Bella Napoli (Beautiful Naples)
In the Birthplace of Pizza, Life Is Lived Differently
By Lorenzo Carcaterra & Amanda Ruggeri, photography by Shelley Strazis, published in Holland America Line’s award-winning Mariner Magazine
PART ONE: FIT FOR A QUEEN
Pizza was born in Naples, Italy, in the heart of the poorest city in Europe. Some history books date the arrival of the first pizza as far back as 997 A.D. while a number of historians place it closer to 1738. In 1843, Alexandre Dumas wrote about the pleasure of eating a pizza in Naples. More than a few Neapolitans will argue that the actual date was sometime in 1870, when Pizzeria Da Michele opened its doors and pulled the first marinara (oregano, garlic, and San Marzano tomatoes) from inside a 485-degree brick oven. Then there are the diehards who credit the birth of pizza to Raffaele Esposito, who in 1889, created the margherita (mozzarella, basil, and those requisite San Marzanos), utilizing the colors of the Italian flag in honor of Queen Margherita’s visit and thus becoming the first pizzaiolo—pizza maker—to add cheese to the city’s creation.
“Who was first will be argued about forever,” says Assunta Rumore, a striking woman in her 60s who is waiting outside Da Michele. Behind her a long line of locals and tourists snakes its way silently down Via Giuseppe Martuccci in the heart of the historic center of Spaccanapoli. A wait here can be as long as two hours, but few complain. “It’s part of what we like to do—argue, while we wait for our pizza.”
Pizza napoletana is single-serving-sized (if you have a hearty appetite, and who doesn’t in Italy?), rustic, misshapen, sublime, characterized by a chewy blistered dough and the explosive freshness of its local ingredients. The local pizza is taken so seriously that there is even an institution—Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana—that issues rules and governs what is an authentic pizza napoletana. But despite the pedigree, it’s cooked fast and costs only a few euros, a fraction of what a Neapolitan pizza commands in the United States.
Assunta has been eating pizza since she was old enough to walk. To her, as to most Neapolitans, there are only two reputable kinds—the margherita and the marinara (“the seaman’s wife”). Anything else, to her way of thinking, is nothing short of a crime. “There are toppings I can tolerate— anchovies, artichokes, even mushrooms, though that’s pushing it,” she says. “But to enjoy pizza as it was meant to be enjoyed, you must keep it simple. There’s no need to complicate a perfect dish.”
So pizza with pineapple is out of the question? “I would rather eat my own leg,” Assunta says. The modest Da Michele was already known throughout the world but of course gained even wider exposure with the publication of Elizabeth Gilbert’s fantastically successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love (and the Julia Roberts movie that followed). Inside, Angela Castagna, a Naples café owner, is halfway through a margherita, savoring the pie as if it were the first time she had tasted one. “I never read the book, but I saw the movie,” she says in a dialect as thick as the crust on her pie is thin, strands of her brown hair stroking the tops of her shoulders. “Even Pretty Woman likes our pizza. But I didn’t understand why she had to leave Italy. You can find all the things she was looking for here, in Naples, in this pizzeria. You want to eat? What better place to find a meal? You want to pray? There’s plenty of time, between the long lines and dozens of churches in the area. And you want love? Neapolitans know as much about love as they do pizza. Where do you think most of these people go after they eat their pie? Fame il piacere! [Give me a break!]”
Gino Sorbillo is just one of three pizzerias on Via Tribunali, which was the main road in an ancient Roman—and before that, Greek—city. Its menu has expanded beyond the only-two-pizzas mentality to include a variety of toppings; the pesto is in a class all its own. Three generations have served pies here, and the pizzas are larger than in most pizzerias, their charred edges spilling over their platters and onto the white marble tabletops. “I come here every year,” says Gaspare Florido, a Milanese executive in his 60s. “And I always make this my first stop. I started coming when I was a boy, and the smell, the taste, the atmosphere, brings me back to those years. This is a special place for me. It’s about pizza and memories.”
