Franceschetta58 – Modena, Italy

Massimo Bottura is a cool man. Of course, coolness is subjective; he’s my idea of cool. Thick rimmed glasses, grey stubble, short curly hair. More importantly, an indefatigable appetite for life, an authentic passion for his trade, and a commitment to improving the lives of those around him make him stand out. 

I first heard of Bottura watching the Netflix series Chef’s Table, the peerless documentary series showcasing the lives and foods of the world’s greatest chefs. The first episode told the story of the charismatic Italian, whose attempts at modernising Italian cuisine had initially been met with considerable suspicion by food traditionalists, which in Italy means pretty much everyone.

What impressed me most, however, was not his mouthwatering, creative dishes, more artistic than anything I’d seen before. It was his personality and, more than anything, his dedication to making people happy. The episode’s opening scene showed the devastating earthquake that struck northern Italy in 2012, killing 27 and causing untold damage to, among other things, millions of pounds worth of Parmesan cheese. Bottura helped raise awareness and showcased the local, world-famous, cheese in his food, providing the industry with a recovery boost.

Osteria Francescana, the tiny, unpretentious restaurant that in 2016 was named best in the world, is Bottura’s baby. Having worked in New York and Paris, bastions of fine dining, Bottura chose to come home, to Modena, home of Pavarotti and Ferrari, to open his own place. A local museum guide told me how proud she was of Bottura’s decision.

Francescana is set in the heart of Modena, a beautiful town just north of Bologna. While travelling through northern Italy I dreamt of going there. Sadly, unlike Aziz Ansari and Eric Wareheim in the latest series of Netflix’s Master of None, I couldn’t afford the €220 price for a nine-course tasting menu.

Bottura, however, is dedicated to providing quality food to everyone. In the 2016 Olympics he helped turn food waste into meals for Rio’s homeless, a project repeated this year in London. He also has a far more affordable option, just outside Modena’s historic centre. It’s still pricey, and portions are small, but my god is it good.

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Franceschetta58 offers Michelin-star quality food for a fraction of the price. I opted for the lunch menu, a reasonable €25 for three courses. The restaurant is laid back and casual. Daft Punk lyrics adorn the walls while James Brown and Stevie Wonder provided the soundtrack. Attractive French waitresses glide between tables handing out cutlery in old watering cans. It veers perilously close to faux hipster pretension but nevertheless retains an authentic vibe, probably due to Bottura’s personality, or my idea of it at least.

Picking a highlight from the meal is tough; almost everything I ate was top quality. Is it even okay to choose the bread? Seriously, that focaccia. I tried a lot of focaccia during my 10 days in Italy, it was my go-to snack. This was next level: perfectly spongy texture, just the right amount of oil, salt and air. If this was the only thing I was served I still would’ve given Franceschetta a positive review.

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Emilia burger

For starters I opted for one of Bottura’s famous creations, the Emilia burger, named after the local region, Emilia-Romagna, which produces so much of Italy’s world-famous produce (parmesan, Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, bolognese, mortadella, the list goes on). It’s small, and by small I mean small; a slider rather than a burger, a small one at that. The patty is a delightful mixture of pork, beef and parmesan, and the cheese really shines through. It was rare, just how a good burger should be. The salsa verde, mostly parsley, provided a fresh balance to the meat. But the balsamic reduction was slightly overpowering; it was the only (very minor) negative. The burger was still great, and tasted especially good paired with a local red Sangiovese.

Next came the party piece, a perfectly-grilled octopus, each sucker, not an enticing term, housing a pool of olive oil. It was good, but even better when eaten with the fried cauliflower perched alongside it, which tasted almost of crispy seaweed. The accompanying cauliflower and smoked oil mousse was divine.

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Grilled octopus 

I probably wouldn’t have ordered the only dessert on offer, but I’m bloody glad I was cornered into it. It was a sensational coffee and orange cream, with crumbled chocolate biscuits and raspberries. I finished with a coffee and a surprisingly pocket-friendly bill of €35.

Have Italians accepted Bottura’s experimentation with traditional Italian cuisine? It seems so, everyone I spoke to in Modena about him was rightly proud. There were Italians there, but over half the clientele were foreign, mostly French and American. Franceschetta58 is certainly worth a visit. Hell, I basically went to Italy to go there. Of course, we’d all like to be able to visit its big brother, hopefully one day I will. But the more accessible version allows the rest of us to see just why an excitable Italian from Modena has become one of the world’s most celebrated chefs.

