There is no better way to discover a destination than to connect with the local culture, cuisine, and community. Luckily, that's just what I did on a recent trip to Naples, Italy. Read on for my top tips and list of 12 must try foods in Naples.
I grew up eating the foods of Naples, Italy without ever realizing it. Sfogliatelle were at every family gathering (though in New Jersey we called them something more like "sfoon-ya-del"), my great aunt made sticky struffoli at Christmas time, and my grandmother always ordered the linguini alla vongole when we went out to eat.
My grandmother's family came from Naples, though we don't know exactly where they were from. I was long overdue for a visit, and one of our close friends (a Napoletana herself) promised to show us around.
Eating our way through Naples
We spent three days popping in and out of food shops, pizzerías, and pastry shops. I loved the vibrant local food culture-- people in Naples are obsessed with food. I felt at home from the first moment! And funnily enough, unlike in Spain where bars and beers are an all-hours-of-the-day affair, in Naples it's all about the sweets. Pastry shops stay open late into the night, and instead of a mid-morning caña (draft beer), the locals enjoy a tiny espresso and something sweet filled with fresh ricotta cheese.
In other words, it is my kind of place! In only four days I feel like we just scratched the surface of the local cuisine, and I have a feeling that a lot of the traditional dishes from this region are eaten at home. But I still tried a lot (and loved it all).
12 Must Try Foods in Naples
If you go to Naples, here's what you cannot miss!
Try it on tour: Make sure to try the best bites in Naples by taking a food tour. Devour Tours has two incredible food odysseys in Naples: their Ultimate Naples Food Tour and a shorter Secrets of Pizza: Original Naples Pizza Tour -- the must-do experience for pizza-curious travelers!
1. Fried Pizza
Of all the foods we tasted, this was my favorite novelty. I'd never had anything quite like it. Think of the freshest and most delicious fried dough you've ever had, stuffed with creamy ricotta cheese (and often smoked provolone too), a bit of meat, and black pepper. We tasted one of the city's best at the famous Antica Pizza Fritta da Zia Esterina Sorbillo -- absolutely worth the wait (and the calories!).
2. Neapolitan Pizza
This is the land of the pizza, and the brick oven Neapolitan style pizza is as delicious as its reputation claims. We visited the famous Gino Sorbillo to taste their classics: the margarita with buffalo mozzarella and the pizza marinara, a simple classic topped with fresh tomatoes, oregano, garlic and olive oil (I probably wouldn't have chosen it, but in the end, it was simplicity at its very best).
I grew up eating these flaky pastries from Naples, but it wasn't until my Italian friend brought me one back from Naples (the same day it was made!) that I really understood how amazing these could be. There are actually two types of sfogliatelle in Naples, the riccia which are the curly and flaky ones I was used to, and the frolla which is more like a mini ricotta pie. I prefer the riccia, but both are delicious.
The best place for sfogliatelle in Naples? I loved Attanasio and sfogliatella Mary.
4. Pasta alla Genovese
I was confused when my friend told me that one of Naples' most traditional pasta dishes was called pasta alla Genovese -- wouldn't that be from Genoa in the north of Italy? It seems it's as Neapolitan as the pizza (though possibly introduced by cooks from Genoa or even Geneva, Switzerland -- there are a lot of theories!). I was also skeptical about the dish itself, pasta with stewed meat and onions. I couldn't imagine an onion sauce being worthy of so much praise. But pasta alla Genovese takes onions to another level, simmering them long and slow alongside local veal. The result is a thick, caramelized sauce, almost reminiscent of the best French onion soups, that is absolutely packed with flavor.
Where to eat pasta alla Genovese in Naples? We tried an excellent version at Tandem Steak (ignore the name - the pasta is good!).
If in Naples at Christmas time, you can't miss struffoli. These little balls of deep-fried dough are covered in sweet honey and colorful sprinkles. They're another comfort food for me, as I grew up eating my great-aunt's homemade struffoli each year.
