My father had warned me not to visit Naples. He said they would steal my wallet and told me a story he’d heard from a friend who’d had his bag stolen as the straps were cut by someone speeding past on a motorcycle. I remember heeding my father’s words and rushing through the Naples train station on the way to the Amalfi Coast years ago, clutching my bags, trying not to meet anyone’s eye.
In more recent times and having fallen madly in love with Sicily, I hadn’t considered going to Naples as my trips to Italy are already split between so many beautiful places. And I love re-visiting a place I love so I didn’t think I could add another to my already long list. But when my friend Carolyna went there earlier this year and raved about it, posting one beautiful photo after another on Instagram, I started thinking that I might be missing out. Really, I didn’t always do what my father told me to do (or did the complete opposite particularly as a rebellious teenager), so why hadn’t I visited Naples yet?
The opportunity presented itself when I was doing a bit of research on the food people eat in the bars and the streets of Italy. I was chatting to Holly and Gianluca from restaurant Michel’angelo in Capri at a cooking class I ran in November and Gianluca, who has spent a lot of time in Naples, strongly recommended I go there. He said that it wasn’t as dangerous as its reputation, if you avoided going to places that were dark and empty, and were always alert, like you should be in any large city. And he explained that Naples is all about street food, giving me tips on where to visit and what to eat. So I booked my train ticket and accomodation, staying in a private room in an Air BnB apartment in the historic centre. My hosts Gloria and Roberto were generous to a fault and passionate about their great city. They spent time poring over the city map with me and marking places I should go. Each day, camera in hand and money belt in place, I went walking for hours, avoiding many of the large tourist traps and sticking to the lesser known streets and areas.
The funny thing about being in Naples in December is that in spite of it being cold, everyone was on the streets. Both in the historic centre and in the Spanish Quarter off via Toledo where I spent most of my time, people seem to love being outdoors. Shops spilled out onto narrow streets with display trolleys full of goods being wheeled out daily. Street markets selling clothing, gifts and food filled the narrow streets making it impossible for anyone apart from a seasoned napoletano to squeeze past in a car. Fishmongers displayed fresh fish and shellfish in wide tubs of seawater, perching the tubs on colourful milk crates on the street. This town seemed to thrive from the outdoors, even in winter. It was loud, bustling and full of life.
And the food of course was incredible. I visited the historic pasticceria Scaturchio, the oldest in Naples, and the queue to pay the cashier before purchasing anything snaked out into the piazza. The napoletani love sweets and there are the local speciality sfogliatelle for sale on every corner. There are two types: ricce that have layers of thin filo-like pastry fanned out on top of the little cake; and frolle with a thin layer of sweet shortcrust pastry. Both have the same filling – sweet ricotta with candied citrus peel and can generally be bought warm. There is debate as to whether you are a ricce or a frolle fan – the general consensus I believe from talking to locals is that you cannot be both. There are also plenty of baba al rhum and pastiere for sale on the street, both a speciality of Naples.
Then there was pizza, you have to eat pizza in Naples. Naples is the queen of pizza. I found pizzeria Brandi in the Spanish Quarter and read the plaque out the front stating that they invented pizza Margherita when the Queen of Savoy came to Naples in the late 1800s. A lot of people had the same idea as me as they were milling in the narrow laneway, waiting for a table. I didn’t have time to wait but knew I had to eat pizza at least once whilst here. On the day that I went to the archeological museum to see the works of art from Pompeii, I walked past one of those display trolleys that are wheeled out of shops. It was in front of a pizzeria and there were rows of pizzas for sale – with a tomato topping and basil leaf, only two euros. This was my pizza opportunity so I bought one and sat in the nearby piazza eating the crusty, doughy, delightfully simple pizza from a wrapping of butcher’s paper.
Lastly there was music, an overlay on every other vibrant part of this city. It was everywhere, rhythmic jangles, drum beats, tambourines, electric guitars and singing, taking the form of amplified rock music, drumming or the Tarantella, which is traditional of Naples. I think I have just added another city to my long list of places in Italy I must visit again. Soon.