The streets smell of marzipan and sewage. The men have names like Fortunata and Pompeo. The old ladies wear cotton aprons and stare out of doorways. They all look like my nan. Nobody has a spin dryer. Or are Neopolitans paid by the tourist board to hang their drying laundry out on the street?
I spent four days in Naples: the first was laying down in my room recovering from the intense press trip to Basilicata. Finally I crept out at 10pm, thinking I don’t have the energy to find one of the famous pizzerias, I’ll just go local. I found a pizzeria around the corner where they peeled a pizza into a mosaic studded oven which glowed inside with embers of wood. They sold me a small bottle of chilled red wine for three euros. The entire bill was six euros for an exquisite meal which I enjoyed alone in my room with a girlie Netflix film.
The point is -you’d be very unlucky to find any pizzeria serving anything less than absolutely incredible pizza. Why is it so good?
It’s hard to describe why. Perhaps it is that every ingredient is so fresh. The tomatoes are sweet yet acidic -perfection. The cheese soft and creamy. The crust has just the right amount of smoky charr.
The next day, walking downhill, I passed a crowd of people queuing for pizza outside Sorbillo. I muscled my way to the front where a bored young man told me it would be an hour and a half to wait, but forty minutes for a takeaway. I wanted to sit down and to drink wine so I continued weaving through the old town.
Street food vendors sold brown paper cornets of fried seafood. Down each side street lurked a narrow funnel of tall buildings and coloured washing like Tibetan prayer flags. Dark-eyed prostitutes hung out of the windows in some of the alleys but I didn’t feel unsafe.
I arrived at L’antica pizzeria da Michele, the other most famous pizzeria in Naples. There is a branch in Stoke Newington, which is ok but not mind-blowing. Again there was a crowd. Again I pushed through and was given a ticket. ‘It’ll be an hour’ shrugged the doorman. ‘But I’m alone!’ I insisted.
I sat in a cafe opposite and drank two jam jars of lurid Aperol Spritz. Don’t do this. Two drinks cost 15 euros. This cafe is taking the piss, profiting from waiting tourists like me.
Back to door guy, where no progress had been made at all, plus I’d lost my ticket. I spotted a gap at a table, next to a window where you could watch a floury guy twirl, flip and palm discs of dough. I slid in crying: ‘I’m alone!”
There are only two kinds of pizza: margherita and marinara. You can get extra cheese. I went for a single cheese marinara. I talked to the people at my table: the Canadian couple opposite read my blog – the girl had done my recipes! The Italian doctor next to me was on a break from a medical conference. We discussed Brexit and Italexit, the Italian version. He’s worked in the UK for the NHS. The waiter wheedled a large tip.
You do have to haggle and hustle everywhere. Neapolitans are on the make. They are born business people. I was told to hold onto my wallet, my bag, my camera and never get into a taxi. There is an efficient but limited metro and most places are walkable. But the city is exhausting. I was doing 20k steps a day and my feet were sore.
Day Three I walked to the main food market, Pignasecca, which is not so much a market as a few stalls and many food shops. The shops were small, heavily stocked and with charming wooden exteriors, cheeses hanging like pendulous ivory breasts from the ceiling and over the counter. Pleated grey skirts and ivory Elizabethan neck ruffs drooped from stalls; on closer inspection this was tripe, chopped up into a cardboard bowl with a squeeze of lemon, some fennel and handed to customers. Neopolitans love tripe, fried food and sugar.
I bought red and white leather ballet flats for 25 euros. Shoes are well made and cheap in Italy. People watching is a greedy pleasure; the women are dressy and over made up. A wedding photography session took place in front of the port, the men with slicked back hair and bare ankles, the women tottering in Donatella heels and stuffed into satiny dresses.
This third day I would dedicate to spaghetti vongole, sugo bianco of course, not rosso. I had it for lunch (disappointing) and dinner (good but oversalty).
After the first night, I had to change accommodation and I didn’t like where I stayed. It was owned by an old couple, a policeman and his chain-smoking wife. Six flights up a shabby building, my suitcase was already heavy with food and drink, then another three flights once you got into the apartment.
My room looked out onto roof tops and I heard seagulls in the morning. But I had to go through the old couples living space to get to my room. I wasn’t allowed to use the kitchen, not even to make tea. Sometimes I feel sociable, but other times, especially if I’m tired, I just want to rest in my room. This was like staying with grotesque grandparents, who were charging me. ‘Christina, Christina!’ the woman would bellow up the stairs if I slept late.
They wanted extra for ‘breakfast’ – a piece of shop bought cake (Italians love cake for breakfast while I’m a savoury/Marmite girl). The final straw was when they told me they couldn’t look after my luggage after check-out on the last day. I had to be out by 10.30am and my plane was at 5pm. ‘We have a family party’ they shrugged. I was angry. I don’t care, I thought, I’ve paid for accommodation and I’m missing my last day in Naples because I have to drag my suitcase around. I complained to booking.com, which has expanded into Airbnb style accommodation, who were spectacularly unhelpful.
This encounter reminded me of visiting my Italian relatives in Minori down the coast when I was eight years old. The extended family were so warm, so affectionate, so physical, I couldn’t stand it.
One girl with dark short hair we called ‘Alors’, because she said ‘allora’ all the time, never stopped pinching our cheeks. We hated her. She couldn’t have been more than 16. To English children, and I don’t come from a ‘huggy’ family, Italians can be overbearing.
So my last day I shuffled to the anthropological museum, and waited in the queue. It was raining hard. People kept pushing in. I tried to squat under other people’s umbrellas. The museum had a free cloakroom where I could leave my luggage. Entry was free too. Divested of my wet suitcase, I gazed damply at the marble statues, the frank depictions of alabaster penises, the ancient cookware, daintily perforated colanders, from Pompeii.
Near the central train station, where you can get a bus to the airport for 5 euros, I tried the famous sfogliatelle pastry, which looks like the shell of an armadillo, especially in cime de rapa green. You can get them in either sweet or savoury versions. I’m going to try to make some. I’ll report back with a recipe.
I must return, perhaps in winter, off-season.