The recorded history of Naples begins in the 7th. century BC, when the nearby Greek colony of Cumae founded a new city called Parthenope. Precisely why the inhabitants of Cumae decided to expand is not known for certain, but the Cumaeans built Neapolis (the “New City”) adjacent to the old Parthenope. At about the same time, they prevented an invasion attempt by the Etruscans. The new city grew thanks to the influence of the powerful Greek city-state of Syracuse in Sicily and, at some point, the new and old cities on the Gulf of Naples merged to become a single inhabited area.
Naples became an ally of the Roman Republic against Carthage. The strong walls of Naples held off Hannibal’s attack. During the Samnite Wars the city, a bustling center of trade, was captured by the Samnites. However, the Romans soon took it from them and made Neapolis a Roman colony. Neapolis was respected by the Romans as a place of Hellenistic culture, where people maintained their Greek language and customs and where elegant villas, aqueducts, public baths, theaters and the Temple of Dioscures were built. A number of Roman emperors, including Claudius and Tiberius, maintained villas in or near Naples. It was during this period that Christianity came to Naples and the apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, are said to have preached here.
In the sixth century Naples was conquered by the Byzantines and it was one of the last territories to fall to the Normans in 1039. In 1266 Naples and the kingdom of Sicily were given by Pope Clement IV to Charles of Anjou, who moved the capital from Palermo to Naples. In 1284 the kingdom was split in two and stayed that way until 1816, when they would form the kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In between, Naples had been under the rule of Spain, Austria and the Bourbons and, briefly, a Jacobin republic. Finally, in October 1860, it became part of the new Italy.
During World War II, Naples was more heavily bombed than any other Italian city. Although the Neapolitans did not rebel against Italian fascism, Naples was the first Italian city to rise up against German military occupation and achieved liberation by October 1, 1943. The symbol of the rebirth of Naples was the rebuilding of Santa Chiara which had been destroyed during an Allied air raid. Special funding from the Italian government helped the economy to improve somewhat, including the rejuvenation of the Piazza del Plebiscito and other city landmarks.
Naples is rich in historical, artistic and cultural traditions with its own distinct cuisine. Neapolitan cuisine was influenced by Arab, Norman, Spanish and French cultures since all ruled Naples at some point in time. What has resulted is a unique half-sophisticated, half-folk cuisine. Many Neapolitan recipes are elaborate, take time to prepare and use seasonal produce. New World food imports added potatoes, peppers, beans, coffee and, especially, tomatoes to the cuisine. The pizza originated here and is eaten, like so many other delicious local foods, out on the street.
Flattened flour cakes — early pizzas — were made out of wheat flour, olive oil, lard and herbs and garnished with cheese. As for a much later ingredient, the tomato: after the Spanish colonization of the Americas, Spaniards brought them to Europe. In southern Italy tomatoes were easy to cultivate. The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692.
Considered a peasant’s meal in Italy for centuries, modern pizza is attributed to Raffaele Esposito of Campania, Naples. In June 1889, Esposito baked a pizza in honor of visiting King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy. The Italian flag inspired Esposito’s recipe and contained green (basil), white (mozzarella) and red (tomatoes). Moistened with splashes of extra virgin olive oil, it was named Pizza Margherita to flatter the Queen, and it set the standard for pizzas to come. Consequently, from 1889 on, Naples became the “pizza capital of the world”.
Naples isn’t only about the pizza. With delicious food that ranges from fried treats to decadent desserts, the food of Naples can satisfy any food lover. The fertile volcanic soil of Campania combines with a perfect climate to produce the best fruit and vegetables in Italy. Dishes like eggplant parmesan, stuffed peppers and pasta e fagioli have been around for hundreds of years. Rich sauces like Neapolitan Ragu have been used to create some of the best pasta dishes in Italy. Like most of Italy, though, pastas mixed with vegetables, instead of expensive meats and seafood, helped feed people during hard times.
Regular red and yellow peppers are widely used, and a local variety of small green peppers (not spicy), peperoncini verdi, are usually fried.
Salad is a side dish, especially seafood ones. Lettuce, and more often the incappucciata (a local variety of the iceberg lettuce but more crispy), is mixed with carrots, fennel, rucola and radishes, traditionally the long and spicy ones, which today are more and more rare; almost completely replaced by the round and sweeter ones.
Black olives used in Neapolitan cooking are always the ones from Gaeta.
Meat is not used as frequently in Neapolitan cooking as in the cuisine of Northern Italy. The most common kinds of meat used in Neapolitan cooking are:
- sausage or pork liver, rounded in a net of pork’s fat and a bay leaf
- trippa (tripe) and other more humble cuts of pork or beef, like pork’s foot and cow’s nose
- braciole, pork rolls stuffed with raisins, pine nuts and parsley, fixed with toothpicks and cooked in ragù
- lamb and goat are roasted, usually with potatoes and peas, typically around Easter
- rabbit and chicken, often cooked alla cacciatora or pan-fried with tomatoes
- beef or other red meat with tomatoes, cooked for a long time to tenderize an inexpensive piece of meat, as in Carne Pizzaiola
Neapolitan cooking has always used an abundance of all kinds of seafood from the Tyrrhenian Sea. Recipes use either less expensive fishes, in particular anchovies, or fishes of medium and large size, like spigola (European seabass) and orate (gilt-head bream), presently sold mainly from fish farms.