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The best meals of 2016

The following article features five food experts and their favourite meals of 2016.


Tomé Morrissy-Swan, author of Appetite for Consumption food blog

2016 has been a pretty shitty year. Tragic terrorist attacks and plane crashes, political upheaval across the world, and a spate of celebrity deaths, from beloved musicians and actors to Johan Cruyff, one of the best footballers of all time, have continually shocked us. On a more mundane level, Cristiano Ronaldo winning the Champions League, the Euros and the Ballon D’or is particularly grating.

Thankfully, the culinary world has provided a much-needed tonic to the overbearing doom and gloom. When everything around us seems to be pointing to the end of the world as we know it, food continues to remind us of the more comforting things in life: home, family, travelling and the fact that we have more in common with each other than what separates us (hummus and falafel, after all, are equally as Israeli as they are Palestinian).

This year, I’ve been lucky enough to visit several gastronomically iconic places; indeed, I was so inspired by the cuisines of such far-reaching places as Israel, San Sebastian and Vietnam that I began to write about food.

In a year in which I was to sample such a vast array of superb and authentic dishes, it was almost impossible to choose a single highlight. In December 2015, I was blown away by shakshouka and hummus in Tel Aviv; in May, the pintxos of San Sebastian were a pleasant surprise, especially when washed down with the cheap and excellent local wine; staying with a local family in Lazio, central Italy, was a delightful introduction to the famous Italian homegrown and home-cooked food culture; in Vietnam, I ate arguably the best sandwich of my life; and green curries in Bangkok and Chiang Mai elevated the dish to favourite-curry status.

Choosing a single favourite, therefore, was an arduous task. Awards, for me, are always slightly dubious, based solely on subjectivity, particularly for anything artistic. How can a certain film be better than another in a completely different genre? How do you ascertain whether a hip hop album  is better than a rock one? Equally, how do you decide whether pho in Vietnam is better or worse than sushi in São Paulo?

My favourite meal, therefore, is one that gave me the most pleasure, changed my views on that particular dish, and partly influenced me to write about food. In August, I spent a day in Naples, southern Italy’s largest city, a baking, chaotic, vibrant place. I fell in love with the town, and that was before I tried the famous Neapolitan pizza. As we arrived at our chosen pizzeria, it was sadly closed. Luckily, a few doors down was Al 22, a traditional, no-frills pizzeria established in 1935. Less than five minutes after ordering, two piping hot pizzas, a Margherita and a Margherita with Salami, arrived. After our first bites, my mother and I stopped, looked at each other, and had to pause to reflect, it was that good. I was so inspired, my love for pizza reignited, that I subsequently began a quest to find the best pizza in London. Simple, cheap food, when made properly, beats any smart, modernist fare. The Neapolitan pizza, at €5, was the best meal I had in 2016.


Ben Preston, of blog.ZenEuro.com, a website specialising in travel and food

Picking my favourite food from this year is hard, mostly because I had the chance to do quite a bit of travelling and try lots of unique cuisines from different places. Some of my favourites would definitely be the pizza from Bonci Pizzarium in Rome, the churros from El Moro in Mexico City, and the tapas from Quimet & Quimet in Barcelona. But, if I could only pick one thing that stood above the rest, I think it would be the classic Greek food at Thanasis in Athens.

Thanasis is in the centre of Athens along a street of restaurants, and is known by tourists and locals alike for having some of the best Greek food in the country. For me, having been raised on souvlaki and tzatziki from Greek immigrants, getting to experience the foods from their origin was an other-wordly experience.

The simplicity of the food really amazed me: The tzatziki, creamy and fresh, drizzled with olive oil, and served with grilled pita dusted with paprika, was just perfect. The lamb souvlaki, succulent, juicy, and served with ripe Greek tomatoes and red onion, was everything I ever wanted a souvlaki to be. I would without question travel to Athens, and Thanasis, again just for the food.

