I had been to Naples once before, for a few hours, on our honeymoon, twelve years ago. We hurried across town in a taxi, from airport to ferry terminal, where we boarded a boat to Capri. The taxi driver took one look at our drawn jet-lagged faces, our shiny new wedding bands, our eager American smiles and proceeded to cheat the hell out of us. What can I say? He saw an opportunity and he seized it. And so, when I received the opportunity to visit Naples for a few days this summer, I was at once excited and apprehensive. Excited because of the food, the museums, the Italy. Did I mention the food? Apprehensive because I was a woman traveling alone, in a notoriously shady city that had outfoxed me once before.
I packed with care, leaving my camera, wallet, and engagement ring at home. I borrowed a friend’s travel pouch, stuffed it with a modest amount of cash, and strapped it on beneath my clothes, never mind that it made me look five months pregnant. I kept loose change and two credit cards in a ziplock baggie. I carried a tote bag turned inside out so that no one would see the English words printed on the side. I obsessed over these precautions — but the minute I spied Naples from the air, eyes bleary from the 6:30am flight — I felt a jolt of pure excitement. A whole new city filled with food discoveries! All I could think of was pizza.
Pizza was my first meal — a “marinara,” with no cheese, all tangy sauce, fragrant garlic, and soft, soggy center. As we ate lunch, my friend, Paola — native Napolitana, professor at the local university, and fellow former Beijing expat — told me about her city. Later, she led me on a tour of narrow streets, pointing out her favorite restaurants, shops, and churches, spending generous hours helping me to orient myself, even though she was leaving on a business trip the next morning. Thanks to Paola, I saw an entire ancient Roman shopping street unfurl before my very eyes, beneath the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore. I gazed at the stark, shadowed figures of a Caravaggio at the Pio Monte della Misericordia. I learned that the cracked façade of an unassuming building can hide a spectacular modern apartment: cool Mediterranean terracotta floors, glossy Italian fittings, and a sun-splashed terrazzo shaded by a lemon tree, an olive, a kumquat.
Thanks to Paola, I discovered the most delicious sfogliatella — this kind is called “riccia,” which means ruffly — crunchy, baked layers wrapped around sweet ricotta perfumed with cinnamon and candied orange peel. She told me to visit Pintauro, on the via Toledo, a tiny pasticceria with very odd hours. Every time I passed (which was at least twice a day) they were closed. On my last morning, I arrived at 9:30am, but the riccia were still in the oven. (Have I mentioned that I do not speak Italian? A lot of Napolitanos speak English, and my French went a long way, but I still communicated mainly by pantomime.) I went for a walk around the block, returned fifteen minutes later, and held this beauty in my hand, the pastry’s heat almost unbearable. I devoured it on the street.
In fact, there was a lot of eating on the street, by tourists and locals alike. Like the pizza fritta at Sorbillo — a round of dough dabbed with tomato sauce, buffalo ricotta, buffalo mozzarella, and cicoli (“pressed cakes of fatty pork,” says Wikipedia), folded into a half moon and deep fried. The result was blistering hot, greasy enough to soak a double paper wrapper, and yet surprisingly light, the dough at once crisp and chewy. When you receive your dangerously hot bundle, there’s a ritual juggling from hand to hand, as you let it cool enough to raise it to your lips. Is it ready yet? Ouch, no. Is it ready yet? Ouch, no. Is it ready yet? YES. Molten ricotta sears your mouth; filaments of mozzarella fly through the air.
Naples is famous for its fried snacks, sold from street-side stands that look like money-laundering fronts — they display no food — because they cook everything at the last minute. I entered the Friggitoria Vomero just as school had let out for lunch, walking straight into a crowd of ravenous, screaming schoolchildren. I almost fled in terror, but I held my ground in the name of research, even though it took me a few panicked minutes to figure out the system: Pay at the cashier first. Then move to the counter to receive your fritti. The kids pressed around me like feral foxes, waving and shouting at the woman behind the counter to fill their order. She moved with calm efficiency, unbothered by a scene that I dubbed “Lord of the Fries.” (Ba dum bum.) On the sidewalk, I ate a potato croquette, an arancino rice ball, and a zucchini blossom (total price: €1). The latter items were a little too cold and I realized too late that I should have been more strategic when ordering, choosing not my favorite foods, but rather the items that had just emerged from the fryer. Next time.
I learned a lot from my mistakes. Standing at the counter of a café, I ordered a sfogliatella with my espresso. After an incomprehensible exchange (on my end) with the barman, I received a warm pastry that I later discovered was the Other Sfogliatella. Called “frolla,” this is like a soft shortbread cookie filled with the same sweetened ricotta mixture as its frillier sibling.
One rainy afternoon, I visited the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, one of the most famous museums in the world, stuffed with a collection of ancient artifacts: marbles, bronzes, mosaics, and more. I had dreamed of visiting this place ever since our honeymoon day trip to Pompeii, and I (and about a hundred French tourists) wandered the galleries in a blissful sweat (there was no air conditioning; the place was stuffy as hell).
At one end of the museum, I found a gated room called the Gabinetto Segreto, or secret cabinet, where I was surprised to discover quite an eye-popping collection… let’s just say that’s not a gherkin in the photo above… those cheeky ancient Romans! Seriously, the objects here reminded me of that movie Super Bad, sort of relentlessly, hilariously thematic.
My only regret of the whole trip is that I didn’t eat clams, especially since I kept seeing them for sale. But the one night I decided to splurge on a nice meal, my restaurant of choice was fully booked. Instead, I drank wine at the outdoor Enoteca Belledonne, and ate more pizza fritta for dinner, which ended up being kind of a perfect evening after all.
Before I left town, I made sure to pick up a corno, a charm in the shape of a horn, meant to ward off the evil eye and bring good luck. You see them everywhere in the historical center, hanging in bright strings that resemble dried chile peppers. I bought two and tucked them safely inside my anonymous tote bag.
As I headed to the airport in the backseat of a taxi, I finally allowed myself to relax. I had made it through three days and nights in Naples, without getting pickpocketed or rooked (that I knew about). I think my cab driver must have seen me heave a little sigh, for when we pulled up to the curb, he tried to tack an extra €6 onto the fare we’d already negotiated. But I held firm, and we ended our transaction with a smile. What can I say? He saw an opportunity and he seized it. Naples will always be Naples.
IF YOU GO – TIPS
–For clear information on Naples taxis, visit the blog Napoli Unplugged. In short, there is a fixed rate to travel from the airport to the historical center (and vice versa), but you must ask for it when you get in the car. (Learn how to say “tariffa predeterminata.”) If you want a receipt, you have to ask for it at the beginning of the trip (“ricevuta“). Know your rights. Be firm.
–Many cafés, bars, and food stands in Naples have a particular payment system. 1) Order and pay at the cashier. 2) Make sure to collect your receipt. 3) Show this receipt to the barman, fry cook, what have you. 4) Collect your goods.