Having blogged about my epic foodie trip in Puglia on Italian Talks, this post describes what my friend and I did next. Our goal was to end our trip in style while sampling another regional Italian cuisine.
Naples has always attracted me as the home to so many world-famous Italian favourites – la pizza, la sfogliatella, il timballo, gli spaghetti alle vongole…the list goes on. There is also the draw of the Neapolitan people, famous for their hospitality, passion and love of a good party.
So when we kept meeting friendly napoletani in Puglia, we took this as a sign and hopped on a direct bus from Gallipoli, destination Naples!
During the bus trip we were inundated with ideas from fellow passengers on where to go for good pasta, the most authentic pizza, the sweetest sweets and the best wine. If you want to get people from Naples hot under the collar just get them talking about food: the endless debates were fascinating!
It dawned on us that most of our 36 hours in the “Citta’ del sole” would be spent eating.
On arrival, we were struck by the city’s fading beauty, making it even more seductive. Naples is in no sense “curated” for visitors and all the more charming for this.
For example this “deserted” piazza and façade of a church close to where we stayed is unknown even to many Neapolitans (I checked by quizzing friends who were totally stumped!).
With time so short, we headed out that evening with the aim of dining in a typical Neapolitan trattoria.
But first we fancied aperitivo – Napoli style! And through a lucky coincidence the humble aperitivo recommended to us was on the same street as our restaurant, in the lively Quartieri Spagnoli district. And it was just one euro for a glass of very quaffable local wine!
This experience was different to the elegant aperitivi you might find in Milan and northern Italy, which I also love. And it was a great way to get a flavour of Naples’ unique culture and sociable vibe.
The friendly gent who runs this aperitivo is a local institution and always ready to pose for a photo!
Cammarota Spritz thumbs up
On to dinner, and our first sit-down Naples meal was a full-on immersive experience.
Entering Da Nennella, you encounter a wall of noise – singing waiters bustling past holding trays laden with steaming hot plates, a bell rung apparently randomly, noisy tables filled with extended Italian families. It felt like a movie set. We were entranced by the sounds, the aromas and the conviviality. It was everything Naples had promised in one room!
Our waiter seemed relieved that I spoke Italian but his responses were nearly incomprehensible to me as he rambled away in Neapolitan dialect. This scenario was to be repeated over the next day or two!
The menu was designed to show off fresh local ingredients. There was nothing fancy on offer because that is not the Naples way – it’s always substance over style, generosity over presentation.
My simple Caprese salad was a delight as I lingered over those juicy Neapolitan tomatoes offset by the creamy mozzarella and just the right amounts of basil, salt and olive oil.
We also enjoyed some local greens called scarole along with a pork main and some good house wine. Our waiter brought the food over with a flourish as he continued to exchange friendly banter in napoletano, oblivious to the fact that we didn’t understand a word!
And he’d occasionally burst into song, to the delight of his regular customers.
Naples is a place where food is celebrated in good company and where deceptively simple dishes are presented by your hosts with a glint in their eye. And the atmosphere is kind of brash, jokey and down-to-earth.
After such a full-on start to our Naples experience we were ready to chill out, but that’s not the Naples style! So we headed on towards Piazza Bellini, a central square where everyone gathers at night.
It was nearing midnight on a Monday by the time we arrived, but felt more like Saturday night. People were spilling onto the street from pavement cafes and bars, enjoying street food and drinks while bantering with friends and family.
It felt a bit like a Spanish or South American city at fiesta time.
It was easy to join in and make new friends who helped us “decipher” Naples (even people from Naples consider their city an enigma, a puzzle that needs solving to make any sense at all!).
Naples is fun to explore as a visitor because it is ever so slightly disorganised. Not much is “set out” for tourists. Which means you constantly “discover”. Isn’t that after all why we travel?
And it’s a city where you somehow always find yourself socialising and eating!
Our kind new friends on Piazza Bellini helped set up our itinerary for the next day. The warnings you sometimes hear about “being careful” in Naples could be true, but our experience was totally stress-free.
The next morning we woke up excited to have a full day ahead to explore Naples.
With only 24 hours remaining, we were keen to track down the two classics of pizza and sfogliatella as fast as possible.
We began with a quest for the authentic sfogliatella, having been consistently recommended a place in the city centre.
On our way we stopped for espressos and discovered why coffee in Naples is considered the best in Italy – according to our barista, it boils down to their great water which runs down from the nearby mountains.
And then as is common in Naples, we were diverted from our original plan as we ran into a lively food market on the way. Pignasecca had already been one of our top tips from locals so we were ecstatic to stumble onto it unexpectedly!
Pignasecca is a traditional food market. We saw old madams haggling with street vendors as they proudly displayed their freshest produce amidst a cascade of colour and noise.
The market fizzled with activity and represented everything I had dreamt of finding in Naples.
We couldn’t resist grabbing some fresh fruit. Thanks to a freshwater tap nearby, we created a spontaneous mini picnic of market produce. There was also some exquisite looking street food on offer which we could barely resist!
Scheduled eating times are irrelevant in Naples as you inevitably run into temptations enroute, so you may as well give up trying!
After what ended up a lengthy diversion in the market, we got back to our primary mission: sfogliatella.
A few friends from Naples had suggested ‘Sfogliatella Mary’, an unassuming little stand somewhat hidden away. On finding it we were confronted by a tempting array of choices.
