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OA Blog/Destination Dining

The Infamous Naples Pizza Crawl, Mozzarella to Die For, Stellar Pasta in Rome, Casual Parisian Bites & Why People Are Wrong About L’Ami Louis.

Though I had been to the Amalfi Coast a half dozen times, it was until a year ago that I visited Naples proper. But ever since that visit, I have been desperate to return. But unlike most tourists, whose sights are set on the intricacies found in the multitude of frescos, statuary and cathedrals that abound in Italy, the purpose of my return to the city was to delve deeper into the complex subject of Neapolitan-style pizza.

I have often wondered why pizza is so popular. After all, it is just dough, sauce and cheese with some oilve oil and spices thrown in for good measure. Agreed, a good pie packs a terrific punch. But considering you can show up at a place that serves good pizzas, and wait two hours for a table, one would think that the punches were being thrown by a heavyweight boxer rather than a diminutive man, who carries the wonderful title of
Pizzaiola, and who usually works silence in and in complete anonymity.

Of course the price point has a lot to do with it: On a price to punch packing ratio, it is hard to beat the value you get in a well fashioned pie. But there has to be more to it than that. Maybe it is the casual nature of the meal? Or maybe it is the communal dining experience? For some reason that is still inexplicable to me, people are quick to let go of their culinary inhibitions while enjoying a good pie. That finding a place that makes really good pizza is so rare - an aspect of the art that seems puzzling given its simplicity - and the fact that the Real McCoy can only be sampled in a single city in the entire world, heightens the experience to a level that is usually reserved for more expensive fare.

The personality of a city often attaches itself to the food that is famous for. Naples. In this instance, I have come to associate Neapolitan pizza with the surreal environment that permeates the Via Tribunale, which one could easily call “the pizza street", iwhich feels as if you have stumbled onto the set of a Fellini movie. Oddly enough, it is weirder in the daytime than at night. I know that sounds strange but during the daytime, the street is throbbing with people, and among the mix of tourists, shopkeepers and ordinary Neapolitans who have some sort of business in the area, are a fair amount of number of odd looking characters. But it appears that in Naples, the freaks don’t come out at night and in the evenings the street is less crowded and filled with local students and tourists,

Our evening began in the lovely enclave of Sorrento, which sits at the entry to the Amalfi Coast. The plan was for Mrs. P and I to pick up our sons at the airport in Naples (they were flying in from London) and then visit three to four pizzerias. Figuring that traipsing around Naples in a rented car and having to find a place to park by each pizzeria, or finding a taxi to take us from place to place, seemed like bad ideas so I got us a van and driver. And at 5:30 on the dot, the trusted Fabrizio of picked us up in his van and off we went to the airport. Once we had our sons in tow, we arrived at Gino Sorbillio, our first stop, a hair after 7:00. Fortunately, there was one table that was open so we were able to sit right down.

Our server spoke little English, but he was such a character that he made us laugh even when he spoke to us in Italian. Despite the language difference, we set about trying to communicate what our concept was for the evening: We were visiting three, or possibly four, pizzerias, with Sorbillo was the first one. At each restaurant we planned on ordering two pies: a classic Margherita and we wanted the waiter to choose a second pie for us that he felt best represented the restaurant. At first he had a puzzled look on his face but after a couple of tries his eyes lit up and he said, “ah, si, si, si.....una Pizza Margherita et una Pizza Especiale." Exactly.

Our pizzas arrived and the Especiale turned out to be one quarter Margherita with the other three quarters covered with different toppings consisting of mushroom, proscuitto & spicy salami. The pizza was very good, with a sauce was both highly acidic and sweet at the same time. but in particular, the spicy salami was really good. But more interesting than the pies was the reaction on the faces of my family. The best way to could describe the way they looked after tasting the pie was as follows. Quite often when you hear about something for a long time, you build up a certain expectations about how it is going to taste. Neapolitan pizza falls into that category. But the pizza in Naples doesn’t taste all that different than the top pizza in New York or San Francisco. So after taking a bite, a look came over their faces that I have seen at countless wine tastings which is; I need to taste this again to find what makes it different than the pizza I am used to eating, and then compare it to my taste memory of pizza in NYC.

When we left the restaurant, which couldn’t have been much past 7:30, there was a throng of people waiting for a table. Clearly a harbinger of things to come at our next stop which was Starita by Don Antonio. Starita was a last minute substitution for da Michelle, a well-known pizzeria down the block from Gino Sorbillo, But Starita is the sister restaurant to Keste Pizza,in NYC, where I had a really good meal before my trip, so I thought it would be fun to compare to compare them. Between walking walk back to the car, and the 10 minute drive from Sorbillo,followed by another 10 minute walk to Starita we didn’t arrive until slightly after 8:00. The wait for a table was an hour (although I believed we waited a bit more than that. Once again we opted for a Margherita. But this time we chose the second pie ourselves which was tomato, fresh mozzarella, proscuitto with a egg cracked on top. The pizza wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t even close to being as good as the pizza at Gino Sorbillo. We waited an hour for a meal that took us less than half that time to eat.