Because southern Italy has never been wealthy, in terms of its cuisine necessity has indeed been the mother of invention. “What others were quick to toss away,” a friend of mine who owned a restaurant once told me, “we turned into great meals.” And it was so that Naples and its environs created some of the world’s most renowned dishes—pasta alla puttanesca, spaghetti with clams, fried calamari, and, of course, pizza, which is seared into the very soul of one of Italy’s most atmospheric cities. The greatest pizza in the world.
Forget “See Naples and die.” See Naples and eat.
PART TWO: TAKE TO THE STREETS
Don’t think about driving in Naples, a city feared Italy-wide for its free-for-all traffic. Instead, the best way for an outsider to untangle the city’s secrets, to get at the real Naples, is also the most time-honored: on foot.
If the city’s strolling crowds prove anything, it’s that Neapolitans agree on the appropriate energy level. On the “Spaccanapoli,” the main street that splits (spacca) the centro storico (historic center) in two, Naples’ usual buzz reaches a near-electric intensity. All day long teenagers in Nikes and low-slung jeans amble past; businessmen and shopkeepers patter over the cobblestones. Locals emerge excitedly from pastel palaces like the 16th-century Palazzo Petrucci, which still has its ornate Renaissance portal and graceful arches. Like so many other palazzi, it has transitioned from a noble’s home to apartment house with a pedigree. Students browse at a used-book stall underneath a sign reading Tutto €1—All €1.
In the shadows of Gothic churches like the 14th-century Santa Chiara, destroyed by Allied bombings in World War II and pieced back together again, scooters squeeze past strollers. Locals pause after a few steps to gather in knots, exchanging news and pleasantries. Some greetings are more understandable than others. “Ciao, Martina! Tutto a posto? [All well?]” one elegant woman, toting a leather purse as big as she is, asks another.
Others speak napoletano, a dialect that is the result of Naples’ hot-potato passing from the Byzantines to the French to the Spanish to the Austrians and, in 1861, to the newly formed Italy. One young man scuffs out a cigarette with his sneaker and turns purposefully to his friends. “Andiàm vià, ragazzi. Vogliò nu’ caffè. [Let’s go, guys. I want a coffee.]” Behind him towers an ornate spire topped with a statue of Saint Dominic, a “plague column” erected after the disease’s devastating sweep through the city in 1656.
It’s as if here, in the heart of a city of one million, everyone knew each other and they played out their dramas against the ruins and ghosts of history. And, of course, they do.
I fell in love with Naples on foot. I moved to Rome three years ago from the U.S., and from my travels across Italy I learned that in other cities, the passeggiata, the tradition of taking a walk through the streets, relaxes. In Naples it invigorates. Even a short stroll entails several near misses with everything from scooters to soccer balls to some of Italy’s sassiest children. Once, I was startled nearly out of my skin when some young boys sprang out of a cardboard box discarded on the street next to me. “Spaventato! [We scared you!]” they shouted, then squealed with laughter. Naples rivals the energy of Rome but adds a dash of mischievousness.
Strolling also means encountering the city’s daily pleasures. Not just the world-renowned museums and churches but the pasticceria Attanasio, where Neapolitans line up with rare patience for the cinnamon-laced sfogliatelle that emerge fresh from the oven. There are the elegant gallerias, triumphs of Italian Art Nouveau—of a 19th-century Naples attempting to become contemporary, Continental. And don’t forget the cafés, whirring with espresso machines, that every Italian—even Naplesmaligning northerners—begrudgingly admits serve up the country’s best coffee.
But the real draw of a Neapolitan passeggiata? Seeing the details of life done differently. A blue bucket is lowered from a top-floor apartment down into the street; the vendor pockets the coins inside and replaces them with a rolled newspaper. Children accidentally kick a soccer ball right into a policeman, and a stern discussion ensues, punctuated by flying hands. On Via dei Vergini, market stalls burst with everything from bright-red hot peppers to lacy aprons. “Fichi d’India! Arance! Mele! 1.50 euro! [Prickly pears! Oranges! Apples! 1.50 euros!]” a fruit vendor yells, his calls battling those of his compatriots.
In Naples, life simply is too exuberant to be limited to apartment and office interiors. And so, do as the Neapolitans do: Take to the streets. It’s the only way to experience one of Italy’s liveliest cities.
Just watch out for speeding scooters.