Naples is a city famed for its food and drink as well as its beautiful coastlines and architecture. But what exactly do Neapolitans eat daily? We have collected the top eight dishes you won’t want to miss on a trip to Naples. These are classics and staples that locals eat every day, and each has a rich history and story of cultural significance behind it. Forget Amalfi limoncello and pasta Bolognese, these dishes are all authentic local essentials which reflect the very function of society itself in Naples. In fact, some of the most quintessentially Italian dishes originate in Naples, as we will see with some items on this list.
The history of food in Naples is a long and emotional one. From the luxury of kings in different eras to starvation and extreme poverty in the war, the people of Naples have long adapted to different historical circumstances on their plates. Some of the stories behind local dishes are nothing short of wild, like the rumour that a baby manatee from the aquarium was eaten by a hungry American general during the second world war. During the same time, people were rumoured to have eaten cats, the heads of chickens and even having to buy food off the black market in order to survive.
It is obvious then that even the recent history of food in Naples shows very difficult and deprived times in the city. Over time though, Neapolitans have shown again and again that they are a hardy people who have created a delicious and varied cuisine from an often difficult and turbulent past.
The land itself should also not be forgotten when it comes to the food of Naples. From the lemon groves that top sheer cliffs on the Amalfi coast to the tomato vines that creep up the side of Mt. Vesuvius, the food in Naples often comes with a visual and beautiful context. It is often noticed, for example, that some of the staple foods in the South reflect the Italian flag, with the ingredients tomato, mozzarella and basil showing up in dishes again and again. Neapolitans take immense pride in their food, and, as we will explain in this post, the very structure of life in the city revolves around these dishes.
If you are planning a trip to Naples, or even if you are just dreaming of going, here is a list of the top eight dishes not to miss out on when you get there. It is not an exhaustive list, as there is such a variety to eat and drink in the city, but these items are staples and authentic dishes. Many of them are not eaten in other parts of Italy, and many of them are classic Italian dishes that originated in Naples and the surrounding areas. For each, we provide a brief history and a note on where in the city to find the dish. The best way to find out about these foods, however, is as usual to go out and try them for yourself!
A Naples Espresso
Although not exactly a dish in itself, a bitter espresso, or cafe as the Italians simply say, is a mainstay of Neapolitan food and drink culture. Neapolitans are not big fans of a big breakfast, but usually have an espresso and cornetti, or filled croissant, in a bar on the way to work. These aren’t bars in the same sense that we would have in the UK. Bars in Naples often function as small cafes too, meaning they are open throughout the day and are where people tend to get breakfast in the mornings as well as their lunch and drinks in the evening too.
People in Naples drink espressos at many points during the day, especially in work breaks and after dinner. There seems to be no limit to the number they can drink in a day, and people do not seem affected by the caffeine despite the strong, bitter coffee. When eating at a restaurant, it is a tradition in Naples to order a round of espressos after the main course instead of dessert, often with a round of grappa or limoncello shots too. It is believed that this tradition comes from allowing people more conversation time after dinner, a way in which we can see that food and drink are fundamental to Neapolitan social customs.
Another interesting tradition is that it doesn’t matter where you order a cafe, it will never be served in a takeaway cup. Whether it is in a bar on your morning commute, in a motorway service station or after a meal in a restaurant, a Neapolitan cafe will always come in a proper china cup. This is because you are never meant to take them away but drink them where you are, as they are themselves part of any social interaction or daily routine in Naples.
Even if you are drinking your coffee in a train station or in a hurry, you will be expected to drink your coffee in one go from a real cup. In some ways, this way of drinking espresso is a perfect metaphor for the city of Naples and reveals its true character. Nothing is ever easy in Naples, but it is the small moments that count, and locals take the time to appreciate their surroundings in the time it takes to drink an espresso. Neapolitan philosophy goes like this: you never know when you might meet someone or have a conversation that you never would have if you had taken your coffee to go.
If you are planning a visit to Naples, you should also remember that it is as good as breaking the law if you try to order a cappuccino past 12 noon! The cultural mores of Naples mean that any coffee with milk in it (which is avoided in general anyway) is only supposed to be drunk before midday. The reasons behind this logic are that Italians have long associated milk with the morning, and believe strongly that a milky coffee is too heavy a drink for any other time of day. Locals will not deny you a cappuccino if you order one, but it is the quickest way to alienate yourself and stand out like a sore thumb!
