Just got back from my annual eating expedition to Italy.
This year I focused on the regions of Campania and Puglia with a 3 day stay in Rome at the end.
There is no better way to start a day in Naples than with a perfect sfogliatelle at Scaturcchio. Overall sfogliatelle in Naples are great, but Scaturcchio elevates them to an art form. Perfect crispy dough sorrounding creamy ricotta and candied citrus peel. It is located in Spaccanapoli next to S. Domenico.
I was in Naples for the pizza festival and thus tried many a pizza. However, not a single pizza from any festival participant, including the winner, was nearly as good as Da Michele's. Da Micheles is a hole in the wall, with no decor to speak of. They serve only two types of pizza: Margherita and Marinara. The crust is sublimely tender, the tomatoes still bright and if you order the margherita it the cheese pools softly in the center as Neapolitan pizza should. The second best pizza is at Trianon just accross the street. Both places are walking distance from the train station so even if you are not willing to stay in Naples, at least have a perfect pizza on your way to the Amalfi Coast or other parts.
There is a little gem of a wine bar and osteria called La Barrique in the Chia district, which is a fashionable area right now. The selection of top Campania wines is mind blowing. The owner severs a small yet perfectly executed menu. We enjoyed potatoes with fiarelli peppers, local selection of salumi, buffalo mozzarella, grilled pork chops and sauteed mustard greens. Another great meal was had at Mimi alla Ferrovia consisting of pickled pork snout, mixed fried veggies, perfect calamaretti pasta (calamir ring shaped) with mussles and clams in a light white wine and tomato sauce, pasta with chickpeas, grilled sea bass, and braised octopus. Another restaurant worth noting in Naples is La Valdinchenia also in the Chia area. They take a more modern approach to classics and highlights were salt cod served raw with just olive oil, lemon juice and parsley and paccheri pasta with ragu genovese (in Naples this is a ragu made with meat, wine and lots of caramelized onions).
Avellino and Irpinia Area
This area is just East of Naples off of the A16 AutoStrada. This whole area is incredibly rich with food products starting with hazelnuts and chestnuts from avellino and black truffles from Irpinia. Great sheep and cows milk cheeses and local cured meats. I had some of the finest meals I have ever had in Italy in country restaurants around here. The highlights are
1) Oasis in the town of Vallesecarda. This is almost in the border with Puglia in the middle of nowhere. The town is but a speck on the map; however, the restaurant is well worth the drive and as a good for less money than the likes of Il Pescatore or La Tenda Rossa. We had the "Antique" tasting menu focusing on local traditional foods. We started off with a small antipasti of local cured meats and a salad of local very sweet cucumbers with mint oil. Followed by a puree of dried peas accented with local green friarelli peppers. Followed by cavettelli with zucchini blossoms. Then on to braised suckling lamb with local herbs. Cheese course accented with acacia and chestnut honey. Semi Freddo for dessert. Had a bottle of Terradora Fiano d'Avellino, 1 bottle of Caggiano '97 Taurisi Reserva (perhaps the finest producer right now in the area), and a bottle of '99 Montervergine. Total cost for 5 people was $435 Euro plus tip since service was not included. An incredible value!
2) Valleverde, just outside Avellino. Very simple place but we had the best example of traditonal rustic (cucina povera) foods. Started off with an insane amount of antipasti so be aware if you order it. The antipasti had salumi, mozzarella, roasted potatoes and fiarelli peppers, etc. Then we had 2 primi for the table of five: one bean and chicory minestre and one pacheri with ragu napoletano. This was the best version of ragu we had all trip. Somehow the tomatoes were still bright rather than rusty eventhough meats were braised in it for a long time. Then we finished with meatballs, bracciole and other meats of the ragu and some local wild mustard greens called fiaril.
3) Taverna Vulgi. This is more formal and modern in its approach to food, but spectacular. Their soup of chickpeas, with lamb and roasted peppers is unbelievable.
The food and wine quality in Campania is outstanding. There is a bit of wine making renaissance and we were fortunate enough to meet Antonio Caggiano, the Molletierris, and Lucio Mastroberdino now at Terradora.
Puglia was hit or miss with very high points and pretty low points. There is a distinct difference between the cuisine of the Bari area and that of the Brindisi area. I prefer the Brindisi area since it is more in line with central Italian cuisine. In Bari, the pasta are drowning in sauce and are a bit overcooked for my taste. In Brindisi, the same type of fresh pasta such as orecchitte or cavatelli is sauced less and more al dente. The best restaurant in the area was Ciacco in Martina Franca. Tiny place but everything was cooked perfectly. Started off with locally famous cappicola of Martina, followed with the best version of Favas and chicory, the best version of orecchiette with cime di rapa, and a perfectly cooked mixed grill of lamb, pork, and offal. The vegetables such as grilled eggplant and a local specialty called pic pac are worth noting. Pic pac is made by drying out red horn peppers and then slow cooking them in olive oil until they become a paste. In Bari province, Lido Bianco in the town of Monopoli has excellent seafood. The Barese like eating seafood raw, including thinly sliced raw calamari. Cavatelli with mussles and a the most famous Barese dish Piadelle Barese consisting of rice, potatoes, and mussels were standouts. In the town of Andria, the burrate cheese is otherwordly.
Wine wise, the best wine had in Puglia was Il Falcone made by Rivera. Rivera overall produces solid wines from some white locorotondo to some very fine negro amaros.
1) Ai Due Ponti in the Northern outskirts is solid. We were there on Thursday and had a perfect version of the obligatory Thursday gnocchi. Followed my melt in your mouth Abbacchio.
2) La Matricianella in historic downtown is perhaps the best restaurant I have eaten in downtown. Their rigatoni with codda is amazing as are all the typical Roman dishes such as pajata, abbacchio, scottaditi, etc. Great wine list, including some top lesser know Lazzio producers such as Kron and Seta e Ferri.
3) La Luna Piena in Testaccio was solid for pasta but the secondi were weak.
If anyone one wants more detail, feel free to ask.