Taralli, an Italian Snack

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Taralli are a Southern Italian snack food.  If you’ve visited Italian-American bakeries or grocery stores, you may have seen the ring-shaped snack food sold in different varieties, such as fennel-flavored.  These crunchy snacks originate in Southern Italy.  Like much of Italian food, taralli are different in different regions.

In Naples, they are traditionally made with lard, pepper and almonds.  They were first made from scraps of leftover bread dough.  To this dough was added lard and pepper.  In the Neapolitan language, lard is “nzogna,” so you will see these as nzogna and pepe.  In Naples today, you will see this variety also has almonds.  Almonds were added in the 1800s, but the older version of these did not have almonds.  This older version is what my mother remembers at bakeries of her youth, bakeries that carried on Southern Italian traditions from the late 1800s here in the United States.  In fact, there were other crunchy breads that also had lard and pepper added to them.

In times past, the taralli vendor would sell the snack from a cart.  In Napoli today, miniature depictions of taralli vendors are sold on Via San Gregorio Armeno where you can find the famous presepio, or Nativity figures.

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In Puglia, taralli, or tarallini, are usually smaller, more crunchy and smoother with no almonds.  They are not made with lard but with olive oil and are often flavored with fennel or chili.  These are the ones most often found in Italian-American bakeries and stores.  They can also be made sweet instead of savory, which is popular in Basilicata.

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The origin of the word “taralli” is unknown, but it is thought to derive from the Greek word toros, meaning toroidal or round.  Or the Greek word daratos for a kind of bread.  It could also be from torrere, Latin for toast, or for a French type of bread.

Taralli are served year round but also during Carnevale.  They are made by either baking or by boiling then baking, similar to bagels.

They are plentiful at bakeries in Naples.  I like the nzogna e pepe from Leopoldo Infante.

Sfogliatella, a Neapolitan Pastry

The sfogliatella (sfogliatelle, plural) is a popular Neapolitan pastry eaten for breakfast or dessert that is also prevalent at Italian bakeries in the United States.  There are four varieties of sfogliatelle that exist in Naples–the shell-shaped riccia, which is the classic sfogliatelle, often with a ricotta-based filling;

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the circular frolla, which has a pasta frolla crust and the same filling;

pasta frolla

frolla

the santarosa, which has a custard filling and cherries on top;

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and the lobster tail, a longer version of the sfogliatelle riccia.  The classic shell-shape of the riccia, santarosa and lobster tail is named for its many sheets of dough.  Foglia means “leaf” or “sheet” in Italian.  It is very labor intensive and difficult to make, so one usually buys them in a bakery.  In contrast, frolla is easily made at home.

The traditional sfogliatella riccia was first made in a Medieval convent in Naples.  Pasticceria Pintauro in Napoli’s Quartiere Spagnoli, or Spanish Quarter, a historic area of the city, is about 200 years old, although it has had different owners through the years.  It is known for its sfogliatelle.

As is Antico Forno delle Sfogliatelle Calde Fratelli Attanasio, a bakery not far from the main train station, opened in 1930. It comes hot from the oven–just how it was made in the convents of old.  Attanasio’s is by far the best I’ve ever had.  The thin layers are crisped to perfection for a wonderfully crunchy bite.  According to its history, it is not only supposed to appeal to the taste buds, but the ears as well.

sfogliatelle

sfogliatella

The santarosa is named for the convent where it was first made, Monastero di Santa Rosa, which is now the site of a hotel on the Amalfi coast.

In New York City, sfogliatelle riccie and lobster tails are found at most Italian bakeries.

10 Foods to Try When Visiting Naples

If you are visiting Napoli, these are the 10 must-try foods that I recommend.  There are so many wonderful dishes, foods, fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats, seafood, etc that come from Naples or the Campania region.   It’s hard to narrow it down to ten.  But the average travelers don’t have an Italian nonna to cook local dishes for them nor do they have access to a refrigerator to buy groceries for themselves.  So I compiled this list with the vacationer in mind.  I think these foods are the best for visitors to try.