Blog.ZenEuro.com

ZenEuro.com


Lucy Treganna, traveller and food lover

A strong contender for the best food I ate this year is at Pizza 4P’s, an Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant in Hanoi founded by Tokyo-born Yosuke Masuko. Although living in Hanoi meant I was able to enjoy some incredible Vietnamese cuisine, the craving to ‘go for a Western’ did sometimes set in, and on the two occasions I ventured to Pizza 4P’s it far from disappointed.

Thanks to the ‘half & half’ option they have available for most pizzas, between us my friends and I were able to sample a range of toppings: garlic soy beef, okonomiyaki and salmon sashimi being among the creative Asian twists which impressed. There are also more traditional Neapolitan-style pizzas on offer; on my first visited I opted for a classic margherita and a three-cheese option combining mozzarella, parmesan and camembert on a béchamel base, which was served with a side of honey to drizzle over and complemented the flavours surprisingly well. It was the perfect choice for someone as cheese obsessed as I am, especially as Pizza 4P’s uses its own homemade artisan cheeses produced in the Vietnamese highlands of Da Lat.

On my second visit I selected the anchovy burrata, and the ham, camembert and mozzarella served on a garlic mushroom sauce base. Not just the best pizza I’ve eaten in Asia, but amongst the best I’ve had in my life!


Nicholas Hsien, food blogger, http://www.rockabitebaby.com

Frog legs as a famous culinary delicacy may be one of the few things the French and Chinese have in common, aside from perhaps both governments’ attitude towards the United States. Having eaten frog legs in their Chinese incarnations – usually stir fried or stewed with ginger and spring onion, or cooked together with rice congee – my gastronomical highlight of 2016 was the French take on frog legs, or cuisses de grenouille.

I tried this dish on a recent trip to Lyon, France. The frog legs were lightly battered, and pan fried over a skillet containing butter, garlic and some herbs (including a generous dose of parsley). Et voila! That’s pretty much it, simple as it may sound. The frog legs were supple and juicy – and for anyone undecided about trying, the meat’s texture is like that of a perfectly done quail without any trace of gaminess and evidence of animal fat beneath the skin. Even my dining partner who had never eaten frog legs previously was pleasantly surprised when tasting it. Soaked in garlic butter with fresh parsley, and lightly salted, it was not too heavy or saturating despite the richness experienced in one’s first bite, and goes well with either wine or beer. C’est parfait!

Josh Dell, journalist and co-creator of Fried Culture, a documentary focusing on London’s fried chicken scene, to be released in February 2017.

The best food I’ve had this year was the truffle polenta at Machneyehuda in Jerusalem, widely considered to be the best restaurant in Israel. Nothing makes me smile more when eating out than the phrase “we’re going to need another” the second you have your first mouthful of a dish.

The polenta was one of those dishes. Creamy and gorgeous, the tastes that emerged with every bite have stuck with me throughout the year. Want to try it in London? Look no further than Machneyehuda’s sister restaurant (or at least some kind of sibling), The Palomar on Rupert Street, W1. Almost exactly the same dish is served there, and from experience I can tell you it does not disappoint in the slightest.

The Five Best Pizzas in London

Anyone who’s read this blog will know how much I love pizza. When made well, it is quite simply the mother of all dishes. Anything that can taste so good with just flour, tomato and cheese as its base ingredients deserves special recognition. The pizza proves that simplicity is key to a good dish; less is indeed more.

My love for pizza was reignited by a recent trip to Naples, where an authentic Neapolitan pizza will rarely cost more than €5. Thus my quest began to find the best pizzas in London, with only two important categories in mind. I wanted to concentrate on Neapolitan pizzas, with their chewy base, thick crust and simple, top-quality ingredients. A happy side effect of my Neapolitan adventure was that, while never quite as good as in Naples, there are a plethora of joints serving very good Neapolitan-style pizza.

The ideal pizzeria has few options on the menu, concentrating on sourcing the finest toppings rather than gimmicky ingredients (disclaimer: I love a good ham and pineapple, but anywhere willing to feature this in there restaurant is immediately disqualified, there is no place for pineapple on a Neapolitan pizza). Pizza should also be cheap, so nothing over £10 was considered, though a margherita shouldn’t cost more than £7.50.

The following is not an exhaustive list; I haven’t been to every pizzeria in London. I have, however, been to many, and these five, in no particular order, plus one because I couldn’t decide which to demote, are currently my favourites.

