Bella Campania

Campania was a continuous, moveable feast, from Ragù Napoletano, to buffalo mozzarella, to limoncello. The highlights were Caserta, in the hinterlands north of Napoli and Napoli itself.

I was lucky enough to stay at a friend's plantation-esque estate in Caserta, replete with lush gardens and pomegranite trees groaning with the weight of low hanging ripe fruit. We arrived at midnight after an eight hour drive from Parma, and after being introduced to the family, we ambled down to the basement of the main house for a decadent midnight repast. Caserta is famous for its mozzarella di bufala (buffalo milk mozzarella) but in the States, generally we receive the "mass produced" mozzarella while the best product stays not only within Campania, but often within the confines of Caserta province. It is not a cheese that travels well and is best eaten within twenty four hours after being made, three days at the most. Talk about locavores...anyway. The mozzarella that lay glistening in braided form at the center of the table resembled a Porterhouse, and each slice was two inches thick. To complete the buffalo feast, the mozzarella was paired with large coins of buffalo salame from the southern Campania area known as Cilento. Prosecco di Valdobbiadene worked well with the meal because the wine's scrubbing bubbles cut the unctuousness of the mozzarella and salame. To finish, homemade nocino or walnut liqeur, a local specialty, was served. Our welcome feast finished at two in the morning: we were exhausted, yet our appetites were sated and we slept with smiles on our faces.

Caserta's famous landmark is the magnificent palace of Maria Carolina Hapsburg, known as La Reggia di Caserta, also a location for the first Star Wars installment with Natalie Portman/Queen Amidala. After the palace, the next famous landmark is Enoteca La Botte, which we visited the morning after we arrived. It won an award in 1999 as Best Enoteca in Italy, and deservedly so I might add. There are wines available from all over Italy, but the specialty is Campanian wines, which after our tasting, I would say can compete with some of the best Piemontese nebbiolo. La Botte even rents out cellar space to customers to store prized bottles of wine. The space is sprawling, with the main wine sales area near the entrance, a salumeria and cheese shop, and then a large and beautiful tasting room where one can do a flight of Campanian reds paired with rare local cheese and salumi. We were able to sample Taurasi DOCG, Greco di Tufo, Fiano, Falanghina, and Asprinia di Aversa, a rare bianco that is currently made by a single producer in Campania. The salumi pairings were pleasant but not memorable like those of Emilia Romagna, but the Mozzarella fior di latte (cow's milk) di Agerola was succulent.

Dazed and full, the next stop on this whirlwind visit was to Napoli centro to do a tasting of the ultimate street food, pizza. Our goal was to compare as many different pizzas from different pizzerias as our stomachs would allow. Da Michele is as spartan as a pizzeria can get, with only margherita (tomato and mozzarella) and marinara (no cheese, just tomato and garlic, sometimes with anchovy) as the choices. Because cheese topping is as sparse as the interior décor, I ordered the margherita with doppio mozzarella and it was magnificent, except that the “crust” was gummy and couldn’t support the rest of the ingredients, a disaster when eating folded up like a street food. The next stop, and sadly the last one for me because I broke my belt and split my pants from my earlier consumption, was Pizzeria Trianon da Ciro. This was the best overall: crust still soft like traditional Napoletana pizza but sturdy enough to eat standing up without the ingredients sliding off the slice, and chopped tomatoes instead of passata like the one Da Michele uses on its pizza. Other stops included Di Matteo, famed for President Clinton’s 1994 G7 visit, and Pizzeria del Presidente, a spin off pizzeria founded by an alum of Di Matteo.

The highlight of the weekend was the marathon feast presided over by Maria Adele, mother of my colleague host, and a little known star of Campana cucina casareccia (home cooking). The night before the lunch, she started to prepare the voluptuous Ragù Napoletano, in essence a sauce of stewed tomato, soffrito (onion, garlic, carrot, celery), and pieces of veal, pork, and sausage that are removed so it flavors the sauce just enough. The setting was storybook, on a lovely garden terrace covered by a pergola, sixteen people sat around a long table, laughing, making jokes, and sharing some of the best, most genuine food in all of Italy. Here is the menu in full:


Pesca in Frascati (my preparation...peaches from the peach tree in the garden soaked in Frascati wine)
Caciocavallo di Montagna


Treccia (braided form) di Mozzarella di Bufala Campana D.O.P.


Rigatoni al Ragù Napoletano. The sauce is "meatless" but infused with meat stock and tons of flavor.

Taurasi DOCG Radici 2001, Mastroberardino


Ragù Napoletano: veal and pork. The meat from the meat sauce served as a main course.

Oven roasted thigh of lamb with rosemary garlic potatoes

Caper and breadcrumb stuffed peppers


Baba al Rhum, a fried rum and cream filled pastry, a specialty of Campania
Honeydew melon
Gelati: fior di latte and amarena cherry, all made in house.

The closest we came to a home cooked meal at a Napoli restaurant was La Fila restaurant, run by the unforgettable Elvira, who regaled us with her savage wit and deft hand in the kitchen. The Ragù Genovese was the best I’ve ever had, and ironically, the first time I’ve sampled this dish. Why is it called Genovese when we are in Napoli, and where is the pesto? I guess it suffers from the Eggplant Parmigiana syndrome, which has nothing to do with the city of Parma except for the Parmigiano dusted on top. Anyway, Ragù Genovese is basically a primavera sauce, using a soffrito of onion, carrot, celery and basil, and a faint hint of beef broth. I could tell La Fila used a canned commercial broth because the real thing is unmistakeable. The rest of the meal was entirely forgettable, with little fried doughballs and deep fried cheese and an antipasto of potato croquette masquerading as sustenance. The zuppa di fagioli was also quite nice and sadly I only got a spoonful from my neighbor’s bowl.

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