From the bright blue waters and pastel-hued villages of the Amalfi coast, to the flamboyant frescoes and buzzing streets of Naples, Campania is a riot of colour. But go beyond the picture-postcard views, to the region’s farms, markets and trattorie, and you’ll find one of Italy’s most colourful cuisines.
Whether it’s tomato-slicked pizzas, frosty glasses of limoncello, multi-coloured packets of pasta or milky-white balls of mozzarella, Campania is the birthplace of many of the foods we think of as quintessentially Italian. Read on for a taste of the ingredients, dishes and culinary traditions that make this region such a paradise for food lovers.
Call us biased, but we think a foodie tour of Campania should begin with a look at the region’s rich pasta-making tradition. Campania is situated in the heart of southern Italy’s durum wheat-growing belt, and its pasta preferences reflect this; although fresh pasta is eaten, dried durum wheat pasta dominates.
The Campanian town of Gragnano is where the dried pasta industry was born, with the first pasta machines invented to speed up the pasta-making process. 18th-century Neapolitan peasants were even known by the derogatory term ‘mangiamaccheroni’ – pasta-eaters – because cheap, calorific dried pasta made up such a large part of their diet (maccheroni was a generic term for dried pasta at the time).
This preference for dried pasta is reflected in the region’s favourite pasta shapes – extruded shapes like spaghetti, linguine and rigatoni are by far the most popular options. Spaghetti aglio e olio – spaghetti with garlic and olive oil – is a staple pasta dish from Campania that first emerged from thrifty peasant cooking traditions. Nowadays the dish is popular all over Italy and is often called ‘midnight spaghetti’ – as it’s an easy dish to whip up after a night working (or partying). Campania is also the birthplace of some intriguing, lesser-known pasta shapes, such as scialatielli, paccheri and calamarata.
From Sorrento and the Gulf of Naples to the awe-inspiring Amalfi Coast, Campania’s long stretch of shore means that seafood is a major part of the region’s cuisine. The coastal towns of Amalfi, Positano and Cetara have been fishing hubs since Roman times, and plenty of Campanians still make a living from the sea.
Sparkling hauls of fresh octopus, anchovies and squid arrive on shore each day, and one of the best ways to get an instant taste is to order a ‘cuoppo’ – a regional street food specialty involving a cone of crisp fried seafood doused in lemon and salt. Any catch that isn’t snaffled by street food traders makes its way to the region’s markets and trattorie, where seafood pasta dishes reign supreme.
Spaghetti alle vongole is an emblematic dish of the Campanian coast, with strands of spaghetti providing the perfect foil for the succulent clams and white wine sauce. Crab too, is a common sight, either paired with chilli for an enlivening pasta dish or served whole. But for a true taste of the Amalfi, you’d be hard-pressed to beat a dish of linguine with Amalfi lemon and prawns; the region’s treasured lemons are never better than when served alongside local seafood and a jaw-dropping coastal view (plus a glass of Campanian wine, of course).
Above the azure waters of Campania’s coast, hillsides are covered in terraced lemon groves. It might sound like a peculiar place for lemon growing, but the steeped farms are actually perfectly placed to capture a unique lemon-loving microclimate created by the sea breeze. As a result, the coastal enclaves grow two of Italy’s finest lemon varieties.
King is the Amalfi lemon – known in Italy as sfusato Amalfitano – with a thick, oil-rich rind and sweet flesh that’s much less acidic than the lemons we’re used to in the UK. Prized by chefs and home-cooks alike, raw Amalfi lemons are often added to salads, but we love their bright flavour in tagliatelle al limone.
In nearby Sorrento, you’re more likely to encounter the lauded Sorrento lemon, which is the fruit of choice for the region’s favourite liqueur: limoncello. The clink of ice cold glasses of limoncello are a soundtrack to evening meals across the region, but for something even sweeter, you can’t go wrong with a limoncello-laced tiramisú.
The best food in Campania isn’t just found on the coast. Inland, the Campanian countryside is blessed with verdant pasture land, where grazing livestock provide milk for the region’s world-renowned cheesemakers. Campania’s most cherished cheese actually comes not from cows, but from native water buffalo – which have been grazing the region’s plains for centuries.
