Neapolitan pastries

November 30, 2011 § 2 Comments

Surprise, surprise, I didn’t find any UK style “Neapolitan ice cream” on our recent trip to Naples and the Sorrento peninsula – you know, that rigid tricolour block of strawberry, vanilla and chocolate flavours touted by Walls and similar industrial concerns.

What I did find was cake in profusion – on every street corner there’s a little pasticceria catering to what is clearly a very sweet Italian tooth. What’s on offer ranges from trays of positively austere little biscotti sold by the etto (100g) to some of the most over-the-top and lurid confections I’ve come across, like this glazed blue swan marvel from Sorrento:

The city of Naples itself is home to some of the most long-established family run pasticcerie like this one, Angelo Carbone’s, complete with its obligatory skein of drying laundry. You’ll find Carbone’s in Largo Regina Coeli, a mini-square amidst the maze of streets that makes up Naples’ centro storico.

We stopped here after a visit to Naples’ wondrous Museum of Archaeology and refuelled on thimblefuls of espresso and a generously proportioned zuppa inglese pastry and wild strawberry tartlet:

Tempting they may look, but my goodness they were heavy! Those fragoline di bosco atop the tartlet may look delicate but beneath was a layer of hefty pastry and a crema pasticcera that you could use to repoint the walls of Pompeii.

Perhaps a better option might have been a slice of home-made torrone, a Carbone speciality, or a jam-filled biscuit:

Of course we couldn’t leave without sampling some of Naples’ famous sfogliatelle. The name, meaning “many leaves” implies a light-as-air puff-pastry confection and indeed one type, the “riccia” exceeds expectations in this regard. I fell instantly in love with this organza-wrapped parcel of clamshell-shaped loveliness.

The intricate pastry encloses a dense sweet filling of cooked semolina, ricotta, candied fruit and spices. Oh, and they’re served warm, generally from a hot cabinet, much as we buy our cheese and onion pasties back here in the UK.

Just to confuse the novice pastry-eater, there’s a second type of sfogliatella known as a frolla, the plainer country cousin of the glamorous riccia, made with a sweet, crumbly shortcrust pastry encasing the same semolina/ricotta filling. In the interests of research, I had to try one of these too:

I’d happily eat either of these for breakfast along with a cappuccino. Having looked at recipes for each, I might consider having a go at baking a frolla, but shaping the riccia looks enough to have even a proficient croissant-maker quaking in his or her boots. There are videos of the process on youtube if your curiosity is piqued

I think the conclusion I’ve drawn is that Italian pastry-chefs come into their own when they’re not aping their French cousins. This display from Capri’s legendary Pasticceria Buonocore would seem to prove my point – don’t these look inviting?

And maybe the best Italian cakes are home-made – Marcella Hazan and Anna del Conte’s recipes for walnut cake, ricotta cake, apple cake and the like are enough to persuade me that this is the case. In fact, some of the best cakes we ate on our trip were not professionally made but were these slices of nutty chocolatey Torta Caprese and lemony lipsmacking baked ricotta cheesecake served up at a little cafĂ© above Capri’s blue grotto and made by the proprietor’s wife. Home bakers rule!

Pizza from Naples vs pizza from Pizza Express

November 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Arguably the highlight of our recent half term trip to Naples was a pilgrimage to Da Michele, the self-appointed “Temple of Pizza” to sample the city’s most influential cultural export.

This venerable pizzeria, founded in 1873, has a shabby, typically Neapolitan exterior and is tucked away in a sidestreet (Via Cesare Sersale 1) in the centro storico not too far from the main station.

We arrived at noon for an early lunch and were rewarded by not having to queue, in fact we bagged a prime table with an excellent view of the preparation area and all-important wood-fired oven.

I mused as we waited to order how little this oven differed from the ancient Roman one we’d seen in Pompeii the previous day. Clearly the appeal of freshly-baked flatbreads is centuries old. It’s rather fun to imagine Caecilius and his chums tucking in to their own version of pizza (minus the tomatoes of course).

The interior of Da Michele is unfussy, in fact its two rooms could be described as austere – white and green ceramic tiles on the walls and simple marble topped cast iron tables lined up in rows.

The menu is equally minimalist – just 2 types of pizza, the classic Margherita (tomato sauce and cheese) and the even simpler Marinara (just tomato sauce without the cheese).

The place runs like a well-oiled machine. There’s a guy (and yes, the staff are exclusively male) to seat you and take your order which is then passed to the compact open-plan kitchen; the first chef forms the pizza dough into rough rounds; a second tops the dough with tomato, cheese and a solitary basil leaf; a third expertly flicks the pizzas into the oven with a wooden paddle; a fourth tends the fire and removes the cooked pizzas from the oven. Finally, in the corner of the room behind a small corner counter sits like a benign genie a venerable gent in a white coat collecting the money and keeping a watchful eye on proceedings.

Enough of the preparatory stuff – what was the pizza like? This is how it looked as it came out of the oven, truly a thing of beauty:

The crust was chewy rather than dry and crispy and frankly quite deliciously soggy in the middle. This meant it had to be eaten at least in part with a knife and fork though I couldn’t resist picking up the crust later on:

We subsequently discovered that we were sitting in the very same seats occupied by Julia Roberts when the film “Eat, Pray, Love” was filmed here a couple of years back. Dressed in a similar black sweater, the staff must have taken me for a Julia groupie. If only I had the hair and bone structure to match…

As we were seated so close to the open plan prep area I couldn’t resist having a closer peek at the pizza ingredients and attempting a brief chat with the kitchen staff.

The tomato topping was quite a runny sauce which was ladled onto the dough. I couldn’t tell if this was prepared using fresh or tinned tomatoes let alone whether they were the well-known San Marzano variety. I couldn’t bring myself to ask if these were tinned tomatoes nor, thankfully, could I remember the Italian word for a can so decided to abandon this line of questioning.

However, I did manage to pluck up sufficient courage to ask about the cheese.

“E mozzarella di bufala?” I yelled and pointed.

What luck! I’d made myself understood and the response came back:

No – fiordilatte” – So it’s a cow’s milk mozzarella rather than the prized and frankly expected buffalo kind.

Buoyed up by my success, I kept the conversation going and enquired about the second harder and more finely grated cheese which went on to the pizza along with the mozzarella.

Che formaggio?” I shouted and pointed at the second cheese container:

Bingo once again – “Pecorino!” was the response.

So now I, and you too now, know the secret to an authentic pizza topping.

And now the answer to the question I posed at the outset – how does the ultimate pizza from Naples compare with what I can pick up at my local Pizza Express in South Manchester?

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Da Michele version gets my vote, BUT only just as I didn’t find it very much more wonderful than the pretty good pizza we can get back home.

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