I had three goals for the three days spent in Naples over the August holiday long weekend: visit Pompeii, have some of the best real Neapolitan pizza … and not get my purse snatched by motorbike mafioso thieves. Mission accomplished, and more!
Besides those short-term goals, I actually have a long-term goal connected with Naples: my villa. There is really and truly only one thing in life I’m sure of. One day, hopefully sooner than much later, I’m going to have my villa, a rustic and spacious home away from home where friends and family can come, spend anywhere from a few days to months, eating amazing food, drinking fabulous wine and chatting amongst wonderful company (oh and there will be a pool boy). It’ll happen, the tessera is working on it.
I’ve always thought this villa will be on the Amalfi coast, returning to my much beloved Italy, which captured my heart many moons ago during my semester abroad there, drawing me back time and time again. While I know from Rome northwards decently well, the South of the boot has remained a bit of mystery to me so I figured I should start scoping out the area. I most likely have years to get know it before I could actually even afford a rundown farmhouse, yet there was also a lot to discover. Naples was therefore a natural first stop on this gradually geographic exploration of the region.
Exiting the Naples Stazione Centrale around 1 pm on famous Ferragosto (one of Italy’s favorite holidays, August 15th, Assumption, “the date” when the Virgin Mary entered Heaven), I was first struck by the heat, then salvaged by a gust of sea breeze only to be leveled again by the construction mess eyesore of the vast square in front of the station. Chaos, here I come.
I’d looked up how to get to my hotel on the safe confines of the train and was determined not to pull out my map to get there. Okay, sure, my suitcase was a dead giveaway that I was a “traveller,” but I didn’t want to be pegged as a vulnerable, potential theft victim. I was most definitely being too paranoid, but Naples has a notorious reputation for petty crime and I didn’t want my new ten-year passport stolen. Purse firmly clutched and secured with an additional secret strap around my chest, other hand tightly gripping my wheely suitcase, off I traipsed around the disastrous Garibaldi square. After a few blocks, I lowered my guard, a tiny bit. There were barely any scooters scooting around, maybe the thieves had taken Ferragosto off and were lounging around on the beach? I did pay close attention to my bag for the rest of the weekend, thankfully I wasn’t put in any dire Neapolitan straits and I managed to keep hold of my passport to get me back to Paris and was even stopped several times by non-purse seeking Italians asking for directions.
I knew I was going to like Naples, mainly because I “wanted” to. I would have to like the main city near my future villa, wouldn’t I? Imaginary villa aside, I was deeply fascinated by the city’s rich history; ancient, golden age and contemporary, all of which I was eager to absorb. I did expect Naples to be a bit rundown, it was a little more Beirut-y than I’d thought it would be, but as I wandered the winding maze of the historic center, it was the tag graffiti that stood out to me as more detrimental to the cityscape than the crumbling buildings. Nevertheless, I turned this con into a pro, finding some fleeting expressions of amore here and there.
Some of the surroundings of the city are actually supposed to be in “ruin,” which brings us to Pompeii. Even though I knew it would be busy, and that I might be better off going to the lesser known Herculaneum, I couldn’t skip out on this legendary archaeological site on my first visit. Luckily I’d put in an order with the tessera and at the last minute I got to go on a free tour through work, the city frozen in time coming to life with the wisdom of our expert. It turned out to not be too busy (or maybe that was thanks to Maria Laura’s deft navigation around) and I probably could have spent all day exploring the lanes imagining the lives of the fated inhabitants … if I didn’t have to go back to Naples for an important appointment linked to the last of my missions.
Everyone keeps saying that the best pizza in the world is found in Naples and I (or rather my taste buds) wanted to verify this claim. I have to admit that I did eat four pizzas over my 2.75 days, of course, all in the sake of research. On this, my second day, I was meeting a friend from Milan whose family was from the Campania region which surrounds Naples and thus she has eaten thousands of pizzas during her annual summertime visits to the area, a naturally authoritative voice as to what makes a great pizza. She put it down to the quality of the ingredients, the yeast, how long the dough rises, how to handle it etc, which boils down to know-how, and thus the reason why it’s hard to reproduce truly excellent and authentic pizza elsewhere, though, I agree, this feat is not impossible, you can get delicious pizza elsewhere, it just might not be “Verace Pizza Napoletana”. We will come back to this particular lunch later.
Back in Rome, I’d sourced some of my foodie friends, local Napoletans, anyway I’d spoken to who knew Naples well to come equipped with a few specific addresses to try. Sadly the ones top on most of their lists (Sorbillo, Da Michele and Di Matteo) were all closed (well, the latter was closing when we arrived), so I was a little restricted, nevertheless, I had some amazing pizza, my favorite being my first. Now, I really don’t think it was because it was the first I’d tried and thus my palate was being initiated to the local dish’s splendors, that particular pizza was an outstanding, mouth-watering delight. It was flipped and prepared at Donna Sophia, a recommendation not from the avid foodies but from my friendly hotel clerk, always good to have a real local suggestion. I had the basic margherita with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. The dough was perfect, the right texture between fluffy and chewy, the sauce was so flavorful and the cheese was the divine, the “cherry on the top” even in the form of a mini mozzarella ball.
The first day I got there I was taking my pizza challenge with full gusto and actually had TWO pizzas in one day, though in this specific case I have no shame for having a days’ worth of meals of pizza and beer (yet it will be the last!). My evening’s pizza was had at one of my original recommendations, the Trianon da Ciro, a famous historic pizzeria located across from Da Michele, and my backup for the latter being closed. The place is huge on three floors buzzing with an authentic atmosphere, about 70/30 locals vs tourists. I had plenty of entertainment while enjoying my gigantic certified Napoli pizza, the other tables lined with rowdy families either with their screaming babies or their sequined-topped, short-shorted teens or sometimes I wasn’t sure if the teens were the moms of the babies… Back to the pizza, at first I didn’t like it as much as Donna Sophia’s, I’d fallen in love with her sauce and the dough. Here it was the crust was more sculpted and harder and a little burnt, this turned out to be an advantage as it added a special je ne sais quoi flavor.
After my following two pizzas, the Trianon’s was easily #2. The third I won’t talk too much about. My previously mentioned Italian friend and I had just missed Di Matteo as they were closing for their lunch break, so we ended up in a non-recommended place, just not quite the same… though my friend enjoyed her Marinara pizza.
For my last pizza, I took up another suggested from my referral list (since Di Matteo was closed, this time since it was Sunday… ). This was I Decumani, and while it was tasty, Donna Sophie had stolen my heart (and my stomach), at least until I come back for Matteo or Michele as long as they aren’t on holiday again, lounging on the beach next to the pickpockets… next to Pompeii.
All in all, the highlight of my trip might have been this fancy-tessera like machine I found in my hotel’s elevators. Could my wishes be granted with only a dime with the elevator transporting me wherever I wanted to go? Straight to the villa per favore!
If you’re craving to explore the real Naples and delve a little deeper, have a look at the small group and private tours offered by Context Travel.