Forgetting the stereotypes about Naples--that it's unkempt, shady and crude-- was important. In reality, it was. However, once I was able to look beyond all that, muffle the noise and breathe in the local culture, I found it to be endearing, charming and almost addictive.
Perhaps no other city in all of mainland Italy is as peculiar as Naples. Several corners of the city are adorned with baroque and gothic architectural marvels, but the real charm lies in the narrow cobbled-stoned streets in the centre. The small, closely-set apartments colored in different shades of yellow, green and burgundy house the majority of Neapolitans.
It is here where grandmothers gossip amongst each other while teenagers zip by in scooters; where miniscule balconies double up as laundry lines and gardens, and homes literally open on to the street giving passersby a front row seat into life in a Napolitan household. This raw vigour is synonymous with Naples and Naples only. It resonates throughout the city; in its shops and restaurants, markets and piazzas
I had chosen Naples as the only city I'd visit south of Rome primarily in search of answers. Answers to a question that had clouded my mind for years, ever since I first learned about where pizza comes from.
Having eaten pizza all over the world that have varied vastly in flavor, texture and proportions, I was curious to taste how the Neapolitans intended the pizza to be, long before it became an international phenomenon. What does the original pizza taste like?
Pizza in Naples is cooked quickly in wood-fired ovens and they're about 12 inches in diameter. Okay, so that's nothing new. Here's what I didn't know. They are served without being sliced. This means that they're meant to be consumed one-per-person with a fork and knife. They are soft and soggy near the centre so it's nearly impossible to eat it with your hands without having the sauce and cheese slide off. They are also minimally topped with just enough tomato sauce to coat, a few slices of mozzarella and just a couple of leaves of basil. Has your brain exploded yet? Nevertheless, it was delicious in its own Neapolitan way.
In the little free time and appetite I had after gorging on pizza, I ventured to try some of the other foods that are typical of Naples. My first stop was Pasticceria Attanasio to try their famed Sfogliatelle Ricce, an Italian rendition of the croissant filled with orange flavored ricotta. Always served warm, this was better than any croissant I've ever tasted, with the perfect crunch and crispness of the light pastry and the not-too-sweet, comforting ricotta inside.
Naples is also known for their friggitorias, shops that sell various fried foods. One in particular stood out amongst the rest during my research--Friggitoria Vomero. Walking there was probably not the best idea (it's more of an uphill trek) but en route, I got to experience one of the best views of the city barring the one from Castel dell'Ovo. Besides, Vomero is also one of the few shops that still fry small batches of their products so one can eat it fresh and hot. Among the best of the lot were the arancini (fried risotto balls), pasta cresciute (fried balls of dough), croche (fried potato croquettes) and scagliozzi (fried polenta triangles).
On my last night in Naples, I bravely walked the entire stretch of the city back to the hostel through the residential quarters. The same streets that were buzzing with daily activity were now dark and deserted with just the occasional vehicle passing by. I admit it was intimidating, but it is equally important to note that I made it through the 3 km stretch unscathed.
My Quick City Guide to Naples
Pizza at Gino Sorbillo, Da Michelle or Di Matteo
Sfogliatella at Attanasio
Assorted fried foods at Friggatoria Vomero
Neapolitan souvenirs and artifacts from the many shops along Spaccanapoli
Stroll the markets at Mercato di Porta Nolana or La Pignasecca
Take in the sights with a 360 degree view of bay of Naples atop Castel dell'Ovo
Tread through the residential quarters in the historic centre