A few Saturdays ago, at 7:30am, I found myself sitting on a Frecciarossa train as it streaked towards Naples; Lazio blurring into Campania as green hills flashed by. I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet – just a quick cappuccino downed in the train station – and the edges of my mind still felt heavy with sleep, but I was already contemplating the pizza I would be eating for lunch and the sfogliatelle that would precede it, as one does during a spontaneous, food-motivated day trip to Naples.
This would be my third such trip to the city (early train in, whirlwind morning and afternoon, collapse back onto train), not counting the times I’ve passed through on the way to Ischia or Procida. Logic suggests that I shouldn’t really like Naples – it’s chaotic, it’s grubby, it makes you clutch your purse a little bit closer and peer down empty streets with a smidgen of suspicion, as though all of its stereotypical evils might manifest themselves right there in front of you – and yet I do like it, enough that I keep feeling drawn back rather than pushed away by the raw, rough-around-the-edges energy of the place. And the fact that the city is bursting at the seams with pizza, with all manners of deep-fried things being sold on nearly every street and bakeries every few steps offering plump sfogliatelle and drippy babà in little glass display cases shoved out onto the sidewalk… well, this only helps win points in the city’s favour.
On the train, I had sketched out a rough itinerary for the day. First, sfogliatelle, back-to-back, from two bakeries just a few blocks from each other. Both bakeries don’t look like much – one has spectacularly tacky curvaceous orange plastic accents, straight out of the seventies, and the other is on a dim, grimy little side street so close to the train station that it practically vibrates with the parting trains – but both are also excellent at what they do, which is primarily sfogliatelle calde, traditional pastries laden with sweet, orange-laced ricotta and little bits of candied citrus peel, served warm, when they are at their absolute best. It is probably ill-advised to eat two in rapid succession – they pack the caloric punch of an entire meal – but I did anyhow, in the name of research. To begin understand the culture of Naples, I reasoned, I had to also understand its food.
From this point, heavy with ricotta and buzzing with a sudden sugar high, I made my way past the train station and down the street until it widened into Piazza Nolana, the starting point of one of the city’s most well-known markets. The whole thing bleeds out from the dingy square in the shadow of a medieval city gate where a rough grid of tables sag under piles of knockoff jeans and boxes of no-label underwear, with cheap, luridly coloured dresses and scarves twisting and flapping on their hangers as a brisk wind slices its way under a makeshift roof of umbrellas. It would be understandable if you were to wander right past this piazza without stopping, assuming that there was nothing interesting on offer. I almost did. But through the dark grey arch of the old city gate, past a few sharp-faced guys selling mobile phones of suspicious origins on an overturned cardboard box, the street heaves with food.
Some cities have neatly contained indoor markets with glossy storefronts and carefully stacked produce. Others have street markets that manage to maintain a sense of control and relative order even without a roof overhead. The Porta Nolana market is not contained, controlled or ordered in any sense of the words. It’s exuberant; undefined. The pescherie – there are so many of them that they almost merge together – spill out towards the centre of the road, clams gurgling in shallow basins, fish fanned out over ice, the tentacles of a still-alive octopus exploring the confines of a plastic bucket. Water sloshes everywhere; the paving stones are treacherous, slick as ice, the city’s dangerous side manifesting itself in an unexpected way. There are guys selling vegetables off of makeshift stands constructed from stacked-up packing crates, off of tarps on the street and towels spread over dusty car hoods and out of tiny little three-wheeled trucks. As I wove my way through the chaos, camera in hand, the vendors would look up, assess the situation – tourist, not here to buy dinner – then go back to weighing artichokes or scooping clams into bags.
Even well beyond the borders of the market, the streets of Naples overflow with food. Wandering through the infamous and infinitely fascinating warren of narrow streets that make up the Quartieri Spagnoli, I came across little stalls selling fruit and vegetables, shop windows crammed with packages of pasta or proudly displaying various cuts of tripe (artfully suspended among lemons and lurid green plastic foliage), and bakeries with their back doors propped wide open, flour-covered bakers kneading a mound of dough into submission while shouting in indecipherable Neapolitan accents. Every once in a while, the smell of garlic and slowly-cooking onions with something intensely meaty would seep around a corner and wrap itself around me before dissipating in the breeze; a few more steps would bring a whiff of overused cooking oil with undertones of something sticky sweet.
Most of Naples is not traditionally beautiful. When you see it for the first time, it feels jarring, completely at odds with visions of Italy as an elegant, refined place. Everything looks like it has a century’s worth of grime caked into it. Everything looks like it could potentially fall apart at any moment. Balconies appear to be drooping, palazzi shed their coloured stucco exteriors in flakes and fist-sized chunks, and half of the cars parked along the streets look like they’ve come from another decade. When I first visited, I could hardly see past the graffiti and the shabby storefronts. Surely, I thought, this is not the Naples that people love.
But then, walking around, I started to feel like I had stumbled across something secret. Laundry – sheets, towels, underwear; little peeks into someone’s private life – flapped overhead, strung from nearly every balcony along the narrow streets. Little old ladies, half hidden in the shadows, peered out of windows. Doors to ground-level apartments were open – quick glimpses inside, tiny kitchens and men smoking in front of outdated televisions, lives lived halfway on display – and arched entrances to quiet courtyards beckoned. Cars and motorini hurtled fearlessly around blind corners, urging pedestrians out of the way with sharp taps on the horn. The city started to feel, to me, like a little slice of Italy that couldn’t care less what you thought of it, that forgot that tourism might be important. And it was exactly that indifference that made Naples so thoroughly fascinating, so attractive in spite of itself. Well, that and the pizza.
By this time it was nearly noon, and I had made my way up from the Quartieri Spagnoli to Via dei Tribunali, a long, straight street slicing its way through the historic centre of the city. The street is well-known for a number of reasons, one of which – possibly the most important – is the number of pizzerie clustered along it. There is a pizzeria every few metres, some looking homey and cozy inside, others crammed full of cheap tables and starkly lit by fluorescent tubes, and all offering subtle variations on the same menu. I was intent on eating at one in particular, Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo, the same one I had enjoyed so much during my last trip to Naples. This also happened to be one of the places that draws a sizeable crowd before it opens, a hungry swarm of Napolitani squeezing themselves closer and closer to the tightly closed doors as noon approaches.
I ordered the margherita, classic, no messing around with variations on the cheese or additional toppings. Just the crust – the most pillowy, light, perfectly crisp crust imaginable – topped with tomato sauce and scattered with mozzarella, a single basil leaf, almost an afterthought, wilting into the cheese. It’s terribly cliché to describe food in extreme hyperbole – life-changing, near-religious-experience, perfection in food form – but this pizza was, without a doubt, one of the best things I had eaten in a long time. Beyond this, there is very little that I can say about the pizza; it disappeared quickly. When I left the pizzeria the crowd outside the door had grown larger still, buzzing impatiently and blocking at least half of the street.
From that point on, the day took on an almost-blurred quality, a carbohydrate coma hitting hard and settling in for the afternoon. There was a long walk along the waterfront, Vesuvius looming in the background, and a wander through the Chiaia neighbourhood, so clean and upscale that it felt startlingly incongruous with the rest of the city. There was a prolonged coffee break, a single espresso nursed over the course of fifteen minutes, and then – when I felt like I couldn’t possibly walk any farther – a metro back to the train station, where I collapsed happily onto a Frecciarossa train for the second time that day and watched Naples slip away out the window, Campania blurring back into Lazio as green hills flashed by.