If you have never seen Naples, forget all you’ve heard about this infamous city. Tales of pick-pocketers, purse snatchers, and mafia violence, not to mention the phrase, “see Naples and die” (initially referring to the gorgeous architecture, it took on a new meaning as mob violence escalated) littered my thoughts. Amidst the stories of trash-filled streets and danger, I was curious. A city on the Mediterranean sea, the inventors of modern pizza — it was worth a visit.
Coming out of the train station was jarring, especially on an unusually cold and rainy day in June. And here, our first impression: trash, rubbish, dirty socks, food scraps (and whatever else; we tried not to think about it.) We waded through the sea of trash, slightly disgusted and a little excited. The stench was unpleasant, and deciphering the bus system proved confusing. Yet I clutched onto my little red notebook with the golden ticket: two addresses; one for pizza, the other, coffee. For this, we persevered.
Immediately, the Neapolitans eased any ill feelings we brought along with us. Rolling their “Rs” a little longer than Romans, their voices dance when they speak, a smile always decorating their face. The overwhelming kindness we received was unparalleled. A man nearly missed his bus running across two lanes of traffic to tell us that we, in fact, walked the wrong way after we misinterpreted his directions (non capisco Italiano!). Roaming the city, clearly lost, we received reassuring smiles from passersby and store owners as we navigated the small, hilly streets. So, this is Napoli? On such a cold, rainy day, it was the warmest place I’d ever been.
We excited the bus at the centro storico and gazed at the sweeping architecture overlooking the sea. It’s some of the most impressive in Italy, many of the facades adorned with graffiti, a reminder of the political corruption plaguing the city. The views of the Mediterranean sea are dotted with islands, and Mount Vesuvius towers in the near distance — a physical symbol of a volatile history.
Pizza is a must in Naples; it is considered the birthplace of the modern pizzeria (though pizza is said to have existed since ancient times.) Because of this, there are plenty of pizzerias to choose from, and one really can’t go wrong. Yet on a Sunday afternoon, choices were limited, and most of our hopeful candidates were closed. Luckily, there was Brandi (Salita Sant’Anna di Palazzo, 2). Written about extensively (remember that little novel called “Eat, Pray Love?”), it’s quite famous, and a favorite of Queen Margherita (hence the inception of the Margherita Pizza). Tucked away on a side street, it’s rather easy to find given the diners spilling out of the tiny space. The pizza is mere perfection — the crust perfectly soft and warm, the ingredients fresh, all cooked in a wood-burning oven. A man with a guitar serenaded us with quirky American rock and vintage Italian ballads. The diners talked amongst each other, in a “your table is our table” kind of way. In fact, the energy in all of Napoli was such.
Allora, Caffé Gambrinus — the main reason I went to Napoli in the first place. This legendary coffee house is a place where fashionable Neapolitans have been flocking for over a century; it celebrated its 150th anniversary last year. Famous writers and intellectuals have sipped espresso (and other spirits) here, including Oscar Wilde and Jean-Paul Sartre. The history is rich; it survived the Fascist regime, who turned half the building into a bank due to the “noise” ruckus patrons created (though its’ position as a political meeting place of discussion probably had more to do with it.) It’s since been returned to its impressive splendor and size — all stuccoed, gilded, and frescoed.
One can sit outside under the gazebos to gaze at the stunning Piazza Plebiscito and Palazzo Reale. The servers move about in floor-skimming aprons, delivering caffé and pastries in sweeping motions. This tradition pours (pun, intended) into their coffee — fantastic espresso, not an ounce bitter, made in the traditional Italian way. Perhaps it’s all a bit overpriced, but one is paying for the history, the grandeur, and the view — which is unparalleled. Per a recommendation, we shared a sfogliatelle with our coffee — an amazingly sweet and flaky layered pastry filled with ricotta.
We ordered due caffé and sat for a while, people watching and sipping, listening to the Neapolitans discuss things, fervently. Savoring the moment, I was intoxicated by the Napoli I met, the Napoli I had never heard of before; rife with charm, beauty, and yes, trash.