Live like a King in Caserta

Caserta is famous for La Reggia, the opulent former residence of the King of Naples. It has been used as a film set several times, for example as the Needoo palace in Star Wars Episode 1 The Phantom Menace. It’s definitely worth seeing but I’ve been before and unfortunately you now have to pay €12 and I’m too tight to part with food money.

However, you can take a peek at the grand staircase, probably the nicest bit inside anyway, without having to show a ticket. The best thing about the complex is the gardens which stretch off into the distance.  There’s some great statues in the fountains and the English Garden is very nice as well.  Here are some pictures to give you an idea.

Nowadays Caserta is known for being a garrison town, as well as a Camorra stronghold (you will find several references to it in Roberto Saviano’s factual novel ‘Gomorrah’) who apparently have a strong grip on the important textile industry here. I’ve been a visitor here several times over the years so I have a fairly good handle on the restaurant scene.

Locanda Batisti (Intermediate A-), 99 Via C.Battisti (near the station) Closed Sunday/Monday

Perhaps my favourite local restaurant in terms of getting good food for the right money, the seafood is particularly good. The bread is wonderful (especially the olive and sun-dried tomato variety) and there is no cover charge.

My favourite first course is the Linguine ai Frutti di Mare (A+) with mussels and several kinds of clams (vongole) The picture shows several small and one large Fasolare on the top row, Vongole Verace below them and at the bottom Mussels and Taratufi to the right), a steal for only €9.

I can also recommend the Paccheri di Gragnano al Ragu di Coccio (A); big floppy tubes of pasta. (The Campanian town of Gragnano was one of the first places to produce pasta industrially) in a sauce of beef mince and tomatoes), although I’m sure everything is good here. For seconds the Misto di Pesce is also excellent (A) (grilled squid, octopus, prawn, scampi and fish). I also had the Scallopina con Vino (Falanghina) one night which was also good if slightly too salty (B-).

The house white invariably seems to be a good quality Falanghina (in 2008 a fantastic Nifo ’07 and in 2011 a very good Sannio’09 and a Conca Bianco).

The Millefoglie dessert of flaky pastry on a bed of Zabaglione cream is also nice (B).

The A minus score is for the poor service I encountered upon returning in 2011. Although the owner has always been rather dour and smiles are rare from anyone here, the two new young guys he has serving now are particularly useless and need to be constantly told what to do. Also a colleague came here a few weeks later and was given some fish that was off! It’s never happened to me but it goes to show the perils of recommending restaurants  (let alone eating in them).

Conclusion: usually the food is good as the number of locals shows, and you can have two courses and a bottle of wine for around €30 here.

Massa (Advanced A), 55 Via Mazzini (the main pedestrian shopping street, it’s on the left with your back to Via Roma, through an arch). Tel. 0823 456527. Closed Sundays.

A high end place I always come to for the end-of-week blowout, all A grade vittles but at a price. Having said that, similar places in bigger cities would be much more expensive and when I was there last they had introduced two four-course tasting menus, one for seafood (€34), and one meat based (€29) which looked good value on paper.

The atmospheric building has been a restaurant since 1848. It’s a big place with a main room decorated with architectural drawings of La Reggia and King Ferdinand II and his family in military dress on prancing horses, and side rooms with displays of old brass instruments. In the summer (June onwards?) you can sit outside under the palms in the pleasant internal garden. You can also ask one of the friendly waiters to take you down to the atmospheric wine cellar (la cantina); hewn out of solid volcanic rock and complete with secret underground passages, now blocked up. Different waiters have told me different stories, one saying a passage led to the Reggia and another, perhaps more truthful one, saying it led to an air raid shelter from WWII.

On my last visit, after a complimentary glass of Spumante and a plate of focaccia (there’s a pizza oven out in the garden making “real” Neopolitan pizza); I set about the Menu Degustazione Mare. To begin a plate of very thinly sliced octopus and cured fish with rocket (B), a ball of delicious Mozzarella wrapped in smoked salmon (A) and a grilled scallop au gratin with heaps of garlic (A).

To go with this I chose a bottle of ‘I Borboni’ Coda de Volpe (2008) (from Cantina Lunajanca in Benevento, a neighbouring province) which after a poor start got better after being open a while (B).

To follow Spaghettoni di Gragnano con Lupini di Mare e Cavolofiori, spaghetti from the famous pasta town with lupini clams and florets of cauliflower, which had a strange smoky flavour but was otherwise tasteless and needed salting (C). Very disappointing.

Next a fillet of spigola fish with putarelle  in a citrus sauce and peperoncino (indiscernible), the fish and greens being quite plain by themselves but wonderful in combination (A).

 I swapped the glass of chocolate dessert and cream (Bicchiere Cioccolato al Latte e Albicocche) on the menu for a glass of Acquavite di Miele di Castagno, a distillate flavoured with chestnuts and a hint of honey, interesting but not something you’d demand a second glass of (B). Although the latter came free and I was going for cheap options, I still spent €48 on this visit.

Conclusion: good food but not as good as I’ve had from Locanda Battisti, however the service is much better and the ambience one of the bestyou will find. Somewhere that shouldn’t be missed if you can help it.

In 2008, three of us kicked off with a celebratory end-of-tour bottle of Prosecco (€12) and continued with a very good
house Falanghina (€10). Food wise, we started with Trilogia Buongustaio, a seafood antipasti misto including octopus and swordfish for €14, moved on to Ravioli Coccio (fish), Lasagnette Pasta and Risotto Pescatora, all €14, and grilled veg for €6, all excellent.

Massa also owns Vicolocieco a wine bar down a side street, around the corner from the restaurant. Very busy at the weekends, you can sit outside in the small alley (vicolo).

I had the Sformitina di Melanzane (grilled eggplant with mozzarella and big flakes of grana, which was nice (B) if a bit too cheesy.

Max and Barbara gave me friendly service when I first came here on a limoncello crawl. The locally made meloncello is best avoided in my opinion (D). I also had some lovely Grappa Aglianico here on another night.

Another uber-posh place is La Colonne, specialising in water buffalo meat which I would like to try but seeing as how they didn’t have menus outside, I guessed it was a bit beyond my price range.

I remember eating well at Antica Osteria La Scalinatella at 2 Via Fratelli Giovanni e Giulio Pagano, Tel. 0823 441850, but it was a while ago so can’t tell you what it was.

La Loggetta (Elementary A-), 62 Via Cristofor Colombo and 41/43 Via Roma

According to Barbara at Vicolocieco, this is the best place in town for pizza. It’s certainly popular with the locals and you will have to queue if you arrive after 8 at the weekends. The Via Cristofor Colombo location is more atmospheric although both places are pretty basic with paper tablecloths and sullen service.

I went for my favourite, the classic Pizza Margherita ai Mozzarella di Bufala (DOP), which tasted really good but for me the edging was too thick, and the centre a bit too soft and runny (although it should be to a certain degree). This is being hypercritical though and the local ingredients were so good I couldn’t honestly fault it (A-). You can also buy pizza al metro here (by the meter, actually two square meters in a large rectangular tray) but you need a small family with you to have a chance of finishing it. With a large Birra Nastro Azurra my bill came to a paltry €8.

Angolo Verde Ristorante Pizzeria, 21 Via Redentore (a side street off Via Mazzini, opposite the entrance to Massa)

When I went in 2008,  some things were value for money (€5 euro self-service salad bar, €3 half litre draught white), some things a bit pricey, such as Scialatielli con Pesce in Esposizione, which was excellent but cost €14, and the cover charge of €2.50. Walked by in 2011 and they seem to have gone downmarket with Menu Touristico’s on the board outside. Probably worth a whirl though.

A Paranza (Intermediate B), 24 Via Santorio

This large place was thankfully open on a Sunday, unlike anyof the above, though this might have been due to the wedding reception that was in full flow when I arrived. A seafood specialist with a simple, meat-free menu; most prices are in double figures though you could in theory eat three courses for as little as €20, or as much as €45. I had six delicious small balls of Mozzarella (A) to start and Spaghetti alle Vongole for the first course which was competent though made with too much oil (B). What followed is one of my pet hates, a pre-dressed mixed salad which I had to send back (D) as it was over salted.

