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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Kokotxa – San Sebastian

In a rare quiet corner of San Sebastian’s Old Town, away from the crowded pintxo bars and below the towering Mount Urgull sits Kokotxa. Two months before my trip to San Sebastian I decided it would be the perfect opportunity to visit my first Michelin-starred restaurant. San Sebastian, after all, boasts the second-highest Michelin stars per capita, behind only Kyoto in Japan. It is the epicentre of la nueva cocina, Spain’s answer to France’s nouvelle cuisine, blending traditional food and produce with modern and experimental techniques.

Kokotxa, Basque for cheeks, the tastiest part of any animal, is a small, unpretentious restaurant. Decorations are modest, dress code is casual; there is barely room for 30 people. A group of boisterous Australian and American cruisers occupied over half the dining room. The restaurant was fully booked two months in advance, and could only accommodate us at 9.30pm, normal by Spanish standards of course.

As expected of restaurants of this sort, the staff were friendly and knowledgeable on the day’s menu, options including a six-course “market menu” and nine-course “tasting menu” alongside the à la carte menu. We opted for the former, created from local, seasonal produce. The sommelier recommended an excellent Rioja at a very reasonable €5 a glass.

With so many eateries lining the Old Town, serving an implausibly wide array of pintxos and some excellent steak and seafood on the cheap, the chefs had their work cut out to impress me. After lunching at Bar Nestor, which serves only five items, all staunchly simple, steak, peppers, tortillas, for example, dinner was the polar opposite. Techniques brought to the masses only on Masterchef were abundant, with ample foam, froth and edible earth to please even John Torode. The food, immaculately presented, was almost all excellent.

First came the appetiser, a brownish, beige sauce accompanied by breadsticks. My unsophisticated pallet detected a creamy, cheesy concoction; it turned out to be mayonnaise and mustard, but it whet our appetites sufficiently. The starter, a tomato, red pepper and feta gazpacho was refreshing, mixing the sweetness of the peppers with the tomatoes’ acidity and the tang of the feta perfectly. A dainty, slightly lost, shrimp blini sat beside the soup.

Mains were focused on seasonal and fresh seafood. The highlight came first, an asparagus, scallop, and Jerusalem artichoke salad on an edible earth of chocolate, squid ink, cheese and almonds. It resembled art rather than food, and wouldn’t look out of place on show at the Guggenheim in nearby Bilbao.

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Asparagus, scallop and Jerusalem artichoke salad

Two fish dishes were expertly executed. Cod kokotxa, the restaurant living up to its name, were gelatinous, melt-in-the-mouth pieces of goodness. The waiter insisted kokotxa comes from under the chin, though Google maintains it’s the cheek. Either way, it was a delight, presented on parsley sauce with a mousse made from the cooking juices and olive oil.

Hake in a dashi of dried tuna, seaweed and shiitake was equally tender and tasty, despite combining some of my least favourite flavours, and it was accompanied by a crab and saffron rigatoni.

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Grilled hake Japanese style
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Dessert

 

The only disappointment was a prawn on a bed of beetroot rice and seaweed, which we greedily and somewhat unnecessarily added to the market menu for a seventh course. The prawn wasn’t sweet and tender like others I’ve had, and the beetroot rice lacked flavour. But slow-cooked Iberian pork with a macadamia mousse restored my faith.

The dessert, a sponge cake with things that sound gross, cheese mousse and goat yoghurt ice cream for example, was surprisingly good.

At €75 a head, including drinks, Kokotxa isn’t cheap, but neither is it outrageous compared with some more pretentious rivals. It’s earned its Michelin star for a reason. Local, fresh produce is combined with modern techniques to create intriguing and inspired dishes. It isn’t afraid to look outside Spain for influences, but stays true to its roots.

The best food in Korea

By Ben Preston, co-founder of ViaHero.com

Korean food has always been one of my favourite types of food, albeit one I barely understood. Then, a short while ago, I had the chance to travel to Seoul for a close friend’s wedding. During that trip, I was able to get a week-long crash course in Korean food from my friends (who also happen to be local foodies and overall great guys). Here are some of my favourites:

5 – Kimchi Dumplings

Namdaemun Market is a sprawling street market in Seoul selling second-hand goods, clothing, and most importantly, tasty food. While some of the sit-down options here seemed a bit too tourist focused (I would avoid a place called ‘Noodle Alley’ at all costs!), the gems of Namdaemun are on the street. Using my general rule of eat-where-lots-of-locals-eat, I stumbled across a small stand selling freshly steamed kimchi dumplings. Warm and inviting, this was the best street food that I ate and was perfect on a cold day.

