Time moves slowly in Naples. Like in most of Italy, tradition is the backbone of everyday life; I imagine little has changed on the streets of Naples’ historic centre for a long time. Modern technological advances are obviously as present as anywhere in Western Europe, though underground trains only arrived in the 1990s, but one gets the sense that the Naples of 2016 is not too dissimilar from that of 1986, or 1966.
On first impression, four things rule daily life in Italy’s third-largest city, football, Catholicism, mopeds, and, most importantly, food. I spent one day in the sun-soaked capital of Campania, the northernmost of Italy’s southern regions, not enough to properly know a city, but enough to fall in love.
Stepping out of Toledo metro station, named for the main avenue that cuts through the centre, you are immediately transported back in time into an enchanting stereotype of Italy: shouting, narrow, dirty side streets, the elderly firmly rooted on roadside benches, graffiti, and speeding scooters. As with any beautiful city, there are many tourists, but they do not spoil the authenticity of the city, as can happen in other parts of Europe.
Tradition is evidently important to Neapolitans. In the Decumani area, to the east of Via Toledo, there are beautiful churches seemingly on every street. Personal highlights were the Basilica di Santa Chiara, originating in the fourteenth century, with an intriguing monastery at the back, and the Cappella Sansevero, a couple of minutes’ walk away, which houses the famous Veiled Christ sculpture, by the eighteenth-century Neapolitan Giuseppe Sanmartino.
Neapolitans also love their football, and their greatest hero, Diego Maradona, retains a striking presence, another symbol of a city that evolves at a snail’s pace. Every street store sells shirts bearing his name, and graffiti or street posters dedicated to the Argentinian are ubiquitous. Nostalgia is clearly an important aspect of Neapolitans’ lives.
Fortunately, for food-loving tourists, a day in Naples offers an opportunity to sample some of the many edible delights that originate in the beautiful city. Our mission, indeed the main factor in deciding to take the train journey down from our base in the countryside near Rome, was to experience the pleasure of a traditional Neapolitan pizza. First, however, it was time for breakfast.
Italian breakfasts are very different from what we are accustomed to in England, sweet rather than savoury. In Italy, though, breakfast means sweet pastries, many of which are very tasty. On recommendation, we headed to Gran Caffè Gambrinus, a historic, grand café founded in 1860, and chose the sfogliatella, along with a coffee, of course. The sfogliatella was beautifully cooked, several layers of crispy pastry, similar to filo, with a sweet, fruity filling. Although unsure what the filling consisted of, it was very good. While there may be better pastry shops across the city, Gambrinus is an interesting option for those seeking a historic location. The imposing rear dining room resembles a Viennese coffee house.
The next few hours were spent visiting the magnificent churches, monasteries and basilicas, time to work up an appetite for Naples’ main party piece, the pizza. Legend has it that the pizza was created by Greeks who founded the city, pizza being a linguistic distortion of pita, a theory I choose to believe. Whatever the provenance, the modern pizza is truly a Neapolitan speciality, and the Neapolitan pizza was safeguarded as a Traditional Speciality Guaranteed dish by the EU in 2009. There is even an association dedicated to ensuring the city’s pizzerias serve their pizzas in proper fashion, I assume its called the Pizza Police. Clearly, pizza matters in Naples.
Prior to our trip to Naples, we were recommended two pizzerias, Pizzeria i Decumani and, Pizzeria Da Attilio, both unfortunately closed on Mondays. On Via Pignasecca, however, just north of the Spanish Quarter to the left of Via Toledo, we spotted an authentic looking pizzeria, Pizzeria Al 22, founded in 1936. Choosing this restaurant was arguably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, it would hardly be an exaggeration to state that it was a life-changing experience.
The key to choosing a good restaurant abroad is simple. A dining room packed with locals is pretty much the crucial factor, every thing else plays second fiddle. Al 22 was predominantly occupied by locals, with non-English speaking waiting staff, another good sign. In the front room lies the huge wood-fired oven, the most important part of the restaurant given the most prominent location, yet another good sign. In the back lie two small, cramped dining rooms.
One thing I noticed on arrival was that most Italians went for the simple Margherita, for reasons I was soon to discover. The pizza menu was varied, with several choices, but we settled for the Margherita and a Margherita with salami, costing a very reasonable €5 each. Within ten minutes we received two perfectly created works of art to rival any of Sanmartino’s sculptures. The first bite was one of those rare moments, usually reserved for a perfectly cooked steak, where you stop and gasp at the flavour of what you have just consumed. For anyone unfamiliar with the Neapolitan pizza, unlike its thinner sister the Pizza Romana, more commonly found in England, its crusts are thick and its dough chewy. Those who’ve eaten at Franco Manca in London will know the drill. In Naples, however, the pizza is at another level, down to the quality of the local produce. While I had the salami pizza, the Margherita was a touch better, the flavour of the tomato and mozzarella shone without the overpowering, though excellent, salami. When it comes to Neapolitan pizza, less is most certainly more. Together with wine and water, the meal cost under €20; a better meal surely cannot be had in the finest of restaurants.
After lunch we strolled around the chaotic Via Pignasecca, which houses a vibrant market, sadly closing for the afternoon, and had a coffee at one of the several local coffee bars (80 cents for an espresso!). The rest of the afternoon was spent sightseeing, culminating in the interesting Castel dell’Ovo. Legend has it that Roman poet Virgil put an egg underneath the castle upon construction, hence the name. Should it break, Naples will be doomed (Naples is situated precariously close to Mount Vesuvius, the mountain that destroyed Pompeii in AD 79).
We were not able to try any more of the local delicacies, except for a disappointing pistachio ice cream, as we were having dinner back with our friends in the countryside of Lazio. Anyone who’s eaten with an Italian family knows they must arrive with an empty stomach. On the plus side, however, this means I am even more keen to return to Naples, which is also famed for its fish, seafood and pasta dishes, though I will probably end up eating pizza at every chance.