Unlike the other pizzerias in Naples, La Notizia is located far away from the center of the city. It is way up on a hill, located in a part of Naples that the city’s bourgeoisie call home. In fact, don’t be shocked if while en route to the restaurant in a car or taxi, you happen to spot a Prada or Gucci shop while gazing out the window of your taxi. Easily a good twenty minutes away from Starita, it is so far off the beaten path that we were the only tourists in the entire restaurant. In fact everyone from the owner to the people who were waiting on line with us, treated us as if we were an oddity. In fact when I asked the owner, Master Pizzaiola (a title I aspire to) Enzo Coccea, for a table for four, he immediately turned around and looked me right in the eye and said to me, “how do you hear about my place?"

I was actually prepared to answer that question and I started blurting out the names of various two star Michelin chefs who told me, “La Notizia is the place to go for pizza" which they followed by having the words “Enzo Cocea", which they said with such revere in their voice one would have thought I had asked them for the name of the person who painted the Sistine Chapel rather than who served the best pizza. A big smile came on to Enzo’s face and he told us we would have to wait 10-15 minutes for a table and we waited outside During out wait, a number of locals heard us speaking English and came up to us to talk to us and ask us what we were doing there, whereby I had to go through my routine about the chefs once again.

Ten minutes went by and they sat us at a table right by the oven. We decided to break from out plan a bit and this time we ordered a Margherita with smoked mozzarella, and a calzone stuffed with buffalo mozzarella and topped with fresh ricotta and roasted pork belly.The pizza was excellent but the calzone was over the top. In fact the first bite of the calzone caused the collective “yum" that I expected to hear when the evening began at Sorbillo. An added attraction of visiting La Notizio is Enzo, who is a character and a half, and who despite having a somewhat limited command of the English language, managed to tell me all about his business, and who by the end of the night was hugging and kissing me.

By the time we got back to the van it was well past 11:00. Once we were on our way, I immediately polled the entire P family to see who the winners and losers were that evening. La Notizia was the overall winner, and the calzone was easily the single best thing we ate all evening. In addition they served the highest quality dough. Sorbillo took second place, but we all thought their San Marzano tomato sauce was the the best sauce we had. Starita was well back in third. But while we were discussing our choices, Fabrizio jumped in told us that Starita is more famous for their pizza fritta (stuffed fried dough) than their pizza. We arrived back in Sorrento at 12:30. It was a long, fun evening

The next morning our sights were set on buffalo mozzarella. When I dined at Torre di Saracino in April 2013,the chef, Gennaro Espositio, was walking around the dining room with a braided mozzarella that was the size of a challah. He visited each table and would cut off a thickish slice, top it with a bit of oilve oil , sprinkle some coarse salt, and the end result was mozzarella heaven. Fabrizio picked me up after the meal and when I described it to him, he told me he could arrange a visit to the factory. So with Mrs. P and my sons in tow, we headed off to Paestum to visit Vannulo, the factory that supplies all of the top chefs with their buffalo mozzarella.

If you have never seen the type of buffalo whose milk they make mozzarella from, well let me say the following. If you happened to be walking down the street and it just so happened that a buffalo was coming in the other direction, you would mistake it for a cow. Seriously, I was expecting the buffalos to look like the figure on the old Buffalo nickels. But those are actually American water buffalo or bisons, and it never occurred to me that this was a completely different breed. D’oh. When I saw them hanging around the pen, I realized that it was silly of me to ever think that one of those behemoths could deliver such succulent milk.

Vannulo has a herd of around 300 head. Our guide brought us to the large pen they hang around in, and began explaining how these buffalo live the good life. Seriously, they start their day listening to Mozart, and they can eat hay until the cows come home And if they are feeling stressed, they can go for a massage. Seriously, their is a contraption that you would recognize as the brushes at a car wash, and whenever one of them is in the mood, they walk under the rollers and position their bodies accordingly.

The process of giving milked is pretty interesting. When a buffalo feels it is full, it enters an automatic milking machine. Each buffalo has a digital chip embedded in their ear, which tells the machine exactly where the buffalos teats are, and it attches the milking device accordingly. And when more than one buffalo feels the urge to give milk at the same time, they actually wait in line to enter the machine. I know it sounds crazy but it’s true. This behavior stands in stark contrast to the scene at a rest stops on Autostradas all over Italy, where so many people are yelling and cutting in line ahead of you, We sampled some cheese, visited the gift shop where they sell all sorts of products made from buffalo leather, before ending our visit at the Vannulo ice cream shop, where we lunched on multiple flavors of buffalo milk yogurt and ice cream.

