Last week we discussed my favorite restaurant in northern Italy, TRATTORIA SOSTANZA in Florence.
Easily the best known city in Tuscany, Florence has the refinement, sophistication and money representative of so many of the Italian states and city states north of Rome.
Venture south, however, and you’ll discover just how poor much of Italy really is. With the exception of tiny pockets of great wealth that frequently have origins of dubious distinction, vast stretches of the south are arid and almost barren. They simply can’t support the crops and livestock that one finds in the north.
The south has developed a cuisine that celebrates what the regions do have to offer. They call it “CUICINA ALLA POVERA” – the cuisine of the poor. And what a delight it is; different from the north, but equally as good. Think BUFALA MOZZARELLA, the world-renowned creamy cheese that comes from water buffalo raised just north of Naples. Why water buffalo? Because cows cannot stand the southern heat. Also, SAN MARZANO TOMATOES, probably the best in the world and grown only in the volcanic soil in the shadow of MT. VESUVIUS, also near Naples.
And finally, there’s the incredible bounty of the sea. Unlike the wealthy north, which relies much more on beef, pork and veal for protein, southern Italy celebrates fish and seafood, and its chefs do wondrous things with it.
That brings us to Naples. It’s a much-maligned city (often deservedly so), but if one can look beyond the obvious, you’ll find culture, beauty – and fantastic seafood – in abundance.
Situated on the east coast of the Mediterranean on the GULF OF NAPLES, the city occupies a strategic military location as evidenced by the numerous castles and fortresses that survive to this day. In a tribute to the armies of shoppers who flock to Naples, the city boasts one of the world’s first enclosed shopping centers – the vital, stunning glass-roofed GALLERIA UMBERTO I, built between 1887 and 1891.
Should you be fortunate enough to visit Naples, do sample the PIZZAS, most often made with SAN MARZANO TOMATOES and BUFULA MOZZARELLA (of course). In fact, pizza is said to have originated here. I certainly have no reason to disagree. Another must: the city’s spectacular open-air markets, brimming with “visual candy” ranging from fresh veggies to super-fresh seafood.
You’ll also want to take a day trip to POMPEII, about 20 miles south of Naples. In 79 AD, Pompeii, without warning, fell victim to a horrendous volcanic eruption that suffocated the town. But it wasn’t the fire or lava that killed the thousands of residents. It was the tons and tons of volcanic ash that blanketed Pompeii, burying people alive in their tracks. Ironically, the falling ash ended up preserving many of the city’s structures, which after 2,000 years old are remarkably intact.
Naples is a “gritty” place. The vast majority of the residents are poor (although you can find small shops housing Ferragamo, Gucci, Prada and the like in a tiny pocket of downtown that caters to wealthy tourists and probably mob wives). Not surprisingly, pickpockets and gypsies abound in Naples, and they’ve elevated their trade to an art. They’re stealthy. They’re fast. They will fleece you faster than a high school prom dress comes off. Joanne had her watch violently ripped from her wrist as we walked near our hotel. The thieves escaped lightning-fast on mopeds before we even realized what had happened.
So here’s some advice that you’d be wise to take: DO NOT – repeat, DO NOT – bring your expensive jewelry to Naples. If you need a watch, wear a $32 Timex, not a Rolex or a Cartier. That said, don’t freak out; you can easily stroll the city, especially during the daytime. Ladies, if you carry a purse, wear the strap over your opposite shoulder and hang on to it at all times. Gentlemen, keep your wallet and passport in your front pocket, or in the hotel safe. If you sport a backpack, be sure it’s locked and strapped over both shoulders.
In addition to the pickpockets and street urchins, you’ll also notice the somewhat invisible hand of the mafia lurking over the city. It announces itself in the padded meter of your taxi. It appears in the frequent garbage strikes that plague the city (until the right payoffs are made). It’s also found in the commissions that the Mafia receives from the many pickpockets it controls. Likewise, your inflated check at certain restaurants and hotels may reflect a Mafia “commission.”
Speaking of hotels, here’s another piece of advice: If you can afford it, stay at THE EXCELSIOR on the bay. Yes, it’s a bit of a splurge, but well worth the peace of mind of being secure. By the way, the EXCELSIOR has a wonderful rooftop restaurant with a Kodak view of Mt. Vesuvius. And if you’re a fan of The Sopranos, this is where Tony and the gang stayed on their visit to Italy.
Now that we have that behind us, let’s talk restaurants – MIMI ALLA FERROVIA, in particular, because it just might be the best seafood restaurant in all of Italy (and that includes LA ROSSETA in Rome).
As the name suggests, Mimi is near the train station (Ferrovia), not in the nicest or safest part of the city. Wisely, the Excelsior Hotel INSISTED that Joanne and I take a seasoned hotel car and driver to the restaurant. (By the way, our driver stayed parked out front ‘til we were finished with dinner).
The owner, Mimi, is on site and all over the dining room. As we dined, several fishermen brought in crates of just-caught fish (still squirming and flopping) and paraded it through the heart of the dining room en route to the kitchen.
Obviously, seafood reigns at Mimi’s. I do not recall ANY MEAT DISHES on the menu, but my memories are alive with visions of seafood pastas, redolent with clams, razor clams, shrimp, mussels, octopus and squid. Unsurprisingly, Mimi’s also offered various iterations of fresh swordfish from local waters (check out my photo from the market), along with tuna direct from the Straits of Messina, between the toe of the boot and Sicily. They even have the classic Sicilian dish … PASTA CON SARDE with sardines and crowned with herby bread crumbs … no PARMIGIANO REGGIANO in Naples …. No cows. And to finish, do not pass up Mimi’s intensely rummy BABA RHUM.
Do not be afraid. Go to Naples if you can – and by all means, GO TO MIMI’S. Just be careful. Be aware. And keep your antenna on high alert.