The history of the espresso in Naples is a bittersweet one, with some claiming that it can be traced as far back as the 12th century, as the first place in Europe to use the commodity. Although this fact is somewhat contested, it is certain that Naples played a significant role in trading coffee in the 17th century. As a busy and significant port, Naples was instrumental in ensuring that coffee became a widely circulated luxury in Europe. It is easy to forget that coffee was not always an everyday item.
In Naples, coffee is essential to the very way that people interact. For example, there are multiple ‘pay it forward’ initiatives and social schemes that make it so much more than just a way to drink coffee. This practice is known locally as a cafe sospeso, or ‘suspended coffee’. This tradition is fairly well known globally but originated in Naples at around the turn of the 20th Century. When you buy a coffee, you have the option to buy suspended coffees, which you pay for but someone else can claim later that day or week. The purpose of this scheme is to allow people who couldn’t otherwise afford it to take a coffee and with it a chance to sit somewhere warm and friendly for a while. This is a practice that is extremely common in Naples and has subsequently spread to the rest of the world. This way of using coffee as a means to help someone else in an anonymous and genuine way is an excellent example of how the Neapolitan character shines in the most difficult of times.
Where to find:
In any bar, tabacchi (corner shop), restaurant or osteria. Anywhere that serves food and drink will sell cafe.
Naples Food: Sfogliatelle
Sfogliatelle, meaning ‘thin leaf layer’, are a type of filled pastry that is native to Campania, the province that Naples is found in. Although the Neapolitans aren’t massive fans of breakfast as I mentioned before, when they do eat in the mornings it is often these unusual looking pastries. As they are often served as street food, locals know to get them in the morning when they are freshly baked and softest. When served still warm, these delicacies are some of the most delicious pastries in Europe. Having said this, sfogliatelle are also eaten as snacks during the day and are often served as a complimentary snack when you sit down for drinks in a bar.
In Naples, there are two different types of sfogliatelle, the baked and the friend type. The reason there are two variations is because of the intensive labour that goes into the baked, and most commonly eaten type. In many pasticcerias (small pastry shops), you will be able to find both types side by side.
The baked type of sfogliatelle, also known as sfogliatella riccia, the ‘curly’ version, is the most involved to make, and the one pictured above with the distinctive layers of pastry. These are made using a long and arduous process of stretching the puff pastry across an entire table top before rolling it into many layers and then filling. It is then baked, and this results in the familiar view of endless layers of pastry that locals love and recognise. The second type, known as sfogliatelle frolla, is made in a similar way but using shortcrust pastry that is then deep-fried.
The fillings of sfogliatelle vary widely, and every street vendor and bar in Naples will claim to have their own take on it. They can range from containing semolina, eggs, candied citrus peel, cinnamon and endless other ingredients, and can be either sweet or more savoury. The most common combination, however, is a sfogliatelle filled with ricotta cheese and candied peel, resulting in a sweet and slightly unusual but delicious flavour.
Sfogliatelle are believed to have originated in the Santa Rosa monastery in the city of Salerno in the 17th Century but are still widely consumed and is a popular treat in Naples. In a city which is renowned mostly for its savoury food, this treat is its signature sweet dish, but it is worth noting that it is almost never eaten after a meal. These pastries are deeply woven into the food identity of Naples, to the extent that the official EU tourism board describes them as a symbol of the city itself.
Now you know more about this delicacy, you will know to try it if you find yourself on the streets of Naples looking for a sweet snack or authentic breakfast food!
Where to find:
Any street food vendors, especially in the centre. Also in any pasticceria, or pastry shop.
Cuoppo di Mare
Often served with bruschetta before the main course in small osterias and seafood restaurants, this dish is called ‘cup’ of seafood because the food comes served in a large paper cone. This dish is eaten both as street food and in most restaurants too and is a firm Neapolitan favourite. Naples is famous for its seafood, which is known as frutti di mare, or fruit of the sea. This cup of fried fish is one of the most popular ways to eat it, and usually includes prawns, octopus and small white fish such as whitebait or sardines. The seafood is so good in Naples because it is so fresh and often caught on the very day it is served, directly from the bay of Naples.