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Kimchi dumplings

4 – Banchan

Banchan are the nearly endless variety of tasty small plates of food that come with almost every meal. Kimchi was almost always present (yum!) which always added a spicy and complex complement to any meal. My favourite thing about banchan is that they are served right when you arrive to eat and refills are endless. I am pretty sure I could live in Korea for five years and still not sample every type of Banchan.

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Banchan

  

3 – Kimbap

I’ve always associated maki (rice and fillings, wrapped in seaweed and then sliced) to be a classic Japanese dish. Then I came to Korea, and found out about Kimbap: the Korean cousin of maki filled with uniquely local ingredients like kimchi, daikon radish, and pork. Kimbap is cheap, filling, available everywhere, and super tasty. Pork sushi?  Yes please.

  

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Kimbap

4 – ChiMac

Now we are getting to the big leagues. ChiMac, derived from the Korean words for Chicken and Beer, is a Seoul classic. One of the coolest parts of eating ChiMac in Korea was trying the different styles. The first place I tried was in the super trendy Gangam district and was filled with young business people out from work and what looked like lots of first dates. The chicken was perfectly crispy and crunchy, topped with herbs and sauce, and served with a crisp ice cold beer.

But my favourite of numerous ChiMacs was actually from an old-school ChiMac joint that I could best describe as a Korean pub. Definitely not a place known for the ambiance but loved for the chicken, the ChiMac came both plain and in a sweet-spicy sauce. The meat was tender, so juicy and flavourful, and the coating was crispy and unlike any fried chicken I have ever had. It was simply amazing. This was one of the dishes that I would travel back to Korea just to eat again.

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ChiMac

1 – Korean BBQ

Choosing between ChiMac and Korean BBQ was nearly impossible – both were so different and amazing in their own way. However, the sheer diversity of Korean BBQ in Seoul put BBQ on top.

We started with some classic beef BBQ: self-cooked tasty morsels wrapped in lettuce and loaded with garlic, kimchi, and Ssamjang sauce, yum! 

Then we moved on to what is surely one of my favourite meals ever: Pork-centric Korean BBQ. Slabs of every kind and cut of pork cooked by a pro right at our table. The best was the sliver of pork belly, super tender and flavourful, wrapped up in a lettuce leaf. Another must-try food here was a variation on Kimchi I had never seen before: cooked below the pork on a slanted grill, pork juice flowed down and cooked the kimchi. This pork-juice-cooked-Kimchi was oddly reminiscent of Polish stuffed cabbage, and was one of the most unique I ate on the entire trip.

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Korean Barbecue

But perhaps the meal that put Korean BBQ over the edge for me was a fusion of Korean + Mexican food that was unexpected and amazing. The chicken was marinated in a blend of Korean and Mexican spices, and then grilled at the table along with tortillas. Instead of classic lettuce wraps, we assembled little packets of grilled chicken, Korean Nacho cheese, mint leaves, and onions for perfect bitesized pieces of happiness.  The restaurant even served a boiling plate of cheese with tortillas chips inside – what I can only describe as Korean Nachos.   

The food in Korea was diverse and incredible. My only advice would be to try to find a local to take you around, or make friends quickly, to get the true Seoul experience.

Mexico City

The best food near the Angel of Independence, Mexico City

By Ben Preston

The Angel of Independence is the symbol of Mexico City, and the country as a whole. It’s a must visit while traveling in Mexico, and it’s likely you will end up near it, hungry and tired, at some point while traveling here. Luckily, there is some great, authentic Mexican food just a couple of blocks away, if you know where to look.

Tacos El Caminero

Less than a five-minute walk from the Angel lies Tacos El Caminero. This is a classic no frills Taqueria. Don’t expect attentive service, workers who speak English, or a charming ambience. Do expect a simple meal of flavorful, authentic tacos, spicy salsas, and thirst-quenching local cervezas.

El Caminero has a mix and match menu. Fill your taco with choices like chicken, pork and beef and top them with cheese, bacon, onions, or chorizo. My personal favorite here is the Mexico City classic Al Pastor taco with cheese. The Al Pastor meat is local pork spit roasted like shwarma, making it both succulent and crispy. The Taqueria is also known for its Rib Alambre, a fry up of steak, peppers, onions, and cheese which becomes the filling for make-your-own tacos. Alambre, a local specialty, inspired the spread of fajitas in the southwestern United States, and is a must try.

