The 1.2-kilometer-long Via Toleda is the most exclusive shopping address in Naples, home to brands such as the Mac cosmetics store seen here. The street was named for Spanish viceroy Don Pedro di Toledo, who laid it out in 1536.
Naples – Long Read

Home of pizza lives life to its fullest

Photo by Ton Koene

Naples – Long Read Home of pizza lives life to its fullest

Hello Naples, where life is lived to the fullest in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius and an hour can stretch to 120 minutes or a whole evening. Pizza, its most famous dish, has become an international phenomenon yet visitors still avoid a city that may well be the soul of Italy.

Philip Blackmore
Philip Blackmore

Two young men. Two pairs of hands mirror each other, both turned up towards the Neapolitan sky, the fingertips on each making four separate pyramids. Neapolitan dialect pours out, as thick and as strong as dark espresso. From where I am sitting, I can see the back of one man’s blood-orange linen jacket stretched taut across his shoulders. His adversary, in an open- necked white linen shirt and blue-and- white seersucker jacket, does not look like he is going to give any ground.

The exchange rapidly becomes more heated, the body language looks increasingly ugly. And then, as suddenly as this altercation has blown up out of seemingly nowhere, the two combative peacocks move apart, their further shouting drowned out by honking car horns.

Whatever sparked the row – rivalry, family, a woman or work – I will never know. But such passion is a given in this city that oozes sex appeal, theater and a chaos of sorts in roughly equal measures. Few Italian cities seem to cause as many arguments among its locals – or its visitors. Although it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and its favorite local dish of pizza has become an international phenomenon, less than 13 percent of tourists who visit Italy bother with Naples. That is despite the beauty of the nearby Amalfi Coast being a major draw for both old and new money.

“Naples is a tourist wasteland and poor marketing is just one problem,” says Beppe Severgnini, a columnist for Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. “The Italian Tourist Board spends an astounding 98 percent of its budgets on salaries, leaving little for actual promotion. Until recently Campania, the regional authority for Naples, had a palatial New York residence on Fifth Avenue. The country doesn’t even have a minister for tourism as other European countries do. Public enterprises and the private sector wage war. Neighboring regions to Campania don’t even talk to each other.”

The volcano is a constant reminder

British-Italian hotelier and TV presenter Alex Polizzi featured Naples as one of Italy’s most under-rated destinations. “Naples is not conventionally beautiful and is sprawling, so it is a place that is hard to get to know in a few days,” she says. “However any visitor will ultimately find their efforts rewarded.” But in a city where modern shiny satellite dishes fuse with faded frescoes, the past continues to shape the city’s modernity.

Mount Vesuvius is only nine kilometers east of the city. The volcano’s last eruption in 1944 is recalled by older Neapolitans, their memories passed on to their grandchildren in bedtime stories. The belching giant destroyed a handful of villages and around 80 US B-25 Mitchell bombers at Pompeii airfield near Terzigno, just a few kilometers from the eastern base of the mountain.

“The volcano is a constant reminder to all of us that our lives should be lived to the full and as a result we have our way of doing things,” translates 25-year-old Alba for her grandfather, Emmanuelle Zinni. “I know from the few English visitors I meet that we have a reputation for having a hedonistic attitude, but that’s only one part of us,” she says. Her English is perfect, with a musical intonation that imbues her words with an almost operatic quality. “Nearly everything in my city is a display of feeling.”

Across the street from the bar where we met, I see a middle-aged man, his mass of dark hair sleekly brushed back, pause as he passes a young mother outside a cake shop. She has a baby-carrier strapped to her chest and I can just make out the top of a pink bonnet and two legs dangling. The man bends his head and says something to the young woman before fondly stroking the baby’s head. Alba follows my gaze. “Neapolitan men love babies,” she says, smiling. “Especially other people’s,” she adds with a sensuous toss of her blonde hair.

We agree to meet with some of her friends for an aperitivo at 6pm that evening. In typically Neapolitan style, she says she’ll call later to let me know which bar but that it will probably be one along Via Albardiei in the heart of the city’s luxury shopping area. It depends how they all feel. Aperitivo hour in Naples – like everything in this city – is flexible. A Naples hour can be anything from 60 to 120 minutes or, if the vibe is good and the evening sultry, a whole evening that stretches into dinner then dawn and even beyond.

