I recently spent nearly five days in Naples. It was my first time there, but with any luck it won’t be my last. Of the expectations I had, some were confirmed (great pizza), others debunked (less squalid and dirty than I thought it would be). In many ways it reminded me of the Italian town with which I’m most familiar: Genova. It’s an old port with a ramshackle central quarter full of narrow, dark winding alleyways which are great fun to wander, good seafood, and some great scenery close by. But let’s break this down into numbered points, shall we?
Naples claims to be the home of pizza and, more specifically, of the Margherita pizza. I was very slightly sceptical about their claims to make the best pizza in the world. Just because you did it first doesn’t mean you do it best, and I’ve had great pizza all over Italy and beyond, but I was willing to give them a chance. Some places are more traditional and stringent than others, and offer only the two old recipes margherita or marinara. Marinara is just topped with garlic and oregano, and as far as I’m concerned no cheese = not a pizza, so I wasn’t going to let “authenticity” concerns hold me back. Our first visit was to a place called Brandi, which has a plaque outside asserting that the margherita was “born” there in 1889.
My wife ordered one of those:
while I went for one topped with sausage meat and broccoli leaves.
You notice at once certain characteristics of Neapolitan pizzas: they’re thin, slightly soggy in the middle, and have a pretty thick, gummy border. I tend to prefer just a little more crunch in my crust, but I didn’t let this put me off and finished it all (I’ve never understood people who leave the crust on their plate).
The other place we tried was also pretty famous, and pretty busy, but we managed to beat the queues by arriving as soon as they opened at 7pm (Italians would eat later than that). Sorbillo’s is slightly less venerable than some other Neapolitan pizzerias, being less than 100 years old, but it’s still one of the best regarded. It has impeccable credentials in the sense that it’s recognised as a Slow Food establishment, and they’re involved with Amnesty International (hosting meetings, and you can order an Amnesty pizza as a way of donating to them). Here’s part of the menu.
And here’s what I ordered: topped with ‘nduja (soft, spreadable, spicy southern Italian salami) and cacioricotta cheese (harder and more mature than normal ricotta. All I can say really is that it’s probably the best pizza I’ve ever eaten.
If you want a more comprehensive overview I recommend this post, in which one guy ate at 12 pizzerias in Naples in the space of 24 hours.
2. Fried pizza (and fried food in general)
For some reason Neapolitans love fried food. I’ve never seen this many chip shops in Italy before. Not that they approach British or Belgian levels, but they’re pretty common. And they deep fry all kinds of things. Even so, I was shocked to find out that they also deep fry pizza, which sounds like the kind of thing you’d find in a place like Glasgow, alongside deep fried Mars bars. But no, it’s a thing here, so of course we had to try it. We went to a pizzeria called Dal Presidente, which is known for specialising in this stuff. Like many Neapolitan restaurants the walls are plastered with photos of visiting celebrities. Many of these are unrecognisable unless you know a lot about Italian TV or music, but there was a picture of Bill Clinton. The US president visited during the G7 meeting held here in 1994, and the restaurant was renamed in his honour. In fact we saw photos of Clinton in almost every eatery we visited in Naples, which makes you think he did nothing but eat the whole time he was here.
We started our meal with a selection of other fried nibbles, including the quite well-known arancini (rice and various other savoury ingredients in a doughy fried ball).
That was already pretty filling, so we were somewhat dismayed to see the size of the fried pizza (one to share between the two of us) when it arrived. Fortunately a lot of that was air, and it deflated in front of us.
It was filled with ricotta and little slivers of pork (“cicioli”), and in spite of being deep fried it wasn’t heavy or greasy. Still something of an acquired taste, perhaps, but I’m glad we tried it.
Coffee is another of those things where you could be forgiven for thinking “Well they have that all over Italy. Do I have to go specifically to Naples?”. But it’s different in Naples, you see. Not in every bar, but if you choose the right one they’ll prepare it in a special way. The coffee here is stronger, so they often assume you’ll need sugar in it, and you have to ask for it “amaro” (bitter) if you don’t want it sweetened. And if you do want it sweet, rather than just giving you some sugar to add yourself, they’ll often prepare a bowl with a creamy mixture of sugar and coffee which is then spooned on top of the espresso where it sits, like a syrupy topping.
