Fry Me To The Moon: A Budget Guide To The Best Fried Food In Italy
The first time I came to Italy for more than a fleeting visit was back in 2015 when I took on an internship at Florence’s Institute of Prehistory. I loved the work, the weather and the people (not to mention the language, difficult as it was), but as the internship drew to an end I found myself in a quandary about whether I really wanted to bite the bullet and relocate to Italy for good. Then, one weekend, I ventured down to Naples where on the first evening I treated myself to a deep-fried pizza.
I’ve never looked back.
It was a revelation; love at first bite; delicious affirmation that the best things in life are simple, almost free (for the price I paid), and—more often than we’d like—unhealthy. Folded over like a calzone, the pizza had been deep-fried in olive oil to the point that it was crispy around the edges but still delicately soft in the centre. Out of it oozed the creamiest buffalo mozzarella I’d ever tasted seamlessly blended with the juiciest, freshest of tomato sources. Most miraculously of all: it wasn’t even all that greasy.
Fritto misto, Italy’s national fried food contest (of course Italy has a national fried food contest…) has the slogan in amore vince chi frigge or “in love, who fries wins”. And although I’d already fallen for Italy by the end of my internship, Neapolitan fried pizza played a bigger factor than I’m proud to admit in influencing my decision to pack up and move to Italy.
Of course, deep-fried food isn’t something Italy’s particularly well known for the world over. When asked to name a typical Italian food, most people would nominate pizza, pasta or gelato, not arancini, panzerotti, or the king of mixed fried goodness: fritto misto. But spend a little time here—not just in the big cities like Florence, Rome and Naples, but in pretty much any region—and you’ll soon see that fried pizza is just the tip of the iceberg in this subset of Italian cuisine, and that all across the country deep-fried food is a street food staple.
|Woman Eating Panzerotti
There’s so much to write about when it comes to fried food in Italy that I could quite easily dedicate a blog post to each region; possibly each city. But for the sake of simplicity I’m going to keep this post to two main cities: Florence and Naples (with an honorary mention of the South of Italy). This is because these are the places whose fried food culture I know best and so feel most comfortable recommending to you. So without further ado, come fry with me to the city of fried food: Naples.
The Best Fried Food in Naples
It’s no secret that Naples is the capital of Italian fried food. Being by the sea, it’s awash with fresh fish, many of which come to be deep-fried and served up in a paper cone as street food (a little like we do in the UK only infinitely better). Fried prawns (gamberi fritti) are a classic, as are the dreamy mozzarelle in carrozza(deep-fried mozzarella balls). But as the city that invented the pizza, Naples’s best contribution to Italian fried food has to be the pizza fritta or “fried pizza”.
I wish I could say it was healthy, I really do. But ultimately this is a deep-fried folded pizza we’re talking about… Having said that, as far as fried pizza goes Italian pizza fritta stands heads and shoulders above any Anglo-American imitation. For a start, the ingredients contained within are the freshest available—whether you get the classica, which is filled with juicy tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella, or the completa, packed with ricotta, crackling and pepper.
In terms of where to go, Gino Sorbillo is widely regarded as Naples’s best pizza maker, which by extension means he’s probably Italy’s best pizza maker too. There are two places you can go to try his famous pizza fritta. The first is the original pizzeria on the Via dei Tribunali—the historic centre’s high street and an absolute heaven for foodies and pizza enthusiasts like me.
The second, Antica Pizza Fritta Da Zia Esterina Sorbillo, is at the end of the Via Toledo—the modern high street. It just does fried pizzas. But just is enough in this case: these are perhaps the best fried pizzas in the world, recognised by dozens of Neapolitan locals who queue up outside at all hours of the day to get their fix of deep-fried goodness. The fried pizza from Da Zia Esterina Sorbillo was the source of my conversion.
O Cuoppo Napoletano (The Neapolitan Cup)
Pizza isn’t the only famous deep fried Neapolitan export that put Naples on the map. Just as famous is the cuoppo napoletano—a typical Neapolitan dish consisting of a mix of fried produce wrapped and served up in a paper cone. Dating back to the nineteenth century, the traditional cuoppo consists of potato croquettes, panzerotti (more on these later), polenta, mozzarella, courgette flowers and aubergines. But varieties of fish or meat cups are steadily inflating in popularity (though thankfully not also in price).
If you’re lucky enough to be in Naples around Christmas, you’re in for a treat. ‘Tis the season to try struffoli: bite-size balls of deep-fried dough; soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside and soaked—for your taste buds’ pleasure—in a rich, gooey syrup. They’re normally sprinkled with cinnamon too and sometimes topped off with orange rind just for that extra bit of decadence.
Struffoli. Photo credit: Italy Magazine
The Best Fried Food in Florence
With fried food in Florence it’s best to start simple, and it doesn’t get any simpler than coccoli (or “cuddle” as it means in English). As the name suggests, this is pure comfort food—first hitting the streets when comfort was in dire need in the post-war years of the 1950s. Coccoli are essentially fried balls of dough made around the same size as an egg. They might not sound that comforting on their own but it’s what they come with that counts—a generous dollop spreadable cheese (stracchino) and thin slices of prosciutto.
I’ve tried making coccoli several times, and only once did it turn out well. This probably has something to do with the fact I have practically no aptitude in the kitchen—though I’m wont to admit this with something so simple; I’ve always put it down to the dough. Don’t let this dissuade you though! If you want to have a crack at making them yourself, check out this recipe. Otherwise there are plenty of places in Florence serving up mouth-watering coccoli.
