The ideal I had of Naples when I booked a quick trip there was quite different to the reality which emerged after I’d paid for the flights and hotel. I had held a romantic image in my mind: the earthy informal capital of the Mezzogiorno; rich in history and architecture; the birthplace of the best pizzaiolos; the nexus of good food in Italy the association between Italy and good quality food. For me, the trip was going to be a secular pilgrimage for Italian cuisine, in particular pizza – most people will know that Naples is renowned for its pizza. And as a voracious pizza-lover, I was almost drooling at the prospect of sampling arguably the best pizza in the world several days in a row. Yum.
It was only afterwards that two Italians – one himself a Napoletano – independently told me to be careful in Naples, to watch my bag and belongings, to make sure the taxi drivers turn the meter on because they can try and take advantage of naive tourists. And my guide book also repeated warnings about the crime and economic poverty of the third largest city in Italy. So I panicked a bit and arrived on high alert, wondering whether I was going to have a good time.
The Guardian hearteningly calls out Naples as a worthy destination after a major clean-up effort (literally and metaphorically), and points to the stunning architecture and noteworthy sites as reasons to visit. And one thing is clear: no matter how gritty Naples may be, it’s a big fat pin in the foodie traveller’s trail.
The journey from the airport to the city centre was smooth (Alibaba bus, €4, see note below on practicalities). I arrived in the city centre at around 12pm. I stayed at the Hotel Il Convento in the Quarter Spagnioli, an area characterised by a tight-knit grid of narrow, cobbled streets. It’s centrally located, the perfect base to explore Naples. Due to the haphazard layout of the roads and ubiquitous roadworks, I need to ask for help in my non-existent Italian to find the hotel from the Molo Beverello Port bus stop, which turned out to be only minute away. It was noisy on the street outside my hotel window: Even at 10pm horns are beeping frequently outside, and tyres can be heard up and down the street. Housekeeping has left earplugs as standard issue next to the coffee tray. As I live on a relatively noisy street at home this is not unbearable for me, but I can see how it would irritate others.
My room was small (typical of 3-star European hotels), but for the very reasonable price and the convenient location (a minute away from Via Toledo, one of the main arterial roads in central Naples), it was just fine.
I head out to find food soon after: I’m starving after a long journey which started at 3.45am when I woke up. I am psyched for this trip and want to try everything: the Napoletano I met on the plane told me to try the coffee, the mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, and of course the pizza. I also read that Naples prides itself on its gelato and pastries, particularly the sfogliatelle (ricotta and almond cream baked into a crispy, layered pastry), so I add them to my list too.
It turns out a renowned pasticceria – Pintauro – is moments away from my hotel, so I go there for my initial energy boost. I should mention that I agreed with myself upfront that what happens in Italy stays in Italy, and I was going to eat and drink with complete and utter abandon.
I purchase a sfogliatella and step into the sunshine outside to take a bite. The pastry is crisp and explodes like shrapnel across my face and jacket, leaving a dusting of icing powder in its wake. It is a hefty for a pastry, and we’re not talking the Greggs kind either, and I need a coffee before I can proceed. My guidebook tells me there are some places which are institutions for good coffee, but my new Napoletano friend from the plane (his name is Francesco) informed me everywhere does good coffee, so I pop into a place called Augustus on Via Toledo and order an espresso. I note that I don’t need to order an ‘espresso’: ordering a ‘caffe‘ is by default an espresso. If you want a latte, you ask for a ‘caffe con latte‘. It arrives, and like the locals I stand at the bar and drink. Unlike the locals I take delicate sips of the potent bullet brew I’ve been given instead of downing it, and I have to add some sugar because it’s so strong. The Italians will always give you water with your coffee (good practice to neutralise the heat) and I gulp mine in one swift move. I notice that the coffee is strong but velvety, and I’m awake but not a buzzing wreck after drinking it, maybe because it was a tiny serving. I’m certainly more awake now and I can tackle the pastry, which is nice but to be honest not my thing: it’s got an orange flavour of which I’m not a fan. However, I’m on a roll: at this rate, I’ll be ticking off all the things on my Napoli food tasting list within the day.
I walk up Via Toledo and towards the two central roads of Via Tribunali and Via Deilibrai. I decide to sacrifice the site seeing and church crawling for a gastronomic trawl of the tiny streets: this trip is going to be led by the food and everything else will be secondary. Next on my list is gelato.
I stop at Gay Odin, which seems to be in all of the Best Gelato lists I’ve looked at. The flavours are certainly interesting – I see chestnut, caramel and almond, coffee and chocolate – but opt for a two-flavour combination of walnut and peanut and caramel. Again, I’m a little disappointed: this is not the best gelato I’ve had in either Italy or London, although the price is a winner (€2 for two scoops – gelato is cheap in Italy which means there is no deterrent against gluttony). Napoletanos, you talk a big game when it comes to gelato, but I’m not impressed yet. You better bring it in the next couple of days otherwise the northern Italian Venchi will remain untoppled from reigning position.