Sacro Cuore

At £7.50, a margherita at Sacro Cuore is (slightly) above average price, but well worth the extra pennies. Originally opened in 2012 in Kensal Rise, the owners recently expanded to trendy Crouch End. Thankfully, the new branch has maintained high standards. The restaurant’s website sets out its stall as a serious pizzeria, “for us it is all about the pizza!”, and they certainly mean it: aside from a few starters and salads, there are no alternative mains tarnishing the menu. Sacro Cuore is for pizza and pizza alone. On a cold Wednesday afternoon, I was the only customer, and within a couple of minutes of my order, a piping hot, beautiful pizza arrived on my plate. The base was up there with the best, light and chewy, filled with air bubbles. In addition to the normal margherita ingredients, parmesan added welcome saltiness, and the chef was generous with his basil. There’s nothing worse than a pizza with two measly basil leaves. A minor negative was the tinny flavour of the tomato sauce. Overall, however, Sacro Cuore thoroughly deserves its status as one of London’s foremost pizzas. 

Cost of Margherita: £7.50

Where: Kensal Rise, Crouch End

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Solid basil distribution

Princi

In some ways, Soho’s Princi is a victim of its own success. A visit to the Italian patisserie, bakery and pizzeria often requires a long wait to be seated, thanks to the no bookings policy and the quality of food on offer. On one half of the restaurant is the more informal patisserie and bakery section, where customers can purchase pastries, salads and meals at the bar and find a seat. The other half houses the pizzeria, and one can expect to wait up to an hour for a table. Be patient, the pizza is worth waiting for. Princi was introduced to London in 2008, a branch of a renowned Milanese bakery, and swiftly became one of the most popular Italian restaurants in London. In a huge wood-fired oven, the pizzaiolos produce some of the finest pizzas in London, with thick, chewy crusts and the finest toppings. Some of the more interesting options include Bresaola, rocket and parmesan, and beef ragu, olive and radicchio. Princi is slightly smarter than the other places on this list, a dinner date location rather than the place for a quick snack (unless, of course, you choose to eat from the bar on the informal half). On a recent visit, the margherita, at £5.50, was a bargain, though the website still lists it as £7.50. Most other pizzas hover around the slightly overpriced £10 mark. Nevertheless, it is an authentic and smart pizzeria right in the heart of London.

Cost of Margherita: £5.50/7.50.

Where: Soho

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Minimal basil, but a great pizza nonetheless

Franco Manca

Opened by Giuseppe Mascoli in Brixton in 2008, Franco Manca has become one of the largest pizza chains in the Southeast, with 28 branches and counting. Franco Manca has gone from  small, local pizzeria to pizza monolith, losing points for coolness along the way (opening in both Westfields and owned by a corporation that also possesses Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Real Greek and, heavens forbid, Pizza Express). Yet its service to mankind, at least in London, should not be underestimated. The chain’s expertly crafted sourdough pizzas, still available at unbeatable prices, have almost single-handedly popularised the Neapolitan pizza, superior to every other version of the Italian dish. While other restaurants have started to produce equally delectable pies, Franco Manca still wins for toppings, sourcing from the best local and Italian producers. The ‘No 4’, featuring Gloucester Old Spot Ham and Buffalo Ricotta, is not to be missed. Pleasingly, there are never more than five or six options, though the staff are always happy to accommodate. My advice, get there before it truly outgrows itself.

Cost of Margherita: £5.90

Where: Various

Santa Maria

The website’s claim that Santa Maria’s pizza is “exactly the same as the pizza you can eat on the streets of Naples” is somewhat of an exaggeration, no pizza in London is as good as what you’ll get in Naples. Yet Santa Maria, which opened in Ealing in 2010, and has since launched a second branch in Chelsea, does serve superb pizza. Time Out named it London’s best pizza just weeks after it opened. The restaurant itself is tiny; on our visit, we were told to wait 45 minutes before a table would be free. Thankfully, pizzas are served by the dozen at the pub next door, the Red Lion. The pizza was indeed top drawer. I opted for the Santa Caterina, a margherita topped with Neapolitan salami, chill and parmesan. The base, risen for 24 hours, wood fired and as fluffy as seemingly possible, was excellent. The combination of parmesan and salami, however, was slightly too salty. Another minor complaint is one that may only affect those eating at the pub. A pizza should arrive piping hot, and ours didn’t. Admittedly it was extremely busy, but the distance from oven to pub may have played a part. Nevertheless, Santa Maria is certainly deserving of its position as one of the best pizzas in London.

