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I’ve done posts on making Christmas cookies ever since I started writing this blog. Most have been about various favorite recipes that I’ve made for many years. Since I try to write about dishes that will interest my readers, I know I shouldn’t feature the same cookies every year, no matter how beloved they are. (In that respect, writing about food is different from making it.) So this year’s cookie post is about two kinds I’ve never made before, along with a to-me-irresistible celebration of two of the kinds without which it wouldn’t be Christmas at our house.

Candied Orange Peel Cookies

These are based on a recipe called Cherry Cookies that I found in the Cookies & Crackers volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. I just substituted candied orange peel for the recipe’s candied cherries. The original was a pre-war English recipe by Florence White, who in 1928 founded the English Folk Cookery Association “to capture the charm of England’s cookery before it is completely crushed out of existence.”

The age of the recipe is evident from the absence of any kitchen machines in its instructions – which I tried to follow as written. So I rubbed the butter into the flour by hand, then stirred in sugar and the minced candied peel. Next, I was to “bind the mixture with beaten egg to form a cohesive dough” using a knife. Odd as that sounded, I tried it, but a knife is really not the tool for that job. Surely there were spoons in those days! I reverted to completing the dough by hand.

The rolling, cutting, and baking were the standard procedures, and the cookies came out quite well. Firm and crunchy, with a little chewiness and pleasant flavor from the orange peel, they have a certain charm as an old-fashioned holiday treat. They’ll also be very nice, I think, alongside a not-too-sweet dessert wine.
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Spice Sablés

I found this recipe for a sort of modern variation on spice cookies in Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts. It’s attributed to the pastry chef of the ultra-fashionable, now long-closed Barefoot Contessa food shop in ultra-fashionable East Hampton. Despite the glamorous pedigree, it’s a good, sturdy cookie.

To sablés’ basic shortbread mix of butter, sugar, and flour, the recipe adds ground almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and Grand Marnier. These, and the use of brown sugar rather than white, struck me as intriguing flavors for a cookie.

I almost got in trouble over my long-kept brown sugar, which had solidified in the annoying way it does, and had to be pulverized. Unlike fresh brown sugar, it had no moisture, and I didn’t take that into account in mixing my dough. Accordingly, it was very dry and refused to hold together, even after overnight refrigeration. The next day I realized the cause of the problem and was able to correct the texture by kneading some water into the dough. That held it together for rolling out and cutting in Christmas tree shapes.

The cookies are very good. The texture isn’t as “sandy” as sablés typically are, but just a little rough in the way shortbread is. The flavor is unusual, subtle, and interesting. Though very plain looking, they’re rich and satisfying, and will make a nice addition to my Christmas repertory..
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Peanut Butter Cookies

Is there anything more quintessentially American than peanut butter cookies at Christmas time? I’ve made them every year-end holiday season for as long as I can remember, and my mother made them all through my childhood. This batch came out exceptionally well, a little crisper and more tender than some in past years. I feel awfully sorry for people with peanut allergies, who can’t enjoy these little delights.
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Ruggelach

Cream cheese in the dough for these tiny rolls makes for a smooth, soft pastry, which happily encloses fruit and nut fillings. I make them as my mother did, way back in my childhood. This year I did half the batch with walnuts, hazelnuts, cinnamon, and sugar, the other half with the two nuts and strawberry jam. They’re festive flavors, and both kinds came out very well. It may be a bit of a struggle to keep Beloved Spouse from eating them all before Christmas gets here.

Culinary serendipity takes many forms, not the least of which is sparking ideas for using small amounts of leftovers. On a recent day, my refrigerator and freezer produced a 7-ounce raw filet of John Dory, 3 ounces of raw shrimp, and 4 ounces of mushrooms.

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With an open container of heavy cream also available, inspiration for dinner was easy: something classically French. Julia Child to the rescue, with her poached fish recipes in the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. From the book’s five major recipes, five variations, and five suggested shellfish garnitures, I chose almost the simplest, Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons.

Scaling down the recipe to serve two instead of six required some adjustments. I also took a few shortcuts for further simplicity, hoping that Julia wouldn’t disapprove. For example, the shrimp for the garnish were to be first boiled for five minutes in a stock made from wine, water, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, tarragon, and peppercorns; then tossed in a pan with butter, seasonings, and wine.

I couldn’t see doing all that for my eight little shrimp. I just boiled them for two minutes in salted water, then sauteed them briefly in butter with minced shallots and thyme. I sliced the mushrooms and also sauteed them in butter for a few minutes.

