I am a writer in the making with a passion for imagery, globetrotting and exquisite designs.
Published February 3rd 2013
A slice of Naples in the heart of Melbourne
One can't but think that the famous Neapolitan saying Vide Napule e po' muore ("See Naples and then die"), meaning there's nothing more beautiful your eyes could ever feast on and so you might as well part this Earth after having seen such a sight, was first uttered on a full stomach.
It is indeed contended that its view is not the best Naples has to offer; that its ambrosial, soul-warming cuisine rides neck to neck with its breathtaking landscape. There are several theories as to why, to put it plainly, things taste yummier: the tomatoes are as sweet as cherries, the buffalo mozzarella cries creamy tears of deliciousness and the pizza dough rises triumphantly to meet the wood fire like it does in no other country. Some say it's the water, some the soil components, or possibly the fact that food tastes better when you prepare it with love, and Neapolitan culture is one big heartthrob.
Whatever the secret is, I like to think that emigrants take a part of it with them when they venture out to make their way in the world. This particular belief is reinforced every time I happen to dine at a restaurant like Cantina Napoletana.
Tucked away in a side street off Lygon, this little tavern isn't even three months old. Upon entering you are greeted by Lino, 6-time restaurant owner and Melburnian since the 1960s, when he made the trip over from Naples. His story is like that of countless others from the peninsula who have become part of Australia: Naples in the '60s was a little too snug, so he travelled north to Genova, hopped on a ship, crossed the Equator and never looked back.
As we stepped inside, the atmosphere was welcoming and intimate. Neapolitan music was playing in the background, tragic and defiant, full of love and life. As John Turturro realized, deciding to dedicate a film to it, there is something special in the passion of this musical culture. Inside a restaurant, it creates an atmosphere that grabs you and takes you far away in space and time.
The tables (sigh of relief!) avoid the white-and-red checkered cliché but are rather dressed in a simple, classy white. The walls made of rustic bricks feature movie stars from black-and-white films. As we browsed the menu, written in Neapolitan dialect (with subtitles of course!) we felt upon us the gaze of The Big Five of vintage Italian cinematography – Fellini, Loren, Mastroianni, Sordi, and our very own Prince Antonio De Curtis – widely known as Totò.
We happen to be pizza purists and therefore went straight for the one with buffalo mozzarella, but as everybody knows all things are better with eggplant (though Subway may beg to differ), so we also ordered an extra topping of that. In the meanwhile, we engaged in a conversation with the table next to us and realised everyone else in the restaurant was Italian (which is my rule of thumb for knowing whether an Asian restaurant is authentic – search for natives).
These guys know how to make a pizza. Defying the laws of physics, the pizzas they brought us were chewy and crunchy in equal parts. The mozzarella was generously spread and browned just right, and the glazed eggplant melted amiably in our mouths.
Besides learning to master the ancient culinary art, the excellence of a dish really does boil down to its ingredients, and in this case the ingredients are shipped over directly from the Italian region of Campania, whose plains make the tomatoes so candy-like and the cattle so happy and forthcoming.
As we were finishing our dinner, we were fortunate enough to witness the delivery of the restaurant's special: a spaghetti dish that skillful Chef Ivan dell'erba emerges to finish preparing in front of your table.
This is how it works: first a waiter brings out a barrel-wide wheel of buffalo mozzarella parmesan cheese. The chef arrives with the plate of spaghetti, which he pours into the wheel, and starts scraping flakes of parmesan from its centre. Once he's mixed the parmesan in with the pasta, he transfers it all back into the plate and adds the mushroom and prawn sauce. Here is a small clip.
"Something different, eh?" Lino said, his eyes twinkling. Sure is, Lino. I know what I'll be ordering next time around.