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Category Archives: Italy

On Pizza (Naples P.II)

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I’m in love. I’m having a relationship with my pizza.
– Liz Gilbert played by Julia Roberts


The first time I encountered something about Naples that didn’t involve a purse-strap slasher on a scooter was the scene above, in which two tourists decide to eat the whole pizza (and buy bigger jeans) in the 2010 film Eat Pray Love. Pizza and Naples were noted on my radar.

I knew from previous trips that eating pizza in Italy is a set-up for likely disappointment on all future pizza. However, since my last visit to the country, many positive developments had occurred, such as pizzerias around the world importing wood-fire ovens directly from Naples! Surely the gap in the playing field had narrowed.

Now, my first time south of Rome, I wasn’t in a hurry to eat a local pizza because I was so distracted by all the other delicious only-in-Naples options, for starters the fresh seafood and fried snacks. And who knew an eggplant panini could be so good! And Caprese salad within sight of the island, with salty sweet mozzarella as big as my head!

The time finally came to grab a pizza. With sore feet unswayed by the enthusiastic stories of fellow wedding guests trekking for hours across the city and eating THE BEST PIZZA IN NAPLES on sidewalk curbs, we decided to pick up a pie at a place we had seen on the way home. While the red-and-white plastic interior did not look promising, there was a wood-burning oven, pizzaiolos spinning dough, and smiling staff who gamely took my (non-neapolitan dialect) order of “Pizza Margherita grande, … [take-away charade]…, por favor, wait that’s Spanish, per favore.”

While our pizza was tossed, dressed, and fired, I had time to peruse the clippings on the wall. It turned out that the neighbourhood joint was part of the legendary 90-year-old, four-generation Michele family pizza making tradition; the current owner started out in his childhood and “carries on this important legacy by offering religious respect.”  I think this will be good, I said sotto voce.

Buon appetito!” wished the friendly older gentleman waiting for his order behind us as we carefully carried our treasure box back down the street and through the seven doors to our flat. My only regret is that we didn’t sit and scarf the steaming pie down immediately.

At a final festive pizza lunch right on the Golfo, Gio and Maddie did the ordering at their favourite place. After starters, Caprese, and then pizza after pizza was brought out, my initial game plan waned and I lost count of how many slices I’d had. I just wanted to have space for one more incredible bite of any kind of pizza, founded on the crisp crunch of a cloud-like crust bubbled and blackened outside, soft and very slightly yeasty inside, with a bright red smear of sauce still holding the warmth of the sun and the richness of the volcanic Vesuvian soil the tomatoes grew in.  

It was in those last wistful bites that I had the epiphany that we can import all the ovens and pizzaiolos from Napoli, but we would still be missing the other essential ingredients, such as those listed by Michele’s: 

i migliori ingredienti della terra campana: l’olio evo, il pomodoro San Marzano dell’agro nocerino sarnese, l’aglio dell’Ufita, il Pomodorino del Piennolo, il Fior di latte di Agerola e così via.

When even the garlic is sourced and named, and pizza making is a lifelong career, it’s a whole different, professional level game, and one of the best reasons to hop a plane and travel to the other side of the world. (A great view and the smell of the sea also doesn’t hurt.)

With a last longing look at the final bites on my plate that I could not possibly finish, suddenly the words of the old Dean Martin song made perfect sense:

“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.

“Naples is Italy in the Extreme”

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“If you like Italy as far south as Rome, go farther south – it gets better…Italy intensifies as you plunge deeper. Naples is Italy in the extreme.” 

photo 1

I have never seen anywhere as beautiful as the Gulf of Naples.

After an uneventful two hours rereading Ferrante from Roma Termini, we transferred to an old, dark, underground commuter train in which a sardine would have felt mishandled. On arriving at our suburban station, the interest at looking around and up the surrounding hills was mitigated by the surprise discovery of a sweat gland in the middle of my back, which now was operating in overdrive under the blazing sun. At least the traffic stops for us was my pleasant surprise, as we crossed and recrossed the same streets with our roller bags, taking what seemed to be an eternity to find an address that turned out to be conveniently located five minutes around the corner from the station.

Our host handed us a jailer’s key ring and showed us how to work the locks: the big wooden outer door to the street, the middle inner gate to the courtyard, the metal door at the bottom of the stairs, the metal and glass door at the top of the stairs, the grate across our patio, the outer and inner door to the flat. Then I was done. I wanted to stay in the safe flat with no view, iffy wifi, and not leave.

When hunger finally tempted me to go out, we took a couple of turns to walk closer to the sea … and there it was. A few refreshing degrees cooler, ready for her close up, the awesome Golfo di Napoli, in all her azure technicolor glory, with the smudges of Capri and Ischia in the distance, and Mount Vesuvius lording over it all on the south side. I was dumbstruck.

