Tag Archives: Naples

Dreamy Capri

Sometimes when I’m a million miles away in daydream-land (or Pei-land, as I like to call it), I think about sitting in a nice beach chair on a beautiful little island and enjoying the sun, eating endless amounts of incredible food.

Then not so long ago, I went to Pei-land…

The Italian island of Capri does not have sandy beaches, but elegant high rocky cliffs. Continue reading

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Food Explainer: Buffalo Mozzarella

What exactly is buffalo mozzarella? Mozzarella cheese made in Buffalo, New York– much like the city’s alleged “buffalo” wings perhaps?

This time, buffalo literally means buffalo. Buffalo mozzarella, or mozzarella di bufala, is a rich cheese that is made from domestic water buffalo milk. Water buffalo milk provides higher levels of protein, fat and minerals than cow’s milk, which contributes to the cheese’s high quality, fresh deliciousness. Buffalo mozzarella is produced in many locations around the world, but originated in Italy, where buffalo mozzarella production is still a key industry and cultural tradition. The majority of buffalo mozzarella produced in Italy comes from southern Italy– namely Salerno, Napoli, Basso Lazio, Caserta

and Foggia. It is served in salads, melted on pizzas, on top of bread, or on its own. Fresh buffalo mozzarella is very dense, but soft and can be cut easily with a knife. It still retains a lot of moisture so some liquids may come out when you cut it. Therefore, making pizzas with buffalo mozzarella often requires using types that have lower moisture content.

There are many theories on how water buffalos first arrived in Italy. It is widely believed that they were introduced to mainland Italy by Norman Kings around the year 1000, after Arabs brought them to Sicily. The presence of buffalos and their by-products have since been traced back to the 12th and 13th centuries.


Domestic water buffalo. Image from http://www.mlive.com

The name mozzarella originates from the Italian word, “mozzare”, or “to cut off”, which represents the stage in the production process where cheese makers hand-cut the freshly made cheese paste.

How it’s Made

These are the main steps for buffalo mozzarella production. For more details and photos, visit the Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP page.

1. Milk processing and curdling- Raw buffalo milk is stored, heated and then allowed to curdle by adding natural whey.  The curds are then stirred and broken up manually. The solid matter is then separated from the liquid milk.

2. Curd maturation- Curds are left in the why to ferment for 4-5 hours. When the paste is ready, as determined after a few manual tests, it is placed on a table to drain off the excess whey, cut into strips and placed into special vats.

3. Spinning- Boiling water is added to the cheese mixture and manually spun using a bowl and wooden stick. It is continuously kneaded and stretched until a homogenous paste is obtained.

4. Shaping- Shaping the cheese can be done using traditional or industrial methods. Traditional methods entail one cheese maker holding up the spun paste while another cuts it manually. Industrial cheese makers have mechanical molds. Buffalo mozzarella is usually shaped into bite-size pieces, knots, braids, or its well-known spherical shape.

5. Packaging- The cheese is packaged on-site in liquids for preservation.

How to Identify Authentic Buffalo Mozzarella from Italy

In Italy, certified buffalo mozzarella producers belong to a consortium and follow strict guidelines that ensure authenticity and freshness. In 2008, it was discovered that some uncertified buffalo mozzarella contained a high level of carcinogens, most likely from contamination caused by the illegal trash problem in Naples. Buffalo mozzarella can only be sold if it is pre-packaged at the source. By Italian law, if the cheese is packaged in a knotted bag, the manufacturer must place a seal of guarantee above the knot to prevent possible contamination.

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The Birth of Pizza

The first pizza was born when a Neapolitan visionary put  a tomato topping on flat pizza crust in the late 17th – 18th century. No cheese on the pizza….yet. Although flatbreads had been around for centuries, the Italians were the first to revolutionize plain flatbread and turn it into a versatile meal that can be modest or luxurious with the right selection of toppings. The pizza we know and love today, with oozing hot mozzarella cheese, rich tomato sauce, and toppings, evolved from its Italian ancestor, the Margherita pizza.


Old-timey Margherita pizza. myyyya ...see?

I was lucky enough to sample many varieties of pizza in several restaurants during my time in Naples- one of the benefits of traveling with other fellow pizza lovers who don’t mind sharing!

Pizzeria Brandi

Salita Sant’Anna di Palazzo, 1 (small street off of Via Chiaja), 80132 Napoli, Italia

Tucked away on a tiny side street is Pizzeria Brandi- where it all began in 1780. We are presented with royal blue menus with super fancy script font that takes forever to decipher, but indeed appears very regal. There are original pizzas and special pizzas, named after Italian icons such as Sofia Loren. Each menu has a lovely introductory story about the restaurant and how the pizza Margherita came to be.

