Friday, May 17, 2019

Desserts and Lodgings

Indexing previous reporting from my 2019 Italy trip:
The Naples Diet
Lines in Italy Explain My Exasperation
His Dying Thought: Oh, right; this is how you die in Italy
The Surprising Truth About Real Neapolitan Brick Oven Pizza
The Surprising Truth About Real Sicilian Rice Balls
Marzipan, You Idiot! Marzipan!
Naples: Mistaking Soulfulness for Danger
Two Recent Glimpses of Ridiculous Death
Pasta Time!
Miscellaneous PIzza
Sfogliatelle Shootout in Naples

Nearly every alternative tourist lodging in the world (AirBnB, regular BnB, rental apartments, etc) tries to attract guests via offers of savvy local tips and advice. 99% of the time, this is boring conventional wisdom. The allure of "local tips" loses its luster when you consider the advice someone might get from your dull neighbors and Blimpie-eating work colleagues. Just because you're local doesn't mean you know anything, and the odds are strongly against your having good taste. So I almost always ignore such information.

But then there's Giancarlo Garraffa, recovering lawyer and proprietor of BBinItaly in Naples. Giancarlo is a serious chowhound, an intellectual, and an unaffected great guy. He doesn't traffic in conventional wisdom, he really sweats his recommendations, and he's enormously generous with his knowledge. If you stay in one of his properties and load WhatsApp onto your phone, he'll happily advise you on-the-fly....not just to hustle up a higher rating for his lodgings, but because he sincerely cares. His tips are right on the money and his taste is flawless.

Giancarlo directed me, first thing, to Pasticceria Ciro Poppella (aka Poppella), a century-old pastry shop that's well-known to locals but hard to pick out of the food tourism noise. I'd never have made it there without Giancarlo's urging, and I'm awfully glad I did (note: it's across the street from Pizzeria da Concettina ai tre Santi, another Giancarlo recommendation, which I covered in my "Miscellaneous PIzza" report, where I described their Cetarese pie as "among the great bread experiences of my life").

Poppella's big specialty is a normally unexciting pastry called fiocchi di neve.

Something Italy has in common with Japan: a willingness - even zest - for elevating not just vaunted items, but also the also-rans. There's no winnowing, no "good stuff". It's all considered good stuff, and a given place might very well specialize in something you'd always considered lowly.

Consider, for example, my experience with sfogliatella frolla, which I'd previously considered to be "for killjoys who want all the calories with none of the ultra-crispy pastry miraculousness", and which La Sfogliatella Mary raises to high art and craveability.


Loving clouds of angelically light filling in a cakey shell so instantly melting that you'll miss it entirely if you're not paying close attention. I'm not Catholic, but this was Easter weekend and I was absolutely prepared to smudge and/or mortify relevant body parts, overwhelmed by the ecstatic aftermath of this pastry. I thought I tasted vanilla, but my attempts at analysis were utterly futile. Let me put it this way: in my opinion, the bakers have outdone their savior (by contrast, the Tibetans have the humility to intentionally lightly spoil their mandalas).

I don't know what these are called (my receipt calls them napul'e', which I suspect is Neapolitan dialect), but I've seen them in Italian bakeries abroad, where they're jiggly sticky rube bait, the perfect intersection of not-as-good-as-it-looks and not-worth-the-calories. But these were actually on a par with the blessed fiocco di neve. A Neapolitan Easter miracle just for me!

Paused mid-ravaging for a photo. My self-control is astounding.
Also, because I'm a greedy pig, plus I don't know when I'll return, and, anyway, I've been walking 7 miles per day so it's totally cool to suck in 16,000 calories in five minutes, I filled out my pastry order with a miniature pastiera, the traditional Easter cake. It, too, was galvanizing.

This, my friends, is a plate worth traveling for.

Down the block from Poppella, in an unnamed shop, I was startled to glimpse this loaf of heartburn bread; a cornucopia of cholesterol.

Let me sneak in a brief coffee mention amid the dessert discussion, but don't you dare ask for coffee to be served with your sweets. Perish the thought! Coffee demands your undivided attention.

