Naples: Vedi Napoli e poi muori – See Naples and die
Feature image above used by permission from David Killick, NZ
Before we left for our epic trip to Italy we had a lot of conflicting advice about Naples. Some said you must go there if only for the pizza, others said, don’t go, it’s Mafia country, dangerous, crowded, polluted and there are pickpockets everywhere. I almost considered going there with a guide. In the end, I decided that I feel at home in the world and have a sense of adventure along with my common sense. There was no way I was going to go to Italy without visiting Naples. So, we incorporated Naples into an Amalfi Coast excursion from Rome and needless to say it was memorable.
Naples is the largest city in southern Italy and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is the capital of Campania, situated on the Gulf of Naples with Mount Vesuvius looming not too far.
Do I agree with the quote about “see Napoli and die”? Probably not. Perhaps it was true in the past, before its beauty gave in to the ravages of time and lack of resources, leaving historical architecture to languish in disrepair. Today some of the centro storico is covered with graffiti and crumbling structures, yet it is still magnificent in its own way, maintaining a proud aura of days gone by.
Say what you wish about it, but Naples is authentic. It vibrates with life. Old buildings, narrow alleyways, scooters flying by, hoards of people, laundry hanging, produce stands, fish market, would be opera performers belting out arias at every street corner, all intermingled in a pleasant disorder. It feels like an opera in the making and your head is spinning trying to take it all in.
Naples also has a scooter culture. There are scooters all over Italy for sure, but they seem to be used for transportation. Somehow in Naples it feels different, like a cultural scooter ritual. Early evening entire young families pile onto their scooters, Mom, Dad and a kid or two, and they go for a ride. They zip along the narrow streets, stop to talk to other families on scooters or pedestrians they know, sometimes parking and grabbing a snack or a gelato. They seem in total control of their scooters among the hoards of people on the street, and in my experience are very polite, stopping to allow you to cross and keeping enough of a distance so you are comfortable. The feature image of this post was taken by David Killick, a New Zealand photographer who captured the image during a recent visit to Naples. He wrote about his impressions here.
The best known food of Naples is without a doubt the pizza Napoletana but not every pizzaiolo in Naples can claim to be making real traditional pizza Napoletana. The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (association of true pizza Napoletana) was formed in the 1980s to protect the traditional character of the pizza through a stringent set of rules that ensure quality of production and adherence to tradition. The rules are a compilation of pizza making methods transmitted orally from generation to generation and finally encoded in a formal format by the association. They even provide an original ancient recipe on their website. Pizza Napoletana should be round at about 30-35 cm diameter, have a raised edge, puffy and without burns. The dough should be soft and elastic, stretched by hand (no tools or rolling pins allowed in the process) and of course, baked in a wood burning oven at a temperature of 430-480°C for about 60-90 seconds, no more. The preferred variety of tomatoes are San Marzano, Vesuvius pienolo (cluster tomatoes that were originally planted on the sloped of Mt. Vesuvius) or Corby. Beginning to sound overwhelming? the association offers intensive professional courses teaching the making of verace pizza Napoletana.
There are many places to have traditional pizza Napoletana in Naples. One of the famous pizzeria with a cult following of locals is Pizzeria Sorbillo on Via Tribunaly 32 in the centro storico. The place is immediately recognizable by the blue and white awning and the picture of the Pope in the Pope Mobile passing in front of the pizzeria. The Pope was passing there with his entourage on a state visit and someone snapped a picture of him waving in front of the pizzeria. There was a huge lineup when we were there and we are told the lineup is eternal but it does move fast. Give your name to the “bouncer” and he will call you when your turn comes. We must have been the only tourists there as we got preferential treatment: they called us in right away and we skipped the line but no one seemed to mind. The ground level was full so they sent us up the stairs to the second level, also large and completely full. We found our table and took a look at the menu that was in Italian only, no english version. That was not a problem as Italian is a food language and I could manage with it just fine. We looked at the pizza trays passed around by the servers and the pizzas were huge. I didn’t think I could finish one all by myself but no one was sharing a pizza. One person, one pizza, that seemed to be the rule. We ordered our pizzas and waited quite some time before it finally arrived. We didn’t mind as it was fascinating to watch the going on. Napoletanos eat their pizza with a fork and a knife, not by hand. We watched and learned and by the times our giant pizzas arrived we felt we could blend in quite well. Although the pizza was large and I was not famished, I managed the entire thing by myself. The crust was chewy and flavourful but maybe a little soft in the middle. The tomato sauce was packed with flavour and overall the pizza experience was memorable. It looked like we were the only foreigners there at the time (January, remember).
After pizza we walked through the centro storico which is rather compact and pleasantly chaotic and visited many of the ancient cathedrals and piazzas along the way before returning to our hotel to get ready for a late dinner. For dinner we picked an elegant restaurant, the Transatlantico Ristoranto Hotel on the water and explored that area on foot but it was rather quiet along the pier. It was fun to see the fishing boats bobbing on the evening currents and the city lights in the background.