The founder, Pietro Colicchio, first named the restaurant “Pietro…e basta cosi” (Peter… and that’s enough!).  All subsequent managers were then referred to as “Pietro”, regardless of their real names. Kind of like how all Yankees managers would be called, Joe, after Joe Torre (lucky for current manager Joe Girardi who already fits the bill), according to present-day boyfriend Pietro. In 1889, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita di Savoia requested a sampling of pizza from Pizzeria Brandi, and later declared the Margherita pizza– made with mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, and basil leaves to reflect the colors of the Italian flag–to be “excellent”. The restaurant still has the original letter framed.

But first, an appetizer of buffalo mozzarella with pomodorini and arugola leaves. No sauce, no seasonings- the mozzarella and produce have enough flavor to stand alone. The buffalo mozzarella is juicy when you cut it, since it still retains a lot of liquid from being submerged in water, and it tastes very dense and rich, but mild.

We order a few different pizzas- the Margherita, the Enrico Caruso (mozzarella, prosciutto with arugola), and a traditional seafood pizza. Beverages include red house wine and mineral water.

The Margherita pizza (below, left) definitely lives up to its name of being the first of its kind. The fresh mozzarella is melted, with some of the leftover moisture from the cheese running throughout the pizza and combining with the other ingredients. The mozzarella cheese is added in chunks and spread out, as opposed to many pizzas we see today, with cheese spread throughout the pizza and reaching the crust to produce a complete cheesy cover.

Pietro...and Pietro! Courtesy of B. Mannisi!

The Enrico Caruso pizza (above, right), named after the famous Italian tenor, features a combination of sliced pomodorini (mini tomatoes), arugola, mozzarella, and thin-sliced prosciutto (no sauce). In Italy, pizza is often eaten by cutting it with a knife and fork, which works well with this pizza since the toppings are all loose. This is a common pizza in Naples in terms of the ingredient combinations, but the freshness is what counts. There is a little too much dough for my taste, which fills me up quickly, so I cut around the crusts, and enjoy the toppings.

Present-day boyfriend Pietro gets the traditional seafood pizza (left), with a simple layer of fragrant tomato sauce and a generous helping of seafood toppings. There are baby octopuses with their eight little tentacles intact, squid, clams, mussels, and basil. When you first taste it, it almost feels like something is missing. It’s really good. But I was told this is pizza. Where is the melted pizza cheese? Well, you just have to embrace the original. I’m sure Italians come to America and think, Why is there so much cheese? Cheese everywhere! You can’t taste anything else!

Ristorante Mattozzi

Piazza Carita 2, 80134 Napoli, Italia

Founded in 1832, Ristorante Mattozzi also boasts historically amazing pizza. I order the spaghetti vongole (bottom, left), which has a little more red sauce than the previous version from Ciro a Medina. The spaghetti vongole here is, in the words of Queen Margherita di Savoia, “excellent”. The pizzas is fantastic, and has a very flavorful tomato sauce to build on. The crust is puffy and chewy, a higher crust-pizza ratio than the others.

Most pizzerias in Naples have the option of adding buffalo mozzarella for an additional charge, or offer a pizza that uses buffalo mozzarella exclusively (above, right). These pizzas are especially rich. We also get a pizza with prosciutto, tomato sauce, cheese, and basil, (left) which is great.

Pizzeria Sofi

Via Cristoforo Colombo, 3 80133 Napoli, Italia

Hunger and hunger-driven intuition leads us to Pizzeria Sofi, with surprising, yet wonderful results. We are famished after our long train ride from Bologna and decide to walk straight from our hotel to the port area of Naples to find something, anything, to eat. The pizza at Sofi is slightly different from the centuries-old pizza restaurants we tried. Its pizza crust is even thinner, with more cheese spread throughout the entire surface of the pizza. I think it is closer to the pizza we are used to today but with an a paper thin crust, high quality ingredients, and flavors that come together very organically. All in all, a terrific pizza. I dare say one of the best I’ve had in Italy so far.

I really want to try one of the anchovy pizzas, since southern Italy (namely Sicily) is known for its anchovies. It is called a pizza romana here (below), which is really strange considering most pizzas with anchovies (at least in the north) are called pizza siciliana. The pizza siciliana in opposite-world Pizzeria Sofi is an eggplant pizza. Pietro’s dad asks why pizza siciliana here has eggplant and the waiter said, “because eggplant is good in Sicily.” Fair enough!

