Naples is dirty, sweltering, chaotic, superstitious in the extreme, loud, expressive and boasts some of the best Italian food. This is in part due to the sublime conditions in the region Campania, namely the weather and volcanic soil.
I think I’m attracted to volcanic cities and ports. I loved Catania in Sicily, resilient under Etna. Naples is the daddy of them all, wedged between Vesuvius and the burning fields.
But I can honestly say: don’t go in June. Or July. Or August. It’s… unliveable. Not only is it hot, on average 39ºC, but it’s humid. I’m a city girl, but the pollution, the traffic, the taxi strikes…
I do love the place. Several people thought I was a local, one saying: ‘You look so comfortable here.’ I have Neapolitan blood; my great-grandparents came from just down the road. Some tourists think it’s dangerous and crime-ridden but I’ve never had that feeling when walking around.
On a tour north of the city, driving through a dormant crater, I cracked open a window and was assaulted by the eggy smell of sulphur. We passed the women’s prison. ‘That’s where the mafia wives are,’ said the driver. ‘When the men are jailed, the wives take over. Then the wives are jailed. Every morning the mafia wives have the best ingredients delivered to them. It’s almost like a restaurant in the prison. Everyone is cooking. The food is fantastic.’
I wanted to visit, taste some mafia-wife cooking, did they use razor blades to slice the garlic? But my Naples contact Manuela sighed: ‘This is impossible to arrange, even by me.’
Places to eat
Mimi alla Ferrovia is a historic restaurant, opened in 1944, near the central station of Naples. The patron ‘Mimi’, short for Emilio, cooked traditional Neapolitan dishes and served local celebrities. His son Michele, 86, still stands at the door, welcoming guests in a low gravelly voice, like an actor from The Sopranos. His grandson, also Michele, is the chef. It’s worth looking around the walls of the restaurant, which are jumbled with framed photographs of Sophia Loren, Omar Shariff, Errol Flynn, Isabella Rossellini, Yul Brynner, legendary local singer Pino Danielli, Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini, Berlusconi and footballer Diego Maradona hugging the owner and the chef.
I went twice, first with Manuela who runs ilovefruitandvegetablesfromeurope.com. She had four packs next to her at the table, they were like very short cigarettes.
‘Are you vaping?’ I asked her, intrigued.
‘No, this is something different.’
‘Do you smoke less now?’
‘No, I smoke more. I love it,’ she husked back to me.
I was regaled with caprese salad, fresh ricotta streaked with quince jam, a series of deep-fried anti-pasti, the freshest seafood; garlic grilled prawns and orange mussels slipping around in a sauce of white wine just begging for a ‘scarpetta’ slipper of bread to mop it up, bronze-die candele pasta with just the right amount of clingy sauce, and best of all – a light yet amply alcoholic Rum Baba, which was so good I asked for seconds.
Every table talked to each other. While a restaurant must have good food, the atmosphere is the thing. Mimì alla Ferrovia felt like one of my supper clubs, a gourmand party-vibe that encourages sharing, drinks and meeting new people. Languages flew around – French, Italian, Spanish, English – like at the bar in Star Wars.
A couple of days later, I was back there for the wedding dinner of my niece, fashion stylist Rachael Rodgers, to Italian-American DJ Luca Venezia. This couple are cool: both tall and skinny, with the flinty stare of the fashionista. Their guests were a treat to look at: men with pigtails; half-naked women in sequins with frescoes tattooed on their backs; tiny peaches-and-cream-complexioned red-haired women wearing vintage designer garb.
This was the start of a three-day extravaganza, featured in US Vogue, complete with nightly after-parties, culminating in my niece arriving at the altar, in the roof garden of the Palazzo Venezia, dressed in a rare Vivienne Westwood corset (one of only five in the world) and white lace leggings, with rose-thorn heels and a gothic lace headpiece and veil. In the 40°C heat, guests were issued with fans, red-spined wings fluttering rapidly as at a flamenco dance while traditional Italian minstrels sweetly serenaded us. One guest wore nothing on her torso but a blue breastplate. ‘My breasts are swimming in sweat,’ she confessed.
Fashion people can look scary, but actually they were all terribly nice and friendly. The couple arranged an ’80s disco on the roof of the Excelsior hotel. Hooray, my era! I kicked off my shoes and danced to Madonna, Soft Cell, Human League and Kim Wilde. The dromedary hump of Vesuvius lurked innocently in the background.
