Monday, October 01, 2007

Naples, Italy: Restaurant Choices and Tips

Caprese Salad: Quintessential Naples

Three and a half days in Naples and all I'm about to tell you is where to eat. This is not so much an indictment of Naples as it is a commentary on the other more exotic and thrilling destinations that are within easy reach of Naples - Capri, Sorrento, Ischia, the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii.... Also, what can I say? I love food!

Gusto y Gusto, Via Partenope: This restaurant is just a couple of blocks away from the line of pricey hotels overlooking the beautiful Gulf of Naples. Ravenous after a circuitous flight from Nice, France, we dumped our luggage in our room and headed out around 3 pm, afraid that the restaurants might be closing for the afternoon. Only, we forgot for a minute that we were in Italy. Lunch hour was just beginning!

Gusto y Gusto was very inviting. They had outside seating and the weather was perfect. The waiter who waved us in from the pavement had a huge smile on his face. If we sat out, we would have a great view of the Gulf of Naples and a portion of the city as it bent around the gulf.

A view of the Castel Dell'Ovo at night from the restaurant

Naples at night from Via Partenope

We had heard a lot about Italian food before we set out on our travels - some good and some bad. Friends warned us that after years of eating pasta and pizza in the US, we might not like the real deal at all. The pizza is too thin, they said; the pasta sure to be undercooked, they said; you'll get tired of all that pasta and pizza within two days, they said.

With all these dire predictions roiling in our heads, we opened the menu, and sure enough, there was pizza and pasta with all sorts of toppings and all sorts of combinations. But we also found that the menu was much simpler than at a typical Italian restaurant in the US.

We ordered the Caprese salad (I can never say no to mozzarella cheese), bruschetta (which we discovered, to our horror, that we'd been mispronouncing with the "ch" sound as in chair when it has the harsher "ch" sound of choir!), a pizza and a pasta.

The meal started out with warm bread with garlic butter, which we devoured. We were just too hungry that late in the afternoon. Everything from the bread to the pasta and the pizza was delicious. It was the best Italian meal we had had ever, bar none. I'm not exaggerating and I can assure you it was not the hunger talking, either.

Because we went back to Gusto & Gusto two more times in the three days were spent in Naples. We were not disappointed. The ingredients were superbly fresh and succulent. The tomatoes were juicy and sweet. The cheese was to die for. The olives were delicious. The pizza had a thin crust but it enhanced the flavors exponentially. The pasta was cooked al dente (I finally figured out the exact consistency of al dente) and I'll agree that that's not how I would prefer my pasta cooked, but the dish over all tasted good.

And the best part of Gusto & Gusto was not even the food. That place is mighty popular among the natives. At night it's a hopping place to see and to be seen in, if all the goings on were to be believed. The line goes out the door for seating at night. Everyone from socialites out for an evening of fun with their beaux to families out for dinner to young couples to college kids to tourists is at Gusto and the owner is a man much in demand.

The owner with one of the wait staff

Even with all the crowds hanging around there are families with young kids too and we were not made to feel unwelcome as we were expecting.

At our first meal at Gusto, as we sat down and settled the kids in their seats, we realized that our daughter's high chair had no belt and the gap was too large between the seat and the bar in front. When we pointed it out to Nino, our waiter, he promptly went in, fashioned a cushion out of a clean tablecloth and padded the high chair with it, blocking the gap as much as he could. Our Italian and his English were both negligible, but in those few moments, we felt welcomed. The waiters and the kitchen staff had genuine affection for the kids, going out of their way to make them feel comfortable and special.

The warm and welcoming wait staff and chef at Gusto & Gusto

If we had the choice, I would dare say we would have had every meal at Gusto. But there were a couple of other landmark restaurants we wanted to check out (plus Gusto does not serve breakfast).

Caffe Gambrinus, Via Chiaia, Piazza del Plebiscito: Located in the sprawling Piazza del Plebiscito, Caffe Gabrinus is a Naples institution.

Piazza del Plebiscito

Gambrinus is open all day late into the night if you find yourself suddenly hungry for a snack. The rooms inside are stupendously decorated with paintings, statues and other art. You can go in for a casual breakfast outside before you start your day of sightseeing and find a scrumptious array of confectionery, pastries and other baked goods to go with your cappuccino or tea. Or you could dress up and head inside later in the day into the Sala Rotonda or the Sala Michele Sergio for a stately and elegant tea.

We liked Gambrinus for the atmosphere, location and history more than its food. The cappuccino was cold by the time it got to us. The waiters were a harried lot, trying to keep track of the million orders from the throngs of people constantly streaming through the place.

It's a great place to visit once during your stay.

Pizzeria Brandi: If you love Margherita pizza, then Pizzeria Brandi is your Mecca. It's located on a quiet, narrow street just off Via Chiaia on Salita S. Anna di Palazzo, a couple of blocks up from Gambrinus. According to the owners, the Pizzeria has been around since 1780. A hundred years later, the story goes, the pizzeria fashioned a brand new pizza in honor of Queen Margherita. The ingredients are few - mozzarella, tomatoes and basil - but the flavor is dazzling.

The service is not that great and seating is cramped and uncomfortable. But definitely worth visiting at least once.