There are actually many variations on this dish, and an assortment of fried appetizers are common on menus across the city. These often include variations that aren’t necessarily seafood, such as courgette, butternut squash and aubergine slices. Potato croquettes, fried dough balls called zeppelini and arancini are also common foods served in the mixed fried style. This appetiser doesn’t have a particularly significant history but is one of the most popular and delicious dishes in Naples that the locals love and is native to this part of Italy.
Where to find:
Most restaurants that serve seafood, and many street vendors.
The non-seafood versions can be found on most menus, especially in smaller osterias.
Famously, a takeaway restaurant calles Il Cuoppo, found at Via San Biagio Dei Librai, 23, 80138 Napoli NA, Italy
This dish is an unusual one and one that speaks to the innovative nature of Neapolitans. This creation, called pasta frittata, is essentially an omelette that is made with the added ingredient of pre-cooked spaghetti or other pasta. You might not have ever eaten fried pasta before, but if you take a trip to Naples it is certainly worth trying. The texture of this dish is very different to the kind of pasta dishes you are probably used to eating, and it is usually eaten cold.
This dish originated in the Neapolitan skill of making a new dish out of food shortages and leftovers, and that is why this dish allows for almost any leftovers to be added to it alongside the key ingredients of pasta and egg. Pasta frittata really became popular in the 20th Century, often when food shortages meant that pasta, a very cheap ingredient, was more available than meats and vegetables. It is a dish that proves the creativeness of people in a hard situation and is still very popular as a lunchtime food in Naples today. Found in most supermarket deli counters, Neapolitans often take a slice of frittata over a traditional sandwich.
Where to find:
In supermarket deli counters mainly, especially Deco.
Otherwise sold in sandwich bars and some cafes.
Despite what the name misleadingly suggests, this dish very much originates in Naples and not Genoa. Relatively unknown outside of Naples, Pasta alla Genovese is one of the most popular pasta dishes in the region and turns simple ingredients into a delicious and widely enjoyed dish. Again, this is a food that shows that in times of lack, Neapolitans are actually able to create something new and beautiful. Even when people couldn’t afford decent cuts of meat, this dish allowed people to use cheaper cuts such as stewing beef. This, alongside onion and carrot, forms the only ingredients in a pasta that is cooked on a slow heat for an incredibly long time to produce one of the most delicious pasta sauces in Italy.
No matter which cut of beef is used, it should be melt in the mouth by the end of the three hour cooking time. The onions and carrots also cook down into a very thick sauce, with the flavour reminiscent of a good French onion soup. The pasta is served with the cooked onions, carrots and liquid as a primi, or first course, and the remaining beef is kept for the secondi, main course. This two-course system (which is usually part of a lengthy and luxurious meal including antipasti and fruit afterwards) is very familiar to Neapolitans but historically was eaten only by wealthy families who could afford to eat in this indulgent style. Pasta alla Genovese was an ingenious way to get around this, creating a multi-course feast with only a few easily found ingredients.
As Naples is an area of Italy which eats comparatively little meat, this dish is notable in the way that it provides not one but two meat courses for relatively little cost and ingredients. Not only is this dish well known in the Naples area, but restaurants are often competitive in their beliefs that their version of the Genovese is best. Each one comes out slightly different than the previous one, depending on the quantities of each ingredient and the cooking time. Different variations of onion are used, different cuts of beef and each establishment will claim to have a secret ingredient that makes the dish. This is all part of the magic of this dish and reveals the organic nature of the city’s food scene.
Where to find:
Any traditional osteria or trattoria and pizzerias often serve this under their pasta sections.
Spaghetti al Pomodoro
Although simple both in name and ingredients, ‘Spaghetti with Tomatoes’ is a standout dish that can be found on most menus in Naples in some form or another. This dish is not always served with spaghetti, but this is the pasta shape which best suits the minimalistic sauce. The reason this dish is so successful yet so simple is that it combines two of the ingredients that Naples does best in a way that showcases both flavours.
Firstly, Naples has one of the strongest pasta-making traditions in the country, with Italy exporting a staggering 1,000 million euros of pasta per year. There is a reason for this tradition beyond sheer commerce, however. The minerals in the soil of the land surrounding Naples is so rich, that there has long been a history of successful agriculture and high-quality food in the area.
