Checking into my Airbnb in Rione Sanita, I was genuinely shocked to see a Sri Lankan restaurant on the corner near Piazza Cavour. Having not done any research about the area, I passed it off as an oddity and continued walking. Another one. Strange.... A Sri Lankan grocery store, two, three. Patterns were forming. Curiosity got the better of me and I ended up grabbing a take-away box from Grand Ceylon since it was late and I had already eaten a years worth of pasta in the space of a month.
I hurried home excited to see what host of flavours would greet me. Having travelled extensively in Sri Lanka on a couple of occasions I was relatively confident that it would at least be edible. In the battle of the sub-continent I tend to favour Indian, but a good Sri Lankan meal can evoke memories of times passed with severe conviction.
Aromas that I had forgotten for almost a decade hit me, sending my mind spiralling back to the Kottu Roti's in Kandy, that amazing chicken curry in Nuwara Eliya, the home-cooked food served to my bungalow in Nilaveli. I tucked in to spicy, flavourful chicken curry, dal, vegetable side dishes and a wonderful dried smoked chilli for kicks.
Fast forward a few weeks after I had eaten at 6 or 7 spots around town, as I was waiting for my food at Ayubowan a contagiously agreeable man hit me up with the usual quick fire questions: "Where are you from", "You on holiday", "You like spicy food?". I took the opportunity of turning the tide of questions to him and told him I was curious as to why so many Sri Lankans had ended up in Napoli. With the wit of Tagore he simply replied: "It is big city, so there is many".
I made it a point over the next 5 weeks to eat at as many Sri Lankan take-aways as I could without going overboard. I wanted to see if there was a general consensus that all of them churned out the same standard of food, or whether a couple of them would raise their heads above the sea of averages.
On one Sunday afternoon I got invited to drink tea and chat with a group of severely inebriated Sinhalese outside a small take-away spot. One of them was so drunk he couldn't sit still so he stood up and swayed from side to side asking me a hundred times if I spoke Italian or not. His friend who was ten drinks shy was slightly more responsive so I plied him with questions, to which he gave no fixed answers except vague signals with his hand. The most constructive information I squeezed out of him was that there were mostly Sinhalese in Italy (approx 90%, only 10% Tamil), the Tamils arrived 30 years ago, most of the Sinhalese 10 years later, the restaurants all tasted the same, but if pressed he would say Prasanna Star was his favourite. He also mentioned that Italy was a good country to call home and they enjoyed a relatively comfortable life here. He then told me to ignore the drunk friend who was making pornographic gestures with his fingers and giggling like a schoolkid.
When a whiskey bottle was pulled out of a small backpack I took that as fate telling me to leave, and thanked them for the tea and headed home to try and put together a list of the places I had tried.
Below are the results of my dedicated quest, having definitively found that most of them taste basically the same, but one or two have that magic touch of a knowledgable, passionate grandma in the kitchen pulling the strings (hoppers).
If you happen to be in Napoli, I urge you to sacrifice one pizza night in favour of sampling this rich, colourful addition to the culinary scene. Sit down at one of the restaurants, eat a meal with your hands and chat with the neighbouring table. Food connects people of different cultures and identities and in eating together you get a glimpse into the daily on-goings of an ex-pat community that otherwise flies under the radar.
Ask for it spicy and you'll inherit a new family by default.
(CLICK ON THE RESTAURANT IMAGE FOR LINK TO GOOGLE MAPS)
My Favourites in descending order:
PRasanna Star - (N I N E / t e n)
A stonesthrow from the funicular up to Vomero, this became my go-to during my stay in Naples. The food is fragrant, flavourful and cooked with love. A constant flow of dine-ins and take-aways ensures everything is fresh and the food isn't sitting too long developing that crust we all hate.
Tip: ask for the dry chilli paste, it's a knockout!
Uncle Shop - (E i G h t / T e n)
When asking the name, the reply was "Uncle Shop". Since it's not on google maps either, the name will forever be a mystery but the food is top notch and there is a small bench where you can scoff your face full of delights out of sight.
Grand CEylon - (E I G H T / T E N)
Proximity to my Airbnb did play a part in my repeat visits, but this was also slightly above the average when it came to care and flavours. After a brief period of perplexion the first time I walked in, the cooks and servers quickly changed their tune and welcomed me with beaming smiles on subsequent visits.
Ayubowan - (E I G H T / T e n)
Mr Friendly eats here every day, and I can see why. Three Euro for a take-away box full of goodies, this completes the top three places that stand out against a sea of similarities.
The Middle PAth:
Darshana Food - (S E V E N / T E N)
Fifty meters from Dante Metro, one of the only Sri Lankan restaurants with outdoor seating attracts a larger degree of Italians and curious tourists, but isn't the same standard as the harder to find one's nearby.
Unipoint - (S E V E N / T E N)
My review may be coloured by the fact that the two times I went here I felt utterly unwelcome. There was a general look of suspicion and silence when I walked in, so much so I went back a second time to see if I had imagined it: I hadn't.
The food is standard, but I won't set foot in there again.
Serendib - (S E V E N / T E N)
Right around the corner from my Airbnb, and exceptionally friendly, I ended up going here twice based more on the cheery disposition than the food. Their curries are nothing to sneer at, but they lack that added oomph that Prasanna has in spades.
Pahan - ( F I V E / T E N)
Definitely bottom of the barrel for me in my Sri Lankan Napoli adventures. The beef was chewy as an old Birkenstock and with such exemplary competition within a 500m radius, I'm shocked anyone goes here at all.
These recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.
"Sadness is tempered by umami, grief by the motion of slurping, hope restored in the ladling of glistening, fatty broth"
CITIES / Places