Cost of Margherita: £6.95

Where: Ealing, Chelsea

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Fundi

A thoroughly modern eatery, Fundi was founded in 2012 by brothers Charlie and Rory Nelson, who built their own oven from scratch and plunged into London’s emerging street food scene. Four years on, they regularly serve some of London’s tastiest pizzas, at reasonable prices, with fixed spots at Street Feast’s Dinerama in Shoreditch and at Kerb Camden. Another conscious peddler of Neapolitan pizza, the pizzas are expertly crafted and baked for 90 seconds (almost double a Franco Manca pizza). The outcome is a delicious, thin pizza, up there with the best in London. I have a personal preference for minimalism when it comes to food outlets, and Fundi obliges, offering five varieties of pizza. Try the affumicata, a delectable combination of smoked mozzarella and pancetta. Most of the pizzerias on this list were established by Italians; the Nelson brothers have matched them at their own game.

Cost of Margherita: £6

Where: Kerb Camden, Dinerama

Well Kneaded

Recently, the Well Kneaded Wagon can be found in several markets across London throughout the week, catering to hungry customers at lunchtime. Founded in 2011, the outlet, which offers “wood-fired sourdough pizza with British seasonal ingredients”, has received countless awards, including winning the best pizza prize at the British Street Food Awards in 2012. And it’s easy to see why. On my visit, there were indeed several interesting “seasonal ingredients”, such as a pizza with smoked pancetta and squash. I settled, nevertheless, for a margherita, my go to pizza of choice. It was one of the best I’ve tried in London, with the fluffiest, chewiest base of all (a very good thing). The garlicky tomato sauce possibly topped that of any pizza I tried; such a simple ingredient can make a big difference. The one downside was size, about half a regular pizza. Of course, this critique is in itself praise; as I finished I was craving more.

Cost of Margherita: £5.50

Where: Various (check website for details)

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Size doesn’t always matter

A day in Naples

Time moves slowly in Naples. Like in most of Italy, tradition is the backbone of everyday life; I imagine little has changed on the streets of Naples’ historic centre for a long time. Modern technological advances are obviously as present as anywhere in Western Europe, though underground trains only arrived in the 1990s, but one gets the sense that the Naples of 2016 is not too dissimilar from that of 1986, or 1966.

On first impression, four things rule daily life in Italy’s third-largest city, football, Catholicism, mopeds, and, most importantly, food. I spent one day in the sun-soaked capital of Campania, the northernmost of Italy’s southern regions, not enough to properly know a city, but enough to fall in love.

Stepping out of Toledo metro station, named for the main avenue that cuts through the centre, you are immediately transported back in time into an enchanting stereotype of Italy: shouting, narrow, dirty side streets, the elderly firmly rooted on roadside benches, graffiti, and speeding scooters. As with any beautiful city, there are many tourists, but they do not spoil the authenticity of the city, as can happen in other parts of Europe.

Tradition is evidently important to Neapolitans. In the Decumani area, to the east of Via Toledo, there are beautiful churches seemingly on every street. Personal highlights were the Basilica di Santa Chiara, originating in the fourteenth century, with an intriguing monastery at the back, and the Cappella Sansevero, a couple of minutes’ walk away, which houses the famous Veiled Christ sculpture, by the eighteenth-century Neapolitan Giuseppe Sanmartino.

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Monastery of Santa Chiara

Neapolitans also love their football, and their greatest hero, Diego Maradona, retains a striking presence, another symbol of a city that evolves at a snail’s pace. Every street store sells shirts bearing his name, and graffiti or street posters dedicated to the Argentinian are ubiquitous. Nostalgia is clearly an important aspect of Neapolitans’ lives.

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Mopeds and Maradona

Fortunately, for food-loving tourists, a day in Naples offers an opportunity to sample some of the many edible delights that originate in the beautiful city. Our mission, indeed the main factor in deciding to take the train journey down from our base in the countryside near Rome, was to experience the pleasure of a traditional Neapolitan pizza. First, however, it was time for breakfast.