In Gragnano, this is true especially of the semolina wheat used to make pasta. Known locally as ‘white gold’, the history of pasta making in this area revolves around the wind that blows specifically in this area and is still used to dry the fresh pasta. The pasta in Gragnano is shaped using bronze, which is what gives it its distinctive rough texture that goes so well with most sauces. To see how deeply ingrained food is in the fabric of Italian society, we can look at the fact that even the main street of the town of Gragnano was reportedly laid out in a specific shape that allowed the maximum pasta drying space.
The tomatoes in Naples have a similar backstory of success. The infamous Mt.Vesuvius is surrounded by notoriously fertile soil and has long been the site of vineyards and tomato growers. For this dish, the pasta is covered in a very simple sauce called ‘sugo di pomodoro’, which is made by cooking fresh cherry tomatoes in a mixture of sugar, water, herbs and oil. When the tomatoes have slightly reduced, the spaghetti is simply tossed in the sauce and served. This dish is very good evidence for the idea that simplicity is key.
Where to find:
On almost every menu in the city, but the best can be found around the Montesanto metro station area, near Via Toledo.
Parmigiana di Melanzane
A labour of love to cook but one of the most delicious things you will ever eat, this is one of the most original dishes in Naples, and when you see this on a menu you know for certain that you are in this city. This dish is a kind of casserole made from baking layers of aubergine, mozzarella cheese and tomatoes. It results in an extremely dense and filling dish, often served as a starter or a side in Neapolitan restaurants. Italians tend to refer to this dish as classic comfort food, and while it is never going to win any awards for refinement, no trip to Naples is complete without tasting this classic concoction!
This dish is thought to have originated in the 16th century, once aubergines were routinely eaten in this part of the world. It is a combination of the best and freshest ingredients Naples has to offer and can be made in many variations too. In some restaurants, you will see parmigiana containing extra ingredients ranging from pistachio to anchovy! Contrary to what the name might suggest, too, this dish’s origins have nothing to do with the cheese Parmigiano Reggiano, although the dish may contain it. Instead, it may contain a variety of cheeses, including fresh mozzarella, scamorza or pecorino.
Where to find:
On most Neapolitan menus, and especially traditional trattorias will serve as a side.
Be warned; this is the main course dish usually, even if it is listed as a side!
Although it might sound like a cliche, pizza really is an authentic staple dish for locals in Naples and the South of Italy. However, this is not pizza like you might know it. The crust of a Neapolitan pizza is thicker than any other type of pizza, and can only be achieved by cooking the pizza in a wood-fired pizza oven. Although pizza is known as distinctively Italian food, even within Italy there is a stark difference between the thin and crispy pizzas found in Rome and the thicker and more topping-laden pizzas found in Naples.
As Neapolitans will always tell you given the chance, it is their version of pizza that is the ‘right’ one. They are fiercely proud of their pizza in this city, and as with most foods, each restaurant will be vying to tell you that their specific version is the best. As it happens, Neapolitans are right to be proud of their pizza heritage, as it is long and tradition heavy, and is probably the city where pizza was first invented.
Although contested, the story is that pizza as we know it was first invented in Naples when Queen Margherita visited in 1861 and requested a variation from the plain French diet often eaten at the time. The story goes that she so enjoyed the variation of the pizza topped with mozzarella, basil and tomato, that it was made a popular dish, and named after her of course.
Nowadays, whether it is in a takeaway box or in a dine-in restaurant, a Margherita pizza in Naples will never cost you more than 5 euro, and always comes with the freshest ingredients. One such ingredient, in particular, is D.O.C (a national stamp of quality assurance) buffalo mozzarella, and you can actually see water buffalo from the motorway in many places.
Italians aren’t afraid of toppings – the menu in a pizzeria will often be endless pages of almost the same variation of loaded pizzas. There is a multitude of vegetable, meat and cheese toppings to choose from when you order pizza in Naples, and you can combine as many as can physically fit on the plate! One thing to note however is that pepperoni on pizzas isn’t ‘pepperoni’ but ‘salsiccia’, otherwise you will get lots of peppers on your pizza!!
Where to find:
In traditional pizzerias across the city, and in most osterias and trattorias too. Try to avoid places in the centre that advertise pizza, as a good pizzeria will never need to advertise.
The two most esteemed pizzerias in the city (you should normally book as they get so busy year round) –
L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. Via Cesare Sersale, 1, 80139 Napoli NA, Italy
Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba. Via Port’Alba, 18, 80134 Napoli NA, Italy