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A Night in NapoliDiscover how to spend a few hours – mainly eating – in one of Italy's most alluring cities
The saying goes, "Vedi Napoli e poi muori," which means "See Naples and die!" For the most part, my people, who come from the nearby island of Ischia, which is actually a province of Naples, must take the saying literally because some of them have never stepped foot in the city that is only a boat ride away.
I can't say I totally blame them because the place can be a bit scary. Sure, there's the Camorra and its antics, Cassanovas hitting on anything in a skirt (and sometimes trying to touch you, too), and petty thieves taking advantage of Americans like me (even if we have Italian names and heritage and speak the language fluently), but the drivers who will be offended when you inevitably remind them there are traffic laws are the worst. I've had more than one heart attack just crossing the street.
Still, there's something about the sweet warm breeze that seems to embrace you when you embark from the boat and step foot on the street, the crazy yet lovable natives dressed in loud clothes thinking they're all that and yelling in dialect (which is all too familiar to us Italian Americans who can trace our family tree back to Napoli), and the food that is so delicious you want to marry it. Seriously. You want to marry it.
Every once in a while due to early departure times or bad weather, I end up having to take the boat from Ischia and spend a few hours or even a whole day and night in bella, calda Napoli before returning to my native United States. Yeah, yeah, I know. It's a rough life.
For me, one of these layovers in Napoli means one thing: pizza. Napoli is the birthplace of pizza and after you've eaten it here, where it was first created, your taste buds will come alive for the first time. Think I'm exaggerating? Well, just go try it for yourself. Heck, even the “bad” pizza in Napoli is better than anything you've eaten in America, even in New York.
Antica Pizzeria e Friggitoria Di Matteo is a favorite, but my husband, who is a native of Ischia, keeps promising to take me to L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele, which boasts lines out the door and a history dating back to 1870. Someday. Ah, someday.
There are a few other things you need to know about Italian pizza. First, it's rarely sold by the slice. You might find a street vendor who allows that, but if you're sitting down at a restaurant, you're going to be ordering a personal pizza. I know families who have visited Italy, ordered one pizza, and didn't have enough food. Then again, when my sister-in-law, who is a native of Italy, traveled to the United States for the first time, she and her girlfriends ordered eight pizzas, one for each of them. Boy, were they surprised when the family-sized pies arrived at their hotel room.
Margherita pizza is the original gangsta of pizzas. This is the classic pie that a Neapolitan chef invented for the queen known as Regina Margherita (which is also by the way the name of my mother and a couple thousand other people from the region). To honor the queen, the chef used red sauce, green basil, and white mozzarella to create the Italian flag in food or at least that is how the legend goes.
Some other popular pizzas are the Napolitano or Marinara, which is topped only with sauce, oregano, and garlic and has a little kick to it in the form of pepperoncini, white pizza, which includes only cheese, and pizza with fried sausage and bitter greens. I've also really enjoyed pizza with eggplant Parmigiana on top or with fresh tomatoes, prosciutto, and arugula. Fried pizza might clog your arteries, but you will die happy.
Take your pick, but forget about "pepperoni" pizza in Italy. There, the word "pepperoni" means peppers, usually the sweet variety and you wouldn't find it on pizza. And don't even mention pizza with pineapple and ham, which shocks and offends Italians, especially Neapolitans. They think it is an attack on their way of life or something. Seriously, just trust me on this one.
Now, while most Italians are wine drinkers, they will suggest beer with your pizza. It's pretty much the one exception. While many Italian eateries serve German beers, which are considered the best of the best in Europe, your best bet is to try the Italian brew from Peroni Nastro Azzurro. After all, when in Rome, err, Naples… By the way, Italians eat pizza – most of the time anyway – with a fork and knife, sacrilege to many Americans, civilized to Italians.
Of course, pizza isn't the only thing Naples has going for it food wise, there is also the fresh mozzarella, which is a completely different animal than what we think of as mozzarella in the United States. It actually comes from buffalo and not cow, and it is sweet, creamy, and tangy. You will dream about it as you would an ex-lover for whom you still long. I promise. A great place to try all things mozzarella is Fratelli di Bufala. Even the pizza is pretty good, but you can indulge in the antipasto and all that delicious mozzarella and skip the pie at this place.
Finally, you can top off your meal or start your morning with an authentic Neapolitan espresso. This is the Italian drug of choice. I just say no, but coffee lovers should give it a try. The stuff has such a strong following that there's a famous Neapolitan song about it. There's something in the water, literally, that makes the taste out of this world or so my husband tells me whenever he gripes about stinky New Jersey espresso. His coffee bar of choice in Napoli is Caffe Del Professore. Remember, the real Italians will laugh at you if you order a cappuccino, which is only on the menu for foreigners.
Ok, so I guess my time in Napoli revolves around food. You should also take a moment to look at the view of the Bay of Naples (especially at night) and do some people watching because there are characters everywhere you turn in this joint. If you can catch a glimpse of Vesuvius, all the better.
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