If there in winter (we visited in early December -- highly recommended!) I would not miss the local broccoli, called friarelli. Unlike any broccoli, broccolini, or broccoli rape I ever tried, this delicious green was sauteed with olive oil and garlic. I could have eaten a whole bowl, and even considered bringing bouquets of raw friarelli back to Madrid with me... then decided it wouldn't be the best use of luggage space!
7. Buffalo Mozzarella
Another childhood memory is anxiously waiting for my grandparents to arrive at my home in Massachusetts, with goodies from the New Jersey Italian deli in tow. My favorite treats? Buffalo mozzarella and soppressata - a spicy Calabrian sausage. But back to the cheese... I'm pretty sure there is a photo of me somewhere gnawing on a huge chunk of buffalo mozzarella. Yet despite my early love for this Italian import, according to my friend Sara, I'd never had anything like "the real stuff". She told me that she only considers buffalo mozzarella to be good if made on the same day!
Made from the milk of the Mediterranean buffalo and mainly in Campania (the region of which Naples is the capital) this creamy cheese is a true delight and one of the absolute must try foods in Naples.
8. Mozzarella en Carrozza
Like many great food inventions, mozzarella en carrozza comes from the need to use leftovers. Stale bread and mozzarella cheese are covered in flour, egg wash, and deep-fried. Here's a great video (in Italian - but super easy to follow) showing the step by step!
I had never heard of taralli until my friend gave them to me as a gift after visiting her family in Naples. I quickly deemed them to be the most delicious crackers I'd ever tried. Traditionally made with lard, black pepper, and toasted almonds, taralli are now found in a variety of flavors in bakeries all over town. A warning -- they're super addictive and filling!
10. Neapolitan coffee
In 2017 Naples made the news, as its Neapolitan style of pizza making was given UNESCO World Heritage status. Up next? A petition to do the same for its coffee! The Neapolitans take their food and its superiority seriously (and often with good reason!).
Neapolitan coffee is strong and thick, and served frequently. I grew up with my Italian family obsessed with their strange Neapolitan style coffee makers (which I noticed have been largely replaced by Moka pots in Naples today) and frequent coffee breaks. When we arrived at our B&B in Naples, the first thing we were offered was a pot of coffee.
Where can you have good coffee in Naples? It's everywhere -- pop into a little bar or pastry shop and order an espresso at the counter. But for an elegant experience, don't miss a coffee and pastry at Gran Caffè Gambrinus-- a gorgeous Belle Epoque café opened in 1860, located right next to the Royal Palace of Naples.
Fried fish in a cone -- sounds amazing (and not unlike the Cape Cod seafood platters I grew up with, or the pescaíto frito I now eat with Alejandro in Cadiz). This is called cuoppo in Naples, and might include small fried anchovies, squid, white fish, or even zucchini blossoms.
Where to try cuoppo in Naples: Get a piping hot cone at Il Cuoppo Friggitori Napoletani or try it from I Fritti di Serafino.
12. Spaghetti alle Vongole
Last but not least, one of my grandmother's favorite dishes, and one I often ordered growing up in New Jersey's Italian-American dining halls. Spaghetti alle Vongole is popular throughout Italy but is said to come from Campania. It would explain why it's a mainstay in New Jersey, where many immigrants came from Campania. A simple dish, it's really nothing more complicated than spaghetti, clams, garlic, olive oil, white wine, and parsley. But when done well, it's comfort food at its very best!
See also: The art of homemade pasta in Bologna
These are my top 12 must try foods in Naples - though I have a feeling my friend Sara would have many more to add! Two things that didn't make my list are rum baba and limoncello, both worth trying if visiting Naples, but not my top picks.
What do you think? Have you visited Naples? Any must try foods in Naples you think I’ve missed?
Visiting Naples soon? Try these bites and more on a food tour of Naples!