So say the Neapolitans. I, who know them well, as their adopted daughter for more than fifteen years, I know that they have taken this proverb very seriously.
There is no hole in Naples where there is not someone to sell you something to eat, from the smallest nucella to the pizza that overflows off the side of the plate, from the super-restricted coffee to the casatiello that weighs as much as a two-year-old.
Because you know, the cliché wants the Neapolitan caciarone (someone who likes to enjoy life lazily), exaggerated, massively exaggerated.
“And what is the problem?” he would say, “That’s the way we are, that is, take it or leave it!”
The fact is that such a city cannot be explained. Naples is taken or left, as well as its inhabitants, worker ants always in a hurry, with their heads full of whirling ideas.
There is genius in their irreverent joviality, in that Neapolitan attitude to create and solve problems. All this passion finds its best expression in food and precisely in order not to live fast, literally or otherwise, food perfectly reflects the nature of those who create it.
It would be easy to talk about pizza, yet, in this case, the emphasis is on another type of offer, another way of living and enjoying the culinary tradition of Naples.
I’m talking about street food, but not contemporary: I want the street food that existed before its name was invented, that of the hot tarallo and Peroni beer, that of père ‘o musso sale e limone, of the fried paranza cuoppo, olives wrapped like goldfish from fairs. I want food that makes my hands dirty and I want to eat it like the real pros, on the street and on my feet, maybe even without a handkerchief.
So what do you do? You go for kiosks, shacks, chalets, traveling carts and so on and so forth and, with these premises, the first place to be explored is certainly the seafront of Mergellina.
People always go to Mergellina: in summer, in winter, when it rains, when it is hot, especially when it is hot. Matilde Serao, the inimitable cantóra of wonders of Naples, described the poverty which, centuries ago, struck the people of the warehouses near the port, hungry and therefore full of talent. Neapolitan cuisine is rich in recovered recipes and that of tarallo is not excluded: derived from the leftovers of bread dough, because nothing could be thrown away, pepper and a little lard were added to it, tasty ingredients that cost little. Later, the tarallo n’zogna e pepe was enriched with almonds, defining the modern hot tarallo that can be found everywhere. Once upon a time there were tarallari, today it is enough to take two steps in the Mergellina neighborhood.
Obviously tarallo, pepper, sea and heat call for ice cold beer.
The kiosks and chalets (which no, they have nothing to do with the mountain) have colonized the seafront, carts that have taken root and have now settled into a fixed abode with a guaranteed view of Vesuvius. They sell everything, but what interests me is another specialty, the exponent of Neapolitan street food par excellence: ‘o père e’ o musso. To be honest, it must be said that it is also consumed in Molise and in the province of Foggia, but its origins are all from Campania.
As the name itself implies, it is the pig’s leg and the calf’s snout that are popularly served accompanied by the four stomachs of the calf, including tripe. I have heard that connoisseurs prefer the so-called centopelle, or omas, a part of the stomach of ruminants. Seeing it always reminds me a little of Doctor Zoidberg, but they assure me it’s delicious. In Mergellina you can find a small cart that serves père e ‘or musso still sprinkled with salt from the horn.
Not infrequently, the most generous also add lupini, olives and chili. By lupini I don’t mean the small clams, but that nice yellow legume with a rounded shape that should be eaten by gnawing and cracking it.
They can be found everywhere in kiosks, in plastic bags immersed in their brine. A curiosity: despite being originally from Eastern countries, they have found a favorable environment for growth also in the Mediterranean, where they are successfully cultivated especially in southern Italy. In particular, there is a variety of lupini, the so-called lupinone di Vairano, which has even been elected as a slow food presidium. A food that immediately reminds you of summer, right? In my area, but I bet it is a widespread custom elsewhere too, we let them dry out and then use them as number markers for the bingo cards.
At this point, however, it’s time to move elsewhere. We abandon the turquoise shores to make our inexorable ascent. Next stop: historic center.
I don’t want to upset anyone, but this is not the place to talk about fried pizza, pizza a portafoglio, frittatine e crocché. It is true that when you say Naples, you say pizza, but my research runs on other tracks today. This is why I want to give credit to another wonder of Neapolitan street food: la parigina. First of all, Paris has nothing to do with it. This sort of rustic pizza speaks the dialect because it seems to have been born in the royal kitchens of Naples by the hand of a monsù (monsieur), a French cook who had conceived it as a snack for Queen Maria Carolina of Habsburg-Lorraine. It was then refined in preparation by his disciples and later by the Neapolitans themselves.
It is bread dough richly stuffed with tomato sauce, cooked ham and provolone and topped with a layer of puff pastry.
It’s bar food, or that of a rotisserie, no frills, no influencer aspirations. It is the lunch of university students, of hasty workers; it is the somewhat underestimated cousin of the classic margherita pizza. But I know that there are those who agree with me and who love the parigina more than anything and above all, the final finger lick is guaranteed.
I know, however, that I can do better, Naples can do better, and to find out what I am referring to, we need to go into the truthfulness, the Neapolitan tradition, more precisely in the Porta Capuana district. Here, even today, resilient to every change, to every McDonaldian cementation, we can find his majesty ‘o bror ‘e purpo. You just have to ask for Pasquale and let him take control.
