“In Napoli where love is king…” sings Dean Martin in the famous song “That’s amore”. Well, in Naples’ food scene the established king is no other than the Babà au rum, the famous old time dessert that the Napolitani are crazy for! And indeed the rum baba can very well be described as the absolute sweet king, as it has a royal descent with origins taking us back to the court of Polish King Stanislaus I, who like it happens with many wonderful things, invented by mistake this delicious sweet. Babà then traveled along with Stanislaus’ daughter and the court’s pastry chef to the court of Versailles and from France to Naples with the latter’s conquer by King Charles VIII.
These days it’s the most celebrated dessert in Naples, a true specialty that you can find everywhere –in pastry shops, bakeries, gelaterie, trattorie, cafes- in different sizes but always in the same mushroom shape. And what’s even better is the fact that there’s no need for a special occasion to enjoy it. No, Neapolitans know how to enjoy the sweetness of life, ‘’la dolce vita”, at all times so it goes without saying that a delicious, syrup soaked babà is an everyday staple. The light brioche cake is either plain or with a rich, yellow cream filling, decorated with a few sour cherries and literally bathed in a rum syrup. So much do the locals like their babà rich in syrup, that just before they serve it they add more of the alcoholic mix and if you buy some for home they will provide a small bottle of syrup to make sure the savarins remain as saturated as they should be.
I made it my mission to discover the best version while in Naples, and I don’t regret the extra weight I put on in the process, as it really is a delicious dessert and so light that who can blame you for eating a few a day? The sweet adventure starts at Pasticceria Giovanni Scaturchio, the most well known pastry shop not only for its babà, but its sweets in general. Located on Piazza San Domenico Maggiore and opposite the impressive church of the same name since 1905, is a very small café with a few outside tables. You will immediately recognize it by the gigantic babà in the shape of Vesuvius that dominates the window shop. The history of Babà Vesuvio dates back in 1994, when Naples was host of the G7. For the occasion, the Giovanni Scaturchio pastry shop created a really big babà in the shape of Vesuvius and ever since, a version always decorates their front shop window. The dessert here is really light and for an original experience choose to stand at the bar bench and accompany it with a strong espresso. Other delicious sweets worth trying at Scaturchio include the zeppola with a rich cream and the symbol of the shop’s craftsmanship, their signature ministeriale, a soft round bitter chocolate filled with cream made of ricotta, liquor and hazelnut paste. One more delicious than the other! You can make your visit to Scaturchio a coffee break one, while exploring the wonderful churches of the surrounding area, like Cappella Sansevero, Chiesa dei Santi Filippo e Giacomo, Monastero di Santa Chiara and Gesù Nuovo.
As the city is full of gorgeous churches, at some point you’ll surely visit the most important of them, the Duomo or Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. Very close to it you’ll find Pio Monte dell Misericordia with a brilliant painting by Caravaggio, the two adjoined churches that comprise the Donnaregina Monumental Complex and the city’s second oldest castle, Castel Capuano.
A visit to all or some of these sights will make you hungry enough to step by Pasticerria Capriccio that’s near here. Located on Via Carbonara, a typical Neapolitan avenue with tall, old apartment buildings with laundries hanging from every balcony, it’s a small pasticceria that easily goes unnoticed. But, like many places in Naples, the humble and simple looks hide a treasure inside. This is the case with Capriccio, a well known among Neapolitans pastry shop, run by the second generation of award winning chocolate makers. Famous for its chocolates that combine coffee with Baileys liquor, it’s also a great place to try an excellent babà with luscious cream. Following an old family recipe the Capparellis bring genuine past tastes to today with creativity and respect to tradition and culture of Neapolitan confectionery.
Their XL babàs are considered among the best in Naples and despite their size they are so soft and light that you won’t even realise you’ve eaten the whole of it. Plain, with chantilly or custard cream, with fresh fruit or small sour cherries, the choice is yours and the delight guaranteed.
Before you leave, take away a box of their excellent chocolates ( with grappa liquor, honey, nocciola or gianduia ), or some of their Rococo cookies, naturally aromatised with mandarin peel, or even a bottle of their signature chocolate liquors.
And last but certainly not least, the Babà au rhum is celebrated in all his glory at Casa Infante, another sweet success story, this time run by the Infante family now in its third generation of renowned pastry chefs. I was already familiar with Casa Infante from my trips to Milan where I first tried their innovative idea of serving a big babà in a tall glass, cut in three slices with a generous add of custard cream in-between and topped preferably with a dense pistachio sauce. Of course, the Babà in bicchiere, as it’s called, is soaked in a rum syrup which makes it even more delicious and impossible to share even though one portion makes a dessert for two. With that previous experience in mind, it was inevitable to visit the much loved pasticceria and gelateria that has conquered Naples. All of their spots across the city are carefully decorated, following the same motif of bright, vivid colours and black and white photos of happy clients enjoying their gelato.
Apart from their delicious, top quality ice cream that draws crowds in, their babàs are equally addictive. With the classic custard or whipped cream, with their amazing pistachio or hazelnut sauce, with fresh fruit or nut crunches and even with chocolate cream, but always with rum and some more rum, it’s a dessert you can’t get enough of! And therefore you might as well take away an amazing family sized babà cake, richly decorated with cream and strawberries, accompanied by a small bottle of rum syrup to add according to your taste. An utterly decadent and delicious experience! Remember the Infante name as it’s a place you’ll visit again for their excellent gelati and keep in mind that Leopoldo, a lovely café chain that belongs to the same family, also serves the same fresh desserts to enjoy there, in a black and white themed pleasant space, or to take away. The characteristics and values of tradition and quality that the family carefully preserves, are apparent in anything you’ll choose to taste.
Whether you’ll visit all of some of the above pastry shops for their babà or other sweets, or even if you’ll discover other ones during your walks around the city, it’s certain that after trying the celebrated, beloved king of desserts, you’ll find totally justifiable the presence of so many pasticcerie all around Naples and why Neapolitans can’t live without a generous, daily sugar dose!