My favourite is Il Coccolo near the Basilica of Santa Croce, which locals reckon (for good reason) is the best place for fried food in Florence. Enoteca Sosta dei Papi near the Church of Sant’Ambrogio is also great. They serve them up every Thursday night (I thought they missed a trick not doing it on Fry-day), and mulling around either inside or outside you can enjoy yours with a generous, reasonable glass of local wine in a buzzing, studenty atmosphere. But coccoli are so simple and ubiquitous in Florence that you can be sure almost every restaurant will offer them as a starter.
Pizza Fritta (Fried Pizza)
For a quintessentially Florentine take on the pizza fritta, look no further than the sleek, modern, and staggeringly successful pizzeria Santarpia. Because Santarpia’s rated one of the best pizzerias in Italy, you’ll have to make a reservation (which you can do by clicking the link above). As you’d expect from a place of such pedigree, delicious and simple pizza is the name of the game.
There’s a lot on offer. But if it’s the fried pizza you’ve come for, get ready for the most Florentine fried pizza imaginable. This is of course the pizza fritta al lampredotto or fried pizza topped with tripe (the fourth and final layer of a cow’s stomach to be precise) and drizzled with a traditional green sauce of garlic, parsley and anchovies.
If you think this sounds disgusting, know that you’re not alone. People have looked at me in horror when I’ve told them this is one of my favourite dishes in Florence, if not in the whole of Italy. But if you’re a committed carnivore like me, want to disgust your partner, or you’re just on a mission to push the limits of what’s culinarily acceptable, buckle up and order the pizza fritta al lampredotto. You (probably) won’t regret it.
Santarpia might be the best in the business if you’re looking for, let’s say, an “experimental” fried pizza in Florence. But much more traditional, and in a much more central location in the city, is Santa Croce’s Pizzeria Sciuè Sciuè (pronounced “shweh shweh”). I’ll admit I’m pretty biased. I had the privilege of living next door to Sciuè Sciuè when they first opened here back in 2016, and I’m not sure I’m exaggerating when I say I went there so often in their first few months that I must have almost single-handedly kept them in business.
Sciuè Sciuè is simple, rustic and reasonable, serving up wood-fired pizzas and no-nonsense Neapolitan cuisine. Which by definition means that roughly half of its menu consists of fried food. The pizza fritta is ever popular (classica or completa) but it’s also worth trying out their cuoppo napoletano and, as we’re in Florence, their coccoli with stracchino and prosciutto. Oh, and it’s great for vegans too.
The final place for Florence, and one that’s ideal if you’re just passing through the city, is the tiny hole-in-the-wall Neapolitan Antica Friggitoria dell’Albero near the main train station Santa Maria Novella. Ideal for a lunch on the go, it’s a no frills affair. But as far as fried pizzas and calzones go, it’s second to none and reasonable to boot. Either will set you back no more than €3.50—much more a Neapolitan price than a Florentine.
The Best Fried Food in Rome
Rome serves up some specialities that are absolutely to fry for. First and foremost is its carciofi alla Giudea or Jewish-style fried artichokes. They’re incredibly simple; stripped of their hard leaves using a sharp knife, they’re soaked in water and lemon juice and seasoned with salt and pepper before dunked into a deep vat of olive oil. The best place to find them is in Rome’s Jewish quarter (a stone’s throw from the Theatre of Marcellus on the foot of the Capitoline Hill) though you won’t struggle to find them on restaurant menus throughout the city.
Supplì are basically the same as their more famous Sicilian counterpart arancini, only they’re from Rome so they have a different name. They’re delicious balls of risotto rice, coated in gooey cheese, tomato sauce and sometimes minced meat (and then deep-fried, naturally). You can find them all over the city, though the ones served up at Testaccio market are sublime.
But if it’s their Sicilian better-known counterpart you’re after, and you happen to be near the Vatican, make your way over to Mondo Arancina near Lepanto metro station, where they serve up arancini so good they’ll make you think you’ve died and gone to Sicily. Not that I’ve ever been to Sicily mind… but I did once have the pleasure of living with a Sicilian who made batches of them from scratch. Below is the end result:
The Best Fried Food in Southern Italy
If a deep-fried pouch of doughnut-soft bread dough stuffed with fresh tomatoes and oozing gooey mozzarella sounds like your idea of heaven, there are a couple of things you should know. Firstly, you are not alone. Secondly, start planning your holiday to the South of Italy: you’re going to want to try panzerotto.
The heaven-sent invention that is panzerotto comes from the region of Puglia, so naturally the most popular place to find it is the regional capital of Bari. In fact, the old town square has an excellent friggitoriacalled Cibò serving up delicious (and insanely cheap) panzerotto all through the day and late into the night. The best I’ve ever eaten, however, was not in Puglia but in the neighbouring region of Basilicata and its hidden gem: Matera.
Italy is globally renowned for its food. So much so that its local and regional cuisine has, in many ways, become our international cuisine. But to the outside world, fried Italian food has stayed remarkably under the radar, all to often overshadowed by its wines, pasta and meat dishes and desserts. This shouldn’t be the case, and hopefully this article has given you some ideas for the best Italian fried food to try out during your next visit. And remember—if you’ve tried something and think it should be on this list, let us know! We at Roman Candle Tours look forward to hearing from you!