Naples doesn’t feel like Italy. It feels like Bangkok. As soon as we get off the train, we know we’re in for an experience. It’s absolutely batshit crazy here. Loud, stinky, busy, rubbish everywhere, traffic nearly hitting you every time you try to cross a street (or on the footpath – people on scooters don’t seem to mind about where they’re legally allowed to be), and the whole place just feels a bit dodgy. We love it straight away.
We’re staying in an AirBnb a few minutes walk from the city centre in a ‘charming’ area covered in graffiti, broken windows and an unusually high number of ‘We Buy Gold’ shops, which seems fitting in a city renowned to be Italy’s pickpocketing capital. Our hosts assure us it’s all safe in the area, though, and they’re right. We never feel the least bit threatened, nor does anything get nicked. We did get swindled out of a few bucks one night by a sleazy waiter, but that’s more the fault of my British inability to confront anybody about anything ever.
We came to Napoli for one thing – pizza. It was invented here (supposedly) and it’s everywhere, in many forms. There’s a fiendishly good little pizza shop just a minute from our house, and we find ourselves often grabbing a 1 Euro pizza each for breakfast…this felt a bit shameful at first but a lot less so as we considered the quality of what we’re eating – handmade dough from government-regulated flour, San Marzano tomatoes grown on the slopes of nearby Mt Vesuvius, and certified mozzarella di bufala. Yes, it’s carbs and a bit of cheese, but it’s all good. Plus, the usual Neapoletan breakfast isn’t really our cup of tea most of the time.
‘Caffe e cornetto’ is the go-to morning fare in most of Italy, and it means coffee – only ever espresso, cappuccino or macchiato, drank at the bar of the shop with a pastry, usually a croissant (but they call it a cornetto), but there’s a variety depending on where you are. In Naples, the sfogliatella is king – a super crispy, shell-shaped flaky pastry filled with a thick, baked pastry cream. It’s honestly amazing, but our Aussie, poached-egg-and-avo-toast palates generally crave some savoury in the morning to get us going.
And plus, we need energy here. On average we were walking 11-12kms a day in Napoli, whether it was up the million stairs to St Elmo’s castle or navigating our way through the insanely narrow and busy Spanish Quarter, which is probably our favourite part of the city.
In the heart of the old town, the Spanish Quarter is really what you think of when you imagine Naples. Tiny alleyways, lined by cheap and easy trattorias, street food stalls, fish and vegetable markets, salesmen with questionably legal wares and nonnas leaning out of their front window and giving you the stink-eye as you walk pasts We spend a lot of time here, finding out where to grab the best food, really. Fried food is massive in Naples, and we try all of it. The arancini rosso / bianco are crumbed rice balls stuffed with cheese and sometimes ragu, we have potato croquettes, fried anchovies with lemon and even a slice of fried spaghetti cake (which wasn’t great to be honest). The pride of the city seems to be pizza fritta; a fried pizza dough which puffs up like an enormous doughnut, topped with a smear of savoury tomato sauce and a slice of mozzarella. It’s light, doughy, fluffy and surprisingly easy to polish off considering what it actually is.
The two highlight dinners for us were Naples staples – Pizzeria da Michele, and Trattoria Nennella.
Both landmarks in this town, I would highly recommend for anybody who doesn’t mind roughing it a little. Da Michele is renowned by tourists and locals alike as the best pizza in Naples, which makes it the best in Italy, which really makes it the best in the world. Get there early, because there is a massive line. Take your ticket and sit down where they tell you (we are seated with a Polish couple). Order one of the two pizzas on the menu: Margherita with tomato, mozzarella and basil, or Marinara with tomato, garlic, and olive oil. We get one of each with two beers.
It’s truly, truly the best pizza we’ve ever had. Puffy, chewy crust, blistered from the heat of the oven, an enormous smack of fresh, sweet tomato, and the mozzarella that this region is famous for. 5 euros here will get you a better meal than any other establishment in Naples.
Nennella is more of a show than dinner. Once again, get there early if you don’t want to wait. Once again, sit where they tell you and pretty much attract attention as soon as you can lest ye be forgotten in the madness. Trattorias are super simple, working class restaurants, and this is as simple as it gets. For 12 euros a head, you can get an antipasto (prosciutto, mozzarella, olives and bread), followed by a primi (3 kinds of simple pasta) and a secondi (main course – a simply cooked meat or fish), and a dessert. The dessert here consists of either a whole peach, or a whole banana. No plate. Take it or leave it.
We get house wine, a mish-mash dish of pasta e fagioli, almost a cheesy, thick soup with pasta, beans and potato, and a simple penne with ragu sauce. Followed up by a caprese salad (amazing cheese, sub-par tomatoes) and grilled cod with tomatoes and capers. The fish is fresh but a little over-cooked. During our main courses the waiters all grab instruments and run around the restaurant singing for about 5 minutes. The whole thing is hilarious, but you can get better food around here for less money.
On the touristy side of things, we spend a day in the ruins of Pompeii, which is very cool, but without a guided tour or at least an audioguide, it all gets a bit same-y, and I think we missed out on seeing it’s full potential. Definitely worth a visit though if you fancy getting away from the noise for a few hours. Also, we take a quick 90 minute tour into the ‘sotterraneo’, which is the ancient underground tunnels below the city, first dug to excavate rock to build with, then becoming a system of tunnels and aquaducts, and even being used as bomb shelters during the wars before recently becoming open to the public as an exhibition. This is very cool – at one part, we hold candles as we squeeze through an 80m stretch of tunnel that is less than 40cm wide. Not for the squeamish.
All up we spend over a week in Naples during our trip, and we absolutely love it. Go for the food, stay for the madness, but you’ll need a few days at the beach afterwards, so that’s just where we’re heading next.