Naples Travel Tips:

1. Facilities: Italy may be classified as a First World country, but in terms of infrastructure, it could use a lot of development. The airport was chaotic to say the least. Trade unions engage in frequent arm-twisting tactics. Just before we left for Italy there was a rail workers strike. While we were in Naples, the garbage collectors went on strike - the evidence was quite visible as far as the eye could see - and in Rome, the day before we left, the taxi drivers went on strike.

So before you head out to any part of Italy, read the local newspapers, be prepared for what might be coming. Check with the concierge at your hotel the day before you need a taxi to head to the airport to confirm that you will have one the next day. You don't want to find out at the last minute that you might not have one. Consider purchasing travel insurance, particularly if any leg of your trip calls for train travel.

2. Haggle, haggle, haggle: The taxi line at the airport was long. That gave us the opportunity to watch the locals and seasoned Italy visitors negotiate the rate before they got into the taxi. The meter runs, but it is ignored for the most part and you don't want to find out after you get off at your destination. Even though we had agreed on a price, we had to call in for reinforcements once we got into the hotel because we found out that the rate we had agreed on was outrageous.

If you thought our hotel was any better, it was not. The lady at the front desk tried to hurry us into their restaurant as it was getting late in the afternoon and, she warned us, the restaurants outside would be winding down their lunch service. Not, as it turns out. They were just getting warmed up.

As they say, Trust, but verify.

3. Traveling with kids: One of the strange things about Italy is its love of children, but the horrendous lack of infrastructure to make is easy to move around with them. Everyone loves kids. Even people who don't have any. There isn't the feeling that kids should not be in such and such place at such and such time (a vibe we definitely felt in Frankfurt, for example). The cab drivers, the doorman at the hotel, people on the street, the lady at the fruit juice shop, the guards at the Vatican museum - they all went out of their way to talk to us about our kids, to tell us "bellisima" "que bella" at the drop of a hat, or help us cut the lines so we did not have to wait long. At many restaurants, we found kids at every table at all odd hours. There is definitely the feeling that kids are part of life, but that's no reason for life to slow down.

But the infrastructure for people with kids is nonexistent. Metros have no elevators or escalators. You have to carry the kids and strollers and your bags down innumerable steps. Also, menus have no options for kids (this I actually like. The kid choices on menus in the US are generally unhealthy).


Bhel Puri & Seekh Kabab said...

Delectable landscape pictures and stunning food pictures. Btw, what do you think of the coffee over there?

It was funny reading your story about the cab driver - last week my dad was reminiscing about his Italian trip 45 years ago. He had the exact same experience. Some things never change.


ggop said...

Lovely! I'm so tempted to visit..

Sujatha Bagal said...

BPSK and GGOP, thanks. :)

BPSK, the only coffee we liked was in a small coffee shop in Sorrento. The cappuccino there was just the right temperature and had a great consistency, color and taste. Yum, yum.

DesiGirl said...

that pic of the salad is yummilicious! we did a blink and u miss it trip thru Italy last year - we plan to do a leisurely jaunt soon. maybe we cud chk out some of the places u've listed.

re bruschetta, well, i've been saying brushetta for like years till the time an italian chef came on a daytime telly cooking prog couple of years back and repeatedly said 'brusketta, brusketta' till i couldnt get it out of my head. funny how things stick out eh?

bird's eye view said...

Yum, yum, the food in Italy is so wonderful. I remember when we visited Italy for 2 weeks, I never felt homesick for desi food or lacked veg options. And I love the southern European love for and acceptance of kids everywhere.

Poppins said...

Awesome ! I know whom I'm going to trouble when I plan a trip to Italy :) Awesome description of the food, I was drooling.

Now I know why you like Grasshopper (and I'm so tempted to make another trip there, since Naples is so far away :)

small squirrel said...

I am so glad you loved italy! naples is lovely, and the pizza there is amazing (as it is the birthplace of pizza).

funny about the bruschetta... it happens to me all the time when I am in the US, I will order it with the correct pronunciation, the waiter will correct me, I say it again, get corrected and am forced to launch into "ah! bravo, parla italiano?" and they look at me stunned, and I say "no? then don't correct an italian!" LOL

I find that many indians have a hard time with italian cooking and find it far too subtle at first. my husband was not into it at first when we went to visit my family. he finally warmed up by the time we got to napoli, and by then the trip was over.

I still cannot believe you don't like your pasta al dente! :P

Also, you should have told me you were going... I would have hooked you up with my family! DUH! Then you all REALLY would have eaten! Next time tell me in advance, would ya?

Squiggles Mom said...

I loved reading your post because it reminded me of my 2 wonderful trips. Though I only visited the north both times the food was fantastic. Your pic of the Caprese is just mouth watering.
It's reminded me of a funny incident when we were in madrid which I think I shall blog about hmmm....
And you just need to get used to al dente because it really does grow on you :)

Sujatha Bagal said...

DG, I'll have more posts up and will def share whatever info you need. Just ask. :)

BEV, the attitude towards children is something that really made the trip more memorable. And the food! LOL!

P, ask away I say. And do go to Grasshopper. And have a salad for me. Booo hoooo.

SS, you made the idea of visiting your folks so good, now I feel like planning another trip just for that!

SM, thanks for stopping by and commenting. :) Will try al dente again and let you know how it goes. And please do write about Madrid. Would love to read it!

Anonymous said...

Great introduction to tipical Italian dishes! If you would like to know more about Italian coffees since they have so many and call them different names, here is a resaurce which might be of interest: