Postcard from Naples, Italy: Seconds on that seafood platter, per piacere

“Leftovers” from a crudo platter at Pesheria Mattiucci

Maybe that photo is not appetizing, but it does represent how incredibly good and fresh the platters of raw fish served at Pesheria Mattiucci are. The freshness is key for the fishmongers who run this small place that still resembles more a fish market than a dining spot. Each type of fish on the platter is paired thoughtfully with an appropriate fruit, light sauce, herb or fresh flower to compliment its individual delicate flavor.

By all appearances, the Pesheria is not our kind of place. Only a handful of no-backed stools awkwardly perched at metal counters with no leg room. And no red wine (The Neapolitans worked hard to reform us on the importance of pairing their dry white wines with raw seafood, and we must admit they are right.). But despite the humble surroundings, the seafood was so amazing we went twice. Oh, and the fishmongers can cook fish perfectly, too.

The other “best raw seafood” spot for us during our stay was in the Vomero neighborhood. Panamar was only marginally more formal, part of the trend of chefs who want to focus on food – tablecloths and tableside service be damned. Sandwiches are their specialty, and they begin with large firm  buns.

Our favorites? The fuoritonno with cubes of red tuna, smoked burratina cheese, sundried tomatoes, smoked eggplant cream and fried arugula; and the mezzosalmone with cubes of salmon, buffalo mozzarella, grilled zucchini and a sauce of honey and red peppers.

Since those first two restaurants were seafood-centric, I pulled out most of the other seafood photos from our stay in Naples. Several of these places will be mentioned again later.

We had gotten hooked on fried anchovies in Spain, and found them abundant in Campania as well where they are called alicci fritte. With a squeeze of fresh lemon, pretty addictive. The pasta most associated with Naples is paccheri, sort of like giant rigatoni.

Perched at hightop tables on a fairly busy street, we loved the casual neighborhood vibe of Re Lazzarone downtown near the Archaeology Museum. Anonymous Trattoria Gourmet is tucked away on a lower street downtown in a location that helps keep it anonymous from tourists. The inside is spartan but packed with locals.

Godot, up in the Vomero neighborhood, is pricier and still well off the tourist track. Loved the gnocchi with peas and calamari. And the surprising find at the end of the trip was on the fringe of Vomero, Trattoria Scugnizzi. An inexpensive place popular with neighbors that seems way off the visitor radar. The only photo included with this post is a sample of the chef’s daily seafood pasta special, a sample because he was disappointed we already had over-ordered.

The others lumped into this seafood post were in more high-profile locations, but they still managed to keep some loyal Neapolitan diners: Anticchi Sapori; Ristorante L’Ostricaio; and Stritt Stritt.

More food later.


Postcard from Valencia, Spain: More saffron and less of everything else needed in my paella pan

Ask a purely traditional cook from Valencia, Spain, about paella, and you are told there is only one. It contains rabbit, chicken and maybe sausage or snails.

But I realized after a month consuming rice dishes there, we never tried the classic version. Seafood lovers have corrupted many a restaurant kitchen, and experimental contemporary chefs led us into playful flavorful territory.

Two things I learned I have always done incorrectly: I am too stingy with saffron, and I put too much of everything else in the pan. Proper Valencian paella is shallow in depth to allow the rice to caramelize in the bottom and particularly around the edges of the pan. This crispy crust – socarrat – is key, and Valencians are not timid about vigorously scraping the dish, even when served in a communal pan. Of course, I’m not even sure we can buy the real Valencian rice at home – the rice grown specifically for its capabilities of absorbing the broth quickly without turning into mush.

Also, paella should be made only upon ordering. The broad pans are only set on the stove for at least two; you just are out of luck if no one at the table is willing to share. If your paella arrives on a plate dished out of a large deep pre-prepared pan in the kitchen, we’re talking by pure Valencian standards, it’s just wrong.

As the photos demonstrate, we violated tradition by ordering seafood paella, such as the one at Namua, and, horrors, even a verde, all-vegetable one at Viva Mascaraque. We weren’t disappointed at all.

Another rice preparation prevalent in the region adds more rich stock to the pan than the rice can absorb – arroz merloso. Mythos Tapas y Mas featured a different one daily on its comida specials, and we enjoyed a wild mushroom and bean one at Refugio. Foam-topped mussel-plump arroz at Seu Xerea fell into this category as well.

And then, there were the totally unexpected, on our part, arrivals in paella pans – fideo noodles, caramelized the same way as the rice. Don’t tell any of the traditionalists, but my favorite dish delivered in a paella pan was the black fideo filled with tender pulpo served at Viva Mascaraque. We greedily scraped up very bit of socarrat we could. Just wanted to save the kitchen staff some elbow grease.

Postcard from Bologna, Italy: Volunteering to eat at E’Cucina Leopardi everyday

At home or traveling, we tend to latch onto certain places and return to them over and over again. E’ Cucina Leopardi was our go-to place in Bologna. Our lunches there were so good, when we dined elsewhere we often wondered what the chef had dreamed up for lunch at Leopardi. And, whenever we got our checks after lunch elsewhere, we wondered why we had not eaten at Leopardi yet again.

A little off the touristy beaten path, Leopardi had a waiting line most days. Not because there are only a few tables; it is a large, cheerful, funky place with an open kitchen. Locals love it.

Okay, part of its appeal is the 10-Euro three-course lunch, with three courses meaning appetizer, first course, dessert, wine, espresso, no tax and no tip expected. Yes, there are several more expensive options and dinner is more, but we never ventured past the all-inclusive one-price-fits-us.

We’re not sure how Chef Cesare Marretti makes his magic work at this price point, but the dishes are amazingly good. A major part of it must be the limited lunch menu allowing bulk purchases of fresh seasonal ingredients. But, when it comes to flavors, there are no shortcuts taken.

While waitstaff is friendly, bear in mind there are only a few servers handling many more tables than a waiter in the United States could imagine. They have no time to linger with extensive translations and lists of ingredients. For a tourist not speaking Italian, this can make ordering challenging. There are no written menus. No choices are needed for the appetizer, but the main course requires selecting something vegetarian, maybe a meat-sauced pasta or something from the sea. We rarely understood completely what we were ordering, but we were never disappointed when the mystery was revealed on a plate in front of us.

My favorite appetizer was a light carrot flan. One day, the kitchen was cracking open major wheels of aged parmesan and placing massive chunks of it on the first-course salad. Pastas were always perfect, but the kitchen truly shines in producing intensely flavored fish stews. Liberal use of wine and olive oil obviously plays a role, as seen in the video below. Regulars clearly favored the recurring offering of a small molten chocolate cake (somehow ending up camera-shy), but, as strawberries were in season, they also figured prominently in dessert offerings.

Surprisingly, given the crowds, customers are not rushed. Often they sit and chat long after their desserts and coffee are finished.

We almost felt as though we had stumbled upon some haute-cuisine government-subsidized food program. Not only were we contentedly wining and dining for under $11, we often emerged so stuffed we did not want even a salad for dinner at home that night. We found ourselves wondering, how can we afford not to live in Bologna?

Can’t imagine if Leopardi had not been part of our month in Bologna and am very happy we did not pick the month of August to stay there: Leopardi is closed for vacation until September 4.