On Saturday I woke up, headed to the train station with a friend and took a two-hour train ride to Naples, where we ate a pizza and some pastries before declaring our mission complete and returning home.
Let me start off by saying this: Naples hits you hard, and it hits you almost as soon as you step out of the relative calm of the train station. When you’re looking for words to describe this city, skip right past the typical list of adjectives that you’d have at the ready for most European cities – “charming”, “romantic”, or “picturesque” just isn’t going to cut it here – and continue on until you reach “chaotic”, because this – complete and utter chaos – is probably the most accurate and concise description of Naples that you can possibly come up with.
Within three minutes of leaving the train station, we had nearly been run down by a bus. A few metres later, we hit an intersection so unnerving that I stepped off the curb, took two steps out into the street, saw my life flash in front of my eyes as a pack of cars and scooters surged towards me, and jumped back up onto the curb. Living in Rome, I like I think I know how to navigate a busy crosswalk without getting flattened – after all, the streets here aren’t exactly what I would call calm. But Naples? Naples was a different story altogether. The roadways of Naples were like anarchy in action, where red lights meant nothing and traffic police wielding woefully ineffective little red signs on sticks were working harder at dodging the traffic than they were at directing it.
Other than avoiding becoming Neapolitan road kill, our first mission in the city (and we had only two missions for the day, both of them relating to – what else – food) was to find Pasticceria Attanasio. This turned out to be easier said than done after the dense web of streets and a malfunctioning map led us down one wrong alley after another, past fruit stands and doorways framing old men as they peered suspiciously out at the street until finally, after circling around the exact same area maybe two or three times, we spotted a small shop on a nondescript side street; the kind of shop that we would have walked right past had it not been for the crowd of people – real Naples residents, not tourists – huddled around the entrance clutching pastries and the heavily perfumed air rushing out the door.
We walked in, fought our way through the crowd to the counter, and emerged a few minutes later with a small box drooping under the weight of the pastries inside and already spotted with grease from the lard – yes, lard, because here they just don’t think about things like making a lighter pastry – in the dough. A word on the pastries of Naples: They mean business. There’s nothing even remotely subtle about them. If you’re looking for delicate cakes or oh-so-slightly sweetened confections, you’ve probably come to the wrong city altogether. What they do here are flavour-bombs, but they do them so well. We ate sfogliatelle, little shell-shaped pockets of intensely sweet orange-spiked ricotta cream wrapped in layer after layer of pastry, while standing on a street corner, crumbs cascading down around us, but saved the babà, mushroom-shaped cakes absolutely drenched to the point of near-drunkenness in rum, for a slightly more civilized location.
And then, still licking the crumbs off of our fingers, we headed out in search of the pizzeria.
I’m aware that we did this in the wrong order. That the pizza is supposed to come first, that you’re not supposed to wash the pastries down with two frothy cappuccinos and then arrive at the doorstep of one of the most famed pizzerias in the world already semi-full, and certainly fully hyped up on sugar, but this was just the way things happened to work out that day.
So we walked into Da Michele, which for all its fame and following looks entirely nondescript both inside and out, and took a seat at a little table right next to two dark-haired guys who were already three-quarters of the way through their pizzas and shoving the remaining portion into their mouths fast enough that it looked like they were afraid it might otherwise evaporate. The pizzeria was tiny: A handful of tables, white and green tiles on the walls, a few faded pictures hanging here and there, and then the pizza oven dominating the back of the restaurant. Two guys were making pizza after pizza at a pace that suggested years of non-stop pizza-making experience: A young guy arranged the dough and the toppings, then an old man in a white lab coat carefully tugged at the edges of the dough, frowning down on the pizza before nodding at the young guy, who shoved a paddle under the pizza and deposited it into the oven in one smooth swoop.
This was not the type of pizzeria that offers its customers a long list of topping permutations and combinations. The menu was a single small sheet of paper nailed to the wall, and there were exactly three choices: Pizza margarita, pizza margarita con doppia mozzarella, and pizza marinara. When my pizza (double mozzarella, obviously, because there are some things you just don’t skimp on) was deposited in front of me, it was covered in wonderfully melted blobs of cheese sitting amongst just the right amount of tomato sauce, and two small sprigs of basil that almost looked like they were added as an afterthought – although somehow, miraculously, the entire pizza tasted subtly, perfectly, like basil. And then there was the crust: Thin in the centre, doughy around the edges, stretchy, delicately charred, heavenly. I’ve always believed that the mark of a truly good pizza is the crust, and here was the proof: The taste, somehow, was so much more than the sum of flour, water and salt.
Forty-five minutes later, we staggered out of the pizzeria – after all that dough and cheese it was getting difficult to walk in a straight line, and the beer we’d washed it down with certainly wasn’t making movement any easier – and stumbled through the city’s historic centre, which was already in a full-on holiday season frenzy. Spaccanapoli, the oddly straight street that splices its way through the decidedly un-straight streets of the city, was packed with Neapolitans (wearing winter coats, despite warm temperatures) out for a passeggiata, venders selling elaborate nativity scenes, venders selling fried food, and vendors selling… well, everything. When we stopped for a break on a bench in a large piazza in front of a church covered with imposing grey stone spikes (even the churches in Naples have a certain attitude to them), a lady sat down on the next bench and offered us chocolate before inquiring about our visit to Naples and insisting that we saw the sea before leaving. On one of the side streets, a group of middle-aged men were gathered around a small chess table, staring down at it with the kind of intensity you’d expect to see reserved for a soccer game. On another side street, two boys who couldn’t have been a day over eleven years old (but were clearly already well-trained in the art of wreaking havoc) piloted a scooter straight up a one-way street, scattering pedestrians.
The impression that the city leaves on you is one of madcap disorganization, with its washing lines criss-crossing between the buildings and everyone’s bedsheets and underwear flapping over the city like flags while weathered old men shout to each other in dialect from their balconies and beat-up vintage vespas with entire families on board backfire as they weave from one end of the city to the other. And after a few hours of wandering around the city and soaking up its personality before heading back to the train station, I couldn’t tell you whether I loved it or hated it, but I was certainly convinced that it was alive, buzzing as much with its own energy as it was with the engines of the thousands of scooters hurtling through its streets.