The Neapolitans who emigrated to other lands also made famous their city’s two great dishes: pizza and spaghetti. They also popularized pommarola, the tomato sauce that graces pizza and most pasta dishes. Many North Americans, therefore, are surprised by the great variety of foods in Italy. But it is not surprising that these simple foods have gained such popularity: they are easy to eat, tasty, satisfying, and inexpensive.
From Naples to the world! Since before the 1700s, the bakers of Naples transformed simple bread dough and the produce of their gardens into a food enjoyed almost everywhere. The classic Neapolitan pizza may have only sliced garlic, a brush of olive oil, and a final sprinkle of fresh basil, oregano, or rosemary A more elaborate version will be graced with the addition of freshly chopped tomatoes, slivers of anchovies, and shredded Mozarella all baked to perfection in a brick-lined oven.
But Neapolitan food is not all pizza and spaghetti. This area also boasts an array of fish and seafood dishes that include octopus, clams, mussels, sea truffles and sea dates, eels, sea scorpion, shrimps and prawns, swordfish, dogfish and skate. These may be grilled, boiled, or fried; served dressed with olive oil, garlic and tomatoes or capers and black olives; they may be simmered in savory soup-stews or cooked and chilled then served in salads with lemon juice and olive oil.
Neapolitans love the idea that their foods and their lively temperament symbolize Italy for much of the world. They treasure their traditional recipes as much as they enjoy indulging themselves in old songs and folk music, in ancient superstitions and modern pleasures. They enjoy eating on the run: tiny folded pizzas called libretti, snacks of fresh seafood, and small containers with oysters and even small servings of vegetables that can be hurriedly enjoyed.
Many cheeses are used but Mozarella made from buffalo milk is the favorite for pizza. It is also used to top many vegetable dishes and in hot-fried cheese sandwiches such as mozarella in carroza. Other versions of mozarella-inspired foods include panzarotti, turnovers of tender yeast dough filled with several cheeses such as Parmesan, Mozarella and Provolone then deep-fried to seal the melted cheese mixture within, and fritto di mozarella, squares of cheese, egg and crumb, clipped then deep-fried and eaten while hot.
While pasta of every description creates so many meals, this is not to say that rice and polenta have not reached the South. The famed sartu di riso alla napoletana is a magnificent rice mold layered with cheese and meat sauce, seasoned rice and tiny meatballs alternated with a filling of chicken livers, crumbled sausage meat and peas, plus more slices of Mozarella. The dish is baked then unmolded. With similar Neapolitan flair, polenta finds itself sliced and layered with pork sausages, Parmesan, and Pecorino cheeses and baked into a golden casserole called migliaccio napoletana. Whenever possible, Neapolitan dishes exhibit the same bursting exuberance as the people who cooked them – and those who happily eat them.
The first ice cream shops or gelateria opened in Tuscany in the 1500s, but the Southern Italians are believed to be responsible for the popularity of ice cream in North America. Spumone is the specialty of Naples: a layered oval mold of several flavors of ice cream and sherbets with mixed fruits. But there are at least five distinct types of gelati: granita, a crystal-like sherbet usually flavored either with lemon or coffee; gelati, the familiar firm ice cream made with fruits, nuts, etc., in a rich creamy base; coppe, several flavors of gelati served in a dish and garnished with fruit, etc.; cassata, a decorative ice cream cake or mold layering several gelati with whipped cream and fruits; and finally the semifreddi, a type of soft foamy ice cream that also comes in many flavors. Most of these are usually served in dessert dishes with a topping of whipped cream and sometimes a liqueur as well.
But the gelati do not satisfy every Neapolitan sweet tooth. Some like to indulge in the many crisply baked or deep-fried little pastries, honey-dipped and candy-sprinkled as well: zeppole or struffoli.