  1. Pizza–In the birthplace of pizza, there are many places to try the city’s favorite dish.  Neapolitan pizza is different from American-style and New York-style pizza.  If you prefer the crispy crust of a New York-style pizza, you may not like Neapolitan pizza.  However, the ingredients on Neapolitan pies are usually top notch.  A trendy place to try is Sorbillo.  My favorite was Vesi, although I liked Da Michele too.

    Da Michele

    Da Michele pizza

  2. Sfogliatelle–A Neapolitan pastry that can be eaten for breakfast or dessert.  It’s a popular one in Italian-American bakeries.  The sfogliatelle is a difficult pastry to tackle and master–not one for the home cook.  You must try one from Antico Forno delle Sfogliatelle Calde Fratelli Attanasio, a bakery not far from the main train station.  It is by far the best I’ve ever had.  It comes hot from the oven.  The thin layers are crisped to perfection for a wonderfully crunchy bite.  The custard and cherry ones are a special treat too.

    sfogliatelle

    sfogliatelle

  3. Pizza portafoglio–This pizza is the perfect fast food.  It is sold from carts outside pizzerias.  It’s a personal-sized pizza folded in quarters.  Unlike most Neapolitan pizza, this pizza is crispier and doesn’t have the “soggy” center.  It also doesn’t have much cheese. But the taste is divine.

    portafoglio

    portafoglio

  4. Taralli–A crunchy ring of dough, taralli is Neapolitan snack food.  It comes in sweet and savory varieties. IMG_2938
  5. Pizza fritta–Pizza fritta is a popular Italian-American snack too.  It’s a fried calzone with a cheesy filling in the center.  It is also sold from carts outside fry shops.

    pizza fritta

    pizza fritta

  6. Rum baba–This pastry can be seen all over Naples.  It is also a popular pastry found at Italian-American bakeries in the United States.  IMG_2870
  7. Neapolitan ragu–aka Sunday gravy in the United States.  Ragu is a slow-simmered tomato-based meat sauce for pasta. IMG_2660
  8. Frolla–The frolla is the easier version of the sfogliatelle that can be baked by home cooks.  Or just as easily bought at numerous cafes in the city.

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    frolla

  9. Gelato–There are many gelateria in Napoli. One of my favorites with multiple locations is Fantasi Gelati.  There are many flavors to choose from.  I liked the cioccolato–so rich–and fior di panna. IMG_2755
  10. Mozzarella–Try some mozzarella di bufala made from buffalo milk.  Yes, this is available in the United States, but it loses something on its refrigerated trip here.  It is absolutely creamy and wonderful fresh. You can order it as antipasto or in a Caprese salad. IMG_2630

Di Matteo, Pizza in Naples

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The owner of Di Matteo, Salvatore Di Matteo, comes from a long line of pizza makers.  His pizzeria is a VPN member pizzeria and is touted by guidebooks and locals alike.  Besides its pizza, the restaurant’s claim to fame is a visit from President Clinton.  And in fact, a neighboring pizzeria owned by Di Matteo’s brother is named Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente in honor of Clinton.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try Salvatore Di Matteo’s pizza.  He is also known for his fried snacks like pizza fritta, what we would call a fried calzone, that you can buy from the cart in front of the shop.  According to Phaidon’s Where to Eat Pizza, Di Matteo assembles the pizza fritta himself.  I love fried dough and fried calzones are my favorite (they shouldn’t be baked!).  Of course, it was delicious.

pizza fritta

 

Donna Sophia, Pizza in Naples

In the United States, we order a pizza, usually a large, and share the slices.  In Italy, pizzas are about the size of our small and are eaten by one person.  In Naples, they have a “fast food” pizza called pizza portafoglio.  Portafoglio is the word for “wallet,” so it means pizza that is folded like a wallet.  It is sold from carts outside pizzerias.