Baia Marinella is a Michelin-star restaurant nestled amongst rocks, awash with waves overlooking a bay. It’s located in Pozzuoli, an area north of Naples which is bustling with fish restaurants. This is where the inhabitants of Naples go at the weekends.
The food was exquisitely presented on blue and yellow ceramics: twisty home-made gressini; the best sourdough bread I tasted in the region; salt cod and potato balls; Calabrian anchovy and large truffle shavings perched on focaccia squares; tiny chartreuse grape-like gnocchi with asparagus cream; sea urchin sauce and bottarga crumble on a skein of pasta; hand-pinched ricotta-filled agnolotti dotted with sauces the colours of the Italian flag; tweezered micro-herbs.
The desserts were serious: adult dark chocolate mousse pre-dessert, then a selection of hoops and puddles and crumbles and quenelles. We drank a local golden wine whose vines we had been admiring all day; dark khaki vines spurting from the sooty mineral earth, Quintodecimo.
The only problem was the heat, which stifled our appetite. The experience was slightly wasted on us.
You may note that I’m saying ‘we’. I came to Naples for a wedding, so my entire family were with me: mum, dad, brother, sister-in-law, daughter and son-in-law, nephews and nieces. I was also doing, not exactly a press trip, more of a research trip on the side. Although it was the height of unprofessionalism, I bundled a whole bunch of relatives into the car with me. My pregnant daughter sat in the front while we were sitting on each other’s knees. The driver texted madly as we drove, weaving in and out of lanes. His car was so heavy that a piece underneath broke off when we drove up to a castle. Italian driving is even more wild than French driving, but you don’t get the feeling they want to kill you like the French do. It’s cheeky and creative than aggressive.
Possibly the best meal in terms of my kind of food was my lunch at Fuocolento Bistro in the Piazza di Martiri. I arrived just after midday, absolutely dripping, with bleeding toes, after a walk through town in 39ºC heat. The self-flogging pilgrimages I do for food. But it was worth it.
Beer was served in a little ice bucket. I drank Campari and tonic. The chef Andrea Moio served the flavours of summer that you crave: tuna with lime; swordfish ceviche with pink peppercorns and dried kernels of corn; salmon with citrus and fennel; really smokey salmon (was it home-smoked?) on a pile of stracciatelli; grilled peppers with tangles of red onion, yellow zest curls, olive and caper berries; paccheri with a bouquet of basil, courgettes and pecorino.
Of course, I had to return to the famous Antica Pizzeria da Michele as featured in that movie with Julia Roberts. The menu is small. When I went in 2019 there were just two types of pizza. Now there are four: Margarita, Marinara, Cossaca, Marita. What is the difference? Margarita has tomatoes, mozzarella and basil; Marinara is the same without cheese; Cossaca is the same but with Pecorino added post-bake (representing the snows of Russia! Cossaca is Kossack in Italian), and Marita is half Margarita and half Marinara. Again it was so hot inside that I could barely eat. I escaped outside and undertook the other traditional Neapolitan activity of sitting on discarded cardboard pizza boxes outside, among those waiting for a table or takeaway.
Trattoria Don Vincenzo was probably a tourist joint, crammed in one of the narrow side streets, but the food was great. I loved the zeppolini, fried pizza doughnuts with seaweed.
Other things to do in Naples
Visit Via San Gregorio Armeno or ‘Christmas Alley’, where they sell figurines and creches for nativity scenes or ‘presepe’. A hand-crafted nativity scene would cost between €300 and €6,000 just for the setting. Every year on December 8th, Neopolitans dust off their presepe and buy new figurines – often showbiz, political, royal, or footballers to add to the traditional Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Diego Maradona is considered a local deity: there are many figurines of him. He also features in actual shrines.
A puppet ‘Pulcinella’, a hook-nosed trickster, sometimes with a hunchback, is sold everywhere; the English Punch, more violent, is a derivation. Another symbol of Naples you see everywhere is a devil’s red horn, although I thought was a red chilli pepper. Naples likes tradition and superstition. Their version of Catholicism is tinged with paganism and ritual, such as the annual turning of a vial of blood from powder into liquid at the cathedral of San Gennaro. The blood didn’t liquify in 2020, heralding a disaster – the Covid pandemic.
Where I stayed
During this trip, I stayed at a Bed and Breakfast hotel, Domus Deorum De Luxe, near the central station. Beautiful rooms, fine linens, a great breakfast and museum-style decor. Highly recommended. Medium price.
Both times I’ve visited Naples was in June. I need to go again when it’s cooler so I will truly have the energy to explore.