The southern port city of Naples, or Napoli in Italian, evokes very polarized views among travelers, Neapolitans, and northern Italians. Founded by the Greeks in the 9th century B.C., it is a city that has evolved through a long history of conquests and shifts in civilization, religion, and culture. On the train ride to meet up with Pietro’s family in Naples, I sit next to an older Italian gentleman who starts asking about my trip. During our conversation, I ask whether or not he is from Naples. He looks at me incredulously and laughs at my stupidity, “What? Naples?! Ohhh no no no! No way! I’m from Milan!” and immediately warns me about all the shady characters I might encounter there. Although Naples is not without its share of problems—dumpsters and street corners perpetually overflowing with garbage; political corruption; petty street crime—it possesses a certain southern charm that is not always apparent in northern Italian cities.
For the most part, the people are friendly and open- particularly if you try to speak some Italian first. In fact, they seem very family and pet-oriented (the city is especially pet-friendly…a few restaurants we went to allowed dogs). However, navigating the city proved challenging. Maps are simply unable to capture all of the tiny streets and piazzas that have existed since ancient times. The Neapolitans are always happy to point us in the right direction. But the traffic- oh the traffic. It is said that Naples has the worst traffic in the world, outside of Cairo, Egypt.
From the main train station in Naples, we get a cab and head towards the hotel. The cab proceeds to weave through a mess of cars, buses, mopeds, and pedestrians coming from all directions and heads straight into oncoming traffic on a busy two-way street. At the last minute, the cab swerves over the right lane- a few other cars follow suit, as if it is business as usual. Two-way streets are open to interpretation in Naples. You can go along traffic, against traffic, take left turns directly into oncoming traffic…no problem. There is a mutual understanding on the streets that somehow makes it all work. That doesn’t mean that my life doesn’t flash before my eyes every so often while riding the cabs or crossing the streets.
All pros and cons aside though- Naples has absolutely incredible food. It is the birthplace of pizza, land of the most delicious pomodorini (small tomatoes that grow by Mount Vesuvius), and source of great, fresh seafood.
Ciro a Medina
Via Medina, 19 80133 Napoli, Italy
We get two seafood appetizers- the first (above, left) is an insalata ai frutti di mare, or salad with seafood. There is a cold mixture of small clams, mussels, whole shrimp, squid, on top of a bed of radicchio, with lemon on the side. The other antipasto platter (above, right) is olive oil and vinegar marinated salmon and sardines. Both types of fish have a very delicate texture, and the vinegar marinade is not very overpowering, but presents only a hint of acidity. The dishes are both garnished with fresh Italian parsley- fresh herbs definitely enhance any dish.
Restaurants in Naples have different interpretations of pasta dishes, particularly sauces. At Ciro a Medina, spaghetti vongole (spaghetti with clams), the pasta is cooked in a light sauce, in what appears to be only an infusion of olive oil, clam broth, and perhaps butter. The pomodorini are cooked and served in slices, and not in the form of red sauce. As you can see, this dish does not require many complex ingredients- in fact, it only really features three or four. At the same time, it is absolutely delicious, flavorful, and refreshing.
Most of the staff at Ciro speak English, and are very friendly when we ask about the linguistic differences between Northern and Southern Italian. The English word “now” in Italian is adesso while in Neopolitan Italian it is simply “mo” (not sure of spelling). The restaurant is a cheerful place- frequented by tourists as well as locals and sometimes, their small dogs. Paintings of old Italian market scenes adorn the walls.
I notice a basket on the ledge of the low wall on the second floor of the restaurant. It is tied to a long rope, which is tied to a column in the restaurant. The basket is used to quickly transport bread from the kitchen on the second floor to the dining areas on the first floor. One waiter fills the basket with bread, then immediately drops it down to the first floor, where another waiter picks up the bread and distributes it to the diners.
Via Medina, 32 80133 Napoli, Italy
Down the street from Ciro is another great find- the Trattoria Medina. There is one waiter who is in charge of about 10 tables and is working at the speed of light. He quickly gets us our bottled water and rushes over to the basket dangling from the second floor to pick up our bread. In Italy, tap water is not usually served at restaurants. Italians order mineral water, either aqua naturale or aqua frizzante (still water or sparkling water). The waiter hands us a neatly wrapped brown paper package with visible grease stains seeping through. What could it be? A distinct greasy Five Guys brown paper bag filled with amazing fries perhaps?
Well- I think I’m going to have to give this one to the Italians. Upon unwrapping our lovely little gift, we discover various fried treats from fried risotto balls to fried potato and cheese. I personally think it would be a great new food truck idea because who wouldn’t love fried Italian food? It is crazy delicious! Of course we ended up being charged for our gift, but I guess that should’ve been obvious, since it was definitely worth the additional 4 euros.
Now for the pizza. Pizza in Naples is different from what we have grown up with, unless you grew up in Italy in which case you have been lucky enough to experience this from a young age:
This is a pizza with mozzarella, pomodorini, Italian salami, and fresh ricotta cheese. Note: there is no tomato sauce- only real tomato slices, as tomato sauce is added to certain types of pizza (such as the simple Margherita pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil). The ricotta cheese is out of this world. Despite how the mounds of ricotta appear to be taking over the pizza, they do not overpower the rest of the ingredients at all. In fact, the ricotta is very mild, with a creamy and rich texture. The pizza crust is very thin, with a chewy crust. Now that is a great pizza.
On the agenda for the evening is a classical concert at the renown Teatro di San Carlo, founded by the Bourbon King Charles VII of Naples (or Carlo VII in Italian) in 1737. We happened to come across a poster for the night’s performance of Schubert, Mozart, and Beethoven while walking past the theater and decide to get tickets. The event at this glamorous venue is open to the public and accessible at 15 euros per person.
We quickly realize that MTV Italy’s free Summer Music Festival is also scheduled for the same night close to the Teatro, at the Piazza del Plebiscito. There are 15 acts lined up for the concert, with Maroon 5 and N.E.R.D., among the Italian artists. After a memorable and enjoyable night of symphonies from the 18th century, surrounded by royal decor and rich marble statues of battling angel babies, we walk over to the Piazza to check out the scene.
And of course the scene is a 180 from where we were 10 minutes ago- from a hushed, ornate concert hall attended by older cultured types to a large outdoor rock venue with jumping tweens wearing flashing bunny ears and screaming along with their favorite Italian bands. The ground is covered with plastic and glass bottles, empty food wrappers, paper cups, and other litter. The crowds crush the litter and kick it around while they rock out to the songs. One look at the available waste facilities (below) and you can probably understand why this might be the case. It is kind of an organized mess- with glass and plastic bottles piled carefully around the tiny bin- but it inevitably ends up spreading throughout the rest of the venue.
Upon first glance by the unsuspecting visitor, Naples can be quite overwhelming and stressful- chaotic streets with litter and young loiterers everywhere– but like most places and situations, there are reasons why a place is the way it is. How you perceive it depends on how much you are able to accept and try to understand the context. Above all, in Naples you have to roll with the punches!
Photocredit for 5 Guys: http://www.cheese-burger.net