Postcard from Caserta, Italy: When keeping up with the neighbors means Versailles

Reggia di Caserta

Foolish me. I thought the Royal Palace we visited earlier in Naples was lavish enough to suit the needs of the royal court, but Charles III (his later Spanish title) (1716-1788) had yet more grandiose ideas. He desired a new site for his capital, one farther removed from the coast to prevent invasions by sea and, most importantly, one with a palace to rival Versailles.

In 1752, Charles commissioned architect Luigi Vanvitelli (1700-1773) for the massive project, Reggia di Caserta, on land to the east of Naples. The result: 1,200 rooms on five floors making the palace 118 feet tall. Almost 500,000 square feet occupying 11 acres. The architect was able to employ the finest materials – travertine from Bellona; bricks from Capua; gray marble from Mondragone; white marble from Carrara. Immense single blocks of lava stone from Trapani were used for each step of the grand stairway that divides into two parallel flights of stairs of 116 steps guarded by two white marble lions.

But Charles as King of Naples never got to reside in his dream palace because he had to move on to a bigger role as King of Spain. So the incredible digs were left for his son, Ferdinand (1751-1825), and his wife, Maria Carolina of Austria (1752-1814), to finish. If sibling rivalry existed, Maria Carolina should have been more than pleased with the palace. Her sister, Maria Antoinette (1755-1793), spent much of her time at Versailles with her husband, King Louis XVI of France (1754-1793).

Maria Carolina was a proponent of enlightened absolutism until she became alarmed by the revolutionary ideas spreading through France. She began work in earnest to transform Naples into a police state. The abrupt end to her sister’s life intensified and helped justify those efforts. Needless to say, this did not enhance her popularity, but no matter. The monarchs soon had to flee as Napoleon conquered their kingdom; although Ferdinand would return later with assistance from Austria.

Enough politics.

In addition to keeping Vanvitelli occupied until the end of his life with finishing out the royal palace, Ferdinand and Maria Carolina enlisted him to design a Royal Park worthy of such a palace. The queen’s English garden covers 30 acres. The king’s mile-long fish pond provided a stage for him to float elaborate mock naval battles for the entertainment of his guests. A grand cascade of water was installed on the summit of a hill opposite the palace. Oh, and a 24-mile aqueduct, a hydraulic architectural feat, was built to keep the water flowing.

UNESCO/NHK Video

Walking a couple of miles exploring all the secret gardens filled with sculpture and fountains had been our plan when we hopped aboard for the short train ride from Naples. But, alas, the beauty of the palace and grounds of Caserta had attracted the attention of another. A film production company.

Not only were crew members scurrying around installing special lighting, rearranging furniture and adding props (see the sculpture of the man brandishing his sword astride a bear with a double-headed eagle crest on the door behind him) inside the palace, but they were filming a scene on the grounds. Meaning we were not invited. The scene we saw filmed involved a huge cast gathered to greet the important occupants of an arriving coach (no photos allowed). There are several photos above of cast members scurrying through a courtyard of the palace to prepare for their next scenes.

The film? The crest indicates a period piece focusing on Russian royalty. But the production is hardly the first to take advantage of the sumptuous palace. Think Queen Amidala’s royal palace on Naboo in Star Wars Attack of the Clones and The Phantom Palace. Angels and Demons directed by Ron Howard in 2009 and Mission Impossible 3 with Tom Cruise in 2006. And then Richard Dreyfus portrayed architect Vanvitelli himself in Caserta Palace Dream.

 Caserta Palace Dream, 2014

In 2017, Stephen Spielberg found the grand stairway ideal for a parade of cardinals for his film, still in production, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.

And one need not starve. We dropped in Osteria da Miducci and ordered eggplant and pasta before the table of locals next to us began receiving their heaping platters of seafood. Our freshly made pasta was perfect, but envy surfaced. Not sure I could have cleaned it down to the bones the way the presiding gentleman with the Godfather voice did, but I would have ordered his whole fried fish, which arrived plated perched upright on its fins as though it swam there voluntarily, for the snapshot alone.

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 Malaga, Spain: Cuisine anchored by seafood

El Pimpi Bodega Bar

El Pimpi Bodega Bar is an institution in Malaga. Although it was not founded until 1971, the buildings and décor are much older. Enormous wooden wine kegs line the hallway of the entrance.

Historically, los pimpis were the young men who would head to the docks to help unload cruise ships and then freelance their services as informal tour guides for the newly arrived tourists. El Pimpi has numerous dining rooms and a bright patio, but unfortunately it feels as though pimpis just led an entire boatload of tourists there. Definitely worth visiting though. Somehow we found a slow time, like early on a Monday evening, to belly up to the bar for a glass of wine and a tapa-sized order of croquetas. Both were perfect.

But on to seafood. And where to find the freshest? Head to a market. El Mercado Atarazanas is reputed to have the best. Tourists and locals in equal numbers compete for high tops with stools outside the market. The first time we landed at was a relative newcomer, Happy Fish, the name of which worried us. Too close to “happy meals.” But, fortunately, that was not the case. We felt reassured by the fact we were brought a bottle of wine that coincidentally bore the name of our favorite restaurant almost anywhere – La Biznaga in Oaxaca. On two other occasions we snagged space at the longer established Bar Mercado Atarazanas.

Both delivered great fresh seafood. We dove into platters of boquerones fritos (fried fresh white anchovies), chiles padron, fried eggplant, tortillitas de camarones (shrimp fritters). By our third trip to Mercado Atarazanas and after almost two months of opportunities, we finally got up the courage to take the plunge. We ordered an Andalucian delicacy we had been avoiding – ortiguillas de mar frito.

In the sea, these anemones use their long swaying tenacles to sting and entrap fish. Green algae filters through their somewhat translucent bodies. Restaurants serve them battered and fried. Hey, anything is good fried, right? Ortiguillas come close to a fried oyster in texture, but an oyster with a belly-full of blackish green algae. That makes them sound horrible, which they weren’t. Just a tad challenging for us. We did make it through about two-thirds of the way through our media racion (no tapa-size available). Box checked. More boquerones, please.

The market seafood stalls are packed, but locals have an escape spot away from the maddening crowd – La Peregrina. Not always easy to snag a table, but there is more elbow room. The place is somewhat sterile compared to the bustling market, but loved that women seemed to rule the open kitchen. All the same dishes can be found here. The grilled pulpo was perfect, but the pincho (skewer) of red tuna blew us away. You cannot tell from the photo, but it was seared on the outside and rare in the center – wonderful.

By all inside appearances, La Taberna de Cervantes appeared a perfect place to delve into traditional dishes, and our food was fine. But our waiter totally ruined it for us. Menus in the Andalucia region often feature three sizes of servings – tapas (light appetizers), media racion and full racion (full size). Our waiter, acting like a greedy pimpi trying to take advantage of tourists just off the boat, kept trying to upsize us, saying we needed raciones of everything. Oh, and better wine. And the “background music” was a commercial radio station playing tired cheesy tunes. Not a good experience, but, who knows, the “parent” restaurant does get good reviews….

El Gastronauta really should not be lumped together with these more traditional places, but, in order to restrict Malaga to two food posts, I needed a volunteer. Reservations are recommended in this small, narrow casual restaurant popular with a young crowd of locals. Vegetable sides are a bit more creative than many places, and on weekends the kitchen turns out a variety of quite respectable paellas.

More food later….