One of my Italian friends told me “Naples has a bad reputation”. But how can a city with the best pizza in the world have a bad reputation? “Pizza is good even when it’s bad”. It’s a universal truth that grew well beyond its meme origins. Even more so in 2020, which has been a year of discovery. I bet you discovered that you suddenly want to learn how to make pizza and sourdough bread. You watched all the tutorials on YouTube, went through countless recipes. Months later, your household is covered with flour and pieces of pizza dough. Surely, you’ve perfected your technique and you’re ready to invite test subjects over. It’s pizza party time. Everything is ready; the dough has been fermenting for almost a week. San Marzano tomatoes are in your food processor. You invested money into livestock so you can milk it and make your own Mozzarella. A custom-made wood-fired pizza oven is reaching its target temperature. The scene is set and you bake the pie. Guests are shaking with anticipation. One takes their first bite and you hear it: “Dogshit. Disgusting, but I’ll still eat it because it’s pizza”. That’s when you decided to go on a pilgrimage to Naples, as every Pizzaiolo should at least once in their life.
Some call Napoli the city of diabetes, where people would build homes from pizza if it only were architecturally possible. They somehow managed the traditional way using brick and mortar. All these old buildings with grandmas spying on everyone from balconies should be trademarked. Naples’ bad reputation comes from its core identity. It’s stuck in between. A “Maybe Town’, or “We’ll See Town”. No one can decide on anything. Crime is also a big deal in Naples. After all, Camorra originated in these parts. They were all about gambling and small-scale crime back in the 17th century. Modern Camorra is one of the major players in smuggling drugs into Europe. They keep close relations with various organizations all over the world. Don’t let that intimidate you, Naples might be messy and chaotic but it’s relatively safe.
Ironically, the most Neapolitan area of Naples is the Spanish Quarter. That’s where the locals get their pizza. I won’t include any spots, just look for the place with the longest line. I can, however, recommend a sfogliatelle spot. Nothing beats a flaky pastry filled with cream to go with an espresso. Sfogliatelle Attanasio is a legendary spot, but the competition is catching up quickly. There’s a market nearby with local fishermen selling their catch of the day. Try fried frutti di mare in a cone from one of the street vendors. Grab one and start walking, explore. It’s not one of those cities that go full tourist mode with a map and a list of things to see. Naples is to be experienced organically. Sure, there are the usual suspects: churches, cathedrals, piazzas, catacombs; all the typical Italian city staples. The most interesting stuff is underground. There are all sorts of caverns and some of them are even connected to the volcano. Ancient Greeks around the 4th century BC have dug some of the man-made tunnels. One of the newer ones served as a bomb shelter during the war. It’s filled with vintage cars for some reason. It’s so cool.
Let’s get back on track with our pizza quest. What makes Naples so unique that it’s home to a UNESCO Cultural Heritage fast food? It’s not as much about the city but the whole region. Certain ingredients are a must for a pizza to be Neapolitan. The San Marzano tomatoes are one. This strain first emerged from the volcanic soil around Mount Vesuvius. It’s the volcano that destroyed Pompei, like in that horrible movie with Kit Harrington. I guess “entombed” is a better word as it was very well preserved under 6 meters of volcanic ash. It’s hard to imagine; so many people buried alive. Now that I think of it: it’s kind of macabre how some of the juiciest tomatoes grow on this soil. Oh well, at least most of the structures were left almost untouched. It provides amazing opportunities for archaeologists, if it only wasn’t for all the pesky tourists.
A special kind of Mozzarella is another key ingredient in Neapolitan pizza. Mozzarella di Bufala is processed from milk from a water buffalo, sort of a water-cow. Best take a short drive to the Agerola municipality and see how it’s traditionally made. It’s just outside of Naples and it could be the beginning of a beautiful trip along the Amalfi Coast. Charming towns along the coast built into rocky cliffs that somehow resemble PIZZA CRUST. Amalfi, Positano, and Cetara are all worth checking out. Driving from one city to another can also be quite the experience. Think about all those super narrow Italian streets and then imagine there’s raging see right below. It’s not for the faint of heart. “Tour-de-France-ing” on a bike could be an alternative. All that stamina could come in handy while working that pizza dough later.