The house white was a mediocre (C) bottle of Falanghina from Colle D’Oro in Benevento which Enzo the smiley waiter thought I should drink warm until I got him to bring an ice bucket(secchiello), although through fatigue I settled for a beaker instead of a wine glass. Total cost €25. Conclusion: relatively cheap and open on a Sunday, but not somewhere to go when other places are open.

La Leccese, (Elementary C), 64 Via G.Verdi, next to Locanda Battisti above.

I tend to end up eating here when its neighbour  is shut and I can’t be bothered to walk elsewhere. It’s also a pizzeria though I didn’t see anyone eating one, despite it being very busy on the Monday night I went. The food is rough and ready and cheap as chips, but all just about edible (C), and you can eat outside. Although the menu says ‘dal 1968’ this place was called Da Camilla in 2008 and seems to have changed hands. Unfortunately the food hasn’t improved much. I had the classic Pasta e Fagioli which had a lot of the former but little of the latter and was even more mundane than usual (C).

For the next course I opted for the local Salsiccia Nero Casertana, which wasn’t the blood sausage I’d hoped for but just the ordinary variety that you can get in most places. The house red is pretty poor (C-) so I strongly recommend you get a bottle of something else if you come here (I won’t again if I can help it). The best thing (B) was the Frutta Tagliata, but then you can’t really go wrong with sliced fruit (strawberries, cherries, apricots, pineapple, water melon). Despite assuring me it would be frozen, the limoncello they gave me was only slightly chilled. Grappa is €1.50 in the roughhouse bar opposite.

From 2008:

A’ Lampara Ristorante Pizzeria (Elementary B), 64 Via G.B. Vico (off Via Roma, you will see the yellow sign if you look down the side street)

This is a cheap value-for-money place with B or C grade food. Prosciutto and mozzarella for €6, Trofie del Golfo (pasta
twists with clams, mussels, scampi) for €8.50 were the best things I had. The pizzas are ok but a bit thick for my taste. The house red and white (C) are both pretty ropey but just about drinkable, €4 for a half litre. The draught Falanghina is better for a little bit more. A grappa costs €2.50. Big telly (so the place of choice for watching football) and friendly service from the young guys. You might want to avoid the karaoke on Sunday night. Turn left out of Hotel Europa, first right and you will see its sign on the right straight away.

Conclusion: the big telly at the end of the room makes this a good place for watching football and the cheap food and wine make it a good place to come if you’re on a budget.

Pepe Nero, (Intermediate B) 17 Via G.M Bosco

This is like All Bar One meets Pizza Express. I had the arrosticini (kebab of mediocre beef, ok pork and excellent sausage) with fries for €8.50 with a servicable Aglianico del Taburno (Fontanavecchia ’04) for €12. Other local
wines start at €9, Belgian and German beers for €4, 400ml draught for the same, and that famous British beer, Tenants Super for €3.50. They have a large range of big salads, pasta, steaks and, unusually, goulash, madras and Mexican
dishes. To finish, the Torroncino Crema di Baba e Nutella was nice. Overall I would score it a B, modern and very popular but a bit of a walk from Via Roma.

Via G.M. Bosco seems to have a fair bit of night life with a couple of bars opposite and further along from Pepe Nero. There’s a modern gelateria/pasticceria at #34 called Mungiguerra (since 1926 apparently although not in this building) which also sells digestivos (an average grappa costs €3) although the staff could learn some customer skills.

There are salumerias all over town but Leuci at 168 Via G.M. Bosco is a particularly large one and has a big range of handmade pasta from Gragnano, wines, hams, cheeses and lots of other desirable things.

The indoor Mercato di Caserta at 52 Via Cesare Battisti  is small but there’s lots of great produce, all super-fresh and some of it still alive!

I’ve stayed at a few hotels along Via Roma over the years. The Hotel Europa at 19 Via Roma has a basic gym and an ok breakfast. Room quality varies but the back is quieter and the ones at the very top have good views of the hills. The Hotel Jolly, nearest the station, has similar rooms and a slightly better breakfast to my memory, but no gym. The Hotel Bruman has the nicest rooms and free computers and wi-fi in each room, although there is no gym and breakfast is pre-ordered and served in your room. If you like sleeping with the window open, in all these places you should go for a room at the back, to avoid the noise from Via Roma. There is the odd mosquito so bring some protection.

Farewell Caserta, until the next time!

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