Da Dora: I Adore Ya

Naples, Italy isn’t for everyone. I get that.

The city is dirty. Thieves, pickpockets and urchins abound. And if Gomorrah, the Netflix series on Naples’ drug trade is accurate, life can be very cheap there. (Check out my recent posting of August 3rd, 2017.)

On the other hand…

The architecture is beautiful, the surrounding area stuns, and the food couldn’t be better. If you can afford a stay at the Excelsior Hotel, so much the better.

(Just remember to leave your finest jewelry at home. Buy a Timex at Target.)

For those of you, like Joanne and I, whose sense of adventure trumps your trepidation, Naples is a real delight – rich with culinary experiences and a convenient jumping-off point for day trips to Sorrento and Capri. Just catch the ferry right near the hotel, and off you go. A bit of advice: For a few euros more, you can take the speedy hydrofoil instead of the regular ferry. In half an hour you’ll be docking in Capri.

This must-visit destination is as manicured as Naples is gritty. In fact, Capri numbers among the most beautiful and sophisticated places in Europe, replete with chic shops, hotels and fantastic restaurants – particularly for seafood. Moreover, the absence of cars in the town center makes it a paradise for pedestrians. By comparison, Positano is a tourist trap of t-shirt shops and gelato stands.

Take a Capri taxi at the port up to the village (They’re modified full-size cars that end up as kind of weird 4-door convertibles). Visit the BLUE GROTTO – touristy as hell but beautiful as can be. Stroll the town (without worrying about pickpockets). Then dine at ADD’O RICCO DE GABRIELE, high up and outdoors overlooking the Mediterranean.

I guarantee, you’ll want to go back to Capri the very next day, but don’t do it if that means passing up an opportunity to visit SORRENTO – a great strolling city, with restaurants that rival the best of Capri and Naples. If you stay overnight (and why wouldn’t you?), I recommend the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, which offers a spectacular view of Naples Harbour. It’s pricy in high season, but surprisingly affordable in the spring or fall.

But now back to Naples…

I really got to know the city during my early Buca days, and on one of our trips I discovered the best little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Naples: DA DORA. Immediately it became a mandatory stop for the Buca culinary team.

Located on a dimly lit, almost spookily desolate alley off the Rivera di Chiaia on Via Ferdinando Palasciano, Da Dora is actually easy to spot. Just look for the rather large illuminated shrine out front. “Hey … it can’t hurt.” Inside, you’ll find a tiny room – maybe 40 seats – that hasn’t changed since it was opened in 1973 by a married couple, who, prior to that, had run a seaside seafood shack. Both Giovani and Dora, the restaurant’s namesake, were children of fisherman. My sense is that the restaurant has always been entirely run by the family – including kids, aunts, uncles and cousins. There are no frills here, no pretension, no gimmicks – just straightforward preparations of just-caught seafood.

That no-nonsense, “we are what we are” quality is what I love about Da Dora. Far, far removed from the touristy spots that line the harbor, it has a genuineness and an innocence that can be neither concepted nor duplicated.

I’ve since discovered that the restaurant has achieved cult status among Italian celebrities ranging from the late Marcello Mastroianni and Fredrico Fellini to Giorgio Armani.

Check out the images below. Iterations of seafood pasta dominate the menu. Their Linguine Alle Vongole (clams) as well as the Crudo (raw seafood) appetizers were the best that I can recall ever eating. Also, look at the image with the octopus and the tiny, twice fried fish called ceruses, which means “baby”. Eat them whole … crunchy and salty. Grilled fish, lobsters and octopus are NOT TO BE MISSED!

Every time I’ve been there, Dora (no spring chicken) has been working the floor – serving, clearing, singing…and DANCING! Below you can see Buca’s founding chef Vittorio dancing with her after dinner…all to the tunes of a rather annoying guitarist.

To this day, I remain charmed by the unaffected, authentic innocence that the restaurant projects.

To wit: A recent and modest ad (not from Satchi & Satchi, that’s for sure) for Da Dora simply said, “Lunch, Dinner, Alcohol and TELEVISION” – and not a giant Samsung flat-screen. More like a Philco or Emerson or Magnavox. Remember them?

Go to Da Dora. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.



Italy’s Finest Seafood Restaurant

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.

And yet…

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.



The Abbondanza of Sostanza

During the BUCA years, Joanne and I traveled to Italy up to three times a year with our culinary teams and managers. These deep dives into Italy’s culinary heritage took us from the wealthy areas of the north to the less affluent, gritty areas that dominate the south, including the heel and toe of the boot as well as Sicily.

The thread of continuity that binds Italy is, of course, the food – the glorious food – equally wonderful from Bologna to Rome to Naples and Palermo; yet so different, sooo very different.

We’ve taken a breather for several years, but now Joanne and I are planning a trip back, this time with our grandkids. And that starts me thinking about the restaurants that we so enjoyed during our many visits.

Let’s start with Florence.

Despite the throngs of tourists, the city not only endures, it consistently charms. If it’s cold and rainy, you can easily spend a day inside the Uffizi Gallery, replete with treasures like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. But if the weather’s good, put on your walking shoes and head to the Ponte Vecchio. You can spend your euros on a cameo or spend some patience dodging the Germans who congregate around the Duomo and the Baptistery with their backpacks, annoying sandals and wool socks.

Joanne and I like to stroll across the Arno to the Pitti Palace and the entrance of the Boboli Gardens, a true oasis in the heart of the city. Stroll by the Dwarf Morgant Fountain that depicts an obese naked dwarf astride a turtle, his testicles squashed against the shell. We can stroll the gardens for hours and emerge back into the chaos of central Florence well refreshed.

Pisa is nearby – a perfect daytrip. And be sure to indulge in gelato…every day, maybe twice a day. Be sure also to visit Florence’s markets and salumerias for their beautifully merchandized bounty. While at the Central Market, don’t pass up the porchetta sandwiches (from the porchetta food stall on the first floor). As you stand in line for lunch, check out the photo they posted of our culinary team.

Afterward, head to the Academia and check off another item on your bucket list: viewing Michelangelo’s David.

As evening sets in, consider where you might dine. We love RISTORANTE CIBREO, near the Central Market, led by chef Fabio Picchi. The night we were there, all his arrogance and condescension were on display in the way he treated his guests, but so were his culinary talents – which are spectacular. If you’d prefer a little less attitude, make your way to the less costly and more casual CIBREO TRATTORIA and, weather permitting, snag an outdoor table.

We also love COCO LEZZONE on Via del Parioncino, where – strange as it may sound – you can make a budget meal of a small green salad accompanied by either of their incredibly robust soups (or are they stews?), including Pappa al Pomodoro (Italian tomato/bread soup) or the Ribollita (a thicker, “bready” vegetable soup). If you want Bistecca Fiorentina, you must call in advance, but my advice is to stick with the soups. I’ll steer you someplace better for steak.

By the way, look closely at the image I’ve posted of the dining room. Note the ochre-colored stripe on the wall. That represents the high-water mark from the disastrous 1967 flood that ravaged Florence.

Dining with a group? Don’t miss IL LATINI on Via dei Palchetti for spectacular family-style fare. It’s a carnivore’s heaven – totally meat-centric, with giant sharing platters of Bistecca Fiorentina, as well as mixed grills that include lamb, chicken and pork. Note the expressions on the faces of our Minneapolis colleagues as our server presents the platter. They do not take reservations, so line up early.

I’ve saved my favorite for last: the old school TRATTORIA SOSTANZA, located on a desolate, dimly lit little street called Via del Porcellana, two blocks from Santa Maria Novella. The restaurant is tiny – maybe 40 seats – with distressed white-tiled walls that evoke a vintage butcher shop. They haven’t changed a bit in the 25 years that we have been visiting there, and I hope they never do.

Like TRAMSHED in London (see my July 20, 2017 posting), Sostanza specializes in two offerings – CHICKEN and STEAK – but here they’re so good that the restaurant doesn’t need a Damien Hirst embalmed chicken and cow installation to wow the crowds. In fact, from a culinary perspective, comparing Sostanza and Tramshed is like placing a horse next to a mouse. Sostanza is far, far better.

Bistecca Fiorentina stars here. Harvested from huge Chianina cattle (Italy’s premium breed) and raised primarily in Tuscany and Umbria, the tender, well-marbled meat is available only through state-approved butchers, ensuring uniform quality (and high prices). Sostanza grills its one kilo porterhouse over white-hot embers. It’s about $100, but serves two to three people. And I have to say, it rivals MANNY’S porterhouse.

Now, if there are at least four people in your party, get the BISTECCA, which is arguably Florence’s best. But you MUST ALSO order the PETTI DI POLLO AL BURRO – brown butter chicken. YOU MUST! The dish consists of a pair of plump chicken breasts, lightly grilled and, while still hot, dredged in flour and passed through a bath of beaten eggs, then set in a small pan with at least a quarter to half a pound of premium butter, then finished over a bed of glowing embers. It’s brought to the table sizzling hot, its brown butter bubbling gloriously.

A good piece of advice: Get a side of CANNELINI BEANS, which are a welcome counterpoint to the richness of the Bistecca and the butter chicken.

Finish up with a slice of signature MERINGUE CAKE with fresh strawberries, and by all means order a few shots of GRAPPA. Even though tourists have certainly discovered this restaurant, you can toast the fact that Sostanza embodies the uncorrupted soul of Tuscan cooking.




Back in the early 1980s when Pete and I were preparing to open Pronto Ristorante, we figured it would be a good idea to learn more about Italian cuisine. So we signed up for an “Italian immersion cooking school” taught by the legendary Marcella Hazan in Bologna, Italy.

Every day, we would start out bright and early by going to the central market, where under Marcella’s guidance we would select the best seasonal produce, cheese and meats for the daily meal, and finally head off to the pasta maker.
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