Naples’ Infernal Bliss

Naples, Italy is the most peaceful city on the planet–at least it seems that way when looking down on it from high above. Its narrow, laundry strewn streets appear still and almost lifeless. A steady stream of morning fog from the bay hovers over the sprawl of post-war apartment blocks. The mountainous isle of Capri peeks coyly through the fog. Even the usually ominous Mount Vesuvius–the volcano whose eruption instantly buried the nearby city of Pompeii in 79 A.D.–looks like just another cloudy hilltop. I’m standing on the roof of the Castel Sant’ Elmo, a massive 14th-century fortification that’s perched on the mountaintop district of Vomero, far removed from the infamous chaos of southern Italy’s most densely inhabited metropolis. Before I venture down to what some have described as a crime-ridden hell, a logic-defying jumble of streets, a concrete jungle where obeying traffic laws is beneath consideration, I want to see what I’m up against.

The Grand Tourists–those 19th-century upper-class Brits whose classical education was not complete until they toured the great cities of Europe–used to forego Rome for Naples. They came to see the Caravaggios and the Correggios, the Raphaels and the Riberas. They came to observe the goings-on at one of Europe’s oldest universities. They came to see how the Greeks’ first colony on the Italian peninsula (called Neapolis, or “New Town” in 470 B.C.) had evolved into what a European monarch once said was, “the most beautiful crown in Italy.” Some modern tourists still come for these reasons. Others are drawn to Naples for its uniquely chaotic splendor–to see a modus vivendi unfathomable in Baltimore or Brussels, Munich or Miami.

I came for a different reason. Pizza. Yes, pizza in Naples. It’s impossible to utter the topic today without thinking of two words: Elizabeth Gilbert. But good food is transcendent. And pizza, a dish that may be the most popular in the world, will transcend literary references as well. Especially here, where it’s ubiquitous. It’s impossible to be in this town of nearly a million people and not eat pizza. Naples credits itself as being the birthplace of the pizza–the first recorded evidence of which is from the 16th century. My guidebook says that the more rundown the pizzeria, the better its product will be. I had to find out for myself.

As I stomp down the long cobbled steps toward the historical center, I pass old villas with chipped facades and green shutters. Bristly weeds grow through the steps’ cracks. In an open window a cell phone rings–to the sound of the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” From the next villa the sweet smell of fresh bread–or is it pizza dough?–pours out at me. The hilltop residents here labored up and down these same steps for centuries. Today, they take one of three funicular railways that clank up the mountain. Colorful shrines to the Virgin are fixed at almost every bend on the stairway, some of which are decorated with neon lights, evidence that these shrines are more than just a relic of the past. I wonder if there’s an Our Lady of the Pizza Pie. In this city, there should be.

My Roman friends warned me about Naples before I took the two-hour train ride south. “Neapolitans are criminals, but they have a great sense of humor,” said my friend Enrico, which I suppose is some kind of consolation, since he followed up by saying that Sicilians, on the other hand, are just criminals. As I enter the most cramped quarter of the city, the Quatieri Spagnoli, the solitude of the hilltop fortress is already far behind me. Cars race by. Scooters whine. Medallion-wearing fat men bellow at one another. Two women stand on a side street yelling at each other and gesturing wildly. This is Naples: they’re probably just trading recipes. Three teenage boys and a dog ride past me on a scooter looking like they’ve done this a gazillion times. Behind them is another scooter driven by a man with two kids tucked onto the seat in front of him. Seconds later, another scooter zips by–this time it’s a man riding shockingly alone, and even wearing a helmet (!)–who is managing to talk on his cell phone and eat a piece of pizza.

I consider entering the first pizzeria I see, a dilapidated looking place, until the cook, leaning against the front doorway, begins violently coughing, gurgling up things I don’t want to think about. Instead, a block further, I find a seat at a slightly nicer pizzeria, which doesn’t appear to have a name. The minimalist (or, some would say, “indifferent”) interior–slate marble tables and blank walls–are a nice contrast to the disorder just outside the door. There are two pizza choices: the marinara (tomato, oregano, garlic, and oil) and the margherita (tomato, basil, oil, mozzarella). I go with the latter. The dough is thicker here in southern Italy, and there are socio-economic reasons for this: historically, the south has always been poorer than the north. To make their pizza more substantial, southern Italians used excess amounts of dough, which is cheap, and less toppings, which are costlier. American-style pizza is so thick because it was the poor southern Italians who immigrated to the United States in hope of a better life.

While eating my first Neapolitan pizza, I begin to wonder if life can get any better. It’s something about the San Marzano tomato sauce, which along with the melted mozzarella, is bubbling like volcanic lava. It’s tangy and delicious. The beauty of dining in Italy, especially the further south one travels, is the informality of it all. The waiter, often the restaurant’s owner, takes orders by memory and then when it comes time to pay, he tallies the bill in front of the customer, sometimes adding up the total on the paper table cloth. Wine comes in a ceramic jug and is often drunk from a glass tumbler.

After lunch, I’m not ready to battle the racing scooters and the mess of strolling crowds again, so I take a quick left down an alleyway lined with merchandise for sale and crammed with black down jacket-wearing locals. Everyone mills about, like they have no direction; like their ancestors have done for centuries. “Musica! Right here!” screams a grey-mustached man hocking illegally made CDs. Anything can be bought or sold here: jewelry, incense, clothes, shoes, car parts, fried things. My favorites are the fish salesmen who seem to be on nearly every block in the Centro Storico. The seafood is fresh to the point of still being alive: two-foot-long unidentifiable sea creatures squiggle through murky shallow water, hundreds of snails jiggle in a rusty, metal bucket, and long slimy eels gracefully slide past one another in a makeshift Styrofoam tank.

It’s now late afternoon, and it feels that every resident of Naples is packed into these tiny streets. This is the first circle of Dante’s hell that I was anticipating as I stood safely on the mountaintop earlier this morning. People are pressed up to me on all sides. We sway back and forth, moving two inches at a time, as we slowly pass shop windows displaying shoes, bags, and clothes. The ubiquitous rattle and screech of scooters attacks my ears. Everyone is smiling and greeting one another. This is normal. This is Naples. I’ve got a death grip on my wallet.

And, just then, I spot in the distance, another pizzeria. A real ramshackle one, whose name is also not so obvious, with a paint-chipped façade that looks like it had its last makeover during the interwar Fascist period. I’m not really hungry but my Rome-bound train is leaving soon and, who knows when I’ll be back.

“Marinara or Margherita,” the waiter asks.

I order and then take a deep breath and watch the maddening crowds outside. Naples, I decide, is much better with an escape. But between viewing it from a hilltop fortress or sitting in front of a bubbling pizza, I’ll take the pizza any day.

David Farley is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town.