Giancarlo recommended the scenic, bustling, wonderful Il vero Bar del Professore in the main city square, and I tersely ordered "un espresso", hoping to avoid branching decisions and options. What I received was festooned with crazy, gloppy, toothsome crema, dolloped from an enormous trough under the counter. I don't know what it was, I don't know why they thought I ordered it, but don't argue with The Professor. He was right. I wanted, I wanted.

For extra local color, I got to stand next to a belligerent customer who came very very close to being punched in the face by the otherwise professional and affable barrista. The scene was hastily dispelled by the guy working the cash register.

...which reminds me of an important Italy rule of thumb: in any food service establishment with a very prominent cash register person, head there first. Even if you don't need to pay before ordering (though often you do), they'll explain procedure, while servers generally don't like to have their efficient rhythms broken by awkward questions in tortured tourist sign language.

That was only the first of a succession of pastiera I ate in Naples. Did I mention I was in town for Easter? Well, when in Rome, etc. Poppella's was fantastic, and I could have stopped right there, but Giancarlo had a secret weapon bakery 30 minutes outside the city center, an operation so beloved that its owners are besieged with requests to open a more convenient outlet (having been doing what they do where they do it practically forever, they refuse, stubbornness being a hallmark of resolutely traditional artisans).

The bakery is Antignani Carlo, which I believe is at 141 Via Roma in Pomigliano D'arco, though I've seen it placed at 146 and in the low 200s. I think the phone number is 081 884 1182, but different sources offer a variety of alternatives. I didn't actually make the trek, myself, because Giancarlo scored some for his family for the holiday, and was kind enough to invite me to stop in and sample the goods. This pastiera was wonderful - a clear cut above - but also maddening.

I have a failing as a food writer: I have terrible trouble recognizing out-of-context flavors. I know oregano like the back of my hand, but if you added some to samosas or to cotton candy, I'd pull out my hair trying to identify the tantalizingly familiar seasoning. The pastiera from Antignani Carlo contains a secret ingredient I didn't taste elsewhere, and I hovered an angstrom unit away from guessing it. Well...maybe next year (or I might return for the bakery's famous Zeppola di S.Giuseppe, served only on March 19).

I munched the pastiera on the terrace of Giancarlo's mom's apartment overlooking the port of Naples. Like mother like son; Signora Garraffa spilled forth a profusion of savvy chow tips as I strained to identify the secret flavoring. It takes a certain sort of person to launch earnestly into an extended food shmooze in a language spoken with difficulty, ignoring both a bajillion dollar view and her extended family in the next room honoring the messiah's resurrection. Chowhounds are everywhere, and we somehow manage to recognize and generously advise each other. Vivi Signora Garraffa.

I highly recommend Giancarlo's apartments if you're ever in Naples. His guidance will assure your trip. For a taste of his ebullient knowledge, I'm providing (with permission) the tip sheets he gives his guests. It's solid gold (and entertaining reading), so I'd strongly suggest you bookmark it. Again, though, the real attraction is his on-the-fly guidance via text message. If only every city had a Giancarlo!

Click to enlarge:
Napoli in two days

Don't-miss eating short list by neighborhood

"Smart Tips for Visiting the Surroundings of Naples" : Sorrento, Positano, and The Amalfi Coast

"The Beautiful Islands": Capri, Ischia

...and Procida

"The Amazing Archeological Sites"

My Rome lodgings were great, too. Paola, a very talented photographer, rents out rooms in a private wing of her large apartment, and she and her husband Mimmo are consummate AirBnB professionals. Their place is elegant and comfortable, squeaky clean, and Mimmo whips up ambitious, generous breakfasts. Best of all, they're 15 seconds from a metro station that's a 10 minute trip to the Colosseum. I couldn't imagine staying elsewhere in Rome in terms of price (around $70/night), location, comfort, privacy, and overall value. See Paola's listings here. Paola's English isn't super-fluent, but she makes it work, plus AirBnb's mobile app auto-translates real-time text messages.

If you haven't joined AirBnb yet, this link gives you a substantial discount on your first booking.

Next installment of my Italy trip: The Benign Insanity of Scouting Moroccan Food in Naples

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