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The fish filet was to be poached in a 350° oven. I strewed minced shallots in a shallow baking dish; laid in the fish filet topped with salt, pepper, and more shallots; poured in enough wine and water to cover the filet; and dotted butter over all.

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Now I was supposed to bring the dish to a simmer on top of the stove before covering it with a sheet of buttered wax paper and putting it in the oven. But I couldn’t: my only baking dish small enough not to surround the filet with too much liquid couldn’t take a direct flame. So the poaching took quite a bit longer than the recipe expected. I worried a bit, but gentle cooking rarely harms a fish, and eventually a fork could pierce the flesh easily, which meant the fish was done.

At that point I realized I had another problem. The poaching instructions that I’d followed had been in a separate master recipe, which didn’t have mushrooms. When I returned to my Bercy recipe, I saw that I ought to have included the mushrooms in the poaching. Oops! Oh, well – it was a pity that my mushrooms couldn’t exchange flavors with the poaching liquid, but they’d just have to join the dish later.

I gently removed the fish to a plate, poured its liquid into a small pot, and boiled it down to about half a cup’s worth. I stirred in a flour-and-butter paste and then heavy cream. Brought the sauce to a boil, seasoned it with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and folded in the shrimps and mushrooms.

Back into its baking dish went the fish filet, and all the sauce and garnishes over and around it. The recipe also called for more dots of butter, but since the dish had already received almost a stick of butter and half a cup of cream (!), I decided to skip that.
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All this was done in the afternoon. In the evening I sprinkled grated parmigiano (instead of gruyere) over the fish in its sauce and reheated the dish under the broiler. Again, because I couldn’t first reheat it on top of the stove, it took a longer time in the broiler – about 10 minutes to warm it through. It hadn’t browned as much as it should, but I was afraid to overcook the fish, so I took it out and served it.
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It was wonderful – even after my shortcuts and alterations. The John Dory was excellent, as always. The mushrooms had – amazingly, given their short time in the sauce – absorbed all the goodness of fish, shrimp, and cream. The sauce itself was silk and velvet on the tongue, and it tasted like the sweet-salt soul of the sea.

Being something of a partisan of Italian cooking approaches, I hardly ever make classic French dishes any more, but this one reminded me of what I’d been missing. Maybe it’s time to revisit them occasionally.
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Incidentally, Beloved Spouse poured a relatively simple white Burgundy with this dish – a Côte de Nuits Villages – and the combination was delightful.

If at first you don’t succeed . . . you may not do much better the second time, either! That was my fate when following a recipe for coffee panettone sent to me by my friend Jennifer with a note saying “I have made this – delicious.” With the Christmas season already thundering down on us like a runaway herd of reindeer, I thought it would be interesting to give it a try.

It was clear from the first that “panettone” was purely a courtesy title for this confection. True panettone is rich in butter and eggs; this recipe uses no eggs and only a dollop of vegetable shortening. It doesn’t even call for kneading the dough; just mixing it. It also must be quite an old recipe, because it calls for “seedless” raisins. How long has it been since that had to be specified?!  Nonetheless, I figured that, even if this was only a sweet tea bread, it could be good. I was feeling experimental, and this is the season for fruit-and-nut breads.

So I made a batch. I began by chopping walnuts and candied orange peel – proper seasonal ingredients – to accompany the raisins.
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For the dough I first had to dissolve yeast in warm water and a cup of “strong warm coffee”; add soft shortening, salt, sugar, and baking soda; and stir in enough flour to make a batter. I confess to using melted butter for the shortening and very strong instant espresso for the coffee.
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Then the remaining flour went in, along with the fruits, nuts, and vanilla extract. Even though the recipe didn’t say to, I kneaded it for a few minutes. It made a very sticky dough, which was reluctant to rise. After three hours it still wasn’t doubled in bulk, but I moved on anyway and transferred it to two bread pans. (The recipe preferred to form the traditional panettone shape in cylindrical coffee cans, but I didn’t have any.)
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After another two hours, when the loaves had grudgingly risen as much as they evidently intended to, I baked them at 350° for 40 minutes. The dratted things didn’t rise any more in the oven either – in fact, they sank somewhat. That made for heavy, dense, chewy bread.