And if you’re stopping for a coffee you should probably also have a sfogliatella, which is a typical Neapolitan pastry made of many ruffled layers and filled with ricotta.
Yes, we did manage to get some culture in Naples in between face-stuffing activities. There are any number of churches and arty artifacts to gawp at, but if you only have time for one you must go to the Cappella Sansevero. This is the one which contains the amazing “Veiled Christ” sculpture, made out of a single lump of marble. No photography is allowed inside so the photo below is from the official website, which is richly illustrated and full of information about the chapel and its creator Raimondo di Sangro. The picture doesn’t really do justice to the delicacy and realism of the sculpture, and the chapel is also decorated with several other stunningly realistic and intricate statues. And if you’re there make sure you go down into the basement to see the creepy “anatomical machines“, which are basically real skeletons with fully preserved circulatory systems. No one knows quite how they managed to make these with mid-18th century techniques, but they’re very impressive. I was so impressed I bought the souvenir bookmark.
While we’re talking about religious knick-knacks, Naples has a thing about “presepi“, or Nativity scenes. Again, you see these all over Italy, but they’re bigger and more elaborate here, with whole shops (sometimes whole streets) dedicated to enormous displays of dioramas and figures ranging from Lego-scale to Barbie-scale.
I saw this one outside a workshop in a side street. Obviously it will be painted later, but I quite like the monochrome look.
5. Via Toledo
Naples is great for people-watching, and Via Toledo, one of the main shopping streets, is a great spot (or strip) for it. The best time to go may be early in the evening, as everyone comes out for a leisurely stroll before going out (or home) to eat. I saw a lot of memorable and interesting faces and once again felt the urge to take my camera out and photograph them, but various practical problems would prevent that. I also thought of buying a GoPro camera, mounting it on my head or chest and just walking along the street, filming the people I passed. Again, I can think of several obvious reasons why that’s a bad idea.
Via Toledo is also a good spot for one of Naples’ less obvious (to me, anyway) shopping opportunities: shirts. This area has long been known for its gents’ tailoring, and it’s one of the few places in the world where I’ve seen almost as many menswear shops as there are for women. I ended up buying six shirts, which is almost unprecedented for me. That’s all my clothes shopping done for the rest of the decade, barring accidents.
The island of Capri is a short boat ride away from Naples’ port. One of the main attractions on Capri is the Blue Grotto, so imagine our disappointment upon arrival at the port when we were told that the grotto was closed that day because of rough seas (they weren’t that rough, but the entrance to the grotto is small so I guess they have to be careful). So instead we just wandered the town and sat on the cliffs looking at the view, which was quite pleasant enough. Capri seems to be something of a celebrity magnet. Everywhere we went there were signs boasting that a certain hotel or restaurant had been visited by Pablo Neruda, Churchill, Lenin. The restaurants in particular had a much more impressive visitor photo display thatn most of the places back in Naples, with the likes of Beyonce, Spielberg, Springsteen, and Stallone prominently featured. We had lunch in the place with a photo of Nicolas Cage.
7. Vesuvius and Pompeii
We took a combined day trip (there are plenty of companies offering this) to these two related sights, which are only a short drive south east of the city. The Pompeii complex is far larger than I imagined, and we spent an enjoyable couple of hours wandering around looking at ruined (and not so ruined) buildings.
The partial remains of murals, mosaics and statuary were especially interesting and evocative.
I mean, look how engrossed by it all these British school kids are!
The Romans may have been good at building straight roads, but they were less successful at making them flat.
It’s not far from there to the car park halfway up the slopes of Vesuvius. In the background of this shot you can see where the lava flowed down the hill during the 1944 eruption.
Then you just have to walk another twenty minutes to reach the summit.
Don’t ask me for any details about the volcano. When it comes to vulcanology I’m something of an igneoramus.
Unfortunately the day we were there it was cloudy so the famed view across the bay towards Naples looked something like this:
But if you want to see across the rooftops of the town you can do it from within Naples itself. Take the funicular railway from near the top of Via Toledo up to the Vomero district, and from there you can see the whole city laid out before, and a cloud-obscured Vesuvius in the distance.
It’s obviously a popular spot to sit and have a drink, judging from the amount of discarded bottles on the nearby rooftop at bottom right…
Lots more photos in the flickr album. Go take a look.