Genuine mozzarella di bufala is only made from buffalo milk, and is a cut above the basic mozzarella you’ll see on supermarket shelves in the UK, which is often made with cow’s milk (known instead as fior di latte in Italy). Baked dishes like aubergine parmigiana are ideal vehicles for fior di latte, which melts better than delicate mozzarella di bufala. Buffalo mozzarella’s grassy flavour is more suited to starring in Italy’s signature salad, the caprese, which hails from Campania’s elegant jewel: Capri.
Elsewhere, Campania’s casefici (cheesemakers) are known for producing excellent scamorza – a cow’s milk cheese with a unique pear-shaped appearance. A close-relative of mozzarella, scamorza is lower in moisture and often comes smoked, which makes it ideal for melting or as a filling for ravioli.
Cheese-lovers in the know will venture higher to Campania’s Lattari Mountains, which is home to Provolone del Monaco, a spicy, powerful cheese made from the milk of Agerolese cattle. Provolone del Monaco is well-suited to a starring role in an Italian cheese board, but it’s also a crucial ingredient in spaghetti alla nerano, a pasta dish involving fried courgettes and cheese from the picturesque Sorrentine village of Nerano.
With nutrient-rich soils and long, hot summers, Campania grows some of the best tomatoes in Italy (and even the world). Most famous of all are the region’s ‘red gold’: San Marzano tomatoes. Grown in the volcanic soils around Naples, Avellino and Salerno, these DOP-protected plum tomatoes are prized for their flavourful flesh, which contains hardly any water or seeds. Such attributes mean that San Marzano tomatoes are ideal for making salsa di pomodoro – tomato sauce – a mainstay of two of the region’s favourite foods: pizza and pasta.
Campania’s most famed export is undoubtedly pizza. Naples is widely acknowledged as the true birthplace of one of the world’s most-loved foods, and wood-fired Neapolitan pizza sets the standard for the art of pizza-making the world over. Naples has even been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, acknowledging the traditional art of the Neapolitan pizzaiuolo (pizza-makers).
Authentic pizza napoletana is thin with a soft, puffy crust, and many purist Neapolitan pizzerias will only serve two incarnations: pizza marinara (topped with San Marzano tomatoes, olive oil and oregano), or the classic margherita, which features Campania’s famed buffalo mozzarella alongside fresh basil and the obligatory San Marzano tomato sauce.
Pasta and tomato sauce
Away from the region’s pizzerias, tomato sauce is a constant in the Campanian kitchen – often accompanied by pasta. Classics like summery pasta al pomodoro made with fresh tomatoes and linguine with roasted tomato sauce are popular, but the region has also birthed a host of inventive pasta and tomato combinations. The most celebrated is spaghetti alla puttanesca, a gutsy, tomato-based sauce lifted by the umami three: anchovy, capers and olives.
Away from the hob, regional al forno favourites like baked ziti and cannelloni alla Sorrentina ramp up the comfort levels. Campania's home cooks even have a trick for leftover pasta and tomato sauce – frittata di pasta – with the leftovers combined with eggs and mozzarella, then fried to create a crisp frittata.
Coffee (and cake)
Italy is known worldwide for its coffee culture, but amongst Italians, it’s Campania that has a reputation for one of the best coffee scenes of all. Naples is at the centre of this, with a distinct set of coffee traditions that go beyond the tenets of classic Italian espresso.
Neapolitan baristas are famed for their painstaking attention to detail, often tweaking their espresso grind according to daily changes in temperature in the city. The espresso they serve comes in a concentrated shot called a ristretto, and is often less acidic and creamier than in the rest of Italy.
Naples is also the birthplace of a coffee ritual called Caffè Sospeso, where Neapolitans ‘pay forward’ a cup of coffee for someone less fortunate than themselves. The practice has been replicated in coffee shops across the world now, but it was in Naples that it was born.
Alongside coffee, Campanians (and particularly the people of Naples) are famed for their love of sweet things. The window displays of the region’s pasticcerie (pastry shops) groan under the weight of a huge range of baked delights, from layered sfogliatelle to indulgent torta caprese. At Easter though, these treats all make way for pastiera Napoletana, a kind of spiced cheesecake/rice pudding hybrid that was first invented in a Neapolitan convent but is now popular all over Italy.