- Cicenielli, baby fishes, very small and transparent, prepared either steamed or fried in a dough
- Fravagli, few centimeter long, typically fried
- The baccalà (cod) and stockfish, imported from northern Europe seas, are either fried or cooked with potatoes and tomatoes.
- Octopus, squid, cuttlefish, as well as crustacea (mainly shrimp).
- Shellfish cozze (mussels), vongole (clams), cannolicchi, sconcigli are used in many seafood meals.
And let’s not forget the desserts. Struffoli, sfogliatelle and pastiera cheesecake all come out of Naples.
Make Some Neapolitan Inspired Recipes At Home
Cauliflower, Olive and Caper Salad
A traditional Neapolitan Christmas Eve dinner always begins with a family version of the following salad, which is actually an antipasto.
It can also be made with any of the following: tuna, pitted black olives, mushrooms, artichokes packed in oil, capers, peppers and cornichons, and a dressing made with lemon juice and olive oil.
- Coarse salt
- 2 lbs. whole cauliflower, washed and drained
- 3/4 cup pitted, oil-cured black olives
- 1/3 cup capers, rinsed and dried
- 3/4 cup pitted green olives
- 1/2 cup red peppers packed in vinegar, rinsed, dried, and sliced into julienne strips
- 8 oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained and cut into pieces
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Fill a large saucepan with water; add 1 tablespoon salt and bring to a boil. Lower the cauliflower head gently into the water.
Simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes.
Test the cauliflower – it should be al dente, not overcooked.
Drain, cool, and break into flowerets.
Put the cauliflower in a large bowl and add the black olives, capers, green olives, red peppers, anchovies, and pepper to taste.
Mix together the lemon juice and olive oil and pour over the salad.
Toss gently, being careful not to break the flowerets.
Taste for salt and add more, if necessary.
Note: This may be prepared in advance and refrigerated. Remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes before serving.
Pasta Caprese with Tomatoes, Basil and Mozzarella
- 1 1/2 lbs. fresh, ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
- 8 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese cut into 1/2 inch cubes
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, washed, dried and shredded
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 lb pasta, preferably penne
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
- A pinch of hot red chili pepper
An hour before your meal:
Using a wooden spoon, mix the mozzarella, tomatoes, oil and vinegar, garlic and hot pepper in a deep bowl. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover with a clean dishcloth and let it sit at room temperature for an hour.
Cook the pasta, al dente, drain the pasta and return to the warm pasta pot.
Add the basil to the tomato mixture, toss well and pour the tomato mixture onto the pasta. Mix well. Check again for seasoning, pour into serving bowl and serve.
Spicy Neapolitan Fish
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 lbs. fish fillets
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
- 1/2 teaspoon dry crushed red pepper
- 4 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 cup kalamata olives or cracked green olives, chopped
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons white wine
- 1 tablespoon chopped capers
- 1 cup chopped artichoke hearts
Heat olive oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat.
Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper.
Add half the fish to the skillet and sauté until just opaque in the center, about 3 minutes per side.
Transfer fish to a platter.
Repeat with the remaining fish.
Add parsley and crushed red pepper to the skillet; sauté 1 minute.
Add wine, tomatoes, olives, garlic, capers and artichoke hearts; sauté until tomatoes are soft and juicy, about 2 minutes.
Season sauce with salt and pepper; spoon over fish. This dish is often served over spaghetti.
Neapolitan Rum Baba
- 6 eggs
- 3/4 cup of sugar
- 2 cups of all-purpose flour, sifted
- 2 tablespoons of baking powder
- 8 oz. (1 stick) butter, melted
- 3/4 cup of milk, warmed
- 1/2 cup of water
- 1/2 cup of sugar
- 1/2 cup white rum
- 1 teaspoon of rum extract
Beat the eggs and sugar until fluffy.
Add the flour and baking powder sifted together.
Beat in the butter and milk
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
Pour the ingredients into a greased and floured bundt pan.
Bake for 30-40 minutes.
In a small saucepan cook the sugar in the water until syrupy.
Remove from the heat and stir in the rum and rum extract.
Unmold the cake and spoon the rum syrup, slowly, all over the cake until all the syrup soaks into the cake. You can also brush the syrup on with a pastry brush.
- A Slice of History: Pizza Through the Ages (history.com)
- Italian Food by Region (planegrazy.com)
- Barbara Zaragoza’s Naples Travel Book, The Espresso Break: Tours and Nooks of Naples, Italy and Beyond, Is Now Available As An Ebook (prweb.com)