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Tacos El Caminero

 

Salón Ríos

Salón Ríos is hard not to love. Excellent tacos, appetizers, Mexican craft beer, cocktails, attentive service, and a clean, hip atmosphere. Go here if you are looking for a slightly more upscale experience than a typical Taqueria. Start with a classic appetizer of guacamole, which is hand ground with a mortar and pestle and served with crunchy Chicharrón (Mexico’s version of Pork Scratchings) as well as fresh, warm blue corn tortillas. For your entrée, you can’t beat the Fried Fish (Pescado Frito) Taco, which is served on a warm blue corn tortilla with creamy chipotle sauce, guacamole, and crunch cabbage. I’ve heard the desserts are great too, but I’ve never saved enough room to try!

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Salon Rios

 

Cafebrería El Péndulo

Cafebrería El Péndulo is a confusing as it is delightful. It’s a restaurant and a bookstore with a bar on the second floor. The clientele is a mix of business people, tourists, and freelancers using the area as a co-working space. Cafebrería El Péndulo has an outside patio perfect for a long, peaceful lunch away from the hustle of Mexico City. The menu is extensive and varies between cultures, but I recommend sticking with the Mexican fare.  It’s comforting, flavorful, and authentic. If you can’t decide what to get, the dish of “Typical Mexican Food” has quesadillas, tlacoyos (oval-shaped fried cakes made of a Mexican corn-meal known as masa), and tostadas (fried corn tortillas topped with meat, sour cream, avocado and cheese). Pair it with a Michelada (local beer with lime juice, and assorted sauces, spices, and peppers) and enjoy a perfect, leisurely afternoon.

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Cafebrería El Péndulo
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Michelada

 

The Perfect Ending

The combination of sightseeing and eating big meals generally makes one pretty tired. Fight those post-meal Z’s with a cup of Mexican coffee and hot chocolate from Tierra & Garat. The combination of the bitterness of the Mexican coffee and the sweetness of the local chocolate will make it your new favorite drink.

Find Ben Preston, of ZenEuroTravel, at:

blog.zeneuro.com

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Facebook.com/ZenEuroTravel

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The best sandwich in the world?

As someone who eats a sandwich pretty much every day, it’s perhaps surprising that a humble dish of meat (usually) in bread can still blow my mind. Very few sandwiches are memorable; 90% of those I eat are bland supermarket meal deals. 

Every so often, less than once a year, however, I’ll eat a perfect, unforgettable, sandwich. Such occasions are few and far between, they can be counted on one hand. The salt beef sandwich at Katz in New York; a Navajo flatbread in Austin; a steak in a small baguette I would always get in Brazil on the way to the beach; falafel in Jerusalem. All these I remember like they were yesterday, and would pay good money to eat again.

In Hoi An, a pretty, coastal town in central Vietnam famous for cheap tailoring and UNESCO-protected architecture, a new sandwich was unexpectedly but happilly added to the list. Aside from pho, the banh mi is probably Vietnam’s most famous dish. One of the few positive legacies from the French colonial period, perfectly textured baguettes are filled with pate before being completed with a variety of ingredients.

Available everywhere and cheap (usually £1, though I ate a fantastic one in Hue for around 25p), the banh mi is one of the staples of Vietnam’s vibrant and varied street food scene. 

I used to watch Anthony Bourdain religiously, and therefore know of his love for Vietnam and its food. I had completely forgotten, however, that he visited, and loved, a small restaurant in Hoi An serving one of the best banh mi around. Fortunately, an encounter with an Australian who had eaten there every day during his stay reminded me. Promptly, I made the two-minute pilgrimage from my hostel to Phuong Banh Mi, hidden away and easy to miss.

Phuong Banh Mi

In no time at all, the sandwhich arrived, on a baguette so crispy on the outside, yet so fluffy that it rivalled anything you can find in France. The pate was ample and strong in flavour, and a perfect counterbalance to the chilli sauce. I went for what looked like the traditional option: pate, ham and roast pork, and there was certainly a lot of each. Banh mi are usually finished off with cucumber, carrot and lettuce. The balance between ingredients was perfect and the pork more flavoursome and tender than any other I’d had. 

I now have five sandwiches on my list, and picking one over all others would be tough. But the banh mi at Phuong’s in Hoi An deserves its spot, and should not be missed by anyone visiting Vietnam.

Banh mi

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