The view of the Gulf of Naples, with Mount Vesuvius silhouetted against the sky, is instantly recognizable. Despite the very touristic peri-urban area of the Naples metropolis, agriculture is thriving, still producing famed edible wonders, the gustative hallmarks of Neapolitan cuisine.
The Land of Vesuvius
Our journey starts in Boscoreale, near Pompeii, where the Mercato della Terra is held on the day we begin our adventure. Earth Markets, like this one, put the Slow Food philosophy into practice. The stands are brimming with local foods sold by the region’s farmers and craftspeople. The atmosphere is festive, though shopper traffic is modest — the beach still holds strong appeal on this summery Sunday in September —, but the growers are nevertheless satisfied. This market is their chance to forge direct relationships with consumers and build a true community. And it speaks to the perseverance of the local farming and food culture.
At the stand of Vincenzo Egizio, a truck farmer who grows a very wide variety of fruit and vegetables on two farms, the first at Brusciano in the flatlands, the second on the hillsides of Somma, the day begins with bad news: there are no Dente di Morto beans (Slow Food Presidia, see insert), as the plants did not survive this year’s heat wave and drought. This white bean from the cannellini family, typical of the region, is renowned for its thin skin, intense flavor, and relatively short cooking time. Though a celebrated bean early last century, when it was exported to countries like the United States following the flow of emigration, it has now sunk into oblivion. Like almost all legumes.
Fortunately, the season for Neapolitan Papaccella (Slow Food Presidia) is in full swing. This variety of round, ribbed, slightly squashed-looking peppers comes in deep shades of red, yellow, and green. They are fleshy, crunchy, and flavorful and cherished in Naples for their sweetness and aromatic intensity. Papaccella peppers also preserve well — sweet and sour or simply in oil —, though they are also very popular in season, when fresh, served stuffed or oven-roasted.
While we are chatting with Vincenzo, we are joined by Francesco Sposito, the chef at Taverna Estia, the only two-Michelin-starred restaurant in the Naples metropolis. Vincenzo is one of his suppliers. The two men have a joyful complicity that is heartwarming. Francesco samples the produce raw – that is how he understands it and imagines how he will cook with it.
At Taverna Estia, Francesco works with his brother Mario, the dining room manager, and their mother, Margherita. She is the one who tells us the history of this establishment: the challenging start two decades ago with a very ambitious project that was ahead of its time, in an area that had no high-quality restaurants. Then the sons took over and success came to stay. A tale told evenly, both joys and sorrows touched upon only lightly, with the grace of a great narrator – a gift that many southern women possess.
At dinner, while we take a break between courses, Francesco tells us what he thinks cuisine should be: a way to generously bring happiness to those who dine at Taverna Estia. Francesco’s cuisine is highly technical, but the potent flavors – not overdressed, not obliquely evoked, but rewritten – are clearly rooted in traditional Neapolitan cuisine, like an updated version of a great stage classic, when the script is completely reworked without losing its original impact.
The Sorrento Peninsula and the Monti Lattari
The next day, we head to the Sorrento Peninsula, a heavily touristed section of the southern arm of the Gulf of Naples which has nonetheless managed to protect its agricultural heritage by way of its steep, rugged geology and dynamic dining scene.
But first we stop in Sant’Antonio Abate, on the other side of Vesuvius National Park from Naples. This is where Sabatino Abbagnale, a producer of Neapolitan Heirloom tomatoes, awaits us. These ancient strains of the San Marzano variety, though having made canning history, have been slowly abandoned as a crop over the years because they are not suited to intensive agriculture and industrial processing. Oddly, those that conquered international markets in the 19th century can no longer lay claim to the name San Marzano and are now grown by only a handful of producers who are part of a Slow Food Presidia (see inset). These tomatoes are exceptionally flavorful and, to the taste buds of some, the only ones worthy of the classic Neapolitan ragù.
Our next stop takes us to the Iaccarino family’s restaurant, Don Alfonso 1890, and their farm, Le Peracciole, purchased in the 1990s to funnel new produce and new ideas into their cuisine. Alfonso and Livia, his wife, were trailblazers of the Mediterranean gastronomy wave and Don Alfonso 1890 was the first restaurant south of Rome to earn three Michelin stars.
Straddling the land between the Gulf of Naples and the Gulf of Salerno, with Capri across the water, the Le Peracciole farm is spread over twenty acres of hilly terrain tumbling down to the sea. Here, we meet the Maître d’Hôtel, Fortunato Maresca. His knowledge of farming is astounding: It is clear the farm-to-table distance here is minimal indeed. In the olive grove, local Minucciola and Rotondella varieties grow alongside the Sicilian and Tuscan olives, Nocellara and Frantoio. A stone’s throw away are the famed Sorrento Femminiello lemon trees, also an Ark of Taste fruit (see inset). In winter, they are covered with pagliarelle, straw mats that shield them from the cold and wind. The lemons, with their highly aromatic peels and very tart juice, inspired the restaurant’s signature dessert, Sinfonia di Limoni, the lemon symphony.
We leave Don Alfonso 1890 for Agerola on the Monti Lattari, Italian for the “dairy mountains.” Their rugged terrain, altitude, forests, and air contrast exquisitely with the realm of the Gulf of Salerno below. As their name suggests, and as the landscape confirms, we are in the land of cows, milk, and cheese.
It is also the land of Agerolese cattle, a breed listed in the Ark of Taste, as it is threatened with extinction. This hardy cow produces little milk, but what it does produce is high quality and perfect for cheesemaking. We meet a few of these beasts when visiting breeder and cheesemaker Nicola, whose herd grazes in the open air. Nicola produces Agerola Fior di Latte (another Ark of Taste food), a cow’s-milk mozzarella with a reputation in Naples akin to that made with buffalo’s milk. He crafts it before our very eyes, a graceful and inspiring exercise.
We then wind our way back down toward the coast, where we are expected at the Bellevue Syrene 1820, a superb mansion built in the 18th century on a Roman town. There is history to be discovered around every corner in this region. Chef Ivan Ruocco’s dishes are carefully and generously prepared, seeking simply to please, rather than astound.
In a town near the Cape of Sorrento, we also visit the property’s kitchen garden, which, like the hotel, is owned by Elsa Russo. This lovely and wholesome Eden, tended by Vincenzo, is home to an olive grove in which local varieties rub branches with the Tuscan Frantoio, as well as a small vineyard, an orchard featuring a surprising banana tree, and a vegetable patch sheltering the season’s last Sorrentino Tomatoes, yet another Ark of Taste food.
The sea is ever at our feet in an endless azure expanse, home to Nassa Shrimp, listed in the Ark of Taste. The creature is named for the technique used to capture it: Nassa are creels or fish traps, an ancient and minimally invasive practice well-suited to this pink shrimp that lives in underwater caves. But fishing season is over and we must wait for another opportunity and return to the Sorrento Peninsula.