Though it was fairly ugly, it didn’t taste too bad: sort of like a panforte or a not-very-sweet fruitcake. Lightly toasted and slathered with butter, I thought it was edible. Beloved Spouse, my personal Grinch, did not.
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Now, as it happened, Jennifer – the donator of the recipe – came for a visit a few days later. I hauled out one of my bricks of panettone and showed it to her. “Did yours come out like this?” “No, it didn’t.” I gave her a taste. She said kind things. I gnashed my teeth.

Obviously, I’d done something wrong. I thought it most likely that the coffee had been too hot, and maybe too strong, so it killed or crippled the yeast. I’d give it another try.

I went through the whole procedure again, making a half recipe. This time my espresso was freshly brewed, not unusually strong, and only just warm. I used Crisco, not butter, and did no actual kneading, only vigorous mixing. The dough looked and felt better than the first batch, and it rose much more in the bowl, even though it still took nearly three hours to get there.
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It rose better in the pan too, so I was hopeful. But wouldn’t you know it, the same thing happened in the oven – it sank again! This time I have no idea why. This loaf looked more respectable than the first ones, at least: It was a whole two inches high, instead of only one inch.
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Also, it was lighter in weight, softer in texture, and altogether more pleasant tasting. I, at least, thought so. Beloved Spouse was not persuaded.
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More attractive, yes, but it still isn’t what it should be, and it definitely isn’t panettone. Will I try a third time? I doubt it. If I want a panettone for Christmas, I’ll buy a good one.

Johnny Apple (R.W. Apple, Jr) was a distinguished journalist and legendary personality who wrote for more than 40 years, mostly for The New York Times, about international affairs, wars, politics, business – and food and drink. Back in 1997, he contributed a raisin pie recipe to Saveur’s Thanksgiving issue. Never having heard of raisin pie before, I was intrigued. I clipped the recipe, kept it for 20 years, and – patient soul that I am – finally made it for this year’s holiday dinner.

Here’s the magazine’s picture of the pie.

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The crust is a lightly sweetened pâte brisée, easy to make and fairly easy to work with. I made up the dough a day in advance and put it in the refrigerator overnight.

I also made the filling that day. To begin, I simmered orange juice, orange zest, and golden raisins over low heat for five minutes. I stirred in allspice and nutmeg, some cornstarch dissolved in water, and a whole heap of granulated sugar. That was to be cooked, stirred constantly, until the mixture thickened, which the recipe said would take about five minutes.
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Not mine: I stirred and stirred for nearly ten minutes, and the liquid part looked about as it had at the beginning. I was afraid to cook it any longer, lest it scorch, so I took it off the stove and stirred in the final ingredients: lemon juice and chopped walnuts. The mixture did thicken a little as it cooled, and a little more after its night in the refrigerator.
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Early on Thanksgiving morning I put together the pie. I rolled out half the dough for a bottom crust, fitted it into my pie dish, and poured in the filling. I rolled out the remaining dough and cut it into strips for a lattice. The recipe said not to try to weave the lattice because the dough was too tender, so I just laid half the strips across the filling horizontally and the other half on top vertically.
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A little trimming and fussing to smooth the rim of the crust, and the pie looked quite nice when it was ready for the oven.
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The recipe said to bake at 350° for about 30 minutes, until the crust was golden and the filling bubbly. Now, I’m a pretty experienced pie maker, and that seemed like a very low temperature and a very short time. But this was not my usual kind of pie, so I proceeded as directed.

After half an hour the crust was still quite pale and there was nary a bubble in sight. I kept setting the timer for additional five minuteses, to almost no effect. At 50 minutes, I raised the temperature to 375° and after one more five-minute session finally saw bubbling and some browning around the edges of the crust. I called it done.
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Looks very different from Saveur’s pie, doesn’t it? Of course, you have to expect food stylists to burnish magazines’ dishes. But between the non-thickening of my filling and the non-browning of my pastry, I was beginning to worry about my pie. Well, it was what it was.

In the afternoon I packed it in a carrier and trundled it along to the home of the friends with whom we always spend Thanksgiving. There it took its place in the finale of a sumptuous holiday dinner.
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It was good. (Whew!) Very sweet, something like a mincemeat pie, but lighter; very fruity and nutty. The pastry was a little heavier than I’d have liked, but it served well enough. Some of the diners thought it reminiscent of a pecan pie, and it did seem to have a bit of southern sweet accent. But mostly it was sui generis – very different from any holiday pie I’d made before. A little strange at first, but its flavor grew on you as you nibbled along. So, here’s Thanksgiving thanks to Saveur’s “Author Apple” for an interesting finish to a holiday feast.