Interestingly for a product so deeply associated with Naples, the first sfogliatelle are said to have originated in a monastery in the province of Salerno. But the recipe was then acquired by a pastry chef from Naples called Pasquale Pintauro, who began selling them in 1818.
Nowadays Italians and tourists alike scramble to grab a sfogliatella as soon as they get to Naples! And after one bite you understand why. Delicately crisp in its famous “riccia” form, it is an indulgence that gives you your full money’s worth, delivering sweet enjoyment from each delicious crumb.
As well as several wolfed down on the spot, my friend and I also took some away with us – returning for a few more later on. The lady glanced at my suspiciously large bag and joked if it was a sfogliatella hold-up…it might as well have been!
I personally prefer the less popular “frolla” version. It is made from a shortcrust dough with a soft texture rather than the crispy layers of a “sfogliatella riccia”, but has a similar addictive aftertaste.
All over Italy, families are arguing over the merits of “riccia” vs “frolla” – better try both to decide for yourself!
By now our appetites were satiated, but as tough foodie soldiers we ploughed on with our duty and moved onto the next quest: to find the best pizza in Naples.
I followed my usual tactic of interviewing locals, several of whom confirmed that “L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele” was the place to go.
One old gent on the street almost burst into Neapolitan verse in describing it, while another insisted on giving me a granita for the road. His stand was beautifully adorned with chains of local lemons…on a hot summer’s day, how could anyone resist?
Yes folks it’s impossible to go more than 10 minutes in Naples without consuming something!
When we reached Da Michele there was a big line of people and not just tourists! We’d been told that this was the only pizzeria in Naples where even locals queue for a pizza.
Being British, I find the idea of jumping a queue totally horrifying, one of my all-time top 3 nightmares.
But one of our Naples friends the night before had suggested what he said was a perfectly legal “hack”: just march to the front saying “Permesso! Permesso!” and announce that you want to order a take-away (“Una pizza da portare via”).
That apparently marks you out to be served right away, since takeaways are supposed to be separate to the main queue (to be fair no obvious queueing “system” seemed to exist anyway!).
This approach worked but with one slight catch…we were suddenly stranded with two steaming hot and to add to the pressure, historic pizzas on the streets of Naples, with nowhere to go to eat them! With no obvious picnic spots in sight and rapidly cooling pizzas in hand, this was a true pizza emergency!
Not sure what to do, we hailed a cab. I was embarrassed about eating in the cab but the pizza was hot and its aromas were irresistible. The driver looked at us incredulously: “Mangiate! Mangiate!”
Nobody ever stands on ceremony in Naples. We offered him a slice but he told us he was just happy to have customers enjoy a true Neapolitan pizza in his cab! Tell that to a London cabbie!
In keeping with the Naples tradition at Da Michele they offer just two varieties: Margherita and Marinara. Both are vegetarian and cost around 4 Euros, despite the long queues.
The beauty is in the simplicity and exceptional ingredients. The “pizza” exported to other countries has lost this innocence.
Of course Naples has other more “commercial” pizza restaurants which straddle the demands of tourism and tradition in less rigorous fashion.
The feature photo at the top for example shows a great pizza we ate at Gino Sorbillo – another famous Naples pizza institution. It was an excellent pizza in a more conventional setting offering a lot more choice than Da Michele. But the latter remained our favourite.
So if you want authentic Neapolitan pizza then go to the temple of pizza at Da Michele (est. 1870– though they still haven’t got round to updating their website!) – you won’t regret it!
Da Michele finished pizzas
As we were walking off the pizza in the old town, we passed a neighbourhood trattoria proudly displaying some street-food snacks on a little stall outside. As the lady stacking the stall noticed our curious glances, she beckoned us in and asked us what we wanted to try.
I pointed at a pie-like pastry filled with some kind of greenery which looked similar to spinach – “Pizza di scarola!”she exclaimed as she threw one at me (not literally, but there was no chance she was going to take ‘no’ for an answer as she deftly laid one onto a plate and spun it in front of me in a single move…this is another Naples skill – it is physically impossible to resist the onslaught of food!).
It was the same local green vegetable discovered the previous night at Da Nennella and was even more delicious in this “pizza” format.
We also succumbed to other street-food snacks and small bites which she prepared specially for us including cold cuts of meat, local cheeses, pizza fritta, pasties and other delights.
Our mission to walk off the pizza had only led to yet another spontaneous meal!
Naples is full of surprises. And though the food culture is deeply ingrained, there is a lot more to see and do there.
For example, we kept coming across beautiful churches that seemed to be in no guidebook yet were absolutely stunning (Naples is also known as “dalle 500 cupole” due to its proliferation of churches).
With the sociable locals providing an irresistible welcome (and constantly offering you food!), it is a perfect city break destination for a long or short stay.
Naples provided a fitting way to complete our Italian food odyssey which had begun a few weeks earlier in Puglia. Napoli ti amo…and I’m definitely coming back to see you!
Feature photo: Pizza from Gino Sorbillo
Rajul Chande is a lifelong Italy lover based in London and founder of digital marketing agency Positive Partnerships. Check out his photos of food from Italy and elsewhere on Instagram @buona.forchetta.
Concierge Tip: Tempted to try sfogliatella in London while immersed in a quintessentially English tradition? The recently-renovated Brunello Bar & Restaurant at Baglioni Hotel London offers a unique Afternoon Tea with an Italian Twist in a stylish setting with views of Kensington Gardens, including a delightful “sfogliatina napoletana” based on the typical Naples’ pastry.