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Pizzerias in Naples also sell other fried items like calzones and arancini, so they are also called fry shops or friggitoria.

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One of my cousins took us for a portafoglio pizza at Donna Sophia’s on Via Tribunali.  It looks like it may be named after Sophia Loren, but besides the depiction that looks like her, I couldn’t find any evidence that she owns it.  I think it’s just named after her because she sells pizza from a cart in the movie L’Oro di Napoli.

pizza portafoglio

This pizza was one of my favorites in Naples.  While it wasn’t the cheesiest, the crust was crispy with a good char.

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Vesi, Pizza in Naples

My research on Neapolitan pizza in Naples led me to Da Michele and Sorbillo.  Most of the guidebooks and online reviews and articles talk about these as well as a few others.  My local cousins, however, took to me to their favorite spots.  One is Vesi that I saw mentioned only in the Lonely Planet guidebook.  It recommends going here only if Sorbillo is closed.  My cousins said Vesi has been in business for about 100 years.  Its website says since 1921.  Vesi is a VPN member pizzeria.  When we visited, it was busy, but there was no wait.  While they have a menu with a lot of choices, I wanted to try the Margherita.

Vesi

I would say this pizza closely resembles a New York-style pizza.  While it was still a little wet in the middle, it wasn’t as much as the others.  It could be lifted and eaten with the hands.  There was more cheese than the other pizzas we sampled.  The crust, cheese and sauce all had a good flavor.

I also tried a piece of my cousin’s calzone and it was delicious.  Unlike Lonely Planet, I think Vesi pizza is better than a Plan B pizza–it clearly stands on its own and is worth a visit.

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in Naples

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele is the destination for pizza in Naples.  It’s the Pepe’s of New Haven or the Di Fara of Brooklyn.  Expect similar wait times too.

Da Michele

The Condurro family started making pizza in 1870.  Michele Condurro opened his pizzeria in 1906 and it has been at its current location since 1930.

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There are only two types of pizza served here, the Neapolitan classics, marinara and Margherita.  The pizzeria’s website says it doesn’t use “junk” to make its pizza, only “natural” ingredients.  Ed Levine, in his Pizza:  A Slice of Heaven, says that the pizzeria uses “cheap oil.”  This article from Vesuvio Live includes an interview with Francesco and Fabrizio Condurro who say they use a blend of vegetable, peanut and sunflower oils before they cook the pizza and then use olive oil on the pizza once it is cooked.  They say they do this because, at high temperatures, the olive oil leaves a burned taste to the dough.  In addition, they use fior di latte (cow’s milk) mozzarella.  Fior di latte is cheaper than mozzarella di bufala, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s “cheap” or “bad” to use it.  It is different and not as creamy or flavorful as bufala mozzarella, but it is still good.

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Da Michele is highly recommended by locals.  On my visit, there were a number of American tourists as well as Spanish-speaking tourists and locals as well.  It is an experience similar to eating pizza in New Haven.  When we arrived, there was already a crowd at the door.  If you go inside the doorway, there is an attendant who gives out numbered tickets.  Then you wait for your number to be called.  It was a bit daunting to get a 42, but the line moves quickly.  We waited for only 30 minutes.  The numbers are called in Italian, of course, so it’s helpful to know your numbers.  I was able to help some non-Italian-speaking Americans with their number.  The attendant assigns tables as they become available, so we sat at our assigned table.  Tables can be communal here due to the lines, so there was one older gentleman at our table who was a local.

history written in Neapolitan dialect

history written in Neapolitan dialect

We ordered one of each pie.  The marinara:

Da Michele

The Margherita:

Da Michele

You can order the Margherita with extra cheese (doppio mozzarella) too.  From these photos, you can see the nice bubbly char on the crust.  Both pies had the proverbial wetness in the center, so we did have to use forks and knives.  But the sauce, cheese and crust tasted good.