With the buffalos now in our rear view mirror, we were headed to Naples to catch the Freccciarosa train to Rome. We pulled into Stazioni Termini aeound 5:30, and even after checking in to our hotel we were able to spend 90 minutes doing some shopping near the Spanish steps. Dinner was at Roscioli, which I would nominate as the restaurant that a group of people are most likely to over-order at. The reason I know is this is I have first hand experience, and the four of us were overwhelmed by platters of salumi and cheeses, an order of the best version of Amatraciana that I ever had, and house made meatballs which we were too full to eat.

The next morning we were on an early flight to Paris, where we picked up a fifth Plotnicki at Orly Airport in the form of a girlfriend. This was the first time she had visited Paris, and for weeks she had been telling us that she owned a beret, and to the horror of everyone in our family, was threatening to wear it while we were there. Fortunately, she left it at home in New Jersey. We checked into the hotel and guess what, everyone was hungry. Where to go for lunch. After racking my brains and scouring a half dozen Internet sites looking for places open for lunch on Saturday, I booked a table at Jeu de Quilles, a small, meat-intensive restaurant in the 14th arr.

So let me say this about Jeu de Quilles: Best piece of veal ever. Okay I am exaggerating a bit as I can recall a milk-fed Cote de Veau, that they served at Taillevent about 15 years ago which was truly superb. But for a casual meal, my Pallete de veau was easily the best veal I’ve had. And the 60-day dry-aged steak the P boys split was superb as well. And there is good reason for the high quality meat:The restaurant is located next door to Hugo Desnoyer’s butcher shop, and chef/owner Benoit Reix (who is completely out of his mind if you have the chance to schmooze with him for a bit) does a superb job of utilizing his special access to M. Denosyer’s meat locker.

Our dinner at Thomieux was a dud, and as in stark contrast to a good meal we enjoyed there last year. On that visit, the people at the next table had ordered an an amazing looking (and cheesy smelling) lobster macaroni & cheese that I just had to have. So I focused on it like a laser during this visit, which included a pre-visit agreement with Mrs. P that she would share it with me (it’s for two people and mac ‘n cheese is not really her thing.) Well as to be expected, it wasn’t anywhere as good as I was hoping. and it tasted like it was prepared in advance and then heated up and the wonderful cheesy aroma was nowhere to be found.

Sunday lunch was at Briezh Cafe in the Marais. But not before I stopped at the nearby L'As Du Fallafel to get sandwich to go, which by the way was delicious despite the fact that Mrs. P yelled at me for having two lunches (she calmed down a bit after taking a bite and realizing how delicious it was.) Anyway after a bit of a to-do with another American family who were trying to steal my reservation, we sat down in the back room and had a terrific meal. Shame the place is so cramped and uncomfortable but even so, it’s one of the best casual lunches in Paris.

We had a 10:00 dinner reservation at L’Ami Louis. Why this restaurant creates such a high level of controversy is unclear to me. But it is typical for my Parisian friends to denigrate the places, saying things like, “I swear I will never go there." And even among some of my American friends it is sort of outre these days, and denigrated as being for tourists. Well I am here to tell you that not only is the food fabulous. It is one of the only places I know of where the traditional bistro experience lives on in its original form. The ambiance is spectacular, and the dining room of very few restaurants emanate as much joy as the dining room at L’Ami Louis.

Ah yes the food is not too shabby either. The foie gras was thickly sliced and exceptionally dense and creamy, the frogs legs were dripping in butter and garlic, the cote de boeuf is almost too large to be believed, and the roast chicken is perfectly firm in the way that only a French chicken can be. Add potatoes to the list, both in the form of a garlicky potato cake as well as allumettes (matchstick potatoes), and you have a meal that would be irresistible to anyone but a cardiologist. Plus the wine list is absolutely superb, listing numerous excellent bottles of Burgundy, Bordeaux and wines from the Rhone, and priced in a way that makes ordering them too easy. And while people complain about the price, all of that food and along with bottles of 2011 Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet Ruchottes and 2011 Dennis Mortet Gevry Chambertin Lavuax St. Jacques cost 200 euros a person, a bargain for that level of quality, especially when you compare it to a multi-star restaurant where the costs can easily go above 500 euros a person.

The next day we all scattered in separate directions. My family took various flights back to the states, while I was on my way to Barcelona for dinner. One last week of the birthday trip to go. And what a week it turned out to be.