The rich had the meat broth, the poor had the octopus broth. Giuseppe Marotta, a famous Italian writer of the last century, described it as follows: “It is marine tea, it tastes like rock, seaweed, phosphorus, the beard of tritons, the armpits (or worse) of mermaids, of wonderful or obscene Greek mythology “.
It is nothing more than octopus cooked in its water with oil, lemon, parsley, salt and pepper. In ancient times it was sold in cups as a remedy for the cold and if you were lucky you could even get a piece of tentacle which, in jargon, was called ranfetella. In fact, at the beginning, sea water was used to cook it. Today these practices are obviously no longer adopted, but the tradition of the cup has remained. It could be said that octopus broth is the forerunner of Neapolitan sea street food, followed by fried fish, fried cod and anchovies, seaweed zeppoline, baby octopus alla luciana, and mussel soup.
The octopus broth is simple, genuine, poor. A sort of minimal cacciucco.
To sum up, a cup of sea between your fingers.
After all this goodness, it’s probably time to digest. I said that the cliché wants the typical Neapolitan caciarone, exaggerated, and the next street food amply demonstrates this. However, more than a street food it is a street drink, to which different names have been assigned: some call it lemon juice, someone sciacquapanza, others still, and the one I prefer, gazzosa a cosce aperte (gazzosa with open legs).
They have theatricality in their blood, the art of knowing how to get by, and they make no secret of it: modern times provide us with all sorts of medicines for digestion, while the ancient ones instead provide cold sparkling water, lemon juice and a scant teaspoon of bicarbonate which, when mixed together quickly, create a frothy whirlwind to be swallowed quickly and, precisely, with open legs so as not to get dirty. This panacea for every stomach ache still exists and is the prerogative of old acquaioli or aquafrescai. The former were none other than penniless young people who, in order to invent a profession, thought it best to sell the most precious commodity of all: water. In fact, in the early 1900s, it was common to come across their itinerant carts, strategically placed near theaters, walking streets, offices and markets. The latter, a natural evolution of the luck and cunning of the former, instead of ambulating, placed themselves in kiosks, little more than tiny niches wedged between the buildings, adorned with lemons and oranges.
Thanks to their inventiveness we owe the birth of the sciacquapanza, the pyrotechnic digestive. The wisest will warn you: as soon as the baking soda begins to foam in the glass, you need to drink it all in one go. Guaranteed liberation, especially if after the salty foods you venture to taste one of the many prêt-à-manger sweets of the Neapolitan tradition, those that will inexorably dirty your hands: graffe, babà, curly and short pastry sfogliatelle, fiocchi di neve (snowflakes), delizie al limone (lemon delights), tarts with wild strawberries and cream.
Today the acquafrescai remaining in Naples can be counted on the fingertips. The best advice I can give you is to take advantage of it, even if only for the show that will come out of it.
My glorious ascent therefore can only end at Vomero.
In Naples street food is not mentioned in vain without mentioning zeppole e panzarott. The streets of the city are full of them and, especially in the provincial towns, there are often real street vendors who exclusively sell these two delicacies. The zeppole are nothing more than fried pizza dough and the panzarotti are small cylinders of dough made with mashed potatoes, parsley, salt, pepper and grated cheese, in a nutshell a sort of poor crocché. The secret of their crunchiness remains a secret: it is not breaded, there is no flour, there is no egg, but they are very fragrant. The real pros have well thought of concentrating their efforts: take a zeppola, open it and slap inside a panzarott. Afterwards you will have your hands full of oil, but this is the purpose.
Traditionally they are served in the cuoppo, the classic paper straw funnel. Centuries ago it was called “a otto” because the sellers, given the poverty of the Neapolitan people who did not want to give up good food, deferred payment for up to eight days from the time of purchase. Today the cuoppo has become a delight, but at the time, as Matilde Serao said, it used to be made of various fried “leftovers” from panzerotti small fish called fragaglia which are leftovers from the bottom of the fishmongers’ baskets […] a piece of artichoke, or a core of cabbage, or a fragment of anchovies.
You should be hungry by now. Traditional Neapolitan cuisine is full of dishes that have a particular vocation for the street and it would be impossible to name them all. What I can suggest is to get lost: get lost in the streets of Naples, follow the scents, follow the crowd. Stop as much as possible to ask, to listen, with your ears and with your heart. The true soul of the city can be found in its alleys, where the scent of fried and sautéed becomes a guest like you and accompanies you by the hand. And eat and drink without worries, because, as they say in Naples, “quatto cose te fanno cunzula’: ‘a femmena, l’argiamma, ‘o suonno…e ‘o magnà” (Four things can console you: ‘a woman, money, sleep and to eat!’)
Chioschetto da Sasà
Taralli caldi Nas’e can’
Friggitoria Osteria Mediterranea
Cca’ sta ‘a figlia do’ Luciano (Pasquale)
Lello delle granite
L’acquafrescaio di Piazza Trento e Trieste
Pizzeria Di Matteo
Antica Pasticceria Carraturo
Friggitoria Verace Napoli
Sfogliatelle Calde Attanasio UNICA SEDE
Photography by Francesco Sammarco