Naples is a misunderstood city. It is an old city, one of the oldest continuously inhabited in the world, with a long and proud history. Yet people often judge Naples by its recent decline and struggle with crime. The Italian Mafia group known as the Camorra originated here, dating back to the 16th century. The Camorra are behind hundreds, if not thousands, of murders and have given Naples the notoriety of having the highest rate of unemployment and crime in Europe. With this said, Naples should be on everyone’s list when traveling to Italy. It is often skipped on the way to the Amalfi Coast or Pompeii, but it has a very authentic, if a bit grimy, vibe.
We arrived fairly late in the day and took the metro to a stop near our hostel. The metro station had a unique arrangement of modern art that was totally unexpected. Apparently the largest collection of art in the city is located in the underground stations. Upon arriving at our hostel, dubbed The Hostel of the Sun, we were greeted by one of the friendliest people I have ever met. He claimed it was a tradition for couples to have “their” song played before entering their room, so we danced, or should I say stumbled along, to Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud. When the song was over, our friend chattered about the city and the must-dos’s, circling and scribbling on a tourist map. Heeding his advice, we headed out to munch on some of the city’s most famous cuisine: pizza!
The modern version of pizza was invented in Naples. It began as a meal for the poor, but became extremely popular after 1889 when Queen Margherita came to visit. To commemorate her visit, a local pizzeria created a new type of pizzas with the colors of the Italian flag. It was a simple recipe with three ingredients: tomatoes (red), mozzarella (white), and basil (green). It came to be known simply as the Margherita.
As the inventors of the dish, Neapolitans take their pizza seriously. Not only are there literally hundreds of pizzerias in the city, but for a pizzeria to be considered truly Neapolitan there are very strict rules on the ingredients and the cooking process. For our first sample of Neapolitan pizza we headed to Di Matteo on Via Tribunali. A huge crowd was gathered around outside and the scene was rather chaotic. After determining most people were waiting for a seat in the tiny, crammed restaurant, we squeezed into the kitchen area and ordered for take-out. We pointed to the ingredients we desired and bought a deep-fried mozzarella ball for the wait. Surprisingly, our pizza was done in less than 10 minutes. We grabbed the box and headed to a bench in a nearby square. Then we realized why everyone had been waiting to sit down. In Italy, pizza is neither cut into slices nor eaten by hand. The dough is soft and the middle is runny to the point where it is a real mess without silverware. No matter… we tore it into pieces and licked ingredients off our oily hands, it was that good! No joke, it was some of the best pizza I’ve ever had. And we were just getting started!
The next morning we chatted with an interesting Scottish couple at breakfast. They had traveled all over the world and had plenty of entertaining stories. We met up for a walking tour outside of Castel Nuovo, one of four castles still remaining in the city. It was currently under renovations as well as the site of an archaeological dig as they had recently uncovered some ancient ruins underneath. Our walking tour first led us to the enormous Piazza del Plebiscito. It is one of the largest in Europe and strangely was once used a car park. From there we weaved through some busy streets, past a large market, and into the Spanish Quarter. The area is laid out as a perfect grid, with tiny cobblestone alleyways in between. Motorbikes zip up and down narrowly dodging pedestrians. Created in the 16th century to house the Spanish troops who were stationed there to smash the uprising, the Spanish Quarter is the area with the highest crime and most poverty. It is also the location of some of the best pizza in the city. When the tour was over, we tried out another pizzeria two blocks East of Di Matteo. This one was called Dal Presidente. The name comes from when President Bill Clinton stopped by during a G8 summit. Seeing as it was good enough for President Clinton, we gave it a go. It did not disappoint. It may have been even better than Di Matteo.
After lunch we visited Catel dell’Ovo, the oldest standing in the city. It was built on a peninsula dangling out into the ocean. From its ramparts, we could see the entire Bay of Naples with Mt. Vesuvius looming dangerously in the background.
With only a few hours until we headed out of town, we did the only thing any sensible person in Naples would do… ate more pizza! This time we paid a visit to possibly the most famous pizzeria in the world. Featured in the Julia Robert’s movie Eat, Pray, Love, L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele is a legend. Since we were a bit early compared to typical Italian standards, we avoided a rush and got right in. Started in 1906 by a third generation pizza maker, Da Michele’s motto is as Naples as it gets. “There are only two types of Neapolitan pizza: the Marinera & the Margherita. No junk should ever be used in preparing the pizza.” Perhaps this motto is why Da Michele’s makes the greatest pizza in the world. Yes it’s simple. Yes there are only two options. And yes it is absolutely delicious. We wolfed down another pizza each, cherishing each and every bite. Using silverware like true Italians, we cut and sliced our way through the chewy dough, tasty tomato sauce, zesty basil, and oily Mozzarella. There was a little bit of heaven in every mouthful. With our tummies full, it was time for the night train to the canals of Venice and a nice long walk to burn off our weight gain. But mark my words Naples, I will return for MORE!