Fish in Naples is an obvious choice. Pizza does tend to steal the spotlight a bit, but a city that sits so proudly on the sea should surely have an abundance of seafood options… Spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) is in plentiful supply, as is paccheri al coccio (another pasta dish, this time made with tomatoes, paccheri pasta and the white-fleshed coccio fish). There’s lots on offer from fritto misto to calamari and mussels. Then there’s aqua pazza, a Neapolitan speciality of white fish gently poached in a broth of tomatoes, olive oil and olives (depending on the region of course). But something a little different and unexpected, and just as Neapolitan as all those dishes listed above, is pesce crudo (raw fish)–not sushi, not smoked, just very fresh indeed and eaten with bread, raw vegetables or (as they do at Pescheria Mattiucci) a selection of specially paired fruit.
Neopolians have a very particular relationship with the sea. The city is perched right on the coast, parts of it practically tumbling into the sea. Set off on an early morning stroll along the lungomare, and you’ll see the rocks strewn with locals, hiding under candy striped umbrellas or off for a swim. Return in the evening and the same applies. The stream of boats toing and froing from the main harbour has quieted down and couples–from the very young to the very old and really everyone in between–hang out between the brightly painted wooden fishing boats, which bob up and down on their moorings. It may be a city, but the water in the bay is still clear enough to spot shoals of fish passing by.
The city came into being when the Greeks settled on the land at the edge of the bay in the second century. Some years later, in the sixth century, Naples was renamed Neapolis (meaning “new city”) by the Greeks and the name (more or less) stuck. An important trading hub, Naples had a more than convenient location in the centre of the Mediterranean and remained a commercial stronghold for the Romans and later the Normans and the Spanish. Fishing too was hugely important to the city’s economy and during the time that the Greeks occupied the land, several small ports along the bay were dedicated to catching and trading different types of fish.
Fishing, unsurprisingly, was therefore a way of life and a livelihood for a vast proportion of the city’s population. Today, you can see the practice is still popular (whether for sport or for work) as droves of fishermen head off from the bay daily. In some nearby villages, fishermen even go out at night on the hunt for anchovies–best attracted (and caught) with a light in the dark. It’s a good thing Neapolitans enjoy eating fish as much as searching for it.
Pescheria Mattiucci restaurant in Naples Campania in Italy
On my own search for pesce crudo, the air was heavy and humid as I wandered down the backstreets towards the affluent Chiaia district of Naples. The buildings–which are many stories high in some of the other areas of the city–seemed to have shrunk in size somewhat, making even the darkest street corners seem slightly less dubious. Several streets back from the seafront and behind the Villa Comunale gardens, I came across Pescheria Mattiucci. The restaurant’s bright interior made for a marked contrast with the dimly lit street I’d followed to reach it. A Madonna was perched upright on the counter, and a few tables were set up in a room festooned with everything fishing related: nets, baskets, fish-decorated plates, actual fish. The walls were festooned with messages of appreciation and thanks to the Mattiucci family–scrawled in blue marker pen–and the atmosphere felt as if I’d just walked into someone’s front room. Either that or a bit like an Italian seaside version of a British village pub.
Gianni Mattiucci greeted me, found me a space (actually offering up the table he had been perched at) and explained his concept of raw fish. There are other options on the menu, but the most popular dish, the one everyone comes to try, is a plate of pesce crudo. Swordfish, red and white tuna, salmon, prawns (to name just a few), all specially paired with a different type of fruit or raw vegetable–from avocado and fennel to passionfruit and pineapple–and designed to be eaten with their delicious sourdough bread, served up in a little paper bag. Slightly nervous of raw meats and fish, I decided to go for the partially-cooked tuna: “Davvero?” (“Really?”) exclaimed a shocked Gianni when he came to take my order. “Are you scared of raw fish?” I protested, to which he replied something along the lines of: “Don’t avoid the crudo because you are scared of the crudo, avoid it because you don’t feel like the crudo, not because you are scared of raw fish!” I admitted I was just a little apprehensive but, with some convincing, gave it a go. A fresh red tuna was paired with passionfruit; a soft and subtle white tuna with a finely sliced piece of fennel. Though similar to sashimi in texture, the pesce crudo tasted a whole lot less fishy than its Japanese cousin, in part because the fishes’ secondary flavours were brought out by their vegetal complements.
The family business started in 1890, when Gianni’s grandfather set up a stall selling fresh, raw fish on Via Caracciolo, a bustling street right on the seafront, overlooking the stunning bay of Naples. In the 1940s the business moved to a shop in the Quartieri Spagnoli, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the four siblings, Gianni, his two brothers and one sister, opened their shop/restaurant in Chiaia, serving pesce crudo to Napolitans and curious tourists alike. “Very fortunately I have a family business that I’m passionate about and which I love,” Gianni told me before adding, “it really makes me happy.” Fishing is a part of the family too: they have their own fishing boat and sell the whole fish from the restaurant in the morning (from 9:00 – 12:30). An hour after, the shop transitions to a restaurant for lunch and then later reopens for aperitivo in the evening.
Eating raw fish is “a traditional Campanian thing,” he assured me, “but our restaurant was the first to serve it in this way in Naples.” And it’s true, you can find pesce crudo on menus in seafood restaurants across the city–selections of oysters, raw prawns, other seafood on ice, etc–and in other restaurants that specialise in raw fish, such as Crudo Re’ (also worth a try).
So why does Naples have this liking for eating fish crudo? According to Gianni, the proximity between the sea and the city, and thus the very short amount of time between the catching of the average fish and the consuming of it, meant that historically people would just eat the fish raw without bothering to cook it: the flesh didn’t have sufficient time to go bad and pose a health risk (though it can if you’re not pretty careful about how you prepare it). Or maybe the taste of raw fish is just better here: surrounded by a relatively clean sea, Naples is bound to have fresher, tastier fish than most.
The Mattiucci method, which is as fresh as it gets, is “very simple”: just fish, salt, pepper and then either slices or a squeeze of orange or lemon… Plus the carefully curated accompaniment of raw fruit or vegetables so you can “really taste the fish.” Gianni proudly proclaims, “We have a winning formula!” And it’s true, they really do seem to know what they’re up to, serving the most unusual plates of pesce crudo in Naples.