When I was growing up, my mother never cooked cauliflower. What we knew of it, we didn’t like. When I’d encountered it at other people’s homes, it was boiled long enough to bring out the sulfur smell and was drenched with a sauce of Velveeta cheese. It took many years for me to realize cauliflower didn’t have to be like that.

It was when I started doing some Indian cooking, and discovered the many interesting ways that cuisine uses cauliflower, that I became curious about the vegetable. I now know that, when not overcooked, it has a wonderful ability to bond with all kinds of other flavors. I still don’t serve it often, because an average-sized whole cauliflower is a lot for a two-person household to get through. But I do choose it occasionally. Here are the simple ways I dealt with the head that I brought home this week.

 

Day 1: Warm cauliflower salad

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I took about a third of the florets off the head, steamed them for seven minutes, until they were just tender. I also chopped ½ cup of celery, ¼ cup of onion, and ⅛ cup of Tuscan pickled peppers.
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While the florets were still warm, I tossed them gently in a bowl with the chopped vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, my own wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. I had to be careful with the vinegar because my Tuscan peppers were very strongly pickled.
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The mixture made a pleasant, light vegetable starter for a weekday dinner. In spring or summer, I also add a few thinly sliced radishes and some of their tiny leaves to this salad; but I never buy radishes in November.

 

Day 2: Cavolfiore fritto

In principle, I follow Marcella Hazan’s recipe for breaded and fried cauliflower, though it’s such an easy process that it hardly needs a recipe. This evening I took off half the remaining florets from my head of cauliflower, steamed them for only five minutes (since they’d be getting more cooking later), and let them cool. I dipped them first in an egg beaten with salt, then in dry breadcrumbs.
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Beloved Spouse then stepped up and fried them for me, in half an inch of very hot olive oil. It took only about a minute on each side for them to turn richly golden.
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While the steaming and breading can be done an hour or more in advance, once the florets are fried, they need to be eaten right away to be at their best.
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This time they were, as always, crisp, crunchy, and delicious – an excellent accompaniment to broiled lamb chops. Actually, they would work well with almost any un-sauced meat or fowl.

 

Day 3: Cauliflower soup

I dedicated the rest of my cauliflower to a favorite soup. The original recipe is from Alfred Portale’s Twelve Seasons Cookbook. There it’s called a vichyssoise, to be served cold. I make just the basic soup, leaving out several of the recipe’s garnishes, and I like to serve it hot.

To make a small enough soup for the amount of cauliflower florets I had left this week, I chopped ¼ cup of onions and thinly sliced ⅓ cup of leeks.
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I sauteed those two vegetables in a tablespoon of olive oil, then added the florets and a cup of chicken broth from a bouillon cube.
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This cooked, covered, for 20 minutes, until the florets were tender. Then I pureed everything in a blender. I tasted and added salt and pepper, and the soup was ready to reheat at dinner time.
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This simple soup is just amazingly good. In a blind tasting, you probably wouldn’t guess it was cauliflower; you’d distinguish only a generic vegetal sweetness. And it’s such a rich puree you’d think it must be at least half butter and cream. I’m sure the dressed-up version – with sauteed cauliflower slices, a dose of olive oil, and a sprinkling of chopped chives – would be excellent too, but I’ve never felt the need to try it.

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There’s nothing complex in these cauliflower dishes, especially compared to those in typical Indian recipes, but each is very tasty, and together they show the versatility of the vegetable I once disliked. We live and learn, eh?

With only four days in Naples on our Italian trip earlier this month, there was no way Beloved Spouse and I could eat as many of the region’s foods and culinary specialties as we’d have liked. So we focused on – and feasted on – the many excellent kinds of fresh fish and shellfish available there. The beautiful Bay of Naples may not be the pristine pool it once was, but the local seafood remains spectacular in variety and flavor. Here are the dishes we enjoyed.

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Crudo

The word crudo means raw. Appetizer plates of raw fish are very popular in Italy. This one consisted of tender, paper-thin slices of baby octopus and salmon, lightly dressed with olive oil, lemon, and salt, and served on a bed of wild arugula. The interplay of the succulent octopus, the silky salmon, and the mildly bitter arugula was superb.
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Impepata di cozze

Years ago we knew cozze impepata as Neapolitan street food. Sidewalk vendors tended huge drums of boiling salt water heavily flavored with black pepper. They’d suspend a big bunch of mussels over the drum in a perforated dipper, pour water over them until they opened, and dump them onto a paper plate to be eaten with the hands. In this day’s restaurant dish, the mussels were steamed in their own broth, with garlic and oil as well as pepper. Each way, the glory of the simple preparation depends on very fresh, sweet, wild-harvested shellfish. And lots of pepper.

