Sampling Campania's larder is a mouthwatering experience. Everything seems to taste that little bit better here – the tomatoes are sweeter, the mozzarella is silkier and the caffè is richer and stronger. Some put it down to the rich volcanic soil, others to the region's sun and water. Complementing these natural perks is the advantage of well-honed traditions, passed down through the generations and still faithfully venerated. Here, food, identity and pride are inseparable.

A Historical Melting Pot

The region's culinary line-up is an exotic culmination of foreign influence and local resourcefulness. In its 3000-year history, Naples has played countless roles, from Roman holiday resort and medieval cultural hotspot to glittering European capital. As the foreign rulers have come and gone, they've left their mark – on the art and architecture, on the local dialect and on the food. The ancient Greeks turned up with the olive trees, grapevines and durum wheat. Centuries later, the Byzantines and Arab traders from nearby Sicily brought in the pine nuts, almonds, raisins and honey that they used to stuff their vegetables. They also brought what was to become the mainstay of the Neapolitan diet and, in time, Italy's most famous food – pasta.

Although it was first introduced in the 12th century, pasta really took off in the 17th century when it established itself as the poor's food of choice. Requiring only a few simple ingredients – just flour and water at its most basic – pasta proved a lifesaver as the city's population exploded. The nobility, however, continued to shun pasta until Gennaro Spadaccini invented the four-pronged fork in the early 18th century.

During Naples' Bourbon period (1734–1860), two parallel gastronomic cultures developed: that of the opulent Spanish monarchy; and that of the streets, the cucina povera (cuisine of the poor). As much as the former was elaborate and rich, the latter was simple and healthy.

The food of the poor, the so-called mangiafoglie (leaf eaters), was largely based on pasta, and vegetables grown on the fertile volcanic plains around Naples. Aubergines (eggplants), artichokes, courgettes (zucchini), tomatoes and capsicum (peppers) were among the staples, while milk from sheep, cows and goats was used to make cheese. Flat breads imported from Greek and Arab lands, the forebears of pizza, were also popular. Meat and fish were expensive and reserved for special occasions.

Meanwhile, in the court kitchens, the top French cooks of the day were working to feed the insatiable appetites of the Bourbon monarchy. The headstrong queen Maria Carolina, wife of King Ferdinand I, was so impressed by her sister Marie Antoinette's court in Versailles that she asked to borrow some chefs. These Gallic imports obviously took to the Neapolitan air, creating among other things highly elaborate timballi di pasta (pasta pies), the gattò di patate (potato tart) and the iconic babà, a mushroom-shaped sponge cake soaked in rum and sugar.

More contentious are the origins of Naples' most famous pastry: the flaky, seashell-shaped sfogliatella. Filled with cinnamon-infused ricotta and candied fruit, it was created, some say, by French chefs for the king of Poland in the 18th century. Others say that it was invented by 18th-century nuns in Conca dei Marini, a small village on the Amalfi Coast. Nowadays its two most popular forms are the soft and doughy shortcrust frolla and the crispy, filo-style riccia version.

Campanian Culinary Icons

Mozzarella di Bufala

So you think the fior di latte (cow-milk mozzarella) served in Capri's insalata caprese (a salad made of mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and olive oil) is delicious? Taste Campania's mozzarella di bufala (buffalo-milk mozzarella) and you'll move on to an entirely different level of deliciousness. Made on the plains surrounding Caserta and Paestum, it's best eaten when freshly made that morning, its rich, sweet flavour and luscious texture nothing short of a revelation. You can find it fresh at latterie (dairies), sold lukewarm in a plastic bag filled with a slightly cloudy liquid: the run-off from the mozzarella making. You'll also find it served in trattorias (informal restaurants) and restaurants across the region.You'll even find dedicated mozzarella eateries in Naples and Sorrento; Muu Muuzzarella Lounge and Inn Bufalito, respectively.

As for that irresistible taste, it's the high fat content and buffalo-milk protein that give the cheese the distinctive, pungent flavour so often absent in the versions sold abroad. Even more luscious is the burrata, a mozzarella filled with a wickedly buttery cream. Burrata itself was invented in the neighbouring region of Puglia.