Italian breakfasts are very different from what we are accustomed to in England, sweet rather than savoury. In Italy, though, breakfast means sweet pastries, many of which are very tasty. On recommendation, we headed to Gran Caffè Gambrinus, a historic, grand café founded in 1860, and chose the sfogliatella, along with a coffee, of course. The sfogliatella was beautifully cooked, several layers of crispy pastry, similar to filo, with a sweet, fruity filling. Although unsure what the filling consisted of, it was very good. While there may be better pastry shops across the city, Gambrinus is an interesting option for those seeking a historic location. The imposing rear dining room resembles a Viennese coffee house.

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Gran Caffè Gambrinus
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Sfogliatella

The next few hours were spent visiting the magnificent churches, monasteries and basilicas, time to work up an appetite for Naples’ main party piece, the pizza. Legend has it that the pizza was created by Greeks who founded the city, pizza being a linguistic distortion of pita, a theory I choose to believe. Whatever the provenance, the modern pizza is truly a Neapolitan speciality, and the Neapolitan pizza was safeguarded as a Traditional Speciality Guaranteed dish by the EU in 2009. There is even an association dedicated to ensuring the city’s pizzerias serve their pizzas in proper fashion, I assume its called the Pizza Police. Clearly, pizza matters in Naples.

Prior to our trip to Naples, we were recommended two pizzerias, Pizzeria i Decumani and, Pizzeria Da Attilio, both unfortunately closed on Mondays. On Via Pignasecca, however, just north of the Spanish Quarter to the left of Via Toledo, we spotted an authentic looking pizzeria, Pizzeria Al 22, founded in 1936. Choosing this restaurant was arguably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, it would hardly be an exaggeration to state that it was a life-changing experience.

The key to choosing a good restaurant abroad is simple. A dining room packed with locals is pretty much the crucial factor, every thing else plays second fiddle. Al 22 was predominantly occupied by locals, with non-English speaking waiting staff, another good sign. In the front room lies the huge wood-fired oven, the most important part of the restaurant given the most prominent location, yet another good sign. In the back lie two small, cramped dining rooms.

One thing I noticed on arrival was that most Italians went for the simple Margherita, for reasons I was soon to discover. The pizza menu was varied, with several choices, but we settled for the Margherita and a Margherita with salami, costing a very reasonable €5 each. Within ten minutes we received two perfectly created works of art to rival any of Sanmartino’s sculptures. The first bite was one of those rare moments, usually reserved for a perfectly cooked steak, where you stop and gasp at the flavour of what you have just consumed. For anyone unfamiliar with the Neapolitan pizza, unlike its thinner sister the Pizza Romana, more commonly found in England, its crusts are thick and its dough chewy. Those who’ve eaten at Franco Manca in London will know the drill. In Naples, however, the pizza is at another level, down to the quality of the local produce. While I had the salami pizza, the Margherita was a touch better, the flavour of the tomato and mozzarella shone without the overpowering, though excellent, salami. When it comes to Neapolitan pizza, less is most certainly more. Together with wine and water, the meal cost under €20; a better meal surely cannot be had in the finest of restaurants.

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The Famous Pizza
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Pizzeria Al 22

After lunch we strolled around the chaotic Via Pignasecca, which houses a vibrant market, sadly closing for the afternoon, and had a coffee at one of the several local coffee bars (80 cents for an espresso!). The rest of the afternoon was spent sightseeing, culminating in the interesting Castel dell’Ovo. Legend has it that Roman poet Virgil put an egg underneath the castle upon construction, hence the name. Should it break, Naples will be doomed (Naples is situated precariously close to Mount Vesuvius, the mountain that destroyed Pompeii in AD 79).

We were not able to try any more of the local delicacies, except for a disappointing pistachio ice cream, as we were having dinner back with our friends in the countryside of Lazio. Anyone who’s eaten with an Italian family knows they must arrive with an empty stomach. On the plus side, however, this means I am even more keen to return to Naples, which is also famed for its fish, seafood and pasta dishes, though I will probably end up eating pizza at every chance.

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Mount Vesuvius