I closed my mouth and we walked along the sea front until we got to the Castel dell’Ovo (Egg Castle), turning off into the Santa Lucia harbour to eat at La Scialuppa (‘The Rowboat’). As it was too ridiculously early for the strolling, dancing, wedding, fishing, kissing locals to eat at 7 p.m., we scored a waterside table without a reservation, the better to enjoy a pasta with seafood so fresh we could taste the brine of the sea under our feet. The shifting sun painted Vesuvius green-grey and the towns below pink when passing musicians began to offer all the diners folkloric or romantic songs, which layered perfectly into the lapping of the waves, the clinking of the masts and wine glasses, the seagulls’ cries.

We continued our own walking tour into the heart of Napoli, stopping to see the detailed tile floor mosaics of the 19th century Galleria Umberto I shopping arcade. Turning into the narrow, twisty streets, some of them merely a curving set of wide steps down which locals were bringing out their garbage and recycling, we finally cracked and got gelatos at the fifth place we passed. (It has been scientifically proven that one can not walk past more than five gelaterias without stopping.)

Carefully navigating the uneven cobblestones back down to the seaside with my tingly limone gelato, the smell of pizza and calzones wafting around, mixing with the shouts, conversations, and scooters of the locals, I realized that Napoli could engage and reanimate the senses of a zombie.

There were fewer and fewer people along the walkway back. The sky was indigo and Homer’s sea wine-dark as we got closer to the sparkling lights of Posillipo. As we enjoyed the cooling air, I was astonished to recognize the person walking towards us! ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world’! Valeria was a fellow guest of the wedding we were invited to, whose acquaintance I had made in Rome. As it was still very early in the evening by Campania time-keeping, we decided to make the most of it over beverages. Seated at a sidewalk table, marvelling at the Neapolitan custom of bringing complementary snacks (in this case, nuts, salads, bread, open-faced sandwiches, and fried treats) with drinks, and enveloped in conversation, I felt right at home.


to be continued …

opening quote from Rick Steves Snapshot: Naples & the Almalfi Coast, Avalon: 2015

When in Rome (mangiamo!)

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“Cut the guanciale likRomee this, in matchsticks.” Paolo held the pig cheek on a kitchen table cutting board, giving me time to write the steps as he efficiently prepared carbonara and vittelo for six.

It was hard to believe that we had only arrived in the Eternal City that afternoon. We had flown down the west coast of Italy, arriving in Rome under that impossibly deep cerulean blue bowl of a sky. After a breathless drive across the city with soundtrack of hardcore and horns, Paolo, Stefania, and their black lab welcomed us to the apartment with a so-called “light lunch” of deceptively simple delicacies of local breads, meats, cheeses, and gorgeous tomatoes, followed by a blueberry digestivo. Then, in case there was any doubt that we were really and truly in Rome, we drove to the Colosseum. There were no lines, so we walked right in, up, down, and around the nearly 1000-year-old landmark, selfie-ing as we went. On the way home, we stopped to pick up a lasagne pan of tiramisu that Stefania’s mamma made in the time it took to mention we couldn’t wait to try tiramisu in Italy.

And that set the pace for the following days. Like exploring the set of a film that we’d seen a hundred times before, we wandered ancient streets with buildings in all the warm shades of sienna, bustling with daily life, scooters, and the smell of something incredible to eat. On our own we checked off must-see Rome: the Spanish Steps higher, the Trevi Fountain more spectacular, the Piazza Navona more impressive in real life than on film. With Stefania and Paolo we discovered more: a lake in the crater of a dormant volcano, a hilltop town that celebrates the harvest by pumping wine through the fountains, a secret keyhole with a perfect view of St Peter’s.

We quickly fell into a new eating routine: a mid-afternoon stop for gelato, a late-afternoon aperitivo that was usually an Aperol spritz. In the evenings, dinner was the main event. One night our hosts took us to a traditional Osteria where we didn’t have to order anything: dishes quickly and magically appeared from the wood-burning oven. That meal, which consisted of at least ten different types of meat along with cheeses, showcased the variety of local Italian cuisines beyond pizza and pasta. Another night we went to have Puglian barbecue: speciality cuts of meat driven up from the heel of Italy included bombette: delicious pork encasing cheese, herbs, and other ingredients, grilled to order in a custom oven with flames coming out the sides so that grease doesn’t drip down into the coals or wood. Served with baked potatoes and salads, it was all housed in an unremarkable building that from the entrance looked like a butcher shop.

Our last day in Rome, we braved the skip-the-line touts at the Vatican and took our chances in the shady queue. It was worth it to finally arrive in the glorious Sistine Chapel and marvel at the bright colours and intricate detail of Michelangelo’s masterwork. After a final spritz, we found the perfect vantage point over the Tiber to watch the sun set over the largest church in Christendom. As the Romans do, around ten p.m. we enjoyed one last carbonara, the perfect finale to our six evenings in the ancient capital, feeling mille grazie that the road had led us to Rome.