesque but ragged costumes that Goethe and Dickens described on their Grand Tour visits.

Street vendors are still an important part of the Naples scene. On every corner, someone is selling fried rice balls (arancini) and the French-style potato crocché that were introduced by the Bourbons, crunchy taralli - pastry rings studded with almonds - or deep-fried fish. For those who would rather take a break to observe the smart set in their hand-made shoes and Neapolitan tailored suits, Gran Caffe La Caffettiera makes good coffee and offers a range of panini and other snacks. It's in the heart of the fanciest shopping zone and faces the giant stone lions in Piazza dei Martiri - wittily nicknamed Piazza dei Gaga by the writer Raffaele La Capria for the pretentious toffs that frequented it.

My personal passion is for Neapolitan pastries, so I make a daily stop nearby at Pasticceria Moccia - it faces a lovely, small, morning street market in Via Achille Torelli. Moccia features the whole range of sweets, from the airiest of rum-soaked babas to pastry shells stuffed with lemon-scented crema and baroque spiralled sfogliatelle filled with ricotta, semolina and candied citrus. At Christmas, the speciality is struffoli: grape-size, deep-fried dough balls dipped in honey, formed into high pyramids, and decorated with hundreds-and-thousands in a recipe that may date back to the ancient Greeks.

The Neapolitan mix of cultures and origins is not limited to pastries. Part of the fascination of the city is the discovery of monumental churches and imposing sculptures in its most densely populated, run-down areas. With a good eye, or a guide, you can uncover vestiges of all the important civilisations that have occupied Naples and Campania, its surrounding region: Greek, Roman, Moorish, Gothic, Byzantine, Angevin and Aragonese, Spanish Viceroy and Bourbon, right up to that "other foreign power", the royal House of Savoy, with its seat in Piedmont. The unification of Italy may have been achieved officially in 1861 but, as any modern traveller to Italy will attest, the regions have remained distinct in custom and cuisine.

Campania is no exception, and is one of the richest in culinary terms. This is the home of buffalo mozzarella, pizza, limoncello and dried pasta. In 1971, Waverley Root, the pioneering American food writer, described how, in 1929, he acquired "a distaste for macaroni, at least in Naples, for its insalubrious courtyards were jungles of it. Limp strands hung over clothes lines to dry, flies settled to rest on the exposed pasta, pigeons bombed it from overhead, children invented games to play with it, and the large dog population, finding itself short of lampposts, put up with what it could find. But have no fear today: macaroni and spaghetti are now made indoors in spick-and-span automated factories." Indeed, the town of Gragnano, just an hour's drive from Naples, is home to some of Italy's best slow-drying artisan pasta, made in dozens of shapes and sizes.

Whichever way the political winds blow here, nothing can shake the Neapolitans' optimism, or their commitment to the native foods. Eavesdrop on a conversation between businessmen at a nearby lunch table and they'll probably be discussing whose mother makes the best tomato ragu, or comparing the local contadini (farmers) they visit for the most saporito (tasty) pecorino cheese and home-grown hazelnuts. Admire the sea-creatures depicted in the marvellous mosaic floors from Pompeii that are displayed at the Museo Archeologico in Naples, then visit the market in Porta Nolana: the fresh fish are just as weird and wonderful. The ancient Romans coined the phrase "Campania felix" for the countryside surrounding Naples, where crops could be grown effortlessly four times per year in the mineral-rich volcanic soils. To taste those same flavourful vegetables, have a meal at Ristorante Pizzeria L'Europeo near the station, or Trattoria La Chiacchierata near Piazza Plebiscito. They offer strictly seasonal dishes drawn from la cucina povera (peasant cooking) and are run by personable Neapolitan families.

If it's pizza you're after - and in Naples you should be - you can choose from the simplest, bare-bones pizzerie, where fragrant, soft-crusted pizzas, topped with fresh mozzarella and cherry tomatoes and baked in wood-burning ovens have been elevated to cult status (but you're unlikely to find as much as a side salad). Try Da Michele, Di Matteo or Pizzeria del Presidente.

For a wider choice in more comfortable and attractive surroundings, it's always fun to eat at Ristorante Pizzeria Da Umberto. This is a lively, busy restaurant favoured by Neapolitan families, where heaped antipasti trays of vegetables and fritti precede fine pizzas or pasta, with fish or meat for secondi, and the inevitable array of desserts. If you want to go a little further afield, take a cab up to the elegant residential area of Posillipo, along the Neapolitan seafront, to Al Poeta. I love its spaghetti with frutti di mare - assorted seafood - and simply baked or grilled fish, but it also has pizzas. The wine list is impressive here, as are the desserts, and the romantic views over the bay towards Vesuvius along the way are worth the trip.

Carla Capalbo was born in New York and brought up in London and Paris. She now lives in Italy. Her latest book, 'The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania' (Pallas Athene, £14.95) is the first comprehensive gastronomic guide to this region. It includes more than 600 artisan food and wine producers, restaurants, pastry shops, agriturismi and other sources of the best food in the area

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