Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A Short Trip To Naples

A few hours in a train is a wonderful excuse for burying one’s head in a book and that is how I nearly missed my first glimpse of home Vesuvius.
As I disembarked from the train I was accosted by an illegal taxi driver. Irritated I marched to the underground station and in half an hour I was in my brother’s flat in Vomero, on one of the hills of Naples.

I had come to Naples to catch up with my nonagenarians: my father who’s turned 92 a couple of weeks ago and my aunt, his sister, who is going to be 96 in a couple of months. Therefore after dumping my bags I hurried to my father’s flat in downtown Naples. He lives in a 1700 building in a flat that my parents bought from a Scottish family who had settled in Naples centuries ago. I remember that on their letterbox they spelled their surname in any possible way: Stewart, Stuardo, Stuarda, Stuarto. My father despite his years is in very good shape and is still a good walker and with the aid of a stick he does a few kilometres every day using public transport only if necessary. When I was a child he would always take me on his treks which meant exploring hidden corners and endless forgotten archaeological and art treasures.

The day after I had to go to a public office to sort out an ancient problem. I ended up bouncing between offices in two different parts of the city and I failed. But looking from the bright side I met a clerk from Turin with a spark in his eyes and a rather interesting and philosophical attitude to life, who, at least offered to help. I had an appointment with my father for lunch and I was now terribly late but we hadn’t booked so he wasn’t worried. Naples is the birthplace of the pizza. My father suggested we should have a pizza at the Trianon, one of the historical temples. We obviously had to walk to the place, over an hour at his pace, as he stops every time he sees something remarkable or amusing, which means every few seconds as the streets of Naples are just one big theatre and museum at the same time. He points at things by swinging his stick and missing people by half an inch every time. We walked from the National Archaeological Museum near where he lives, down to Piazza Dante cutting through the street called Cisterna dell’Olio (The Oil tank); we got to Piazza del Gesù then followed Spaccanapoli, ‘Naples splitter’, a very long narrow street, which splits the old town. It is the old Central Decumanus of the Greek-Roman city.  One stretch of this long road is called San Biagio dei Librai, an area where old bookshops still survive, a kind of ancient Charing Cross Road.

Then after crossing Via Duomo we ventured into Forcella a characteristic district home to two of the most famous pizzerias, Trianon, my Father’s favourite and almost opposite,  “da Michele”, where Julia Roberts was filmed for “Eat, Pray and Love”. These two places make some of the best pizzas in the world.
We sat upstairs. We were lucky to find a table, it was two and the place was still packed. They were all locals except a brave Japanese woman travelling on her own. The waitress appeared immediately and because my father spelt out his order immediately – he always has a pizza marinara - I didn’t have time to look at the list so I went traditional and ordered a ripieno, also called calzone.
The Marinara is a very simple pizza: olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, origano, fresh basil and a pinch of salt topping a thin disc of naturally leaven dough. The Ripieno is a sort of large pizza dough sandwich shaped like a giant raviolo stuffed with fresh ricotta, prosciutto or salami, mozzarella and topped with a film of tomato sauce and fresh basil.

Within ten minutes we had two piping hot pizzas in front of us. To wash it down we shared a bottle of Nastro Azzurro beer. The pizzas were spectacular: hot, moist, beautiful. To make a perfect pizza is a difficult job, a pizzaiuolo needs great skills, good quality natural dough, high oven temperature (490C / 915 F), the right wood, a lot a lot of practise but also love, passion and pride. They have them all at the Trianon. One of the secrets of a Neapolitan pizza is the wood fired oven insulated  by  volcanic sand from Vesuvius.

We walked back this time along via Duomo. The address no. 46 had on its wall a marble plaque with a quote by its most famous resident, Libero Bovio, a poet and composer of Neapolitan songs whose works became well known across the Atlantic. The quote is written in Neapolitan and reads: ‘..and I am Neapolitan and If I don’t sing I’ll die’. 