I decide to do some sightseeing in the Centro Storico, which beckons with its narrow, cobbled streets with flashes of buildings peeking out from behind numerous corners and under arches. I visit the Duomo, la Chiesa Santa Chiara, and Gesu Nuovo. It’s in the quiet chapel of Gesu Nuovo that I realise that I’m not enjoying myself because I’m apprehensive about my safety. I’ve been looking at every person like they’re a potential mugger, and I’m not relaxed; I’m surviving this trip. It’s not uncommon for me to talk to God in a church, and again in that moment I have a conversation with Him, ask for His protection, and decide to relax.
Navigating Naples is a nightmare. What looks like main streets on a map are often narrow, sometimes cobbled streets snaking under arches and around corners and hugging buildings without so much as a street name sign in sight. I’m looking into my guide book every 30 seconds, and I realise that I hate not knowing where I am and what’s around me. I question my own sense of adventure and accept that having my face down in my book means I’m not taking in what’s around me.
Dinner time is here, and the sense of anticipation is almost palpable: pizza! I decide on the almost unanimous favourite, Sorbillo, and hurry to be there for when it opens for dinner at 7pm so I don’t have to queue. I get seated straightaway at a communal table, and order a Bufala Margarita (one of the more expensive options at around Euro 8, which is still inexpensive in comparison to London). As I flick through my magazine, I overhear a conversation that has started between two other English-speaking tourists sitting next to me. They’re comparing abbreviated notes (I assume they don’t want to waste time when they have hot pizza in front of them) on the best pizza places in Naples. One of them says this place is the best one he’s found around here; it’s his second time. The other says he tried another pizza place earlier today (so this would be his second pizza of the day, kudos to him) and it was good. They start a small conversation where it’s clear their love of travel and food are carefully intertwined. One of them, I note with a slight pang of jealousy, has been travelling for the last couple of years and seems to have travelled all over the world. However, he says, eating pizza here means eating pizza anywhere else – even in the US with its pizza steeped in its own Italian-American history – will not be the same. They agree that it’s better to get here early otherwise the queue is too long. I wonder how many times they’ve been here, because they’re talking like seasoned pros. At one point I suspect one of them has travelled to Naples specially for the food, and I think, bravo! In the meantime, my pizza arrives and it is easily 1.5 times the length of my knife. When I tuck in, the dough is pillow soft and almost deflates under the harsh knock of the knife. I’m demolishing this beast and it is delicious.
Naples is clearly a recipient of gastronomic tourism. My newly acquainted table companions are still talking: the conversation takes off, but always hovers in the airspace of food. I am listening in because part of me is completely in tune with how they think and what they’re saying. They could easily eat another pizza, they say (OK, I couldn’t manage that). They plan their day according to how many meals they can eat. ‘A half day is two good meals.’
Pizza eaten, bills paid, they part in silence. I thought of joining the conversation properly but decided against it. Like most other diners in the place I was faced with the dilemma: talk or eat? Eating won.
My day came alive at this evening meal. It was the first time I’ve sat at a communal table and not felt exposed. I actually enjoyed it, flanked on one side by globe-trotting food tourists, and the other by a sweet Spanish doctor and his wife. After a pleasant conversation (my pizza took a hit), he parted with the words ‘you’re very interesting…I’m a psychiatrist’, which I took to mean I’m an intellectual Sphinx. Great pizza and self-elevation – what better way to mark my first night in Napoli?
I left the restaurant an hour later, and noted the crowd now gathered outside waiting for tables. Earlier is definitely better for the best pizza places here. The food tourists and I are in synch.
I stopped for a hot chocolate at a chain called Leopolds. Italian hot chocolate is a treat I wish I could stock up on because it’s very difficult to find anywhere else: in London, the couple of places that do it charge an inflated price for it, unlike in Italy.
This hot chocolate was not the best – it was a bit too heavy and cloying – but I’m pleased I departed from the guidebook and tried something out for myself. I have also concluded that the Rough Guide I’ve been using (11th edition) is quite tired and uninspiring for Naples; the Guardian and Culture Trip online guides are more exciting. I change my mind about not doing any deliberate sightseeing – I will.
I walk back to the hotel, and the main streets of Via Toledo and Via Tribunali are still teeming with people. I am unnerved by the casual chaos in which vehicular and pedestrian traffic interact with each other. It all appears to flow on a consistently high level of near-missed collisions as motorcycles and cars dash around junctions and weave around pedestrians, and pedestrians have to walk with purpose as they cross treacherous zebra crossings. I don’t know whether to look left or right first; it doesn’t seem to matter as the traffic comes from all directions. It would probably fall from the sky if it could. My summary thought on all of this is, ‘I could never bring my mother here!’
I have noticed throughout the day that a lot of men have been staring at me – about 80%. At first I thought it was because I was a solo female and maybe it’s odd that I’m walking around by myself, but that seemed unlikely. Then I thought I might have something on my face, like residual icing sugar from the pastry shrapnel. I was unsettled because the only time I get stared at by British men (mainly the white kind, but all backgrounds, really) is either when I’ve stepped in front of them on the road or one of us is blocking the other’s path on the tube. I’ve just accepted that maybe Italian men are more forward, and now I’m over the confusion of it I confess I quite like it. It’s nice to be noticed in an non-intrusive way, and by men who are generally better looking than the rest of the international male population.
I’m not in love with Naples yet but it’s only Day One. Who knows what the next couple of days will bring…?