Campania's most decadent mozzarella dish is mozzarella in carrozza. Literally translating as 'mozzarella in a carriage', it sees fresh mozzarella sliced, sandwiched in white bread, coated in flour and egg yolk, and fried to golden perfection. Although many Italian pizzerias make it using cheaper fior di latte these days, the classic Campanian recipe demands the use of mozzarella di bufala, whose higher fat and lower water content prevents the cheese from seeping out when fried. The classic recipe also specifies the use of stale bread, bought straight from the panificio (bakery).

Pizza

Despite the Bourbons' lavish legacy, Campania's no-nonsense attitude to food – keep it simple, keep it local and keep it coming – remains deeply rooted in the traditions of the poor. This is especially true in its predilection for pizza, a mainstay of cucina povera and one of the foundations on which Naples' gastronomic reputation stands.

A derivation of the flat breads of ancient Greece and Egypt, pizza was already a common street snack when the city's 16th-century Spanish occupiers introduced the tomato to Italy. The New World topping cemented pizza's popularity and in 1738 Naples' first pizzeria opened its doors on Port'Alba, where it still stands. Soon after, the city's pizzaioli (pizza makers) began to enjoy minor celebrity status.

To this day, the city's most famous dough-kneader remains Raffaelle Esposito, inventor of the classic pizza margherita. As the city's top pizzaiolo, Esposito was summoned to fire up a treat for a peckish king Umberto I and his wife, Queen Margherita, on a royal visit in 1889. Determined to impress the Italian royals, Esposito based his creation of tomato, mozzarella and basil on the red, white and green flag of the newly unified Italy. The resulting topping met with the queen's approval and was subsequently named in her honour.

More than a century later, pizza purists claim that you really can't top Esposito's classic combo when it's made by a true Neapolitan pizzaiolo. Not everyone is in accordance, and Italians are often split between those who favour the thin-crust Roman variant and those who go for the thicker Neapolitan version.

According to the official Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza Association), genuine Neapolitan pizza dough must be made using highly refined type 00 wheat flour (a small dash of type 0 flour is permitted), compressed or natural yeast, salt, and water with a pH level between six and seven. While a low-speed mixer can be used for kneading the dough, only hands can be used to form the disco di pasta (pizza base), which should not be thicker than 3mm. The pizza itself should be cooked at 485°C (905°F) in a doubled-domed, wood-fired oven using oak, ash, beech or maple timber.

Pasta

Pizza's bedfellow, pasta, arrived in Naples via Sicily, where it had been introduced by Arab merchants. The windy Campanian climate was later found to be ideal for drying pasta, and production took off in a big way, especially after the 1840 opening of Italy's first pasta plant in Torre Annunziata.

The staple itself is divided into pasta fresca (fresh pasta), devoured within a few days of purchase, and pasta secca (dried pasta), handy for long-term storage. One of the top varieties of local pasta fresca is Amalfi's own scialatielli, a flat noodle both longer and thicker than tagliatelle and often 'pinched' in the middle. Its name stems from the Neapolitan term sciglià (to tousle), and it's a perfect match for delicate tomato-and-seafood sughi (sauces).

This said, Naples is more famous for its pasta secca, the most obvious examples of which are spaghetti, macaroni, penne (smallish tubes cut at an angle) and rigatoni (similar to penne but with ridges on them). Made from grano duro (durum-wheat) flour and water, it's often served (al dente, of course) with vegetable-based sughi, which are generally less rich than the traditional pasta fresca varieties.

The best of the region's artisanal pastas comes from the small town of Gragnano, some 30km southeast of Naples. A pasta-producing hub since the 17th century, its main street was specifically built along the sun's axis so that the pasta put out to dry by the town's pastifici (pasta factories) would reap a full day's sunshine.

As for the queen of the region's pasta dishes, it's hard to beat the mouth-watering pasta al forno (baked pasta), a decadent combination of macaroni, tomato sauce, mozzarella and, depending on the recipe, hard-boiled egg, meatball and sausage. No less than a gastronomic 'event', it's often cooked for Sunday lunch and other special occasions.

Vegetables & Fruits

Poverty and sunshine also helped develop Campania's prowess with vegetables. Dishes like zucchine fritte (panfried courgettes), parmigiana di melanzane (fried aubergines layered with hard-boiled eggs, mozzarella, onion, tomato sauce and basil) and peperoni sotto aceto (marinated peppers) are common features of both antipasto buffets and the domestic kitchen table.

