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Uncorny traditionalism at Il Corno

Il Corno stands out from the average sit-in Covered Market restaurant. Its crimson walls contrast from the beiges and blues of the surrounding stalls and walls, with an inviting and intimate yet intimidating atmosphere that made me feel like I was no longer in a market. The walls were covered with various statues of cornicellos – twisted chilis that look like horns and are central to Neapolitan culture – that the restaurant took its name from. They also served as centrepieces for each of the metal tables with red outdoor market-style chairs adding to the colour scheme.  Light jazz played in the background, and the seating was limited, which made it feel more close-quartered, and packed despite coming at 3pm on a weekday. 

Il Corno is a Neapolitan panuozzo place cooking the Cucina Campania. The restaurant serves this type of sandwich – panuozzo – made of pizza dough cooked in the oven and filled to the brim with various ingredients. Il Corno is run by Fanny and her family, who are from Naples. After getting her Italian Studies PhD in the UK, Fanny wanted to incorporate her culture into the restaurant through both the food and decor . The cornicellos are lucky amulets in Naples; each one brings a slightly different type of luck. The other statuettes in the restaurant are from Naples as well. There’s one of San Gennaro and Lady Bella to bring positive energy. Fanny also noted that the jazz playing in the background was all Neapolitan records. She truly ties in the theme of traditionalism.

The food was no different. To begin, we had the almond taralli, a traditional street food that is a small donut-shaped wheat snack. They had both a vegan and a non-vegan option to try, with the non-vegan option being made of pork fat. I loved the crumble of the non-vegan option and the way it paired with the crunch of the large pieces of almond. This was a delight to have warm. It was slightly salty and not much else, which let you focus on the unique texture.The vegan option had no almond and was more crunchy than crumbly, which I liked less, but reminded me of the sweet taralli I’d have at the Italian bakery at home. The crunch was more similar to that of an extra crunchy pretzel, and I certainly could picture eating some on a late night snack. 

We then got to the panuozzi themselves. There were  both vegetarian and meat options, which Fanny explained was one of her key priorities when planning. “At first, I wanted it all to be veggie and vegan, but it created a clash with making it all authentic Neapolitan food. This was the best compromise.” There is an option to make it vegan; Il Corno’s award-winning vegan mozzarella is from a vegan pizza ingredient producer in London and costs nothing to substitute. The other ingredients in each of the panuozzi were likewise assured to be fresh, whether from Italian ingredient shops in London or from Italy itself. Fanny explained that she cared more about the quality of ingredients than the number of options, leaving us with four total panuozzi: two veggie- and two meat-based.

We started with the half-panuozzo Munaciello, which had sausage, broccoli friarielli, and scamorza cheese. The broccoli friarielli was a new touch that I hadn’t found before in Oxford. It was salty, thinner than your grocery store broccoli, with more of a chew than a crunch. The sausage overpowered the flavour originally, but the friarielli came out in the aftertaste. The scamorza brought out a bit of smoky flavour that I quite liked. Overall, with the crunch of the bread, I felt it was a very good and filling meal, especially for half the normal portion.

Then came the vegetarian Il Corno , which had tomato, mozzarella, and basil. It was a great sandwich, but  wasn’t anything groundbreaking. The bread, once again, really added to the experience. I thought that a bit of balsamic vinegar would have improved it even more.  I had later tried the other vegetarian option, with the friarielli and bell peppers. I liked it more, though the feeling that something may have been missing was still there.

Prices ranged from 8 to 11.5 pounds, which seems expensive for student budgets. There are options, though: half toasties were half the price and just as filling. And for the price, it felt like a fun treat to have for something relatively unique. Even just being able to sit in the restaurant and work felt good: many people had just grabbed coffees and sat to get something done. 

We finished with the delicious limoncello and baba rum, which was a soft bread soaked in syrup and served as a nice cap to the afternoon. While finishing up, we touched on their location in the Covered Market: Fanny talked about befriending the other stall owners, especially her neighbours, and the warm welcome they received from the Market. She notes that Il Corno had created a different kind of space, one that focused on letting people sit and relax while eating rather than grabbing food and going. 

With many Italians coming by to get a taste of home as well as tourists and students grabbing a bite to eat, the restaurant always seems to find a way to introduce Neapolitan food to new people. Fanny says that she’s happy to see her regulars come and catch up, whether they order food or just a coffee to sit and work. She’s taking advantage of the Covered Market’s late hours on Thursday and Friday to spice up the restaurant during dinner hours; it’s often filled with people going out for a date night. She plans on hosting talks about both Neapolitan and Italian culture overall. Overall, it was a great experience at Il Corno, with a little immersion into traditional culture mixed with the modern flare of jazz. The food was good, though pricey, and I would totally go back for the taralli if ever in need of a savoury treat.

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