 

Spaghetti alle vongole veraci

This version of spaghetti with clam sauce, from the harborside restaurant La Bersagliera, may be my absolute, all-time, life-long favorite dish of pasta. I order it every time I’m there. Those tiny two-tube clams, the vongole veraci, have more luscious flavor and more intense sweetness here than in any other place and any part of Italy that I’ve ever had them. There’s not much else to the dish – olive oil, parsley, garlic, salt, and a touch of hot pepper – but either the clams from this locality or the way this kitchen handles them produces something purely magical.

 

Scialatelli con frutta di mare

Here are those marvelous mussels and clams again, in another kind of presentation. Scialatelli are fresh egg pasta, cut into a shape like thickish spaghetti but with a softer texture and milder flavor.  The lightly cooked pomodorini – cherry tomatoes – added a bright touch of sweet vegetable acidity to the rich shellfish flavors.

 

Mezze paccheri con coccio

It’s a Naples tradition to serve large tubes of paccheri pasta in a sauce made with chunks of the fish locally called coccio. It’s a kind of gurnard: a big-headed, bottom-feeding fish with large side fins like wings, a relative of our Atlantic sea robins. In America, sea robins are usually considered trash fish, but that whole family can be quite delicious, as Neapolitans know.  Another piscine relative is France’s rascasse, considered indispensable to bouillabaisse.

 

Frittura di paranza

The heap of small fishes on this plate included anchovies, tiny mullets and whiting, and possibly a sardine or two. Each was thinly coated in a tasty batter and fried to a perfect crunchiness. Lemon juice and salt brought out the best in them. Absolutely fresh fish and a really good hand at the fryer are what make this dish: It’s not “fishy” at all.

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Grigliata di calamari e gamberi

The big grilled squid mantle you see here was very tender, meat-sweet, and quite rich, its flavor heightened by exposure to the flame. The two shrimp were also excellent; I’d have been glad of a few more of them. The little mixed salad alongside made a nice contrast of texture and flavors.

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Spigoletta al forno in sale

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A spigola is a European sea bass, which can be a very large fish. Our smaller spigoletta probably weighed about two pounds when whole. Baked to perfection in a salt crust, it was a splendid fish: moist, rich, sweet, tender. (I know: I keep using the same words to describe these dishes. That’s because they were all like that – utterly delicious examples of their kind.)
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Looking at these dishes all together, it’s obvious that there’s nothing exotic or complicated in their preparation or presentation. Given the right ingredients, they’d all be easy to turn out from an American home kitchen. But oh, those ingredients! It’s nearly impossible to get fish and shellfish so fresh, so fine, and so flavorful here. The opportunity to indulge in them would, all by itself, have made my trip to Naples worthwhile.

I’m not doing any cooking this week. When this post is published, Beloved Spouse and I will be in Naples, being cooked for – deliciously, we hope – by some of our favorite eating establishments in that city. Here are several we’re eager to revisit. When we’re home, I hope to have some mouth-watering food photos to share.

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Capasso is a fine little pizzeria at the San Gennaro city gate. Handy for a lunch after a visit to the archeological museum.

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Ciro a Santa Brigida is a classic, elegant Neapolitan restaurant in the city center, just off the Via Toledo.  No cucina creativa or moderno here.

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Small and tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, Masaniello hadn’t been found by the tourist trade last time we were there. We hope it has stayed that way.

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Bersagliera, right down on the harbor, serves marvelous fresh fish and shellfish.

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Umberto is a full restaurant making traditional Neapolitan dishes, including excellent pizzas. It’s large, bustling, casual, and cheerful.

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Any time we need just a little refreshment, Gambrinus is our go-to cafe and bar for espressos, pastries, ice cream, aperitivi, or digestivi.

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P.S.  There’ll be no post next week, because we’ll still be in Italy: in Rome, by then. I’ve already written posts about many of our favorite Roman restaurants, so no point in repeating myself again. If you’re interested, look here, here, here, and here.  If I discover anything new and wonderful, I’ll report it when we return.

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