Some of the country's finest produce is grown in the mineral-rich volcanic soil of Mt Vesuvius and its surrounding plain, including tender carciofi (artichokes) and cachi (persimmons), as well as Campania's unique green friarielli – a bitter broccoli-like vegetable saltata in padella (pan fried), spiked with peperoncino (red chilli) and often served with diced salsiccia di maiale (pork sausage).

In June, Slow Food fans should look out for albicocche vesuviana (Vesuvian apricots), known locally as crisommole and given IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta; Protected Denomination of Origin) status.

DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta; Protected Designation of Origin) status is granted to another lauded local, the pomodoro San Marzano (San Marzano plum tomato). Grown near the small Vesuvian town of the same name, it's Italy's most famous and cultivated tomato, best known for its low acidity and intense, sweet flavour. Its sauce, conserva di pomodoro, is made from super-ripe tomatoes, cut and left to dry in the sun for at least two days to concentrate the flavour. This is the sauce that adorns so many of Naples' signature pasta dishes, including spaghetti alla puttanesca, a lip-smacking blend of tomatoes, black olives, capers, anchovies and (in some cases) a dash of peperoncino.

A richer tomato-based classic with aristocratic origins is the Neapolitan ragù, whose name stems from the French ragoût. A tomato-and-meat sauce, it is left to simmer for about six hours before being served with macaroni.

A Regional Overview

Campania's regional specialities are testament to the locals' obsession for produce with a postcode. Beyond pizza napoletana – which is both STG (Specialità Tradizionale Garantita; Guaranteed Traditional Speciality) –protected and listed as an 'Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity' by Unesco, the city is home to surprisingly light fritture (fried snacks) and fragrant pastries. Its bounty of staples also includes pizza di scarole (escarole pie), 'Napoli' salami, wild-fennel sausages and sanguinaccio (a cream of candied fruits and chocolate made during Carnevale).

West of Naples, in the Campi Flegrei, Pozzuoli's lively fish market attests to the town's reputation for superlative seafood. Another Campi Flegrei local is the IGP-status Annurca apple, ripened on a bed of straw to produce the fruit's distinctive stripy red hue.

Seafood revelations are also the norm on the island of Procida, where local concoctions include volamarina (moonfish) tripe with tomato and chilli and anchovy-stuffed squid. And while neighbouring Ischia is equally seafood savvy, the island's agricultural history shines through in classics like coniglio all'ischitana, made using locally bred rabbits.

Southeast of Naples, the Sorrento Peninsula heaves with local specialities, from the ubiquitous gnocchi alla sorrentina to refreshing limoncello sorbet. Feast on burrino incamiciato (fior di latte mozzarella wickedly filled with butter) and pizza-by-the-metre in Vico Equinese, or ricotta-stuffed cannelloni in Sorrento, whose famous walnuts are used to make nocino liqueur. Almonds and chocolate are the key ingredients in the sugar-dusted torta caprese (Caprese cake), which, alongside seafood dishes like linguine in scorpion-fish sauce, and the refreshing insalata caprese, call the island of Capri home.

Predictably, fish features strongly on Amalfi Coast menus, from cod and monkfish to coccio (rockfish) and grey mullet. You'll also find two larder staples down here: colatura di alici (an intense anchovy essence) in Cetara and Colline Salernitane DOP olive oil in Salerno.

Nearby, the Cilento region expresses its earthy tendencies in hearty peasant grub like cuccia (a soup of chickpeas, lentils, the cicerchia legume, maize and wheat) and pastorelle (fried puff pastry filled with chestnut custard).

The Campanian Vine Revival

Revered by the ancients and snubbed by modern critics, Campanian wine is once again hot property, with a new generation of wine-makers creating some brilliant drops. Lauded producers such as Feudi di San Gregorio, Mastroberardino, Villa Matilde, Pietracupa and Terredora di Paolo have returned to their roots, cultivating ancient grape varieties like the red Aglianico (thought to be the oldest cultivated grape in Italy) and the whites Falanghina, Fiano and Greco (all growing long before Mt Vesuvius erupted in AD 79). Keeping them company is a lengthening list of reputable organic and biodynamic wineries, among them Terre Stregate, I Cacciagalli, Colli di Lapio and Cautiero. It's all a far cry from 1990, when wine critic Burton Anderson humiliatingly wrote that Campania's noteworthy winemakers could be 'counted on one's fingers'.