Yummm the anchovy pizza here is incredible! Pietro orders the quattro stagioni (four seasons) pizza (below), separated into four corresponding sections with mushroom, prosciutto cotto (cooked prosciutto…really good ham, essentially), artichoke, and four cheeses. I once asked a waiter which season corresponded to which topping, and he said that it wasn’t literally a representation of four seasons but a selection of the different pizza ingredients the chef wants to put on the pizza. I guess sometimes when you really want there to be a story behind something, there is none and that’s that. Unless he just didn’t know, which is quite possible.

Trattoria Medina

Via Medina, 32 80133 Napoli, Italy

I have to bring this pizza back from the previous post (despite the poor photography on this one)- it is too good. I would just like to reiterate how fantastic fresh (not like a newly-opened Polly-O-string-cheese-wrapper type of fresh, but dripping-with-the-cheese-water-it-was-conceived-in type fresh) Italian cheese is on pizza. Particularly this ricotta. It is pretty inspirational, actually. Makes me want to experiment with making my own cheese at home. (And now that I have written it down, I guess I’ll have to follow through at some point!)

Pizza has come a long way since its humble beginnings as glorified flatbread. In the 19th century, the Florentine author of Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi, aka one of the first food “bloggers”, remarked that all of the toppings, bits of cheese, and tomato made Neapolitan pizza look just like the “complicated filth” of the city*. Although I suppose people still crack jokes about the humble pizza, (Jack Donaghy from the amazing show 30 Rock referred to it as, “greasy peasant food”), pizza has prevailed. It can be found in many corners of the world, adapted to the preferred ingredients and tastes of fans from all different countries, and in fact, it is now an (if not THE) Italian icon…right next to Sofia Loren and the famous Italian tenor Enrico Caruso that my pizza was named after.

* Capatti, Alberto and Montanari, Massimo. Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Jack Donaghy!

Check out this pizza from Japan, at 646 calories a slice:

Looks like America better step it up!


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Naples: Southern Charm…or Dirty South?

The southern port city of Naples, or Napoli in Italian, evokes very polarized views among travelers, Neapolitans, and northern Italians. Founded by the Greeks in the 9th century B.C., it is a city that has evolved through a long history of conquests and shifts in civilization, religion, and culture. On the train ride to meet up with Pietro’s family in Naples, I sit next to an older Italian gentleman who starts asking about my trip. During our conversation, I ask whether or not he is from Naples. He looks at me incredulously and laughs at my stupidity, “What? Naples?! Ohhh no no no! No way! I’m from Milan!” and immediately warns me about all the shady characters I might encounter there. Although Naples is not without its share of problems—dumpsters and street corners perpetually overflowing with garbage; political corruption; petty street crime—it possesses a certain southern charm that is not always apparent in northern Italian cities.

For the most part, the people are friendly and open- particularly if you try to speak some Italian first. In fact, they seem very family and pet-oriented (the city is especially pet-friendly…a few restaurants we went to allowed dogs). However, navigating the city proved challenging. Maps are simply unable to capture all of the tiny streets and piazzas that have existed since ancient times. The Neapolitans are always happy to point us in the right direction. But the traffic- oh the traffic. It is said that Naples has the worst traffic in the world, outside of Cairo, Egypt.

From the main train station in Naples, we get a cab and head towards the hotel. The cab proceeds to weave through a mess of cars, buses, mopeds, and pedestrians coming from all directions and heads straight into oncoming traffic on a busy two-way street. At the last minute, the cab swerves over the right lane- a few other cars follow suit, as if it is business as usual. Two-way streets are open to interpretation in Naples. You can go along traffic, against traffic, take left turns directly into oncoming traffic…no problem. There is a mutual understanding on the streets that somehow makes it all work. That doesn’t mean that my life doesn’t flash before my eyes every so often while riding the cabs or crossing the streets.

All pros and cons aside though- Naples has absolutely incredible food. It is the birthplace of pizza, land of the most delicious pomodorini (small tomatoes that grow by Mount Vesuvius), and source of great, fresh seafood.

Ciro a Medina

Via Medina, 19 80133 Napoli, Italy

Ciro a Medina is a fantastic restaurant with a homey feel and simple, reliably good food. I liked it so much that I actually went twice during my week in Naples.

We get two seafood appetizers- the first (above, left) is an insalata ai frutti di mare, or salad with seafood. There is a cold mixture of small clams, mussels, whole shrimp, squid, on top of a bed of radicchio, with lemon on the side. The other antipasto platter (above, right) is olive oil and vinegar marinated salmon and sardines. Both types of fish have a very delicate texture, and the vinegar marinade is not very overpowering, but presents only a hint of acidity. The dishes are both garnished with fresh Italian parsley- fresh herbs definitely enhance any dish.

