Naples and the Amalfi Coast are the yin and yang of southern Italy. The former a bustling city, gritty and glorious with baroque palaces butted up against chaotic street markets; the latter a stretch of bucolic former fishing villages that are now among the toniest destinations in the world. One thing these two very different spots share—aside from their home region of Campania and setting along the Mediterranean Sea—is an unabashed, full-throated love of good food.
Naples is thick with historic and cultural sites to visit, but that doesn’t distract the city from its raison d’etre: epicurean glory. The Amalfi Coast is home to just a smattering of storied churches and villas, but the views make up for the lack of important architecture. Even here, however, the coastline grinds to a halt at the lunch and dinner hours so locals and visitors alike can enjoy a leisurely meal that often stretches into hours and requires a post-prandial nap.
There are a number of gourmet specialties that come from the region of Campania, including cheeses like mozzarella di bufala from Cilento, fior di latte mozzarella from Tremonti, and provolone del Monaco; heirloom lemons from Sorrento and Naples, Cetara’s anchovies and colatura di alici (a fermented fish condiment), and, of course, fresh fish and seafood pulled from the waters just offshore each morning. Luckily, Naples and the Amalfi Coast make it easy to sample their local delicacies, as they are proudly included in virtually every menu in the region and form the pillars of the local cuisine.
The culinary travel series “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” spent the first episode exploring the epicurean delights of the Bay of Naples and Amalfi Coast and was able to just scratch the surface of this area’s rich and proud local cuisine. This is one of our favorite corners of Italy for dining, and we have been able to go a little deeper to sample the best local dishes and traditional specialties during our many trips to the area. Here are our favorite go-tos whether we’re taking in the lively splendor of Naples or basking in the postcard-perfect vistas of the Amalfi Coast.
Street food – You can’t get farther than a couple of sentences into any article about Naples’ food scene without hearing about the city’s vibrant street food tradition, and no stroll through the warren of lanes that make up the centro storico is complete without stopping at at least a handful of sidewalk pizzerie or friggitorie (specialized in fried treats to go) to sample specialties like pizza fritta (stuffed fried pizza) or pizza al portafoglio (an entire round pizza folded into quarters to eat on the go), cuoppo (a paper cone overflowing with fried anchovies, shrimp, squid, calamari, cod, and a smattering of seasonal vegetables like zucchini and eggplant), arancino (fried rice balls with meat ragù and a mozzarella center), frittatina (fritters made with pasta, bechamel, peas, diced ham), and zeppullele (fritters with fish or vegetables).
Pizza – The city’s signature dish, real pizza napoletana will sway you even if you’re not a big fan of pizza. The “Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana” (True Neapolitan Pizza Association) established a set of rules in 1984 to regulate the authenticity of a true Neapolitan pizza, from type of oven to the size of the hand-shaped crust, and the pizza turned out by the city’s pizzaioli is hands-down the best in the world. Order one of the classics to begin your pizza journey—Naples founded its pizza reputation on the margherita (mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil) and the marinara (tomato sauce, oregano, garlic, and olive oil)—and then move on to more daring toppings like frutti di mare (seafood) and salamino piccante (spicy peperoni).
Pasta dishes – More than the capital of pizza, Naples is the capital of carbs in general. Pasta is de rigueur at lunch, and if you have to choose between a primo or a secondo because your appetite (or waistband) can’t handle both, opt for pasta. There’s always time for a satisfying secondo at dinner. The two most traditional pasta dishes are ragù napoletano—or ‘o rraù—and pasta alla genovese. The former is similar to ragù alla bolognese but is made with a large cut of beef either left whole or cut into a few large chunks rather than the more familiar ground meat used to make its cousin from Emilia Romagna. Pasta alla genovese is an alchemy of sliced onions, white wine, broth, and a large cut of beef simmered for hours until it forms a silky-smooth sauce.
Fish and seafood – Naples sprawls along the coastline of its eponymous bay, so it comes as no surprise that many of the city’s most beloved traditional dishes feature fish and seafood. You’ll find an endless array of piatti di pesce on the city’s menus, including classics like spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), pasta e fagioli con cozze (the classic pasta and beans dish with mussels added), and pesce all’acqua pazza (catch of the day poached with cherry tomatoes, garlic, and white wine). You’ll also find innovative dishes that are founded on the freshness of that morning’s catch, especially pesce crudo (raw fish and seafood).
Pastries – We would be remiss to skip over Neapolitan pastries, one of the highlights of the local cuisine. The classic go-tos include babà al rhum (a sponge cake soaked in a rum syrup) and sfogliatella. Sfogliatella comes in two types: riccia (with a lobster tail-shaped shell of mille feuille pastry filled with sweetened ricotta flavored with candied orange peel) or frolla (the same ricotta and orange filling inside a shortcrust pastry shell). Much like the world is divided into dog people and cat people, Naples is divided into riccia and frolla camps. Other local sweets include pastiera (a ricotta tart flavored with candied fruit and wheat berries boiled in milk), zeppole di San Giuseppe (a pastry cream-filled fritter topped with cherries in syrup), and graffa (a jelly donut much like a krapfen that dates from the Austrian rule over Campania in the 18th century). Today, the city’s most popular treat is the ricotta-filled fiocco di neve made by the Poppella pastry shop. The recipe is cloaked in mystery, which only adds to its appeal.
Dishes to Try on the Amalfi Coast
Set just on the other side of the Sorrentine Peninsula, the Amalfi Coast is less than an hour drive from Naples so it comes as no surprised that the cuisine is very similar. There are some important differences, however, as no handkerchief-sized village in Italy is without a unique culinary specialty.
The Amalfi Coast was once a rather remote clutch of fishing villages and the traditional cooking along the waterfront is almost exclusively based on fish and seafood. You’ll find some of the same Neapolitan classics served here—spaghetti alle vongole, for example, and pesce all’acqua pazza—but also a few recipes that are native to the coast. Totani e patate (squid and potatoes) recalls the frugal ways of fishing wives making meals out of the scraps of the catch, ndunderi di Minori (a gnocchi-like pasta) are rooted in the village of Minori’s historic pasta production, and colatura di alici harks back to Cetara’s ancient Roman inhabitants, who made a similar umami-rich fermented fish tincture.
Today, of course, this VIP stretch of coastline is a gathering place for the international glitterati, and many of the most beloved dishes are relatively recent inventions fueled by the landmark restaurants with world-renowned chefs at the helm. Scialatielli pasta is an example, created in 1978 by local chef Enrico Cosentino. This fresh ribbon pasta is cut into short pieces and served with a number of seafood variations; the most famous is undoubtedly gamberi e zucchine (shrimp and zucchini) but scialatielli allo scoglio (tossed with shellfish) is another favorite. Nerano’s famed spaghetti alla Nerano is another relative newcomer, a creamy dish with sautéed zucchini and local provolone del Monaco that was first served by local eateries in the 1950s.
Like Naples, the Amalfi Coast has its own set of local pastries—and famous local pastry shops—to end a meal with a sugar boost. Perhaps the most famous is the delizia al limone (lemon delight), found in most pasticcerie but sought out specifically from Sal de Riso in Minori. Small domes of lemon-infused sponge cake doused in a lemony glaze may seem like a light end to a meal, but be prepared to walk it off. Other sweet tooth-satisfying coastal desserts include the pasticcioto atranese (a shortcrust tart filled with pastry custard and black cherries) at Pansa in Amalfi and the chocolate candied orange torta la zagara at La Zagara in Positano.