We need our traditions

Several hours later and I am having a crash course in the latest aperitivo etiquette. Alba’s friends chatter like starlings over each other as they recommend one aperitivo after another. A glass of chilled Falangino (the local white wine), an Aperol Spritz (11 percent less alcohol than Campari, milder and less bitter), a Sanbiter (a non-alcoholic bitter served in tiny bottles that comes in red or clear) or a sparkling glass of Prosecco (the Italian equivalent to French Champagne or the Spanish Cava). I can tell already it’s going to be a Naples-style aperitivo “hour”.

As the evening wears on, I try a Negroni cocktail (red vermouth and bitter Campari, dry gin) but notice Alba’s friends, both the men and women, order an Americano (red vermouth, bitter Campari but topped up with soda water, not gin). Taking it easy is how the Neapolitans party late and stay stylish while eating the amounts of pasta, pizza and gelato (ice cream) they do.

“Neapolitans don’t just respect ritual,” says Simone Colombo. “We love our rituals. We need our rituals. We need our traditions. We love our traditions.” He is a newsstand seller, born and brought up in the Spanish Quarter of the city. Every morning I greet him near my hotel and the subject of our conversations has grown as the days pass and my limited Italian improves with the help of better mastery of the Neapolitan language of the hands.

He pauses and then joins his hands together as if in prayer, his fingertips and face turning upward towards the heavens. “The influence of tradition is in how we worship our God, how we eat, how we drink. Our capital city may be Rome but Naples is the country’s soul.”

I have never seen a Neapolitan drunk

I realize that I have never seen a Neapolitan drunk, despite the fact that every evening they all seem to be drinking some type of alcohol. I start to notice all these little rituals Simone has referred to when it is time for colazione (breakfast), pranzo (lunch) or cena (dinner). Bread is only ever put on the table (and never with butter) at the same time as the pasta course but only if I ask for it. Cappuccino is never drunk after breakfast and never ever after a meal – only espresso. Fish is never served in a cheese sauce. Spaghetti is always wound around a fork and the fork is never used with a spoon. I have never seen a single pasta dish where chicken is an ingredient.

Salad dressing is always oil and wine vinegar, chocolate ice cream is only served with vanilla ice cream, never with a fruit flavor – again, unless you ask. Eating and drinking in the city is a leisurely affair and I rarely see any local people eating on the street, only tourists. Even a swift espresso is always taken standing in a bar, served in a cup with a saucer. No paper cups.

And then we come to pizza. Pizza in Naples is a ritual, a tradition and, some might argue, a religion. A recent piece by Bernardo Lovene on the Italian current affairs show Report stirred up furious controversy in Naples. He interviewed staff and pizzaioli (pizza makers), alleging a whole raft of issues and shortcomings, including the use of substandard ingredients. He cited Chinese tomatoes being used instead of San Marzano ones (traditionally grown in the volcanic soil surrounding Mount Vesuvius; less acidic and slightly sweeter than other tomatoes), the bussing-in of prefabricated pizza bases and the adulteration of olive oil using palm, soya and sunflower oil.

The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana and the Mayor of Naples were furious, robustly speaking out in defense of the city’s pizza- making heritage. Lovene backtracked a little later, writing in Corriere della Sera that “pizza is good for you – good as long as you use the right ingredients, don’t burn it and don’t let your oven get too smoky.”

Customers who have been loyal for decades

Competition among Naples’ historic pizzerias is fierce, with many having customers who have been loyal for decades. Some restaurants serve only the three disputed pizza classics, although even their ingredients are a subject of heated dispute. Napoletana Marinara is made with San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, oregano and olive oil; Napoletana Margherita is the same but substitutes basil for oregano; and Napoletana Margherita DOC is distinguished by its use of buffalo mozzarella made from buffalo milk, or fior de latte from fresh cow’s milk.