Campania's three main wine-producing zones are centred on Avellino, Benevento and Caserta. And it's in the high hills east of Avellino that the region's best red is produced. Taurasi – a full-bodied Aglianico wine – is considered one of southern Italy's finest drops. Sometimes called the Barolo of the south, its notes range from dark berries and leather to roasted coffee and Mediterranean herbs. The wine is also one of only four in the region to carry Italy's top quality rating, DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita; Controlled and Guaranteed Denomination of Origin). The other three wines to share this honour are Aglianico del Taburno, a full-bodied red from the Benevento area, as well as Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo, both whites and both from the Avellino area. The province of Caserta is well known for producing Falerno del Massico, a DOC-designated wine grown in the very same area as Falernum, the most celebrated wine in ancient Roman times.

Other vino-producing areas include the Campi Flegrei (home to DOC-labelled Piedirosso and Falanghina vines), Ischia (whose wines were the first to receive DOC status) and the Cilento region, home to the DOC Cilento bianco (Cilento white) and to the Aglianico Paestum. Mt Vesuvius' most famous drop is the Lacryma Christi (Tears of Christ), a blend of locally grown Falanghina, Piedirosso and Coda di Volpe grapes.

And while vines also lace the Amalfi Coast, the real speciality here are fruit and herbal liqueurs, with flavours spanning mandarin, myrtle and wild fennel, and the ubiquitous limoncello – a simple yet potent concoction of lemon peel, water, sugar and alcohol traditionally served in a frozen glass after dinner. Limoncello fans take note: the greener the tinge, the better the drop.

Glossary

Places to Eat & Drink

enotecawine bar
friggitoriafried-food kiosk
osteriainformal restaurant
pasticceriapatisserie; pastry shop
ristoranterestaurant
trattoriainformal restaurant

At the Table

cameriere/awaiter (m/f)
carta dei viniwine list
contobill/cheque
spuntinisnacks
tovagliolonapkin/serviette
vegetaliano/avegan (m/f)
vegetariano/avegetarian (m/f)

Staples

agliogarlic
fior di lattecow-milk mozzarella
insalatasalad
limonelemon
mozzarella di bufalabuffalo-milk mozzarella
olivaolive
pannacream
peperoncinochilli
pizza margheritapizza topped with tomato, mozzarella and basil
pizza marinarapizza topped with tomato, garlic, oregano and olive oil
rucolarocket

Fish & Seafood

acciugheanchovies
carpacciothin slices of raw fish (or meat)
granchiocrab
merluzzocod
pesce spadaswordfish
polpioctopus
sardesardines
seppiacuttlefish
sgombromackerel
vongoleclams

Meat

bisteccasteak
caprettokid (goat)
conigliorabbit
fegatoliver
prosciutto cottocooked ham
prosciutto crudocured ham
salsicciasausage
vitelloveal

Cooking Methods

arrosto/aroasted
bollito/aboiled
cotto/acooked
crudo/araw
fritto/afried
alla grigliagrilled (broiled)

Fruit

ciliegiacherry
fragolestrawberries
melonecantaloupe; musk melon; rock melon
perapear

Vegetables

asparagiasparagus
carciofiartichokes
fagiolinigreen beans
finocchiofennel
friarielliNeapolitan broccoletti
melanzaneaubergine; eggplant
peperonicapsicums; peppers
tartufotruffle

Gelato

amarenawild cherry
baciochocolate and hazelnut
cioccolatachocolate
conocone
coppacup
cremacream
frutta di boscofruit of the forest (wild berries)
nocciolahazelnut
vanigliavanilla
zuppa inglese‘English soup’, trifle

Drinks

amarettoalmond-flavoured liqueur
amarodark liqueur prepared from herbs
espressoshort black coffee

The Basics

Campania has a plethora of eating options, and booking on the day of your meal is usually fine. Reserve top-end restaurants in popular tourist spots at least a few days in advance, especially in the peak summer season and during major holidays.

  • Ristorante (restaurant) Formal service and refined dishes and wines.
  • Trattoria A cheaper, more casual version of a restaurant.
  • Osteria Usually an intimate trattoria or wine bar offering a handful of dishes.
  • Enoteca A wine bar, often serving accompanying snacks.
  • Agriturismo A farmhouse serving food made with farm-grown produce.
  • Pizzeria Great for a cheap feed and cold beer.