The formula for the perfect holiday restaurant (and why finding it is the surest test of a marriage)

Griff Rhys Jones
It certainly won't be on the main drag - Alexander Spatari

When I lead, as it were, Mrs Jones generally follows. She suffers teeth-grinding, indecisive urban dithering with admirable stoicism.

In Naples a few weeks back, we had been to momentous inlaid pietra dura 17th-century churches, visited the Castel Nuovo and admired the huge Hall of the Baroni, named after the particular baroni who got topped in its cavernous grandeur. Later, at the San Carlo theatre, we would get to see a pulsating tenor fight off mosquitoes, a bat, a lost seagull and six stacked jet liners to belt out “O sole mio”.

Right now, however, lunch was the priority; it’s why we travel.

The perfect restaurant? Small. Ignored. Handwritten menu. Ingredients never heard of. Rabbit included

Finding lunch, on spec, in a strange foreign city ranks as the surest test of a marriage. My reliable Italian restaurant guide was trapped in a Kindle, four years out of date, and TripAdvisor requires effort to read the runes. All that is left is intuition. Years of clumping back alleys have schooled me. I can smell or perhaps spiritually intuit, that worthwhile, reasonably-priced establishment, where we will eventually discover competent cooking in an inventive manner. 

Believe me, Mrs Jones is patient. Even a walk through a Naples road tunnel in the rush hour had been forgiven. We had both now accepted that to cross any road, she had to be pushed ahead straight into traffic, because it would only ever stop for the bella figura. But on this great restaurant journey, she finally asked “Isn’t this far enough?” Perhaps it was. Except that the good ersatz impromptu find is, inevitably, always just a bit further on. 

That perfect restaurant is always a little bit further Credit: getty

“It’s not likely to be on the main drag, darling,” I said.

“But we only want a salad…”

“It looks more interesting a little way ahead.” A key discrimination. 

We had passed the Galleria Umberto I shopping arcade, big enough to hang hundreds of baroni, and worth a detour. 

We missed the famous Caffé Gambrinus and only discovered its overdecorated charm later, eating ice cream after the tenor’s four encores. By now Naples lunchtime was long past. 

We were now in the Spanish Quarter, marvelling at the vertiginous streets. Scooters careered past, often sporting a husband and wife in law-abiding matching helmets and a grinning toddler perched upright at the handle bars with its naked hair flying in the backstream. 

Galleria Umberto I Credit: getty

The shops were great: real gritty hardware and fruit shops and deep, bloody, macelleria caves. Great signifiers. And, yes, at last, there was the perfect restaurant. Small. Ignored. Handwritten menu. Ingredients never heard of. Rabbit included (heard of, but always telling). It was Monday. It was shut.

Back we went to Naples’ great, almost secret, walking street – the Via Chiaia. My dear, such shops. I guess if you operate a black economy you have to spend it somewhere. Ferragamo, Prada, high-level Armani shaming Bond Street for conspicuous consumption of handbags. We were in exactly the right area for international salad bars crammed with models sniffing at crispbread. But onwards. Not my style. I don’t want international. I want local. 

Photos of food in the window? No. Obvious tourist traps

Photos of food in the window? No. Obvious tourist traps. No. No chain restaurants please. And then, in a backstreet, there was something notable about the open front and dim interior. The step down. The man with his jacket off hunched over something tasty. It was a fish restaurant. Tiny. Humble. Hardly more than a bar. We sat at the counter. Things had been scrubbed off a blackboard. Other things had been added. Ordinarily we’d never have got a seat, but we’d been trudging for so long it was mid-afternoon. It was the “Pescheria Mattiucci”. A real find. Grilled fish, crocchette, friarelli – the Neapolitan spinach. 

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“I think it’s the one recommended by Cornelius’s local friend,” Mrs Jones said, checking her phone. “The one we couldn’t find yesterday.”  

Well, we did find it. Intuition, you see. 

“I think you’ll find there’s one in Notting Hill,” she observed, ordering fizzy water.