We stopped for a cup of coffee in a bar,  then we returned along Via dei Tribunali, the ancient Main Decumanus. It was now the time to see my aunt. I accompanied my father back home then set off to Mergellina where she still lives in the flat where she and my father were born. It was very mild so I walked. I found her well. She is always on the ball and very jolly. Her memory is much better then mine. I asked her, as I always do, a lot of things about our family history as she is the oldest surviving member and loves to talk about the past. I spent a few hours with her. She even sung me a couple of songs, just to prove that Libero Bovio was right. I asked her about an extraordinary neighbour she had known very well. He was called Giovanni Gaeta but was better known as E.A. Mario. He was a natural songwriter and had produced some of the most sublime Neapolitan songs. But I am mentioning him because of his most noteworthy achievement, a song called “La Leggenda del Piave” (The legend of the river Piave), which became the leitmotif of the Italian people in WW I. Later after the collapse of the Fascist regime it briefly became the National Anthem.
Then I left and went to see two of my dearest friends whom I’ve known for over 30 years, Maria and Gennaro. She’s a university literature teacher and when we meet we can’t stop discussing books, philosophy and mysticism. But she is a fantastic cook with the ability to produce a gourmet meal within minutes. It is winter so we sat in the beautiful veranda overlooking Piazza San Gaetano, a beautiful square which was the Roman Forum two thousand years ago and the Greek Agora previously. That means that the place has seen life (mostly good life) continuously for almost 3000 years. Naples is one oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

Maria produced “vermicielle cu’ 'e purpetielle”, spaghetti with small octopuses and tomatoes, a spectacular dish that I have not had for years, artichokes in white wine and a sublime improvised salad with lattuce, apples, fennel, capers, pine kernels and oranges. Pudding was chiacchiere, carnival fried strips of dough, to dip in sanguinaccio, a chocolate sauce. We washed down the meal with Prosecco to start and then Aglianico, a full bodied red from the region. This was my first full day, not bad from the food point of view.

The next morning I had a promise to keep. Many years ago I happen to read a rather interesting article in the Financial Times about Naples. I remember that in the article they mentioned Bar Mexico in Piazza Dante, a place where one can taste the best coffee in Naples. As I have known the bar for ages, months ago I told the owner about my discovery and promised that I would do my best to trace the article. Eventually I succeeded, so this time I presented my findings to them. They were very pleased because being praised in such a paper is a great honour. The coffee people wear a white uniform and use a traditional old fashion espresso machine, with proper levers so steam can measured out. My father and my sister have been having a coffee there every Saturday morning for years. On Celia’s first trip to Naples I introduced her to this place that she now defines as best purveyor of coffee in the world. They only use coffee made by a small company, Passalacqua, which makes excellent roasts. My favourites home blends are Mehari and Cremador (the latter is a quite strong and chocolaty).
When in Naples I can’t resist drinking coffee at bars with a dangerous frequency. Anyway I didn’t suffer sleeping problems.

Maria and Gennaro invited me again for supper and this time she produced an astonishing "pasta e patate con provola”, pasta, potatoes and provola. I make my own version at home but in Tuscany I found difficult to source provola, which is a smoked, fresh semi soft cheese, not unlike mozzarella and typical of Naples.

Public transport in Naples is really rather good but getting around is made even more fun by the publicity. Advertising in Naples has it own rules, unlike the rest of Italy where advertisers know too well that they have to woo the people. In Naples advertisements have to be funny and witty, and they’re often in Neapolitan, my language, so in the underground station sometimes I have to stop myself bursting into laughter, the other passengers were less reactive as they probably listen to them every day.

When you live away from your home city it is always nice to slot back in. Before going home to Lucca I had to do some food shopping or I would never be forgiven by my girls in Lucca: taralli (savoury crumbly ring biscuits with peppers and almonds), fresh buffalo mozzarella, pane cafone (Neapolitan rustic bread that keeps for long time).


  1. I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your posts. I found your blog through a roundabout way (as usual) and just keep reading and reading. I am italian/american and have spent many happy hours exploring Italy. Your posts make me feel I am right back there!

  2. A belated thank you. I also publish my posts on where you can find more about life in Italy, food and stories.

  3. What a nice post! I've been in Napoli about 2 years and I must leave next week to go home to the US. What's the phrase? One cries when they arrive in the south ... and again when they leave? :-)