Restaurants in Naples have different interpretations of pasta dishes, particularly sauces. At Ciro a Medina, spaghetti vongole (spaghetti with clams), the pasta is cooked in a light sauce, in what appears to be only an infusion of olive oil, clam broth, and perhaps butter. The pomodorini are cooked and served in slices, and not in the form of red sauce. As you can see, this dish does not require many complex ingredients- in fact, it only really features three or four. At the same time, it is absolutely delicious, flavorful, and refreshing.

Most of the staff at Ciro speak English, and are very friendly when we ask about the linguistic differences between Northern and Southern Italian. The English word “now” in Italian is adesso while in Neopolitan Italian it is simply “mo” (not sure of spelling). The restaurant is a cheerful place- frequented by tourists as well as locals and sometimes, their small dogs. Paintings of old Italian market scenes adorn the walls.

I notice a basket on the ledge of the low wall on the second floor of the restaurant. It is tied to a long rope, which is tied to a column in the restaurant. The basket is used to quickly transport bread from the kitchen on the second floor to the dining areas on the first floor. One waiter fills the basket with bread, then immediately drops it down to the first floor, where another waiter picks up the bread and distributes it to the diners.

Trattoria Medina

Via Medina, 32 80133 Napoli, Italy

Down the street from Ciro is another great find- the Trattoria Medina. There is one waiter who is in charge of about 10 tables and is working at the speed of light. He quickly gets us our bottled water and rushes over to the basket dangling from the second floor to pick up our bread. In Italy, tap water is not usually served at restaurants. Italians order mineral water, either aqua naturale or aqua frizzante (still water or sparkling water). The waiter hands us a neatly wrapped brown paper package with visible grease stains seeping through. What could it be? A distinct greasy Five Guys brown paper bag filled with amazing fries perhaps?

Well- I think I’m going to have to give this one to the Italians. Upon unwrapping our lovely little gift, we discover various fried treats from fried risotto balls to fried potato and cheese. I personally think it would be a great new food truck idea because who wouldn’t love fried Italian food? It is crazy delicious! Of course we ended up being charged for our gift, but I guess that should’ve been obvious, since it was definitely worth the additional 4 euros.

Now for the pizza. Pizza in Naples is different from what we have grown up with, unless you grew up in Italy in which case you have been lucky enough to experience this from a young age:

This is a pizza with mozzarella, pomodorini, Italian salami, and fresh ricotta cheese. Note: there is no tomato sauce- only real tomato slices, as tomato sauce is added to certain types of pizza (such as the simple Margherita pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil). The ricotta cheese is out of this world. Despite how the mounds of ricotta appear to be taking over the pizza, they do not overpower the rest of the ingredients at all. In fact, the ricotta is very mild, with a creamy and rich texture. The pizza crust is very thin, with a chewy crust. Now that is a great pizza.

On the agenda for the evening is a classical concert at the renown Teatro di San Carlo, founded by the Bourbon King Charles VII of Naples (or Carlo VII in Italian) in 1737. We happened to come across a poster for the night’s performance of Schubert, Mozart, and Beethoven while walking past the theater and decide to get tickets. The event at this glamorous venue is open to the public and accessible at 15 euros per person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We quickly realize that MTV Italy’s free Summer Music Festival is also scheduled for the same night close to the Teatro, at the Piazza del Plebiscito. There are 15 acts lined up for the concert, with Maroon 5 and N.E.R.D., among the Italian artists. After a memorable and enjoyable night of symphonies from the 18th century, surrounded by royal decor and rich marble statues of battling angel babies, we walk over to the Piazza to check out the scene.

And of course the scene is a 180 from where we were 10 minutes ago- from a hushed, ornate concert hall attended by older cultured types to a large outdoor rock venue with jumping tweens wearing flashing bunny ears and screaming along with their favorite Italian bands. The ground is covered with plastic and glass bottles, empty food wrappers, paper cups, and other litter. The crowds crush the litter and kick it around while they rock out to the songs. One look at the available waste facilities (below) and you can probably understand why this might be the case. It is kind of an organized mess- with glass and plastic bottles piled carefully around the tiny bin- but it inevitably ends up spreading throughout the rest of the venue.

 

Upon first glance by the unsuspecting visitor, Naples can be quite overwhelming and stressful- chaotic streets with litter and young loiterers everywhere– but like most places and situations, there are reasons why a place is the way it is. How you perceive it depends on how much you are able to accept and try to understand the context. Above all, in Naples you have to roll with the punches!

 

 

 

Photocredit for 5 Guys: http://www.cheese-burger.net

 

 

 

 

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