Pizzeria 50 Kalo – in Neapolitan dialect, it very loosely translates as “Good Dough” – is one of the new crop of pizza joints seeking to transform the humble dish into a gourmet product crafted with top-notch ingredients. “It is our dough that sets us apart from the competition,” says co-owner Ciro Salvo above the general lunchtime noise. “We make a dough that is more digestible than the traditional pizzerias. And we use only seasonal and complementary local ingredients such as zucchini pesto with prosciutto (air-dried ham) or one with squash blossoms and Nero Casertano salami.”

When I ask what he thinks of popular commercial styles such as Hawaiian or chicken pizza, he pulls a face. Rolling his dark eyes, he lifts his hands palm upwards and mouths something that does not need translating.

My own language deteriorates when I take a ride next day on the back of a scooter. “Hold on tight, we have a packed itinerary to get through,” calls my friend Alessandro Tofani, as we pull away from the kerb. I am soon thinking of the phrase coined in the city during the Golden Age: “Vedi Napoli e poi muori” – "See Naples before you die". I am glad to be wearing a helmet, unlike Alessandro, as we whizz along Via Spaccanopoli, the knife-straight street that cuts the age-old Centro Storico in two. The street teams with locals but Alessandro rarely slows.

Alessandro locks eyes with her

Then we screech to a stop as a car backs out of a side street. Looking up, I see a shop crammed with religious icons. Statues of female saints reveal hearts that spurt blood, while bare- chested saints self-flagellate. A striking, dark-haired young woman outside, wearing a white skirt and pink lip-gloss, toys with a cross that hangs around her neck. Alessandro locks eyes with her, his look long and lingering.

We pick up speed again, weaving our way through small winding streets, past shops and a bewildering array of ice cream parlors. As we skirt past the Piazzo del Plebiscito, Alessandro shouts to remind me that this is where you traditionally stand with your back to the Palazzo Reale, eyes-closed, to try to walk between the two bronze horses. It is not as easy as it sounds as the floor of the piazza slopes, throwing you off balance.

The streets become a kaleidoscopic blur of stalls selling giant salamis, fresh-skinned rabbits and wheels of pecorino cheese as big as car wheels. Along the Via San Carlo, just outside the opera house, we are sandwiched momentarily between two cars that treat the red traffic signal merely as a recommendation to slow down. Pedestrians swirl alongside the road in a bright combination of colors like the tricolore salad of red tomatoes, creamy white mozzarella and green avocado.

“That is Christmas Alley,” says Alessandro, gesticulating with his right hand, as he slows for once to negotiate a sharp turn. This is where they make all the figures for Christmas mangers. “Not just the figures conventionally connected to the story but other items such as butchers' stalls that hang with realistic meats and sausages,” he says. “My mother has a manger with over 30 figures that she has collected for years.”

Everything is made by hand

There is no time to shop right now as Alessandro has two last stops to make. At a dilapidated apartment building, he leaves me on the Vespa but soon returns with a small package. “Gloves for my mother,” he says. “She’s been buying them direct from Mauro, the family owner of the company, for years. He’s a cousin.”

Naples is full of such tiny “factories” where talented artisans, seamstresses and cobblers have long worked for the family that owns them. Everything is made by hand with the international couture houses eager to snap up the city’s skills when it comes to accessorizing their collections with gloves, scarves and belts.

Our last stop is nearby in Via Santa Maria, where Alessandro has come to pick up a jacket from tailor Elia Caliendo. Elia, looking dapper in a blue jacket, white shirt, trousers and dark brown suede tasselled loafers, gives me a short explanation of what makes the Naples jacket unique.

“The shoulders are soft, no padding, the chest pocket is cut ‘a barchetta’ (boat-shaped)," he says. “There is minimal lining. Our climate can be sultry so it should fit like a second skin.” He shows me how the buttons overlap on the cuffs and how the overall jacket is slightly shorter than an English or American one. The shoulders fall softly, with a puckered effect given by tucking excess cloth in the arms into a too-small armhole. The style is named Spalla camicia – shirt shoulder – for its similarity to shirt-making.

As I prepare once again to put my life in Alessandro’s hands, I realize he is actually already wearing the Naples jacket. I comment on how stylish it looks. “Stylish? You mean sprezzatura,” he says. “It means coolness, nonchalance, elegance, putting others at ease. Maybe the best translation, if you like, is it describes an attitude.”

As the scooter engine revs up, I ponder how in Naples even a jacket has a soul.

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